Recently it was reported that actress Catherine Zeta Jones had checked herself into a mental hospital to seek treatment for her Type II Bipolar Disorder, the same disease I was diagnosed with in 2007. Jones' press representative cited the stress she'd endured related to her husband, actor Michael Douglas, and his fight with cancer this past year. Douglas thrived after his initial cancer diagnosis, but the strain of dealing with a major illness of a loved one is wearing on anyone. If you're already dealing with a disease like Bipolar Disorder, that kind of stress can greatly aggravate it.
While the journalist in me knew that Jones likely went public with her diagnosis to get ahead of any vicious gossip mongering about it, another part of me was proud that someone so accomplished would go public with her disease, especially a mental illness like Bipolar that's often mistakenly lumped in with everything from Schizophrenia to Dissociative Disorder. Part of the reason why I was willing to talk about my own struggles with BP Type II in 2009 as opposed to when I was sitting in UCLA's neuroscience wing in late 2006 was because I was in UCLA's neuroscience wing. My priority was getting well, getting out of the hospital, getting my life back together and getting out of debt. Not spreading awareness.
I just wanted to be healthy again.
There's a difference in speaking about your disorder while you're in the depths of it and years after the fact when it has become manageable and you're reasonably healthy. It wasn't so much about helping others, but me being strong enough to deal with the fall out of being public about it.
It means so much to me when people who have been through the worst (and I went through some extremely dark days) come out of it speak out. Because when I was in that darkness I didn't think I'd ever feel peace again, that I'd ever pursue my dreams or accomplish anything. But having a mental illness doesn't have to be a death sentence. It doesn't have to doom you to a life confined to the margins. Surprisingly though, the first person I had to convince of this was myself, as even I didn't believe it at the time.
Bipolar Type II is marked moreso by depression, making it a bit harder to diagnose. This meant putting me on medication for depression didn't actually help me, but made things worse without a mood stabilizer. Months of depression were balanced out with weeks of hypomania -- where I was highly creative but extremely moody and unpredictable, often not sleeping or eating.
For about seven years I pretty much had the same story to tell anyone about how I was doing. I was severely depressed, fighting to stay alive. And that's just what it was. For seven years. I had moments of happiness and levity in those seven years, but the majority of it was severe depression, agoraphobia, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, hypomania, self-loathing and narcissism, punctuated by hospitalizations and 6 a.m. panicky phone calls from my mother just to make sure I woke up that morning. It became increasingly difficult to talk to people who remembered how I was in college or high school. They wanted to old, funny, witty Danielle. I still remember how a friend from college called me a couple years after my divorce to see how I was doing and upon telling her that I was three years into the psychological "shit" she said "Still?"
I knew she wasn't trying to be hurtful. But, really, after three years of it I was sick of hearing myself talking about it. By seven years, I pretty much had stopped and devolved into 5'3" of sadness and rage. But it all was what it was. I had no choice but to go through it and push it until I found myself on the other side -- or let myself succumb to the depression that kept telling me to give up. But at the time I never thought I'd have a "life" ever again. I felt permanently damaged. Ruined. And I was devastated over it as I tried to "accept" the unacceptable -- that my dreams were dead and lost to the disease.
So when one of my doctors at UCLA, impressed by how bright and articulate I was, told me how I could do wonders for others with mental illness if I wrote about it as a reporter I looked at him like he was the one who needed the Desipramine.
I was in a mental hospital. How on earth was I going to be an advocate of anything when I still was a high risk for not making it another month?
There's a difference between now when I admit that I'm feeling depressed or manic and then. Then, if I was going through the ups and downs, it was cause for troop rallying and ringing bells and alarms. Today it's like, "Maybe I should take a few days off and sleep, then go out and get some exercise?" Today, when I find some part of me suddenly malfunctioning -- like the other day I found I was avoiding staircases -- I immediately assess if I've eaten, slept or been outside lately. I'm so in-tune with my Bipolar Disorder now that the warning signs have warning signs. Like, I know that I can't be broke or pay my rent late because worrying about money is one of my triggers. If I suddenly have Burning Mouth Syndrome (which, by far, is the most annoying stress-related malady I have), I know I need to just stop doing whatever I'm doing a reassess. I know that I can't stay in the house more than two days in a row, lest I never leave my house again. And since I'm a "misery loves company" person, it's just better to be in a terrible mood with an audience, than in my house, with the junk food and the cable TV.
Having a life is my therapy. Without a life, I'm pretty bad off.
Today, I'm reasonably successful and happy. I have a career. I left my parents' home. I live on my own. I'm self-sufficient and more than capable of taking care of myself. And that's what's important for people struggling with Bipolar to see. That the disease doesn't have to define you. That it is a disease that can be managed with the right mix of coping skills, exercise, diet, therapy, self-awareness and good medicine. That having a mental illness isn't an end to your dreams. It's a challenge, but it's one that you can take on and tackle. One you can wrestle with and overcome. But it takes time, acceptance and understanding. You can't get mad at yourself because you can't be exactly "like everyone else." You just have to be you. And there's nothing wrong or shameful in that.