Health

What It's Really Like to Live With Bipolar 2

Published On 07/21/2016 Published On 07/21/2016
living with bipolar
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

I'm a cynical asshole. Whenever I read something about mental illness, I hate when it ends with the person talking about how great their life is after doing yoga or something. I can't help but think, "Bullshit." So it feels weird writing about mental illness, but it's even weirder that it actually happened to me.

I know this for sure: I am mentally ill. I'm bipolar type 2. My life was in a really shitty place for a long time, and now it's much better. Those are the facts, and this is my story.

I'd been warned by so many people that taking pills would turn me into a "zombie."

I first saw a psychiatrist in 2008, when I was a freshman in college. The doctor was the father of a girl I had casually told the darkest things about myself. I told her I thought of committing suicide on the daily as if I were telling her what my favorite pizza toppings were. I had lived with suicidal thoughts ("suicidal ideation") for so many years that it had in fact become horrifyingly casual to me.

He prescribed me antidepressants, but even as I started them, I was worried that the side effects might be worse than the mood swings. I'd been warned by so many people that taking pills would turn me into a "zombie," but the thing that most worried me was the lowering of my libido. I wasn't just worried about sex, although that's one way to bolster a wounded ego; I was more concerned with being unable to get close to anybody. I didn't want to have to say, "Sorry, I can't get it up, I'm mentally ill." Seemed like a deal-breaker to me.

Turns out, I was way off about the side effects, but I was so paranoid about that stuff that I stopped taking the meds after only a few months -- not nearly long enough to monitor their effects.

It turns out that not taking your meds is common for people with mental illness, even those who have been taking meds regularly for years. When you hit a rough patch and start feeling like your old, miserable self again, you start to wonder if the meds are doing anything at all. Some people stop taking them cold turkey. That's what I did, which was dumb. But it makes sense, because in 2008 I was still very ignorant about mental illness.

How are you supposed to describe this waking nightmare?

It wasn't until I was diagnosed as bipolar many years later that I realized just how little people know about mental health. There are people who honestly don't think it even exists, whatever the hell that means -- maybe they think their case of the Mondays is the same hurdle to leap as chronic mental illness. And these are the people who think they're the sane ones.

For example, it turned out I wasn't taking the right medication. Bipolar people need to be treated with different medicine than depressives. I also didn't realize the extent to which I wasn't able to describe what I was thinking and feeling, even though I was doing both every second of every day. That makes an accurate diagnosis even more difficult to obtain; if you think you broke your ankle, you tell the doctor what happened, and you get X-rays. Diagnosing mental illness is entirely dependent on your ability to turn feelings into words.

Having the vocabulary to describe your experience is so important, but how are you supposed to know the words before you see a mental-health specialist and are told them? How are you supposed to describe this waking nightmare to your parents, friends, even strangers when necessary?

I'd wake up with a sickening feeling, like my blood was sewage slowly moving through my veins.

It took me eight years, but I finally got a second opinion. I really regret waiting that long. I gave up too easily on believing someone could help me.

I spent those years thinking I could just deal with it, but during that time, everything just got worse. When I found my second doctor (on PsychologyToday.com's very useful search tool), I did it because I reached a point where I knew I couldn't go on anymore without help. But that was actually a good sign, because it meant I was aware I had a problem and was feeling hopeful enough to try therapy again.

Before that, my illness was in control of my life. I'd wake up with a sickening feeling, like my blood was sewage slowly moving through my veins. I could barely concentrate while looking for a job, and every day that went by I felt worse and worse, more ashamed of myself, more like, "Why go on?" I called my mother while sitting on a fallen tree, alone in a small patch of woods in a beautiful part of Vermont, to tell her she'd never see me again. I had to listen to her violently cry into the phone again and again and again.

I'm not sure how I did go on. I wanted so badly to kill myself. Maybe I lacked the strength even to do that. It would be comforting to think some deep, inner, core part of me wanted to live and get well, but I can't say for sure.

All I know is that I survived... and yes, people who live with mental illness should be called survivors. The Treatment Advocacy Center says, "Suicide is the number one cause of premature death among people with bipolar disorder, with 15 percent to 17 percent taking their own lives." I was lucky and was able, somehow, to take that first crucial step toward recovery.

I'm making more and better work than I ever was with a disoriented mind.

The second doctor I saw was a psychoanalyst. I liked Freud's writing, and was curious about trying out his method. He had a relaxed, intellectual vibe, which was exactly what I was looking for. He diagnosed me immediately as bipolar 2, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. He prescribed the regimen of medication that I'm still taking today. Unfortunately, I couldn't afford to keep seeing him, as he was not covered by my insurance plan. But finally having an accurate diagnosis allowed me to start teaching myself more about the illness. Some things surprised me. For example, I hadn't been aware that what I was having were "mixed episodes," an experience of the high and low symptoms of bipolar disorder at the same time. The depressive symptoms just stuck out to me more because I'd lived with them longer, hence the misdiagnosis in 2008.

More importantly, I learned that there are important differences between bipolar type 1 and type 2. One is the difference between "hypomanic" and "manic" episodes. People suffering from bipolar type 1 have manic episodes, which are very intense and may have symptoms of psychosis, such as hallucinations and severe disorientation. Type 2 sufferers have hypomanic episodes, which are less intense but last longer than manic episodes, and are characterized by a painful, distracting, and nearly constant state of anxiety, with frequent and extended bouts of depression.

So while manic episodes are more intense, bipolar type 2 actually has shorter and less-frequent breaks from depression and anxiety. In other words, unlike what some people have ignorantly said to me before, neither type is "less intense" or "better" than the other. They're both terrible.

Here are some other things that really fucking annoy me that people tell me sometimes. I don't have any patience for people who tell me things weren't that bad before, or now, or that "everybody gets sad sometimes," or that I should just "suck it up" (oh man, do I hate that facetious "up by your own bootstraps" shit, no matter in what context it's used). I can't just flick a switch in my mind and go from Garbage to Good.

I also don't have any patience for people telling me that medication ruins your creativity or makes you a zombie. There's the old romantic stereotype of the "tortured artist," which implies that there's some worthwhile trade-off for having a mood disorder -- but van Gogh was broke, miserable, and unknown during his life, and he wound up killing himself.

In my own life, I've found that the stereotype isn't true AT ALL. I'm making more and better work than I ever was with a disoriented mind, often paralyzed by depression. I'm more social, so I'm actually sharing my work. I'm a comedian, and I host a show and perform regularly in Brooklyn. I also share my writing through my Medium and Twitter accounts, and it's reaching more and more people. Before, even if I thought it was a masterpiece, I wouldn't show more than a couple people.

I continue to adjust my medication regimen to this day. While sometimes I have those days that are so bad it seems like the meds aren't doing anything for me, I know they've improved my life dramatically. They gave me the very minimum of what I needed to start making huge changes in my life, and they enabled me to meet the people who would help me make lasting improvements to my life.

So look up a professional, try your best to describe your experience in as detailed a way as possible, and try out whatever therapy they suggest. Be patient before you decide it's not for you, unless you're having a clearly negative side effect to whatever it is. Talk with the professional you're seeing about trying something else. Repeat this until you find something that works, then stick with it, monitoring it carefully, with the support of people that care about you, making small adjustments as you go along.

Mental illness closes a lot of doors for people, and while getting professional help can't open them all for you, it will open some. And that will be enough for you to get positive things going again.

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Steven Markow is a comedian and writer in New York. Follow him @Steven_Markow.

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