For Those Who’ve Just Tuned In

Hi to those who’ve only just recently followed me on this blog or on Twitter – I thought I’d fill you in with a little background on me.

In addition to my many fine other qualities, I have some form of Bipolar Disorder, which is categorized as a mood disorder – although it does have other effects besides changes in mood. The diagnosis I have from a psychiatrist actually just diagnoses recurring major depression and (quote) “Possible bipolar?”; unfortunately, seeing a psychiatrist is pretty expensive, and I haven’t yet received a more solid diagnosis.

However, I periodically get pretty classic symptoms of hypomania – although for years these have been fairly mild – which seems to suggest I have some form of Bipolar II disorder (“type 2 bipolar”). The symptoms were a lot more extreme when I was younger & doing my undergrad studies and have included:

  • High energy levels
    • Feeling hyper-energetic and active.
    • Having a reduced need for sleep (e.g., feeling mildly tired, sleeping for 2-3 hours, but then waking up at 3 a.m. feeling perfectly refreshed and full of energy. Time to catch up on housework!!).
    • Having racing thoughts – thoughts racing through your mind so fast it’s difficult to concentrate. If you get hypomania and don’t know what it is, then having racing thoughts can lead to you using alcohol or other depressants just to slow your thoughts down long enough to do something like concentrate on an exam … not something that lecturers normally recommend.
  • Positive mood
    • Feeling optimistic, confident and resilient enough to handle any difficulty.
  • Creativity
    • Feeling able to come up with creative ideas much more easily and fluently – sometimes so many that it feels they’re crowding your head, and you can’t get them out quick enough.
  • What the Black Dog Institute calls “Mystical Experiences” – though I’ve never had any sense of them being in any way supernatural in nature. Most commonly, these have been:
    • a heightened sense of the beauty of things – not just things that might ordinarily seem beautiful, but even quite ordinary things – leaves on trees, blades of grass, the texture of fabrics, the pattern of bricks in a wall, the scent of fresh-mown grass. Which is all very handy if you’re a poet or a composer. But it’s not much use to have the vision of a poet thrust into someone with the soul of a potato. (…Perhaps I’m overly harsh on myself here, though. I dare say I have at least the soul of a melon.)
    • a feeling of “oneness with the world and nature” – describing this would probably be a whole blog post in itself, so I’ll leave it for later.

All of which maybe don’t sound so bad to most people, though having them come on suddenly without your say-so makes them seem a little less attractive; also, just because you feel more creative and resilient and quicker-thinking doesn’t necessarily mean that you actually are, nor that you’re going to make sensible choices, nor that it will last for long. At any rate, other, less attractive-sounding symptoms include:

  • Irritability
    • If your mind is constantly crowded with fresh ideas, and you seem to be seeing things with crystal clarity, and your thoughts seem to be going super-fast, then it’s fairly natural to feel like everyone else is operating at a painfully slow pace, and to become both irritable and overbearing. Imagine being in a world where you’re constantly stuck in infuriatingly slow post office queues, waiting to get to counters which turn out to be staffed by dull, bored and perversely unhelpful counter attendants, and that will probably give you an idea of what this is like.
  • Unwise or inappropriate behaviour
    • Impulsively spending money on things. Luckily, the thing I mostly want to spend money on is cheap secondhand books, which isn’t too costly a vice – though it does mean I have far, far more books than I can possibly read and have to do periodic purges of my bookshelves. Beyond that, I’ve managed to avoid being too extravagant – I haven’t suddenly racked up hundreds of dollars in debt on online purchases or anything – but hypomania definitely makes you worry less about petty things like “money” and “consequences”, and makes you think that all sorts of “impulse” expenditures you might not normally consider are a good idea, and thus you tend to spend a bit more.
    • Risky activities like drinking too much alcohol, getting into arguments with complete strangers, picking fights, acquiring a motorcycle licence, and so on.
    • Becoming convinced that buying and/or wearing clothes that are electric blue, flourescent orange or tangerine in hue is a good & fashionable idea. Given my normal wardrobe is mostly in blacks and blues, psychedelic colours like these are not easy to coordinate with. As with books, I’ve occasionally had to do wardrobe purges of my more unfortunate choices.
  • Hypersexuality
    • Yes, well. You can probably work out what this one is. When added to “unwise or inappropriate behaviour”, this does not make for a good combination. So, it might make for interesting, though NSFW stories – but do you, really, want your life to be a NSFW story, and have to deal with the inevitable, unfortunate consequences once you come down from a high? Think of the times in your younger and stupider days when you’ve woken up and regretted the events of the night before – would you really still want to be doing that 10, or 20 years later, perhaps while in a relationship that you actually care about and are committed to?

As I say, for quite a few years, my hypomania symptoms have been fairly mild, and my main symptom has been moderately crippling depression, which seems to come on around every one-and-a-half to two years, without any particular trigger. Antidepressants have been extremely effective for me, but even while on them, the depression is sometimes bad enough to still make its presence felt.

For at least the past six years, keeping the worst of the depression at bay has involved a combination of medication and what you might call “lifestyle improvements” – trying to make sure I get enough exercise (this often helps with depression), limiting my alcohol intake, eating (reasonably) healthily, sticking to sensible sleeping hours, and doing some of what’s called “mindfulness practice” (meditation, basically).

Unfortunately, at the end of last year, I had a period of hypomania – and didn’t take precautionary steps to stop things getting worse – followed by fairly severe depression, which is often what happens after hypomania.

So, I had to find a new doctor who was actually helpful (I’d moved cities to do my PhD and so couldn’t see my old doctor), see an unhelpful psychologist or two, get my antidepressant dose increased, and try and get things on the mend. Since then, things have been improving, gradually, in fits and starts. The worst of the depression was over by some time in March or April, but I’ve still been having wildly swinging energy levels – ranging from pretty energetic, through to almost too exhausted to move, sometimes in the same day – plus a brief blip of hypomania that lasted for a week then vanished.

When you can’t tell whether, in a few hours, you’ll have enough energy to do day-to-day things like shopping, housework, paying bills and so on – let alone more taxing things like PhD research – this does make things a bit challenging, so I’ve had to take some leaves of absence from my PhD work (though have still been doing some tutoring). Also, this wildly-swinging-energy-levels thing – without other accompanying symptoms of depression or hypomania – is a new one on me. It’s not a symptom I’ve had before, so I’m waiting on the results of some blood tests and other diagnostics to make sure it’s not something more serious. Next test is some kind of treadmill-and-electrodes thing, I believe. I’d lay good odds on all of this being just the bipolar, but I guess we’ll see.

In retrospect, I may have slightly overestimated my capacity to handle quitting full-time work, moving across the country to a different city where I don’t have a strong support network, finding accomodation in the middle of a mining-boom-driven price rise, and starting a PhD. I thought I’d planned for things fairly well, but as so often happens, life intervenes.

There’ve been a few blips and dips, but I’m hoping things are almost back to normal, and will stay that for a while.

I’m pretty lucky in many, many respects: I responded well to the first medication I went on, with minimal side effects; I usually have fairly long stretches of feeling perfectly OK; my hypomania is usually pretty mild; I’ve had support from friends and employers; and neither depression nor hypomania has stopped me from finishing undergrad and Masters’ degrees and holding down full-time work (though with occasional sick leave when needed). I’m grateful for this, as not everyone is so lucky. Even for me, though, the symptoms are pretty disruptive – being able to do only intermittent work for 6 months makes it hard to maintain connections with scholars and fellow students in your field, keep up-to-date with grant opportunities and journal deadlines, and so on.

Although overall, I’ve coped well with bipolar, I think I have over the years put an awful lot of my energy into maintaining a normal-looking façade, regardless of what was going on inside of me, only rarely asking family or friends for help. And perhaps that hasn’t been the best strategy, and maybe doing this “complaining” and “talking” thing once in a while is not so grievous a sin. So I’m giving it a go on Twitter and this blog – let’s see how that works out.

Thanks for reading! We now return to you to your normal programming.