When I was two years old, I began having “episodes”. I’m quite sure now they were hypomanic episodes, but that wasn’t really talked about as much back then. And it especially wasn’t diagnosed in two year olds living on dirt roads in rural Georgia in the early 1980s. I was told I was allergic to red food dye and that it made me hyper. I am not sure why they thought this, other than I’d had some cereal with marshmallows that were red as a treat (a rare occurrence, my parents made a lot of our food from scratch), shortly before the symptoms began.
Throughout my youth, I experienced what my gymnastics team affectionately called “Maya Moments” – situations in which I’d get so upset, anxious, worked up that I’d have to leave practice (or whatever situation I was in). It wasn’t a tantrum, or simply being frustrated, it was a feeling that welled up deep inside of me, making me feel like I was about to emotionally burst. Letting it out was the only way to quel that. But there was no explanation. Since there was no red food dye consumed at gymnastics practice, I had to assume it was “just me.” That I was just temperamental and got upset easily, that I was “dramatic” and over-reacted. A lot.
Beginning my freshman year of college, other feelings crept in. Self-criticism and doubt, lack of confidence, feelings of being extremely low or anxious. I tried to control these by controlling my food intake. It seemed one of the only things in my life I felt total control over. It resulted, eventually, in disordered eating. By my sophomore year of college, I began seeing a counselor. She was a grad student in Psychology, and she helped. I wasn’t diagnosed, but I felt comfortable with her, and it offered me an outlet to discuss feelings I couldn’t understand.
By the time I was 29, I had been to at least four or five counselors. During my first marriage, there were points at which I used to actually instruct my then-husband to pick me up from behind and hold me up so that I could punch and kick my arms in the air (away from him, to clarify), to release the overwhelming anxious energy that felt like it was going to explode from me if I didn’t get it out. Despite this, I was given every “reason” for the way I was feeling, except for a diagnosis. I was told it was pre-wedding jitters, then “newlywed jitters”, then stress from then my mother-in-law and I not being best friends. I was given the old Freudian “mommy and daddy issues” routine, despite my clearly explaining over and over that I had a happy childhood, and that my family was where I felt happiest and safest. No matter how often I insisted it was something inside of me, I got push back.
Finally, just before my 30th birthday, I went to the ER with what I thought were non-stop panic attacks. Long story short, but I ended up being voluntarily committed for several days. To clarify, it wasn’t really voluntary. I was in the ER and they asked me, in the middle of horrendous attack, if I wanted to stay overnight. I said yes. They did not mention that overnight meant being transferred to a psychiatric inpatient hospital, where I wasn’t allowed to leave for 48 hours, couldn’t have my phone or my purse with me, and that my loved ones would only be able to see me at visiting hours. When I objected, they told me I could go back to the ER and have an assessment, but then I chanced getting committed involuntarily, in which I would have no say over when I left. I chose not to risk it, which was the right decision. I found out later that I had been labeled a suicide risk because of how I answered a particular question. I was not suicidal, but their assumption that I was would surely have resulted in an involuntary commital.
Because I had been labeled as such, they insisted on increasing the mild dose of antidepressants that my primary care had put me on a couple of months back. I insisted that this was a bad idea. I felt the opposite of depressed – anxious, jittery, brain running a mile a minute. I felt worse with the increase. I told them so. I wasn’t listened to.
I’d like to add an insert here: I don’t want to discourage people from getting help. I was at a not ideal hospital and did not really understand what was going on. As I was admitted at 11PM, I clearly got the short-staffed overnight team. I learned a lot at the hospital. Almost everyone there was “just like me”. I.E. they were functioning adults with jobs and families and talents, who held interesting conversations and seemed to be genuinely nice people. It wasn’t the “mental hospital’ image shown in Hollywood. It was a place for healing and understanding, not a place people were filed away. We did group work, which I felt beneficial. I met a nurse who was wonderful and helpful and truly cared about the people there. It was the process I did not like, and some of the individuals I dealt with. But ultimately, it led to me getting the help I needed (read on).
I called the therapist that I’d seen after my divorce, and during some other relationship issues. I explained my situation. She told me to hold tight, get through the two days after which they had to let me leave, and then come make an appointment with her. I followed her instructions. That appointment with her proved to literally be a lifesaver. She diagnosed me with rapid cycling cyclothymia, a mood disorder similar to, but not as “intense” as, bipolar disorder. She explained that the panic attacks were actually hypomania, and that the antidepressants had made it worse. She weaned me down off of them and started me on a mood stabilizer, which made me horrendously ill (physically), until it didn’t, and I started to finally feel ok again, mentally and physically. We started discussing my treatment plan. I began to learn as much as I could about my illness. I felt that finally someone was listening to me. I had been telling doctors and therapists for years that something was happening inside of my head, that I wasn’t just down or stressed, but that something was really going on. I was finally being heard.
Eventually, I decided that I had to make the best of the diagnosis. I started blogging, openly, about mental health and my experiences. I started a closed Facebook group for people with mood disorders. I began actively advocating via other social media outlets. I learned I was very far from alone. While cyclothymia is rare, there are so many others who struggle with mental health. I learned that just by sharing my stories, I could help others. I could show them that they, too, are not alone. I could help inspire people to speak up about their illnesses, whether in the form of social media or a blog, or simply to talk to me about it if they needed.
Eventually, I decided that I wanted to take my efforts to the next level. I started Spread Hope Project, to attempt to formalize what I do. I am still weeding through it. I haven’t quite pinpointed the exact trajectory of what I plan to do, but I’m working on it. Hope can still be difficult some days. My illness is still, as one would imagine, full of ups and downs, and therefore so is my life. But I know at my core that I can make a difference. More than my blogging and social media, but on a larger level. I have the passion for it, the personal experience, the longing to do so. I just need to figure out how.
This is my story of mental illness. My story of how it has changed my life, and how I got to the point where I am today. I hope that in it, you can find some hope, or at least some solace in knowing that you are far from alone.
What’s your story?