First, I’ll start with what it’s NOT.
It’s not about rapid mood swings, one minute up and the next down, one minute calm and the next raging. That’s being a drama queen. Or just a female, LOL. (Actually, there is a sub-form of bipolar called ‘rapid-cycling’ that does include those kind of swings, but that’s not what the regular kind is like.)
And it’s not, for me at least, really about being happy or sad. One of the books I’ve read says that instead of talking about ‘moods’, it would be more accurate to call them ‘storms in the mind’ – storms including hurricanes, freezing fog, whirlwinds, and downpours that never stop.
Moods are what you have in reaction to things around you – you feel grief, or fear, or pleasure, depending on what’s going on. Your moods can also be affected by your health, by what you eat or drink, and by activities you do – calming yoga, or a ‘high’ from working out, relaxed by a few drinks, or buzzing from too much coffee… you get the picture. We bipolars have those same moods, and they’re affected by the same things, but sometimes they’re affected too strongly and go to extremes that ‘normal’ people don’t experience. And sometimes they change for no obvious outward reason – anyone who’s suffered from clinical depression knows that there doesn’t have to be a reason; your life can look perfect from the outside, but you’re unable to enjoy any of it.
The usual definition of bipolar disorder goes something like: “A mood disorder characterised by alternating periods of elation and depression.” Which is why, until recently, I had no idea I was bipolar, because that doesn’t describe me at all!
A better description, from WebMD, is this: “Bipolar disorder, formerly called manic depression, is a mental illness that brings severe high and low moods, and changes in sleep, energy, thinking, and behavior.” Well, I still wouldn’t have said, until recently, that I suffer from severe high or low moods, but the last bit of that one is important. It wasn’t until my thinking became extremely disturbed, during a period when my sleep and energy patterns also changed drastically, that I realised anything was wrong. I didn’t feel that I was unnaturally ‘happy’, but the closest thing was probably the sheer physical pleasure I felt in having unlimited energy and stamina, and losing weight while barely trying. Of course, I believed at the time that it was all my own doing, and felt so proud of my efforts at diet and exercise, and so thrilled at how easy it was once I got into it… and so incredibly pissed off to find out that half of it was purely due to my illness (which is why I stopped losing weight several months ago), and that all that energy and self-esteem is gradually slipping away as the weeks pass, and the pounds creep back on. I’m fighting it as hard as I can, because I have literally never felt that good in my life, and if there was any way to hang on to the physical symptoms without the crazy brain coming with it, I’d jump at it like a rabid squirrel. (Do squirrels get rabies? Don’t know, don’t care, I just like the image.) But apparently there isn’t, and I have to go back to being my ‘normal self’, whatever that is.
What seems to have happened this year, according to my psychiatrist, is that I started ‘cycling upwards’ in February. We bipolars (I quite like that phrase) are more likely than most people to get Seasonal Affective Disorder – meaning that we are affected, physically, mentally and emotionally, by the changing seasons, but in particular, the changing light levels. In case you don’t know, sunlight enters your brain via your eyes, allowing your body to produce, among other things, Vitamin D and serotonin. (That’s a simplified version, because I’m not a biologist, or a biochemist, or whatever.) Serotonin is a brain chemical that makes you feel happy and energised, and a lack of it makes you feel sluggish, tired and depressed. So in regions that don’t get much sun in winter, many people get symptoms of depression which last till the levels of sunlight increase again in spring. I’ve had that for years, never thought any more of it. One of the treatments, which I’ve used for about the last 10 years, is ‘daylight simulation’ by using a lamp with a special kind of LED – you just shine it on your face for 20 minutes or half an hour after you wake up, and it corrects the chemical levels in your brain, and helps you feel better and more energised.
Last winter, as usual, when I started to feel the creeping dread of approaching winter and all those dark evenings, I used my lamp as usual, no problems. In January, we flew to the States to visit my sister for her birthday, had a lovely time, and in hindsight I can remember that there was a lot of sun on the snow the last few days we were there – and because it’s further south than here, the days are longer at that time of year, so I didn’t miss my daylight lamp while we were away. And when we got back at the end of the month, I went back to using my daylight lamp, started a serious diet, and made a conscious effort to work as physically hard as I could manage at work, in order to burn calories. And that was all it took.
My brain has some faulty wiring somewhere, along with anyone else with a mental illness, and the faults in mine result in my chemical levels becoming unbalanced too easily. As I lost a little bit of weight I gained energy (for anyone who’s never dieted, just think about it – if you’re carrying a 2-stone backpack around you’re going to move a lot slower than if you put it down. Without that weight, every movement is easier, and quicker. And I lost 3 and a half stone in 4 months, which means a LOT of increased energy), and as I gained energy I did more exercise, so I lost more weight. And obviously felt good about it! But guess what? – being happy gives you energy too. And as February turned into March the days got longer, and the daylight increased, so my mood would have been going upwards anyway. And in whatever is the opposite of a vicious circle, it all spiralled upwards and there was no stopping it, until I was working like a demon all night at work, never getting tired, sleeping no more than 3 hours a day, and feeling BRILLIANT.
And if I ever get like that again, instead of being allowed to enjoy it, I’ve got to rely on people around me to talk me down, get me to a doctor and make me increase my medication. I am now on pills that are meant to prevent an episode of ‘acute mania’ again, while hopefully not being such a strong dose that they turn me into an emotionless zombie, but there are dozens of different meds, and they all affect people differently, and these particular ones might not work, or might wear off, or whatever, so one of the things I have to do is make sure trusted people around me know what to look out for.
I’ve got tons more to write (I did warn you, LOL), but I said I’d divide this up into sections, so I think I’ll leave that one there. In future posts, I’ll try to describe the different stages of the illness, rather than just that one phase, and look back at periods of my life when I think I’ve showed symptoms before, and generally try to figure out how to manage my life, with this new knowledge about what can happen if I’m not careful.