When I was 22, I was diagnosed with type 2 bipolar disorder.
Looking back, I’d been experiencing bouts of depression since my teens, which were sometimes interspersed with short periods of elation and productivity. But hearing the diagnosis from my psychiatrist made me want to crawl into a tiny space and pretend that it had never happened.
Bipolar is not the same thing as mood swings. There are intense highs and lows, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. I can’t predict when I’m going to have an episode, and the medications sometimes stop working. I’m just trying to manage the symptoms, and starting to recognise when I’m heading towards an episode, but I’m not quite there yet.
My bipolar sometimes manifests as hypomania. When I’m hypomanic, I don’t need to sleep, so I won’t for days on end. I speak a lot faster. My thoughts race and turn over in my mind faster than normal. I become very productive, and I become convinced that I am going to change the world. Occasionally, I can become paranoid.
The flip side to hypomania is depression. When I am depressed, the feelings are so intense and heavy that I can’t remember what it feels like to smile, or to not be sad. Nothing makes me feel even a little bit happy. The depression completely envelopes me and I can’t see a way out.
I’m very conscious that if I tell people I have bipolar, they might think that I’m unstable and crazy. I am perpetually worried that the people who do know about my disorder will treat me differently to how they did before they knew. I am no different after I disclose my bipolar to how I was before. I’ve indirectly experienced stigma and misconceptions from other med students who don’t understand mood disorders. And I worry that if I disclose my disorder, these people might change how they treat me (or others) in the workplace, or in my personal life.
Bipolar is a chronic disease. It’s something that I’m going to have for the rest of my life. I am stable, and I have been for the last year or so now. But to stay this way, I have to actively manage it. I take a handful of meds each morning to try and modulate the chemicals in my brain. I have to get tests done regularly to make sure the meds I take aren’t causing any damage to my organs. Sometimes I have to prioritise where I spend my energy, because I get so exhausted that even getting out of bed can be overwhelming.
It’s hard to know where I end and where the bipolar begins. The bipolar feels like a part of me, but at the same time it is not what defines me. I am not bipolar. I have bipolar. It’s not a descriptive word of what I am. I am not my illness.