By: Julie Fast
Congratulations on your diagnosis. I know! Most people don’t send out a party announcement when they hear they have bipolar disorder, so I am congratulating you for being so honest and open about having this illness.
I remember my first bipolar disorder mania. I was 17 and in Europe. It was sunny and life was so perfect.
- I fell in love.
- I got drunk for the first time and literally danced on a table in a Greek restaurant where we threw plates on the floor.
- I didn’t need much sleep.
- I was smiling and happy and filled with joy!
- People liked me!
- I felt hope for my future.
- I was loud and annoying. The teacher on our tour called me a FOGHORN.
I assumed that life would always be like this. When I returned to my home in Hawaii, I went back to being myself. I remember thinking, “Who was that person and how do I get her back? She was awesome and fearless!”
I got suicidal depressed and psychotic for the first time at 19. (With hindsight, I figured out that I had psychosis at 16, but that is for another story!)
- My cool boyfriend in Vancouver, Canada broke up with me and I moved back in with my parents.
- I was euphoric manic when I met him. I left school to be with him. My parents were completely confused. “What is wrong with Julie? Why is she messing up her life like this?”
- I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I remember riding my bicycle on the street when a bus went by and I had the thought, “If I just ride my bike in front of that bus, everything will be better.” This thought was SHOCKING to me! I saw my bike go in front of the bus and I was killed. And yet, there I was as healthy as could be. It was a suicidal hallucination.
- I eventually took a job at Glacier National Park in Montana and my depression got much better. I got manic of course. I was wild, lots of sex, drinking, laughing and not sleeping. You know the story.
Why am I telling you this when you simply asked me what you were supposed to do now that you have a diagnosis at 17? I’m telling my story because I am happy for you. I would give anything to have been diagnosed at 17 during my manic episode. My life would have been better. Much better.
Instead, my out of control mania, depression, anxiety and psychosis went on unchecked for the next 15 years. I tried to get help, but bipolar disorder two was not talked about much and no one knew to ask about hypomania. Would you believe that I met a man when I was manic- moved in after a week of knowing him- married him and then HE was diagnosed with bipolar disorder one! It’s true. I was finally diagnosed with rapid cycling bipolar two with psychotic features at age 31. If I were diagnosed today, I would get the schizoaffective disorder diagnosis which means I have bipolar disorder along with a separate psychotic disorder.
I’m glad you have a diagnosis at 17. There is help for you. School and work will be easier. Relationships will be smoother. Life will be better. Why? Because we can manage what we understand. Bipolar disorder has very specific symptoms. It’s an ancient, genetic illness that has not changed in thousands of years. You may need medications and you will definitely need to learn about triggers and life style changes that keep you stable, but overall, you are WAY ahead of the game as compared to myself. And I have done pretty well. You can do even better.
Here are three ways for you to change your life right now to deal with the fact you were just diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
1. Cultivate friends who want to learn more about you. They will ask questions such as, “How can I help you if I see you’ re depressed? What is is like to be manic? Are you scared you will gain weight on the medications? If you are suicidal, who do I call?” Anyone in life who puts you down, calls you crazy, tells you not to take meds because they are not natural or who says anything resembling the idea that bipolar is not a real illness and you just need to get your act together, keep them away like the plague.
2. Become the best listener of anyone you know. Cultivate empathy in yourself. We can’t change others. We can be the best person we know to be and tell others what we need and go from there. Otherwise, we are miserable. Listen more than you talk. Learn about your illness and listen to what others need from you. Then tell them what you need. Teach people how to help you by assessing their ability to help you. A stranger may be a better support than a parent. An acquaintance of a friend may have more experience than the girlfriend who says she wants to help. Listen. Learn and find what you need.
3. Treat this illness as seriously as if you have had a heart attack. I am not trying to scare you. We can manage bipolar disorder, but we must take it seriously. Suicidal depression can kill us. It’s a symptom of an illness just like angina can be a symptom of heart disease. Ask for help from the right people and take it. You have a genetic illness. Daily management is required at first. Start with regulating your sleep and go from there. You can do this.
I survived 15 years of undiagnosed bipolar disorder. I am proud of what I have done with my life considering the challenges we all face due to this illness. When I got my diagnosis, I called everyone. “Guess what! I’m not crazy!” Then I educated them on how they could help. You can do the same.