Like many, I decided to clean out my closet to start the New Year right. However, mine is a rhetorical closet, not a real one, although I do love fashion, too, and would love to know what is hanging in your real closet if you care to tell me.
But right now I’m wondering how many people have something about themselves that they keep hidden out of fear. And I’m wondering what would happen if no one felt compelled to hide. I’m not talking about hidden crimes or lies or tawdry secrets. I’m thinking about things that are part of who we are out of no choice of our own but that are not accepted as normal and seem to set us apart from the rest, which is why we keep those things out of sight and out of the minds of others.
For me, well, I do have something hanging in my closet. It’s called bipolar disorder. Although I no longer have to live with that label (more on that in a second), I did live under that diagnosis for 12 years. Only family and a very few others know that about me. It is a testament to my lack of courage that I am talking about it openly now because I was (probably) misdiagnosed, although that’s not a certainty. I have been medication-free for well over three years.
After years of switching between medications trying to find a combination that did not make me feel like the walking dead but still kept my moods even; after years of living with “a secret” –a secret that was not easily discussed even with those who knew it; after years of hating to fill out medical forms, insurance forms, other forms that asked about mental illness; after years of having conversations with people who were talking about other bipolar people and how “scary” they were or how “they shouldn’t be parents” or how “you really have to be careful when dealing with those people;” after countless blood tests to check my medication levels and countless appointments for med checks, etc.; after deciding not to have a 4th child because I had taken medication for so long and the medication was known to cause birth defects, and because I was afraid to go off of it…
…after 12 years of having to call myself bipolar and think of myself as bipolar, someone finally told me I wasn’t. And even though I am the same person, who sometimes still struggles with many of the same issues, although not to the same degree, by a mere technicality and turn of the phrase, I am no longer required to think of myself as mentally ill or “different.”
Which kind of illustrates the point that labels don’t mean much, or maybe they mean too much, in that no one label covers every nuance of the condition that it purports to describe. As with bipolar disorder–there are so many variations and degrees of mood swings and shifts, although most people only think of the extreme or famous cases they know about like Patty Duke-Astin, Ted Turner, or all the many celebrities or perpetrators of crimes or misconduct, who eventually claim to be bipolar. (By the way, in my mind, while something like bipolar disorder could very well be a reason for unacceptable behavior, it is never an excuse.)
But it doesn’t really matter whether I am bipolar or not. What matters is how I felt during the time I thought I was. And 12 years is a long time to believe something about yourself that maybe isn’t true. Twelve years is a long time to define yourself by a label.
I was lucky. I have a husband whose support never wavered, not once, not for a second. He never even flinched. And if he had misgivings, well, he never shared them with me. He went with me to appointments and counseling in order to understand as completely as possible. And he didn’t know what he was getting into when he married me because my diagnosis came much later. That’s a big part of the reason why I often refer to him as superman or my hero–because he is. I don’t know how I would have handled any of it without his support. He’s an amazing person.
My kids did not know about my diagnosis until within this last year. And I got their permission before writing this blog post. My kids never flinched, either. They got the amazing gene from their Dad. I know all too well how something like this, about a parent, can set a young person apart from the rest almost as much as something like this, about themselves, can serve to alienate. I don’t think anybody would have guessed that I was “bipolar,” but I could be fooling myself about that.
I was never a danger to anyone, but I’m sure I was a pain in the ass at times. I was told I had what’s known as a soft bipolar disorder–I was never suicidal nor did I experience a full-blown mania. My “mania” was mostly just an energized state, a heightened sense of everything, a restlessness, irritability…my mood swings leaned more toward depression and that wasn’t fun. Some episodes were bad. I was never hospitalized. My “mania” was a feeling that I imagined most “normal” people had every day. I was productive and happy, mostly, during those times. It was the rapid cycling back and forth between highs and lows that was exhausting and disconcerting.
I know it doesn’t really make sense for me to say that I’m not bipolar anymore (it doesn’t just go away) or that I was misdiagnosed. I don’t know if I’ll ever know for certain exactly what was going on and why. I saw three different psychologists/psychiatrists during those years. And the second to last one, upon meeting me for the first time and reviewing my file, finally said, you know, I just don’t think this diagnosis makes sense. And the last one, after a year of therapy, concurred.
Ultimately, I took myself off the medication before telling any doctor or counselor, which is something I do not recommend. I made the decision on my own, although that decision was informed by medical advice and approved, just not the way I did it, which was almost cold turkey. Other than a few blips on the radar here and there since that time 3 1/2 years ago, I’ve been on a pretty even keel. I guess there’s a chance that the symptoms could return. I was told that mood issues sometimes worsen after menopause and at 50 I’m certainly approaching that age (Just as some women are forever 39, I will always be approaching menopause).
I probably should mention that before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I had been diagnosed with depression years earlier, 6 years earlier to be exact, although I have had mood issues going back to childhood. But it was only after the birth of my first child that I was officially diagnosed and began taking an antidepressant, which worked almost immediately–one of the possible hallmarks of bipolar disorder in some people, according to my first psychiatrist and the one who ultimately diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. And the one in whom I have completely lost faith.
I guess the weirdest thing for me is that during those 12 years life just went on, and our family thrived. I was engaged and active and thriving, too. I suspect many, if not most, people do the same through hidden adversity of their own. I was never comfortable wearing the mantle of mental illness. It didn’t fit. I didn’t relate myself to that label, and yet it was accurate at the time.
I know there are people with this disorder who may be dangerous to themselves and others and who have more difficulty getting along. I don’t mean to trivialize the disorder. I know there are people who must and should rely on medication to remain balanced. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t actually bipolar that I can write about how inconsequential it felt sometimes. But I bet there are many bipolar people who are “normal” just like me. I also know that it has become somewhat of a fad to sensationalize personal struggles, which is not my intent here. In fact, I asked myself why I wanted to write this post. What good would it do? What harm would it do? Why talk about something that is now behind me?
What I keep coming back to is this: When I thought I was bipolar, I thought about myself differently. I judged myself harshly. I felt like my family deserved better and that I was less of a person than those around me. I wasted a lot of time with negative thinking about myself. And that only made things worse. It was a cycle that was hard to break.
I also believe that my doctor failed to explore other avenues, other possibilities, particularly hormonal underpinnings. Ultimately seeing the right counselor and addressing a hormone imbalance is what proved to me that I could be okay without medication.
And what if no one had told me I wasn’t bipolar? Would I still be taking medication for a disorder that I probably never had? It’s incredible to think about the power of words and the power that doctors sometimes have using words–the power to change the course of a life.
My hope is that this post will speak to someone–someone who’s living with a label that doesn’t seem to fit, or someone who lets a label define them, or someone who is judging themselves harshly for reasons beyond their control. Or someone who is judging someone else against standards that are not fair or informed. Because, frankly, even when I was struggling with mood imbalances, seeing therapists, and taking medication, I was more rational, more “sane” and functioning at a much higher level than many “normal” people. If you know someone who lives with a diagnosis of mental illness, or some other “classification” please give them a chance to be more than a label.
In all honestly, it was easier for me to clean out my rhetorical closet than it will be for me to clean out my real one, but the two do have something in common–they both contain things that do not fit, aren’t comfortable to wear, or are taking up space that could be used for something more useful. Ultimately, it’s an individual decision about what to do with those things, but whatever you do, don’t let the things in your closet become more of a burden to keep than to let go.