By Julie Whitehead
In August of 2018, I was recovering from my depressive episode earlier in the year when I got a request to review a book on my blog. The author had written about her experience with bipolar disorder and published her account, titled “Birth of a New Brain: Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder.”
As I read the book description, I thought my heart was going to stop. My hands were shaking and my breathing was rapid as I scanned the summary.
In the book, the author discusses how she experienced the effects of a rare syndrome that some studies have linked to bipolar disorder called hypergraphia — the obsessive urge to write — after the birth of her second child. As I read her description of her symptoms, I saw myself, and my intense need to write after my third child was born in 2005.
After learning of the symptom, I began to reevaluate my own behavior and my relationship with writing.
Writing had been in my life long before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in early 2006. But the drive to write my first novel had certainly come out of nowhere for me the year before my diagnosis. And the way I had been writing for my freelance career — turning in a story every single day for almost six years straight — sounded somewhat like this syndrome as well.
I chewed on this insight for several days before calling my psychiatrist and setting up an appointment for the following week. Then I went to my husband, Bob, holding my breath.
In the past, Bob had expressed that he felt I had an unhealthy relationship with writing — that it was an obsession and dangerous for me and my mental health. My writing became a point of contention, and in our final fight about the topic in 2012, he said to me, in exasperation, “I don’t care what you do anymore.”
Since that fight, in the fall of 2015, I had enrolled in a brand-new Master of Fine Arts (MFA) writing program at the Mississippi University for Women. While Bob and I had discussed my potential enrollment beforehand (we both saw it as a way for me to possibly get a full-time teaching position at a university when I finished), I still avoided talking to him about my writing. I did not share anything about my classes or my continued attempts at publication, except when they were successful.
I told Bob about hypergraphia and conceded that he might have been correct about my writing being a symptom of my mental health condition. I assured him I would be going to my doctor to get his thoughts on the discovery. I admitted that I could see when my writing could have qualified as hypergraphia, right after my youngest child’s birth. But I wasn’t prepared to say my entire writing career and passion had been hypergraphia as well. I asked Bob to hold off judgement, but to write a letter to my doctor detailing the symptoms he observed in me and what he felt.
I went to my doctor, anxious about a potential diagnosis and armed with the letter that Bob had written him. The doctor kept the letter for his records and, after reading it, he agreed that perhaps some of my urge to write was a product of my bipolar disorder. He also recommended a medication that might aid me in differentiating the obsessive from the normal — a drug that would affect abnormal temporal lobe activity.
I also brought my concerns to my counselor, Tillie. She was stunned at what I told her about hypergraphia and wondered how I even found out about such a condition.
I told her the whole story and gave her a copy of Bob’s letter, and she suggested that Bob and I needed a joint session to work out what this discovery would mean for us.
When we went to our joint counseling session in Tillie’s office, Bob seemed calm, much calmer than he had seemed at home.
Tillie asked, “How often do you think Julie’s writing is a problem to her?”
He said, “Maybe 20% of the time. It doesn’t happen often.”
As he spoke, I wondered if, maybe, I could stop avoiding such an important topic from him. Maybe I could stop walking on eggshells and be open about my writing.
Bob explained that he was not currently concerned about anything I was doing — news I was happy to hear. Tillie told us that this situation was just something we were going to have to address on a case-by-case basis. To communicate in a healthy way, I was going to have to hear Bob’s concerns when he had them, and I would not be able to shy away from conversations about it.
Bob, she said, was going to have to understand that my writing wasn’t always a function of bipolar disorder; rather, it was my passion and career and often a healthy outlet. The key to making this work, we learned, was finding ways to avoid overthinking and exacerbating the issue; I would not overanalyze his concerns and he would not get overly vigilant in trying to detect “problems.”
Ever since that talk, our worries about my writing have ebbed away slowly. My marriage had felt constraining, but now we feel free. It was a long road to repair our communication and trust, but we are still together and in love.
Julie Whitehead lives and writes in Mississippi. A reporter for Mississippi Center or Investigative Reporting, Julie covers topics on mental health, mental health advocacy and mental health education. She also blogs at www.julielwhitehead.wordpress.com, Day by Day since 2014.
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