By: Cassandra Stout
Trigger warning: This post contains a brief mention of suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, please call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or refer to our list of International Suicide Hotlines.
This past May was self-discovery month. One of the most crucial ways to encourage self-discovery is to reflect on what you've been through. If you have bipolar disorder, examining the contrast between the pre-diagnosis version of you and the post-diagnosis version of you can be helpful, because looking back on how you got here helps orient you to the future.
The time surrounding my diagnosis was fraught; I suffered a postpartum psychotic manic episode and committed myself to a mental hospital. I spent a week there, and, unwilling to miss any more of my infant's first days, I checked out against medical advice. I covered all of this in my upcoming book, Committed.
My marriage was in flux. I alienated people from my church by my wild, unreasonable behavior. I was considered a danger to my infant by those people and was threatened with a call to the Child Protective Services. I suffered a horrible postpartum depressive episode, during which I was suicidal. I was often suicidal from the age of fifteen, when I likely developed bipolar disorder, to the age of twenty-four, when I was prescribed lithium.
Prior to my diagnosis at twenty-two, ever since I was a teen, I suffered from intense depressive episodes interspersed with hypomania. I spent almost all my time that wasn't taken up with school on the internet, chatting with online friends, even at all hours of the night. I didn't sleep, which worsened my bipolar symptoms--symptoms which I didn't recognize as being those of mental illness. I was clearly addicted to the internet, an addiction which took many years to break. I worked two to three jobs at a time during the summers because I was running on manic energy and was described by my supervisors being difficult to control. I ate copious amounts of sugar and refined carbohydrates, which worsened my symptoms.
One of the biggest obstacles to adequate treatment for bipolar disorder is stigma--especially self-stigma, where you absorb the inaccurate, negative messages about your mental illness around you. This leads you to limit the impact of therapy and medication, because you may decide not to take steps towards getting treatment.
My self-stigma was difficult to handle; everyday post-diagnosis, I faced the hard decision to take my medication. Every week, I faced the hard decision to drag myself to therapy. But I succeeded at working on myself. When I was first diagnosed, I fought self-stigma by recognizing that I was accepting medication not just for myself, but for the benefit of my newborn son. I realized that I needed to be my best self for him, regardless of what others might say about my needing medication for life. Now, I can proudly say that I am stable, as I haven't experienced a mood episode for years. The medication and therapy literally saved my life.
The post-diagnosis version of me is much healthier. I am no longer driven by frenetic, difficult-to-control energy, or suffer long-lasting depression. I sleep well and am able to dedicate myself to my writing and mothering my children. I have advised other mothers about the postpartum period and advocated against their self-stigma for their mental health. I have a few friends, and I'm looking for more. Because of my medication and years of therapy, I actually have the mental stamina and energy to handle pursuing new friends at a Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) group. I now have an extremely strong marriage, tested and proven in the fires of mental illness.
You, too, can fight self-stigma. You, too, can succeed in getting treatment like I have. You, too, can minimize the effect that bipolar disorder has on your life. I wish you luck in your journey.