For nearly two decades, I’ve suffered from what I thought to be severe depression. The mind has a way of romanticizing the past, glorifying history, and when I think back on how I used to feel as a young man, it’s inevitably with a sense of nostalgia, of longing for the ‘good old days’ when despair was all I knew.
But life isn’t like that.
Life is complicated, messy, and never goes the way you expect. I ended up having a child at a relatively young age, and that’s when things started to change. Not that it shook me out of my depression—the brain doesn’t work like that—but it forced me into action. Here was a responsibility I couldn’t hide from, a daily job that couldn’t be ignored by hiding under the covers. So as my depression worsened and mutated, I helped raise my son.
And there were periods where I was productive. I could mow the lawn (sometimes); I put a new floor in our attic with a hammer and a saw. I did the dishes and swept the floor. But I was often miserable throughout it. Through force of will or fear of disappointment I was able to get things done, but it was rarely because I wanted to in the first place.
Around seven years ago, though, I started to see a change in my behavior. The depression almost seemed like it was coming in cycles, periods of catatonic despair that led into mounting frustration and bitter anger, culminating in a violent outburst that segued into catatonia all over again. This would happen about once a month.
I didn’t recognize it at first, of course, and it was my wife who eventually pointed it out. So I went to a doctor and said I felt very depressed a lot of the time, and I was referred to a psychiatrist who, for the first time, diagnosed me with something other than just depression: I was bipolar.
Most people think of bipolar, I think, as suffering from wild mood swings. Unlike the Cure album, though, it isn’t about rapid shifts from up to down and back again. Bipolar type I typically has extended periods of excessively elevated mood—a feeling of being in control, of being able to accomplish anything—that alternate with extended periods of depression. What I have is a little different: bipolar type II. This is defined by having extended periods of severe depression, alternating with periods of ‘hypomania’—a much milder manic phase than bipolar type I. When I’m manic, I don’t spend without thought; I don’t actively seek promiscuous sex; I don’t engage in life-threatening behavior. I might write excessively; I might get extremely angry; I might clean the house. But I never feel that elevated, on-top-of-the-world feeling; I never feel like I can do anything I want.
And so to cope, I was prescribed medication—anything from lamotrigine to lithium. The initial results were positive; the most noticeable change was in my temperament. I no longer got violently, uncontrollably angry; my moods were more stable.
The lithium, in the end, turned out to be a mistake; it dulled me completely, shifting me into a pseudo-depression where nothing mattered, and I ended up not caring about anything or anyone around me. I went off it pretty quickly, and soon found a balance of three different medications—an antipsychotic, an antidepressant and an anticonvulsant, oddly enough—that has helped keep me, if not afloat, then at least level.
The biggest difficult I now face is in staying on the medications. I sometimes allow myself to run out, and then the depression sets in, and I can’t bring myself to get to the pharmacy to renew. The worst instance of this was in November of 2015, when I went off the medications for almost two months, stopped going to my psychiatrist, and nearly killed myself. In the end I couldn’t go through with it, though suicidal thoughts were with me every day, and eventually with the help of my wife and son I found a new psychiatrist, started medicating again, and—with the odd slip here or there—have been stable ever since.
I still suffer; I find it difficult to do many of the things that people normally do day-to-day. I sleep too much, I don’t socialize, and I frequently feel worthless and hopeless. But the moods don’t last as long, and don’t sink as deep; and I’ve been more productive in the past few months than almost any other time in my life (I completed my novel in only a few months).
And that brings us to today. It’s an ongoing journey, fraught with difficulties and trials, but I feel cautiously optimistic about where I’m headed, and at the very least don’t feel like leaving this world every day. I’m sure things will all come crashing down again—probably many times over—but I’ve weathered enough to know that it never lasts, it isn’t forever.
And now you know all about me. There will be more to come, I’m certain—the journey’s only half-over.
Watch this space.