I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder II when I was twenty. Bipolar Disorder, also known as manic depression, is categorized as a mood disorder. The official definition from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV) is that: “Bipolar II Disorder is characterized by one or more Major Depressive Episodes accompanied by at least one Hypomanic Episode,” (318). Essentially, the illness is composed of two main parts – hypomania and depression – ups and downs. But this doesn’t explain how the illness will interfere with a person’s life or what it’s actually like to be hypomanic or depressed.
Hypomania: It’s not just feeling happy
Hypomania isn’t just about being happy – it’s excessive happiness. It can seem normal to people who don’t really know you, but for those who do they can distinguish between hypomania and happiness. When I’m hypomanic I feel more more creative, thoughts flow more freely and words come easily. I’m talkative, bubbly, and funny. I’m also extremely productive. I don’t know if I’m unique in my ability to funnel my hypomanic energy into productivity, but when I’m hypomanic I say yes to everything and overextend myself, which I don’t realize until later.
During my fall semester of grad school, I had a hypomanic episode and it was amazing what I accomplished in the same 24-hour period as my peers. I was weeks ahead in my readings. When they were stressed about term papers, I was writing PhD and grant applications because my papers were already done. I remember a professor asking me, “When do you sleep?” and I happily responded, “I don’t!” She thought it was a joke, I was dead serious.
I would be lying if I said I don’t enjoy being hypomanic. Depressive episodes are more common in Bipolar II, so for a short time hypomania feels like a relief; a breath of cool air on a muggy day. Except I don’t want to misrepresent hypomania because there is only so long you can function with minimal sleep before reality starts to slip away. The energy that was productive turns into anxiety and panic, which makes me irritable and hostile. I start thinking the world is out to get me. Those thoughts and words that were flowing transform from a steady stream into a pounding rush. My sentences come out in a frantic string and it’s like the dam between my brain and mouth breaks and I say all of those things that I would normally only think.
During the grad school episode I erupted on an unsuspecting librarian. The library had cancelled a book I had requested via interlibrary loan because they thought I had ordered the same book twice. The person who cancelled the request hadn’t noticed that it was two separate volumes. In a non-hypomanic state, I would have simply been frustrated, but in a hypomanic state this was akin to treachery. These volumes are the crux of my argument! I will fail because of your ineptitude! How hard is it to be a librarian? I’m a grad student goddammit! I was absolutely indignant. I may have even called the poor woman an idiot.
This isn’t my usual behaviour – my non-hypomanic self avoids confrontation and I would never belittle someone. But that’s the thing about hypomania, it transform you into someone else. These outbursts during hypomania can often make relationships very difficult and a lot of people lose their jobs.
Depression: It sucks
The flip side of hypomania is depression. Unlike hypomania which is enjoyable (to a point), there is nothing remotely likeable or fun about being depressed. Depression isn’t just sadness. Depression isn’t an emotion. Depression is a heaviness in your brain and body. Depression is like trying to tread water with 100 pound weights tied to your ankles and as you’re struggling to keep your head above water, the voice of your elementary school bully is on a loop in your head urging you to stop trying and just drown already. You’d be better off dead anyway. It’s like your mind turns against you.
For the most part, I’m a functioning depressive. I’m still able to manage the day-to-day tasks that need to happen, but that’s it. Simple tasks, like showering or getting out of bed, are a struggle and exhausting. After a day of work, all I can do is curl up on the couch in the fetal position and cry. I hate everyone and everything. But the thing I hate the most is myself.
Following my hypomanic episode during grad school, the depression set in hard by the end of the Spring semester. My 45 minute commute was filled with sobbing. I remember giving a presentation and bursting into tears in the middle of it. All I could think while giving the presentation was how stupid everyone must think I am. Clearly I’m an idiot and should just give up. There was no rationale for any of these thoughts. By the end of the semester the crying had stopped and the numbness set in – the scariest part of depression. I started to self-harm, something that I hadn’t done in a number of years and all I could think about was dying. It wasn’t that I actually wanted to die, I just wanted to disappear. I would sit at my computer screen, trying to write my thesis, and just stare at the cursor blinking at me unable to string a sentence together. Eventually my partner noticed the cuts and forced me into the hospital.
Bipolar Disorder is a chronic illness that can’t be cured, it just goes into remission. I have been stable for the past 4 years due to the right concoction of medication and learning to recognize and accept my limitations (for the most part – I still struggle with saying no and overextending myself). It can be frustrating navigating my life around my illness, but I know what the alternative is and it’s really not an option. Unless my meds stop working and I come out of remission, I’m going to be as healthy and happy as I can be. But the most important thing I have learned is asking for help. No one should have to struggle alone.
About Marisa Lancione
Marisa Lancione is a mental health advocate who was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder II 8 years ago. Despite being stable for the past 4 years, she still struggles to find balance in life while managing a mental illness. Marisa is a media relations professional and when she isn’t fighting stigma, she can usually be found reading, writing or tweeting. You can follow her story on HMC's Supportive Minds blog here, and additionally you can follow Marisa through Twitter and her own website.