Happy Tuesday, readers! Today (October 4th) is Bipolar Awareness Day, so I wanted to share an article with you that outlines the basic symptoms (for the uninitiated, as I know there are some new readers here) as well as what’s on the horizon in terms of treatment.
First of all, let’s hear about what bipolar disorder actually is. I’m referencing bt.com for the purposes of this tidbit, as the article I found gives a really great Reader’s Digest condensed version of the illness.
National charity Bipolar UK characterise the condition as “a severe mental health illness characterised by significant mood swings, including manic highs and depressive lows”, and note that, “the majority of individuals with bipolar experience alternating episodes of mania and depression”.
According to this article, it takes 10.5 years on average (in the UK) for people with bipolar disorder to be properly diagnosed. The National Depressive and Manic Depressive Association (NDMD) paints a similarly grim picture: it can take ten years or more for a diagnosis to be reached, and 69% of cases are misdiagnosed.
What are the symptoms?
There are two sides to bipolar: mania and depression.
During a bout of depression, it is possible to feel: grumpy, without hope, guilty, self-doubting, suicidal, pessimistic, worthless, lacking curiosity and concentration.
And with mania: elation, full of energy, ideas and plans, easily distracted, feeling invincible, risky behaviour including spending huge amounts of money.
Both can feature: lack of appetite, insomnia and delusions.
My experience began very early. I remember fits of agitation and depression as early as eight years old, which at the time was chalked up to the incredibly rough hand I was dealt–a broken home, a mother who struggled with bipolar disorder herself as well as alcoholism, extreme bullying, and persistent nightmares (which were later diagnosed as a feature of PTSD). NAMI states that rapid-cycling bipolar disorder, the most severe form of the illness, seems to be more common in individuals who begin exhibiting symptoms early in life.
Early Warning Signs of Bipolar Disorder In Children and Teens
Children may experience severe temper tantrums when told “no.” Tantrums can last for hours while the child continues to become more violent. They may also show odd displays of happy or silly moods and behaviors. A new diagnosis, Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD), was added to the DSM-5 in 2014.
When I was eighteen, I decided to see a therapist and psychiatrist for the intense mood swings that had plagued me for most of my life. I was initially told that my deep depressions were the result of PTSD. I was prescribed fluoxetine (brand name Prozac), which only made the agitation worse. And I was still depressed.
At 22, I relocated to Wisconsin and began the search for something, anything, that would finally help me feel “normal.” The misdiagnoses continued: major depressive disorder, for which I was prescribed Abilify and trazodone. I felt amazing on Abilify for about two weeks, and then I crashed. Trazodone made me a zombie. (Note: It is not atypical for antipsychotics to be prescribed to treat both MDD and bipolar disorder.)
Bipolar disorder is most often misdiagnosed in its early stages, which is frequently during the teenage years. When it is diagnosed as something else, symptoms of bipolar disorder can get worse. This usually occurs because the wrong treatment is provided. Other factors of a misdiagnosis are inconsistency in the timeline of episodes and behavior.
When I was 24 and in my first “adult job” with health insurance, I found a wonderful psychiatrist who, over the course of several sessions, examined my family history and asked very specific questions to find the root of my illness. At first, I didn’t even think to mention my “up” periods, because even with the agitation and sleeplessness, I actually felt good–and no one goes to the doctor when they’re feeling well. But upon deeper probing, he came to a conclusion: first bipolar II, then, after further investigation and a few weeks of mood tracking in a journal, rapid-cycling bipolar I.
That first year was rough. I cycled so frequently that the days were exhausting. One day, I bounced between depression and mixed episodes several times in a single 24-hour period. Slowly but surely, the medications my doctor had prescribed (venlafaxine/Effexor, lamotrigine, and lithium) began to take effect. I began to stabilize. There were no more florid creative periods, but I was also able to sleep for more than an hour a night for the first time in weeks. My misery began to ebb, and though it didn’t disappear completely (a dysfunctional marriage contributed, among other things), I began to feel like a person again instead of a defective thing that needed to be turned off and fixed.
Aside from pharmaceuticals, NAMI’s website mentions cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychotherapy that focuses on self-care and stress management, and, in rare cases, electro-convulsive therapy (ECT). Learning to recognize the triggers for each type of episode is key; one suggestion offered by the numerous therapists I’ve seen over the years is mood tracking/journaling.
However, I had to stop at one point because, in the heyday of my illness, I began to obsess over the cycles, sometimes tracking up to ten or eleven times a day. Instead of the journaling soothing my mind, I began to worry that I was untreatable. I found my mood journal during a recent move and it was difficult reading, to say the least. But it was also a reminder of how far I’ve come and how much my quality of life has improved since receiving a proper diagnosis.
These days, I’m doing much better. My medications have been adjusted slightly to accommodate the deep depressive episodes I’m prone to during the fall and winter months, but I am proud of myself for being able to recognize that the winter storm was a-comin’. Three years ago, I would not have been able to see the symptoms for what they are: a warning sign and a signal that I need to not only keep up with my medications, but to practice good self-care. In the past, I saw fall and winter as something awful that I had to endure. Now, I realize that I can still enjoy life even when the days begin to get longer and darker. The seasons are no longer a metaphor for the overall “climate” in my head.
How long did it take for you to receive a proper diagnosis, readers? Are you taking care of yourselves as winter approaches? I hope you’re all doing well and staying healthy and safe. And spread the word–this illness is massively misunderstood, even by mental health professionals, so it’s our job to reach out and counter-strike against the misinformation and discrimination.
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