and possible Tourette’s *
It struck me yesterday that I have had a whole month without medication. That might not seem like a big thing to you, but it is something I have been working towards for five whole years.
For those of you who don’t know, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2007 after years of treatment for depression. I’ve been treated for mood disorders on and off since 1991 and, like many people, managed to ride through the good times and only saw the doctor when it got really bad.
I’ve always tried to be both honest and sensitive about it. It doesn’t define who I am as a person, in the same way as having diabetes doesn’t define who anyone is. But, there’s no stigma to diabetes. Yet I have had to have several intense occupational health interviews to check I was ‘fit’ for the classroom.
It’s ironic, really.
I had three days off in fifteen years of teaching. After the first three years of teaching, I never once had a performance review that was less than perfect. When I finally handed in my resignation, with nowhere really to go, my boss said I was a flawed genius. I laughed. Of course I am flawed. I am a human being. And a genius? Not so much. He was the same boss who, when I told him I was being treated for severe and suicidal depression, told me it couldn’t possibly be true because I was the happiest person he knew.
Having seen a very close friend be hospitalised and only later realise she was in the flings of the most crazy mania, I vowed I would never be secretive about it ever again. I spent such a long and exhausting time covering up my illness that it made my life nigh on impossible.
At best, it is absent from me completely. I forget that I am anything other than just me. At worst, I barely make it through the day. My moods are glacially slow, with rapid shifts within them – I tend to follow a huge curve up or down for a year or so, more sometimes, and then within that, I have hours which deviate from the general trend. This is actually a good thing. It makes it easier to manage.
I tried for a very long time – between 2003 and 2007 – to be med-free when I really, really needed to be medicated. I tried to manage it myself, and when that failed, I tried cognitive behavioural therapy – which did little for me. I was too far lost for it to even make the slightest impact. Thoughts and moods snowball and you are taken over by a tsunami of whichever mood prevails. At first, the medicine wasn’t enough. I could manage, but it wasn’t a therapeutic dose. The doctor upped my dose and eventually, I began to feel like myself again.
That’s the worst part, I guess. Sometimes, depression takes every single thing you are and turns it upside down. For a generally happy, sociable, lively person, depression turned me into a secret zombie. I say secret because like many people with a mood disorder, I was very good at hiding it. It makes me tired and defeated and sad and apathetic.
You can see why someone wouldn’t want to feel like that.
Hypomania, however, is a beautiful thing. You float, you are filled with energy. Everything is lovely and it feels like the universe is conspiring to give you love and positivity. A notch higher and everything seems too slow, frustrating, and anger rises to the surface instantly, pushing you over the edge into aggression and ugly, awful behaviour.
Finding something to take the edge off isn’t an easy task.
Plus, like many people with a chronic, medically-controlled disease, you long to be free from medication. And even though you could be, you know you have to do it right. You can’t just stop. No. You have to tail off. A long tail. Many drugs give you something I call ‘the zaps’, which kind of feels a bit like someone has an electrode in your brain and is jolting you from time to time. Plus, come off too soon and it’s like taking a plaster cast off too soon. You’re just not fixed yet. So over an 18 month period, I have cut my dose little by little until I was on so little that it would be barely noticeable. Then I stopped. Now it’s a month later.
Strangely, I second-guess my moods in ways I never did, even when I was on the smallest dose. Am I sad? Is it just grief? Is it something else? How tired am I? How am I sleeping? How am I eating? What am I eating? How am I coping with the long nights? How am I keeping? How are my energy levels? It’s like running a constant diagnostic in the background, and then trying to analyse if what you see is ‘normal’ or not. And I wonder at my motivation for wanting to live without medication. Plenty of people live medicated lives for all of their life. Nobody said to me that it was time to drop the dose or that I’d had a period of wellness conducive with removing one or both of my medications. It was just a thing I did. So then I experience all of this doubt about whether it was the right decision or whether I should keep taking them. Sure, I feel tired and a little rundown. I wonder whether it’s just my immune system after the beating it took at Christmas. I wonder if it’s the winter. On days like Monday, where it was 8° and blue skies, the world seems like a wonderful place. Then the clouds come over and I feel lethargic and frustrated. I’ve worked a 14-hour day and I’ve had enough.
But then, when I was having a brief interlude from marking, I watched an episode of The Big Bang Theory. The one where Sheldon takes Penny to hospital and is filling out her medical form. He asks about her mental health. She snaps at him. He writes down “episodes of sub-psychotic rage” and when she calls him an ass, he writes “possible Tourette’s”.
It makes me smile because not only is it funny, it reminds me that everyone – even fictional characters on sitcoms – have moods that can be interpreted one way or another. Normal is impossible to judge even as a trained professional. It’s ten times tougher when you are in charge of managing your own moods.
So far, I think I’m doing okay. I know the warning signs well enough by now and this time, I’ll be first in the queue for treatment, not desperately holding on to some idea that “normal” = unmedicated. Still, I will be very glad when the current batch of marking is out of the way and I can relax a little. I hate doing it. Really, I need to find myself a non-stressful, rewarding and relaxed job that pays well enough to cover the bills.
If you know of one, can you let me know?
I jest of course. I am lucky to have a non-stressful, rewarding and relaxed job. Most of the time, anyway.
Ironically, whilst there are very few ‘triggers’ for moods, stress is definitely one for a lot of my bipolar friends. And work-related stress is a biggie. If I had a wish (apart from wishing for unlimited wishes, of course) it would be that everyone in the world could do whatever job they found rewarding for 35 hours a week, and that the universe would still function.
I’m a complete hippy at heart.
Anyway, I wanted to share my mini-milestone with you. I thought about not sharing it or saying anything, but then it kind of goes against my plan to talk about it if it’s relevant.
If you notice any episodes of sub-psychotic rage, be sure to let me know!