By Barb Solish
When I was in my teens, I started experiencing symptoms of depression. Unfortunately, my family didn’t know much about mental illness or what symptoms to look for. So, every time I couldn’t get out of bed – sometimes for days or longer – they’d say, “looks like Barb has mono again!”
Only after a major episode in my freshman year of college did I seek and get the help I needed. I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, began therapy and started a medication to help my symptoms. For so many reasons, this was a relief. Not only was I starting to feel better, but I had a name to put to what was happening to me.
Over the next few years, I got used to my condition and became more and more open about it. The world was changing when it came to talking about mental health — and talking about having depression, going to therapy and taking medication wasn’t a big deal to me.
When I was 22, things changed. One day, I woke up with more energy than I’d ever had. I went to work, but couldn’t sit still, and I left at lunch. I felt an uncontrollable need to keep moving, and the first thing I did was go shopping. I grabbed clothes I’d never normally wear — or afford — and impulsively bought them. Then, I had the thought that I really needed to plant a garden in my front lawn, so immediately went and bought a carload of flowers and soil and ran back home to plant.
I spent hours doing this, without regard to anything else — work, food, my roommate. I was simply no longer in control of my body. The next couple of days, I continued this trend. I didn’t sleep much, I talked nonstop, I cleaned our apartment obsessively. Finally, I crashed hard, falling into a deep depression that prompted me to call my psychiatrist at the time.
After I explained what had happened, she told me it sounded like a hypomanic episode, potentially a sign of bipolar disorder type II, and she recommended I try a new medication. For some reason, this diagnosis was a heck of a lot scarier than my depression diagnosis. This one made me feel like I was “crazy.” Movies and other media often show people with bipolar disorder as unpredictable, even dangerous. I, on the other hand, felt I “had things together.” I had a great job, was in a loving relationship, got along great with my friends. And I certainly didn’t feel dangerous.
Over time, I learned more about bipolar, what it was and wasn’t, how I could live well with it. And I trusted my doctor and therapist, who both helped me learn to cope with new symptoms. I still “had it together.” However, whenever I shared that I had a mental health condition with another person, I was truthful about depression, but I conveniently did not mention the bipolar II. And things went well, for a while.
Unfortunately, my symptoms came back, and I had another hypomanic episode. My doctor and I discussed how there might be other kinds of medications that could help me. I was open to it. But when I looked up my new medication, I learned it was classified as an “antipsychotic.” What? I thought. Was I now a villain in a scary movie? While I did not actually experience psychosis, the medication happens to work for other symptoms I was experiencing as well. So, I decided to take it — and it really, really helped.
But like so many other people, I was spooked by the label. I repeatedly tried to stop taking the medication (with my doctor’s knowledge but against his advice) and each time the depression piece of my bipolar II came back with a vengeance. Finally, I acknowledged that the medication was the right thing for me.
Stigma is powerful, so powerful that it made me fall into multiple, avoidable depressions. So powerful that I was ashamed to tell my partner or family what medications I took. I believe that words matter, and I think many people, at least in my community, are ready to hear the words “anti-depressant” or “anti-anxiety.” But “antipsychotic” smacked a label on me that, unfortunately, is not universally accepted yet.
It was only with knowledge that I became more comfortable with both my condition and my treatment. I occasionally started mentioning that I had bipolar II with some of my friends when I was struggling, some of whom were curious about the condition, but all of whom were supportive. But it took me a lot longer before I could start sharing that I took an antipsychotic medication to treat it, and to this day I wonder if it frightens people when I tell them.
I know that the more I share, the more I demonstrate that it’s ok to have a serious mental health condition, the better the process will be for the next person diagnosed with this common, treatable condition. While I no longer take the antipsychotic for other medical reasons, I have learned through the process not to let a label define me. If you’re experiencing something like this, I hope you won’t let it define you, either.
Barb Solish is the Director of NAMI’s Youth and Young Adult Initiatives. She is passionate about mental health awareness, education and advocacy, especially after the loss of a friend to suicide. Her lived experience as a young person with a mental health condition also motivates her to focus on improving outcomes for young people with mental health concerns.
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