#DearTeenageMe, Mental Illness Can Have Physical Symptoms, Don’t Ignore Them

My experience with bipolar disorder had two long difficult periods of extreme symptoms separated by many years of only dealing with depression. The following story is about how I decided to go back to treatment after many years away.

I was first diagnosed at 17 after a not-so-serious suicide attempt; I’m sure that sentence will only make sense to people who have been through that. I had already been experiencing depression for a long time, long before I understood what was happening. The insomnia, racing thoughts, and feeling like an indestructible god didn’t start to set in until late in high school. I remained in that state until about the age of 19. To this day I do not know why the symptoms started or why they ended, something also true of my second serious bout. At the time I was in counseling and I had tried some medications, but for the most part I was not taking treatment seriously.

Skip ahead to the age of 27, and I was beginning to experience symptoms again for the first time in eight years. I had a few serious bouts of depression, and my normal depression cycled throughout that time, but no mania, no bipolar to speak of, and no treatment at all. In the late summer of 2012, however, I started to experience a lot of chest pain and shortness of breath. My family has a bad history of heart disease, and from what I was reading I thought I had developed a heart palpitation. So I scheduled a visit with my internal medicine doctor to see what might be going on.

As the session commenced and the line of questioning went on, I got the feeling that the doctor wasn’t concerned about my heart. After my EKG came back perfectly clear, my doctor asked a life-changing question: “Do you think you might be experiencing anxiety?” I didn’t really know how to respond. At no point in my life had I ever experienced any type of anxiety, not even towards common fears such as speaking to crowds. I didn’t know what panic attacks felt like. But my doctor was very certain that was what was happening. We talked a bit about my mental health history before he eventually gave me a script for anxiety medication and convinced me to contact a counselor.

I decided that I would call my former therapist from when I was in high school, the one I met in the hospital after my suicide attempt oh so long ago. She was happy to have me back. I began sessions that very week. The medication didn’t really seem to be working, so my therapist started to push me about going back to a psychiatrist. She worked with the psychiatrist who originally diagnosed me, but she also worked with a different doctor who she felt might be more appropriate this time around. During one meeting, she gave me his number; I went home and just sat on it. I still didn’t want to go back. The eight years without a manic incident had gone a long way to convince me that, while I might get depressed from day to day, I certainly wasn’t suffering from bipolar disorder. I was wrong in thinking that.

I had gotten the medication to help the anxiety. Therapy was helping as well. But the symptoms kept piling up on me. My restless legs went from a mildly annoying quirk to something that kept me and my wife awake for hours every night. My anxiety was going from occasional chest pain to curling into a fetal position almost daily. The depression was deepening as well. The walls were caving in on me.

Then came the infamous final straw. I started having terrible nightmares. I was waking up sweaty and trembling several times a month, then several times a week, then several times a night. Finally, I started to develop what I would later learn was sleep paralysis. I didn’t know what was happening. I thought I was losing my mind. I knew my mental health had caught up with me, and I thought it would be the end of me.

I was terrified.

One morning after experiencing sleep paralysis in excess of four times, which limited my sleep to just a couple of hours and created a massive amount of paranoia about falling asleep, I picked up the number for the psychiatrist and gave him a call. The next Saturday I was sitting in his office for a couple hours, and he was explaining to me, in detail, all of the things that were happening to me. I left his office that day with three scripts for the medication that I still take today (despite trying a few different things along the way).

Ultimately, things got much worse before they got any better. It is hard to say what would have happened had I not decided to check out my ‘heart condition’ early on.  I was back into weekly (or even multiple times a week) counseling and I was seeing a psychiatrist weekly as well. I even had regular appointments with my internal medicine doctor by the time things really hit the wall. Not only that, but I was already on medication that can sometimes take weeks to take hold. A strategy was already in place in case things got worse, which they did.

It was an important lesson that I didn’t even know I was learning; your physical health and your mental health are inextricably linked. Taking care of one is necessary to taking care of the other. You never know what symptoms will be the first signs of a major cycle. It is imperative to remain aware of your overall health, otherwise you may find yourself in a situation very difficult to safely get out of.

Read the rest of Steve’s blogs for IBPF here or visit his personal blog here.

Learn more about #DearTeenageMe and #SayItForward at http://sayitforwardcampaign.org/. 

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