I've been thinking a lot about Birdie's comment the past week. She asked: can you tell me how you personally proceeded to receive help? You know, that initial step?
I didn't think I was at all sick until 1994, when I was 44. All the years of depressive and manic phases were nicely hidden from all but my husband. My first severe depression was about three months after my father's death, when I was 17 and a senior in high school. My mother was dealing with her own grief and was drifting into alcoholism, so she really didn't notice that I was skipping classes to stay in bed. My grades went downhill but at that point, I was already accepted into college.
My first manic episode began in October of my freshman year of college. I met a guy at a frat party at another college and we proceeded to have a wild affair, with me living in his room most of the time. That ended and I went back to my boyfriend, whom I married a few months later because I got pregnant.
Nice, huh? A real happy story so far. Terrible pre- and postpartum depression, when I tried to cut my wrists, landed me in therapy with a friend of my mother, a woman who had no bona fides other than she had counseled a lot of people in lifestyle management. She was no doctor and therefore, although I benefited greatly from her advice and help, did not see the deeper problem of manic-depression.
For the next 20 years, I managed to be a decent mother and wife, work hard and advance my career from a psychiatric technician (another great story I'll have to tell sometime) to the point where I became an editor without the benefit of a degree. But all along, there were continuous bouts of mania and depression. I don't know how I controlled their severity but I was always good at talking sane and thinking crazy.
One day, my husband Jimmy came home from a visit to the doctor and handed me a pamphlet on manic-depression. "I dunno, honey. This sounds an awful lot like you."
I read it and I realized he was right. Still, it took another two years and a terrible depression, one that I couldn't control, to make me desperate enough to call the local hospital and ask for names of psychiatrists. That's what made me call. I just couldn't stand living such a shadow life, with the ups and downs.
Once I was under care, it took my psychiatrist two years to make a firm diagnosis of bipolar I because I neglected to discuss my spending sprees and my out-of-control rage with her. I was better than I had been, simply because the depression was under control. However, a dysphoric manic episode convinced her that there was much more to the story.
It's critical that you tell the psychiatrist everything. I didn't, and it was the reason I was not diagnosed faster. I was afraid of appearing less than perfect. I was embarrassed that a person of my intelligence would do stupid things such as spend money I didn't have and run my mouth when I should have controlled it.
Psychiatrists have heard just about everything. You won't be judged for your behavior. Your behavior is the one symptom you have that will help the doctor make a diagnosis. And even then, it's not that easy. But taking the first step and calling is the biggest one. Once you've done that, you've started to participate in your wellness.