This weekend I recently “came out” to my church. It was a big decision on my part and something that they hailed as “courageous” and “brave.” While I am grateful and blessed to be part of such a community, I’m not sure it is really either of those. Rather, it was the necessary part of coming to terms with a secret that I felt I needed to get out. Perhaps it was really more for me than them.
And, no, I did not come out as gay – my wife can attest to the fact that I am thoroughly heterosexual.
Rather, I came out as someone suffering from a mental illness, specifically bipolar II disorder, as well as major depressive disorder and anxiety. Quite a combo.
In June of 2013 my wife came to me and told me that I had to get help. I was becoming increasingly agitated, irritable, depressed, suicidal, mean, hopeless, etc. And this was while I had been on anti-depressants for a few years. I was not getting any better and, really, was falling into a deeper and deeper depression that nothing would pull me out of. So I saw a counselor who immediately recommended that I go to a psychiatrist. And, boom, two months later I was diagnosed with bipolar II, to go along with my depressive disorder and anxiety.
Now, what is really frustrating about my story is that I first started to exhibit depression when I was 11 or 12. That is when my suicidal thoughts started. I thought not just about being dead, but about how I would do it. I thought about how it would (or wouldn’t) affect people around me, like my parents and siblings and other family, as well as my classmates, teachers, community, and others. I had these thoughts just about daily. I thought it was just part of being a teenager and growing up. It wasn’t. I have continued to have suicidal thoughts to this day, although they have gotten better with a correct diagnosis and the use of medication.
Throughout my teenage years I was a master at hiding what was going on for a variety of reasons. Essentially, though, I knew there was something wrong with me and I didn’t want other people to find out about it. I can, and will later, talk at length about what it is like to be a suicidal teenager, but this is not the time. It’s my coming out party.
When I was 17, my parents noticed that I was depressed and sent me to a counselor. Now, the thing with bipolar II is that it swings between hypomanic and depressive moods. You basically cannot control your mood. So, in a hypomanic state you have lots of energy, sleep very little, have grandiose thoughts (mine always involve how I am going to save the world), and sometimes result in dangerous behavior because of the feeling of invincibility that the person has. In a depressed state, you are in the midst of the dark, everything carries a black cloud with it, you are hopeless, sometimes suicidal (I always am), don’t want to talk to anyone, don’t want to touch anyone, and so on and so on.
Anyway, when I’m 17, my parents notice I am depressed. They schedule me to meet with a counselor, which takes 3 weeks. In those 3 weeks, my mood bounces back and I enter a relatively normal period. I’m good and feel fine. In fact, I may have even been entering a more hypomanic state, but am not sure. I just know that by the time I get to the counselor, I tell him I’m fine. He never asks me any questions about suicide or about why I thought my parents believed I needed to see a counselor. He misses everything and just sends me on my merry way. Now, I have the backing of a certified counselor in the fact that I am ok, even though I most definitely am not.
Fast forward to the start of my college career. I am 19, away for the first time, and slip into a pretty dark depression. However, I have times when I feel really good but act in what are essentially suicidal ways – I dodge cars on the street, start engaging in various forms of risky behavior, don’t sleep or sleep way too much, etc. I am in what is called a mixed state. It is dangerous because I feel tethered to nothing. I am just screeching through my life.
This comes to a head when I come back for my second semester. I had my gall bladder out during Christmas break and they give me way too much Vicodin. I take a lot of it at a time as a way of self-medicating. I begin to lose my grip and think about dying all the time. In fact, I begin to avoid specific places because they are so vividly associated in my “fantasies” with killing myself. My friends get worried and convince me to see a counselor, which I do. When I am honest with him and lay it all out there, his eyes get very wide – he is a college counselor at the school and not used to dealing with mental health issues, but rather doing certain assessments and learning methods and stuff. But, since I am in the middle of a very suicidal depression he immediately diagnoses me with depression and sends me to the Nurse Practitioner on campus. She prescribes an anti-depressant known as an SSRI.
Now, the problem with the SSRI when you are bipolar is that they can cause you to have what seems like a permanent hypomanic state. This happens to me. I go into hypomania for about four months and, really, feel great. I am not worried about anything. I work at a summer camp and drive everybody nuts because I am constantly bouncing off the walls, talk way too fast, flit from thing to thing, etc. And I don’t really sleep.
Since I feel so good, I go back to school and announce to the counselor and Nurse Practitioner that I am coming off the meds. They got me through my dark period, but I am bouncing off the walls and not sleeping and generally annoying. They discourage me but I do it anyway. I don’t fall off the edge of the earth but just maintain. I go up and down, but nothing dangerous. I always have suicidal thoughts, but no intent or plan. I use my more hypomanic states to do ungodly amounts of work. And this continues for years.
I get married, go to grad school, do doctoral work, have kids, and just manage. My wife knows I struggle with “down times” but I always manage. Then I start not to manage. I am feeling worthless and hopeless and want things to end, always contemplating suicide. I finally go to see my doctor who, again, acknowledges I have depression and gives me an SSRI. However, this time I do not begin to go into hypomanic states. I just kind of get through life. I eventually slip deeper and deeper into depression with small moments of uptick. After a few years of this, my wife tells me I have to see someone and that brings me to the beginning of my story.
Now, this is just a rough sketch of my journey. I plan on blogging about my life with bipolar II and how I manage and make it through. I’ll go deeper into some aspects and look forward to any dialogue I can offer. But, the main goal here is to allow people know that they are not alone, that they can find help, and maybe help each other out a little.