Eight years ago, after being misdiagnosed by my ob-gyn as having major depressive disorder with anxiety, I was formally diagnosed with bipolar disorder by the psychiatrist he referred me to see. It was a relief to finally have a name for the mood swings, hypomanic irritability, and other symptoms that were a hellish part of my life, but also a scary diagnosis to receive because it’s essentially incurable. One of the least awesome things about bipolar disorder is that the dosages and combinations of my medicines won’t permanently stay effective, and there’s not always a way to predict when or why they might stop working until it just happens, leaving me feeling like the rug has been pulled out from under me.
Usually I feel the change starting to happen, but generally I try to push through it until the shift can’t be ignored anymore; as the mum of four kids I tend to put myself last and deal with the problem until it’s too big to ignore. Time has taught me that the sooner I start working to correct the imbalance in my treatment plan, whether it means that I need more exercise, more sleep, a dietary or medicine adjustment, the better off I am because I haven’t fallen completely into the pits of depression. I’ve also had to learn that just because I’m the one with the diagnosis doesn’t mean that I’m the only who is affected by my having it, and that I can’t completely handle managing the condition all by myself, as much as I hate to admit it.. This means that I’ve had to learn to trust others to give me feedback on the symptoms I’m displaying that I personally may not notice, like withdrawing from things I enjoy and functioning on very little sleep (like 2 or 3 hours a night), as much as I hate hearing it.
No matter how confident and secure I am in having a mental illness diagnosis, talking about the medicines I take can be a sensitive subject at times. Fighting the good fight of living with a mental health condition daily has made me a bit defensive, and it’s hard to be receptive to people making suggestions on what I should do to “feel better” or “get well” or “live normally.” I’m doing the best that I can with the best options I’ve found. In working to find the right balance of helpful tools in treating my condition, being critiqued by people who’ve qualified themselves to offer me advice they saw online won’t be well-received. Unsolicited mental health advice is offensive and will be disregarded… unless you are a trusted member of my bipolar disorder support team. Support team, you say? Yes! One of the most important components of managing a mental health condition is having access to and making use of a support team. Just like an endurance athlete has a support team that aids them in their long, grueling races, those of us on the treacherous road of a mental illness journey need special people to help us manage various aspects of our conditions for the long haul. My bipolar disorder support team consists of my psychiatrist, a therapist, friends that know me well, and my husband, which provides a nice balance between professional feedback and the more personal input that I receive.
The psychiatrist and therapist that I see have been treating me for about eight years now and have witnessed the various changes that my specific brand of bipolar disorder has undergone over time. Through the years they have gained my deep trust in handling the more technical issues of managing bipolar disorder, like pharmaceutical changes and adjustments, or suggesting changes in lifestyle (like getting more sleep). They’ve kept meticulous records of my visits, my experiences with medicines, and insights on my life events,which are all highly important, but they still only know me from a limited, more clinical perspective. Whenever I work with them I feel like I’m constantly being critiqued and evaluated, and that one wrong word could affect my freedom from a mental hospital.There’s a need for that kind of abstract, detached input in managing a medical condition, but since I’m a human and not a virus in a tube, a more personal perspective is necessary to balance it out.
My husband, on the other hand, has been my rock of support and understanding for over a decade, and has witnessed my journey from wrestling with undiagnosed anxiety and depression as a teenager (and the panic attacks that accompanied them) to the postnatal depression that followed the birth of our first son, to the bipolar disorder diagnosis that followed the birth of our second son. He’s also a hell of a poker player and great at reading people, so it’s safe to say that he knows when something is “off” with me. Our 15 years together gives him a pretty good frame of reference for when I may or may not be at my healthiest mentally, and like a watchdog of sorts, he’s there to alert me when those depression warning signs appear.. Most of all, I know that he loves me and our family, and truly has my best interest at heart.
You see, when you’re busy trying to make it through each minute, hour, day, and week while carrying the heavy load of fluctuating moods like I experience, you lose sight of your “neutral,” or the place where you mentally feel the best and are the most productive. I become so focused on putting one foot in front of the other and doing the things that MUST be done, like the bare basics of taking care of my kids (feeding, clothing, bathing) and the other things that make our household go round that I let EVERYTHING else slide. It’s helpful to have someone that can blow a figurative whistle to call “time” when life’s insanity (and my brain’s chemistry) have taken me too far away from it without my realising it.
Allowing someone the great honour (ha-ha, right?) of being the one to nudge me when I’m acting out of character requires a great deal of trust; I have to be completely confident that my best interests are being looked after and that the person guiding me doesn’t have ulterior motives. It’s not a position I’d ever want to be in personally, as my poor husband usually winds up getting attitude and blowback from me when he mentions that he thinks something isn’t quite right or that (cringe) my medicines might need tweaking. Someone random suggesting that my medicines might not be doing their job is the equivalent of telling someone who’s hard of hearing that they should try a different brand of hearing aid; so unless I trust the person make the observation, it’s very offensive. I can’t always see it from the inside looking out, but when he has seen me withdraw from all of my friends or losing my temper frequently over inconsequential matters (like someone leaving the dishwasher door open), he knows something isn’t adding up.
As frustrating as it may be to hear the words, “Jessica, you really might need to call your doctor… you’re not acting like yourself,” knowing that my husband is saying it with genuine love and concern for me and our family demands I heed his words, swallow my pride, and examine my current state of mental affairs. My support team helps me to be the best me that I can be for everyone in my life, and for that I’m eternally grateful. Even if it means changing my medicines around.
More Mum Confessions:
- My Postnatal Depression Was So Severe I Didn’t Recognise Myself
- After Years of Self-Loathing, I Finally Made Peace with My Body
- Things Are Going Well, So Why Am I Waiting for Something Terrible to Happen?