Labels are a weird thing. Some we crave, because it gives a sense of belonging. Others we fear and reject, for the stigmas that come with it. Labels can be limiting. They create social boundaries that we define ourselves by, labels are the facets of our many-sided selves. What we show to the world depends on which face we want to display. Which label we want to be seen under.
Loss of a label is… confusing.
I knew it was coming. The whole point of arranging to see a psychiatrist and starting the diagnosis process all over again was because I didn’t feel that ‘fast-cycling bipolar’ was accurate. It fit some of the symptoms, appeared to explain some behaviours, but left more questions than it answered.
The diagnosis itself (or, the addition of a label) came with came with a series of confronting questions. I began to doubt myself when I felt good, worried that I was ‘too good’ and in fact sicker than the days where I felt rotten. I began to wonder if I was as quirky or off-beat as I prided myself on being. How much of it was me and how much was a symptom of the illness?
Me: Are the days I feel good and dance in the supermarket a lie?
T: You dance in the supermarket on your bad days. That’s who you are.
Trying to draw the boundaries between what was me and what was a product of bipolar was exhausting. And because my ‘good’ days were very good–I also worried that dealing with the bipolar would take away the light at the end of depression’s tunnel. However bad things got, I knew that a day would soon come where I would feel productive and content.
Me: I don’t want to lose the good days that I do have.
C: What if I told you they could all be good days?
At the time it made enough sense, and I accepted the diagnosis. I was pretty desperate. I knew that something was not right–something was not being managed.
The mood stabilisers prescribed did little more than knock me out. What was supposed to be a ‘weaning dose’ put me to sleep for upwards of twelve hours, with no indication that this would lessen with long-term use. Even if I was mentally awake, my body felt so incredibly heavy and sluggish that movement was impossible. I suppose you could describe the emotional situation as ‘stable’, but realistically it was as if someone had wrapped my world in heavy grey wool.
I wasn’t having intense emotional outbursts. I wasn’t having anything. It was worse, even, than numbness. Sleep felt like a coma, waking was a superhuman effort, and I lived for the next moment where I could just lie down and rest. I wasn’t even particularly exhausted, just heavy.
I stopped after a few months. I found that I much preferred my erratic moods to the weighted ‘stability’. I felt more like myself. I tried again a few times, when repeated ‘episodes‘ were causing me distress, but the result was always the same. All I felt was frustration and loathing, with no energy to express it.
So I found myself, a year after that diagnosis, seeking the counsel of a different psychiatrist. I didn’t want to poison the well by mentioning that I had a bipolar diagnosis first up, though my anxiety and depression were immediately clear.
I wanted to start from scratch, lay out what I was experiencing, and see what his initial beliefs were. Toward the end of the session I explained that I had been given a bipolar diagnosis, but was unsure if it explained what was happening.
There were a few things that happened during that session that peeved me. I think he liked the sound of his own voice, as he frequently talked over my responses with more questions. He asked, repeatedly, if I’d been mistreated as a child–which I understand is information plenty of patients want to conceal, but there are only so many times I can try and explain that my childhood was very safe and my family loving before I start getting shitty at someone trying to ‘uncover’ information to the contrary.
But what annoyed me most of all was how dismissive he was when I tried to explain things that I felt were important. He waved them away with the statement ‘Well that’s just who you are’… but is it?
First, in spite of an expensive degree in psychiatry, this was still just a man I’d known for all of forty minutes. And not, to my knowledge, someone who could read my mind. If I don’t have a full understanding of myself, I very much doubt even an experienced doctor could have a solid enough understanding to wave things away like that.
Second, whether its part of ‘who I am’ is irrelevant. I was trying to bring to his attention some facts about myself that I find distressing or challenging in my daily life. I’m not comfortable accepting them as part of myself until I have some understanding of why they are, and how I can work with them. He flat refused to engage any discussion on things like my social awkwardness, communication issues, or in fact–anything else I tried to bring up.
Every aspect of the conversation was brought back to his questions, which seemed to center on one theory: I had a shitty childhood, so I was having a shitty adulthood.
I don’t accept that. There were aspects of my childhood that weren’t so fun, but they didn’t make my childhood wholly shitty. I did learn some counter-productive coping mechanisms, some bad thought patterns and emerged negative self-esteem. Most kids do, and some learn more than others.
Those flawed thought patterns are responsible for some of the anxiety and depression. But before the thought patterns can occur, they need a trigger–an event that starts the circle. Like when things change too fast, when I’m misunderstood, when things aren’t as I expect, when I’m tired and fed up with being around people, when I’ve retired to somewhere quieter and start hating myself for not being able to keep socialising.
Depression and anxiety explain a lot of things, but they don’t explain why, on my sister’s hen’s day, I ended up in a dark room confused and crying. I wanted to be out having fun. I wanted to be enjoying myself like everyone else, but no–I was sobbing in frustration because as much as I wanted to go back out and rejoin the party, the very thought of going back to the noise made me feel sick. It made me shake.
I did calm down and rejoin, but I don’t know if I can accurately describe how incredibly horrible it is to want something so much, and at the same time feel physically ill at the thought of it.
It wasn’t a panic attack. I know the difference. It was an episode, and nothing in the psychiatrist’s self-confirming theory explains it. But he didn’t want to hear about any of that. Only the things that made him sure of what he already believed.
I have an appointment booked with him again, I’m still debating on whether I should go. I do think he’s right about it not being bipolar, but the rest doesn’t seem right. Without the bipolar diagnosis, I’ve been feeling a bit more lost.
Where I once had a condition I could google and look for support, stories, and management strategies–I have nothing. I don’t know where to look for ways to help myself, and I really want to find ways outside of medication.
I want to identify all the things that I do differently, my strengths and weaknesses, learn how I can develop and work with them. I want to optimise my brain and my way of life, rather than fight it into ‘normality’. There are things I do amazingly well, and things I am catastrophically bad at.
If I can get a handle on that, there’s no reason I should ever be depressed. I will know the best ways to be productive. I will know the best ways to calm myself, motivate myself, and all the things I need to do to find happiness. I’ll be able to accept the mistakes I’ve made and am yet to make. Because I will understand.
Right now, I don’t understand. So all I am… is frustrated.