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How I Got Diagnosed With Bipolar

A Life in the Making

Photo by Austin Chan

The first time I ever saw a counsellor I was 8-years-old. My mother and father had recently gotten divorced and she thought it was a good idea for me to work through whatever hidden and not quite understood 8-year-old emotions I had. She, having come from a long line of nut jobs, was never one to ignore possible emotional damage. For me, this is merely what set the scene. I was just a kid. I had only barely developed a sense of self, let alone the ability to quantify my own feelings, and I was still light years away from seeing the far reaching consequences of what I felt moment to moment. Counselling was a great idea, and I’m proud that I have the kind of mother who is open to that sort of thing when so many are not. But, like I have said, my very green youth left me feeling like I was the same as everyone else. Ugly and unpopular, but on the same playing field as everyone else my age.

Fast forward to when I was 13. I had been feeling terrible for quite a while. I was sad. I was scared. I was paranoid to the point that I had written a note for my loved ones to uncover when they found me on a night I swore I was going to die. Not by my own hand, mind you. I was far from that stage of my life. But I just sincerely felt that the universe had conspired to let me know that this was my time, and however terrified or in tears I was, there was nothing I could do about it. I knew for a fact that this was it, so I wrote a note for the benefit of their closure.

My mother had always been very open with me. I had watched her struggle, and kick ass, with depression from the time I was little. She knew it was a family trait and prepared me for the eventuality that if I felt like I was slipping, I should grab out and I would be caught. So when the day came and I felt that something was truly and irreversibly wrong, I reached. Just like she said she would, my mom grabbed. Before I knew it I was meeting, I shit you not, Dr Who. Well, Dr Hu, but who’s to say how Gallifreyan translates over to our alphabet? Anyway, after a series of counselling appointments where we talked a little about feelings and a whole lot about my family history, I was diagnosed with possible depression but probable attachment issues and teenage anxiety. I guess telling her I felt like throwing myself through a plate glass window wasn’t enough of a warning sign.

She prescribed sertraline, and sent me on my way. We picked up the prescription, headed home, and my mom sat me down for a talk. She was, and still is, a great advocate for nobody-knows-your-body-better-than-you, and that one should know what one is putting in ones mouth because forewarned is forearmed. She explained what the pill was, what it would do, and how I might feel. She told me, leaving a pill on the counter, that when I was ready I could take it. Maybe it was my anxiety or maybe it was my youth or maybe it was a huge combination of all of these factors that made me feel terrified. Whatever the reason, I didn’t take the pill. Why would I put something in my mouth that was going to literally alter my brain? What if depression had made me what I am? What if it was the reason I was good at acting? What if it was the reason I was good at clarinet? What if it was the reason I was good at writing poetry? Was the medicine going to take all of that away? I didn’t want to find out.

So now I’m 16. A lot has changed. We’ve moved around a lot, my world has been upended, I’m now in a place where I don’t speak the native language and I’ve been put in a place where I need to be a lot more independent. It’s amazing how much can change in three years. But the thing that hadn’t really changed is the fact that I felt more depressed than ever. That plate glass window was still looking pretty good. I was struggling with a lot of stressors. As well as the average teenage angst, I had come to the conclusion that I wasn’t heterosexual and that there wasn’t much I could do about it no matter how hard I tried. So, in lieu of punching out a mirror, I asked… begged for another counsellor. Well, ask and ye shall receive.

If you’ve never been in counselling, there are a few things you should know. First, from the point you actually break down and decide you need a counsellor to the time you are in the office for your first appointment, an infinity can pass by. They book so far out that it can be months before you get in. Second, and contrary to popular belief, they don’t want to diagnose you with anything if they don’t have to. They would much rather you talk it out than prescribe medication. Third, there is a massive difference between a psychologist, a psychiatrist, and a counsellor. One does research, one prescribes medication, and the latter helps you talk through things. And, finally, I am always astounded at the ease with which you can convince two out of these three professionals of anything you say.

So back to my 16 candles counsellor. The infinity of time had passed between my begging and my receiving, and strangely enough I was feeling fine. I was feeling better than fine. I had weathered out the depression phase and begun excelling at life. I had friends, I enjoyed going to school, I felt much more independent, and I had no problem explaining this to the doctor. In fact, I had no problem explaining that the probable reason for my now deceased depression was due to my family. Out came the family tree and we pleasantly had an afternoon chat about how toxic these kinds of environments can be and how nice it was to see that I was doing so well. She called my parents in, and simply explained that it was their issues, not mine, and on we went.

Take four. I was 20. A little more mature, a little bit older, a lot done with high school and teenage-hood, and still weathering a sea of shitty situations which definitely left a mark. My seven month foray in the USA had not gone to plan, and after escaping an abusive familial relationship and abandoning my beloved grandmother on her deathbed, I returned to the land of plenty and my mother's home. In October of that year my grandma passed away. That little bit older person I had become finally decided, fuck it; I need to actually take a look at myself and give up trying to pretend I don’t have issues. And just like that, bam, counsellor. Psychiatrist, actually. And it was the same one my mom went to! So I explained what was going on, explained why I thought it was going on, and explained that I would like it to stop hurting long enough for me to take care of myself. Before she gave me a diagnosis, she spoke with my mother and they went over the symptoms I couldn’t see. Being well acquainted with people of a variety of mental colors, my mom suggested to her that I might be bipolar. Later, when the psych asked me what I thought about that, I laughed and shook my head as if it was a joke. Of course not. I was just sad. And when I wasn’t sad, I was happy. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to go? Citalopram it was, and off I went. And for the first time in my life I could see clearly. It didn’t hurt all of the time, and when it did I could do something about it. I lost 60 pounds through diet and exercise. I spent time with my sister. I had energy and no problem sustaining dedication. I felt good.

Why then, at 22, was I in another counsellor's office? Why then, as the third place indoor rowing female in my division after having only started rowing a few months earlier, was I in the office handing her a box of things I used to cut myself? Why, a happy-go-lucky good student with a promising future, did I buy a six pack and get drunk while I dug a razor blade so far into my leg that the skin gaped when I pulled it away? Why was all of this happening if I was still on the medicine? To answer, no one really knew. But they did very much enjoy my family tree which, by this time, I came in with pre-drawn to save fifteen of the thirty precious minutes I had been allotted to be ill. I told them I wouldn’t keep cutting myself, changed to sertraline, transferred colleges, and moved away. And before I had concluded my college experience, I enjoyed the care of two more mental health professionals. One of them was convinced I was in an abusive relationship, which I was, but that wasn’t the underlying issue and I knew it. The other one thought I was transgender, which really wasn’t her fault considering I played out the theory with her. I just wanted to stop feeling like I felt. If there was an explanation that we could fix, do it. Whatever it is, just do it. Make it stop.

I didn’t see a psych again until I was 25. I had seen doctors on and off to get my prescriptions refilled, assuring them that I was okay and that the medicine was helping even when it wasn’t. But after having moved back to the states I thought, maybe they’ll understand me here. I had gotten to the point where I was experiencing month long depressive episodes and week long mania patches pretty frequently. I saw it now. But the reason I was able to see it was because I was shown what it looked like from a perspective other than my own.

The moment I realized I was gay was when I saw the movie trailer for Imagine Me & You. Out of the blue these two women were shown falling in love, and unlike anything I had ever seen on TV or in any movie in my entire life, I felt an explosion in my gut like someone had just given me a shot of adrenaline. Holy shit, this makes me feel something. After long reflection and maturation I came to the conclusion that I am not exclusively gay, and rather pansexual, but nevermind that for now. So, following the trend of how I realize things about myself, I saw myself in another film. This time it was at a film festival in Vancouver. The film was The Other Half, about a bipolar woman and a damaged man. I had never considered it before. I had always known I was depressed. But when I saw what she was doing, when I saw how she felt, I realized that I felt that too. Fuck. Maybe I should talk to someone.

Suddenly everything in my life made sense. Everything from binge eating, to cutting, to hypersexuality that I had just assumed was a part of my personality became explainable. All of the jitters, all of the starts and stops of idea after idea, all of the passion with which I would greet the day with before it inexplicably turned dark… everything had a reason. And it not only had a reason, it had a treatment. My next, and current, psychiatrist told me I had bipolar disorder type two. I am far from better but we are working on it. It isn’t perfect but it’s a start. I’ve always been stubborn, and always rejected what my family said about me. The many times they suggested I might be bipolar meant nothing until I could see it myself. The diagnosis only confirmed it. And, while knowing what I have will not fix it or take it away, it gives me the tool to recognize what is going on with myself. It gives me the tool to move forward. And, after all of these years, it gives me the tool to understand that I am not my disease, but my disease is an important part of me.

They say that the symptoms of bipolar first surface in your mid-20s. It took myself, my mom, my sister, endless counsellors, and many diagrams of my family history until my mid-20s for someone to believe me. I firmly believe that for my entire life the symptoms have been there. I will leave that for another time, though. So if you, like me, believe something else is wrong, something they have not told you, and even something they might not believe… keep trying. Try for you, and try for the ones you love. Like my mom always said, no one knows you like you know you. And you owe it to yourself to find the help you need.

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