Now that I am older and have lived with bipolar disorder for such a long time, I can look back on my life and recognize many of my manic episodes. I had no idea at the time that I was experiencing mania, but it is as clear as day to me now. Even after being diagnosed in 1995 I did not accept the diagnosis until years later, in 2005. I remember doing my own research on bipolar disorder and then going to my doctor and explaining that I think I am experiencing manic depression and am not truly bipolar. I will never forget his kind chuckle and soft admonition that he believed the original diagnosis was correct for they were in fact the same illness, and that everything was going to be OK because we would work together to find the best solution for me no matter how long it took.
He explained why my previous medications did not help me. A chemical imbalance in the brain is such a complex issue. No two bipolar brains were exactly the same, so there was not a one-for-all solution like there may be for many other illnesses. He asked me questions about my history of symptoms, what medications I had tried, and how each affected me. At this time I was already on a mood stabilizer and had been for about 7 years. We tried 2 other medications in the next few months and neither of them worked better than the mood stabilizer, so I ended up settling here for the next two years. The mood stabilizer almost completely eliminates my manic episodes, so in all, I was generally mania free for 10 years.
In early 2009 we tried again. My depressive symptoms were worsening by leaps and bounds. I did not know how much longer I could hold on. So he prescribed a medication that is designed to treat Major Depressive Disorder and added that to my current medication that he had recently doubled my daily dose and not seen the desired result. Within days I knew we had found my perfect solution. (See my blog post ‘Finding My Wonder Drug’ at www.flowerinthemud.com for that story.) I felt like I had opened the door to a windowless room that I had been stuck in for 17+ years, stepped outside into the sunshine and closed the door behind me. For good. Since that time I have attempted to remove the original medication from my routine on a few occasions, one of which lasted a few years. I have also increased my dose of the new medication at a time in my life where I was experiencing situational depression. As I recovered from the situational depression, I experienced a lengthy manic episode.
It must have happened so gradually that I didn’t notice, but in time, the change in me was rather drastic. The people closest to me noticed the changes first. I was becoming unstable again. To my husband, I seemed impulsive and uncaring, aloof and distant. I was making bad decisions and saying and doing things that were out of character. My son was now a young adult and I was empty nesting. I had reached an age where I knew I had likely already lived the first half of my life, if not more. I thought it was just a mid-life crisis. While today I do still strongly believe that these things did contribute to my need to make changes in my life, I can now see that they were not the reason for what I was going through mentally and emotionally. Things that I struggle greatly in trying to describe with any accuracy.
I felt like I was drowning.
At work, at home, in my car, in my head, in my heart, in my marriage. I needed to run away. I made mental and physical lists of everything I needed to do to be able to leave my life behind. First and foremost, sell my house. In order to do that, there were a lot of repairs/updates that I would need to do if I wanted to get the best selling price. Or should I settle for a short-sale to get this over with? I had post-it lists everywhere, of repairs and updates that I wanted to do and had not saved for them. I could not decide what I would do when the house sold, so in between visiting local flooring stores and window replacement websites I was also researching studio apartments and spending hours on RV sales lots and collecting month-to-month and long-term rental rates for RV parks within a 50 mile radius of my job. I often did these things with my husband who was dumbfounded. When he would ask me what in the world was going on, I could not explain it to him, which just confused him more. It did not help that all of the same music I had always been listening to now took on new meaning. It was speaking to my soul. Go! Run! Stay! Laugh! Cry! Smile! Love! Hate! Sex! Drive! Live! Free! I would break down crying in exhaustion from it all and tell him he should leave me because he deserved someone who loved him and wanted to be with him, and that wasn’t me anymore. I fantasized 24 hours a day about leaving. I needed new and unfamiliar like it was air to breathe. Now, I am not talking about normal urges, we all have those. This was so much more. It felt so much like withdrawals from drug addiction. It consumed me. If I didn’t run, I was going to die.
I decided to make an appointment with my doctor to talk about adding the mood stabilizer back to my routine. In the meantime, I thought I would lower my dose of Depression medication back to it’s normal amount. I started feeling better right away. I still had all of the same urges, desires and cravings for change, but they were manageable. As soon as I felt better and my mind could focus on something other than running, I realized that I had experienced this before. Years ago. Completely different thoughts and urges, but the intensity, the live or die. I was working at the front door of a bar, checking IDs, charging cover, and tending a beer-only bar. I had been working there for 2 and a half years already, but the music started feeling different to me. It would suck me in and I was finding myself in this different world. I was so full of love. I felt like a hot air balloon, floating in the sky.
I had so much love inside me, that I had to let it out. I knew it was enough to save the world if I could just share it. One of my favorite co-workers was the house DJ. He was stuck in a booth all night, so I would write him little notes on the bar napkins and pass them to him each night. He would respond with little phrases or quotes that made me feel understood. Even if he really wasn’t, I felt like he was floating up there with me, another beautiful hot air balloon.
Eventually, these love rushes must have worn me down, the energy involved is tremendous. It was getting harder to function normally during the day. I was making bad decisions and taking risks I normally would never take. I was hurting the people who loved me and I knew it. It was during this time that I began experiencing my first panic attacks. I believe this was due to the bad decisions, risks, and expenditure of energy combined.
I had no idea what was happening to me as I had never experienced a panic attack before. All I knew, was that the bar was closing in on me slowly and I couldn’t breathe. I recognized claustrophobia, not because I had experienced it before, but because I knew the definition and had seen plenty of it in movies and such. I would ask the door-man to watch my post for me for a few minutes and I would go outside to get fresh air. Once there, the sky, all dark and endless only made things worse. I needed air, but if I breathed this wide-open oblivion into my lungs, I might get lost in it. Was gravity enough to keep me here, or am I going to get sucked into space? Now I didn’t know what to do! So I went into the rest room and crouched on the floor in the corner, underneath the pay-phone (yes, this was a long time ago, haha) for protection and cried with my face in my hands so I could not see the walls constricting around me or the endless formidable sky.
Thank goodness, a close friend and co-worker recognized what was happening and shared her story with me. She was able to help me recognize when a panic attack was coming and I could react without losing my mind. I knew to keep breathing, slowly. And if all else failed, my doctor prescribed an allergy pill, much like Benadryl, that would help me calm down without triggering my addictive nature, for I had only been drug free for 5 years at this time.
Looking back, I can also see the similarities between my manic episodes and my drug addiction. It makes sense to me that I would gravitate toward a drug like crystal meth. I was a shy introvert. This drug could instantly turn me from wall-flower into the life of the party. It was so all-consuming that it completely numbed me. Far from love rushes and cravings for adventure though, it was hell and heaven at the same time. I could feel the blood tingling in my veins. I could hear every heartbeat. I could taste death. This took my mind off of any turmoil in my life or any emotional disturbances I was experiencing at the time.
I have to remember that while I may find my manic episodes appealing due to the flightiness and free-floating feelings, they are not healthy or normal. I can feel the harm it does to my body as it eats up all of my energy, mental and physical. I can see the heartache it causes in my loved ones. But I still count myself as lucky, for over the years now, I have met others who suffer from bipolar disorder as I do, and the mania each of us experiences is different. For some, mania presents itself as anger amplified. Violence. Self-destruction. For others it may be talking too much and being unable to stop themselves, or shopping sprees, gambling binges, and other pernicious behaviors that they can’t control. But for me, I will accept the fierce euphoria, the wild exhilaration, and zeal for all things life and love. I am still learning how to recognize these episodes for what they are and try not to make decisions in these moments. I am learning what works to calm the frenzy and how to find my perfect balance. I am learning to love and embrace my mental illness instead of despise and battle it. It is part of me. I take medication to keep myself as mentally healthy as I can. And I write, to connect with and support as many others like me as I can find.
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