More than just mood swings
Virginie describes herself as the average french-canadian girl. Her feed on Instagram shows a blonde girl with a big smile and plenty of pictures in pastel colours. At first glance, she seems to be a bubbly traveller who posts nice pictures of herself, like many people do on instagram. If you look again, you might notice pictures of pills in perfect millennial pink. Virginie likes to ride her bicycle, practises self-care and has a tattoo of the world on her wrist. She also has to take 3 different kinds of medication: Lamictal, Abilify and Concerta. Virginie is not only your average french-canadian girl, she also has bipolar II. She uses her Instagram account to spread awareness, hope and courage. She talks openly about her mental illness and the medication she takes to manage it.
What exactly is bipolar?
Bipolar is a mood disorder, formerly known as manic-depressive disorder. People who are bipolar don’t just experience mood swings, but also intense episodes of depression and mania. Usually the higher the high, the lower the low. During manic episodes, people often experience feelings of euphoria and happiness, they never get tired or hungry, they have a high drive and racing thoughts. Side effects may also include spending a lot of money, making decisions they usually wouldn’t make and creative outbursts and psychotic episodes. Many artists throughout history are suspected to have had bipolar disorder like Vincent Van Gogh. Some even talk openly about it like Carrie Fisher or Stephen Fry. During the depressed phases, people experience loss of appetite, lack of motivation and contemplate suicide. Individuals, who have manic and depressed phases usually suffer from bipolar type I.
Finding the right diagnosis
The road to a proper diagnosis is usually longer for those who suffer from bipolar type II. The difference between bipolar I and II is the lack of manic phases, instead people experience so-called hypomanic episodes. Hypomanic episodes are less intense phases of mania without psychotic symptoms. Usually people are still perceived as high-functioning, which makes it easy to go unnoticed or written off as a productive phase. On average, it takes people about 10 years to get properly diagnosed and treated. With a prevalence of 2-4% it is quite a common mental illness and often has a genetic component. Because it often runs within families, it is usually discovered quicker in the younger generation and can be treated accordingly. When treated, both types of bipolar disorders are very manageable illnesses. Most problems in treatment occur when people try to go off their medication without consulting their doctors. Although those who do regularly take their medication describe their own emotions as flat and therefore often express the wish to stop taking it.
Virginie talks openly on her account about life with medication and her road to recovery. To help spread awareness about the illness, she also talked with editor Julia about her life with bipolar II in this month’s conversation. Read her interview and check out her account here.
Conversation #8 about bipolar disorder type 2
What would be the title of your autobiography
The title of my autobiography would be Fabulously Bipolar
When did you realize that you struggle with something not everyone struggles with?
When I was a child, probably around 7 or 8. I was already questioning the meaning of life and wondering if there was even a point in living. It created a deep feeling of anxiety and a lack of purpose, because when you overthink nothing stays good enough. I was feeling extremely melancholic all the time and I remember walking on the beach when on vacation, or when the sun was setting during summer at home in the garden and looking into the horizon and thinking ”Is that it? Is that really what life is all about?”. I knew other kids around me weren’t feeling the same, they seemed so carefree and joyful most of the time, when deep inside me I couldn’t really play an entire afternoon with my friends without stopping once in a while and thinking ”I don’t feel well. I don’t feel like I belong here, in this world, in this era”. That’s really deep for a child.
How does it affect your everyday life?
Right now, it’s the quietest and calmest it has ever been in my head, but it took me more than two years since my diagnosis to get there. I don’t feel as depressed as I used to and I have a bit more energy. Even though I have a bubbly personality, however it’s been a while since I’ve felt real joy or excitement. I miss this, because I feel like I am on pause or turned off. I have trouble motivating myself to do stuff, especially for jobs and working on a regular basis is a very difficult thing, and it scares me because I’m not even thirty and I don’t know how I’m going to make it until retirement.
How did your family and friends react when you told them?
Very well! My mom had been diagnosed with bipolar II two years before me, so she was extremely happy that I got to discover it so early in my life. She was diagnosed when she was 53, and it changed her entire life. It would have been different for her if she had known it earlier, a lot of choices wouldn’t have been the same and she would have been much happier. It makes my heart ache when I think about all those years that she wasted feeling confused and lost because nobody could tell her what she had. So, I was suspected of having the same. I mean, it made so much sense. My friends were also relieved that I would be able to get the proper help I terribly needed.
What impact did it have on your life?
It literally changed everything. When I was first diagnosed, I was happy. Not happy to be bipolar, but to finally learn what was going on and why I was like that. It was such a burden to be myself, I was exhausted and without the diagnosis I don’t think I would have held much longer. It forced me to change my entire life! Over the next two years, I stopped smoking cigarettes, started eating regularly and healthier (I used to also have an eating disorder), sleeping earlier, exercising, changing jobs, moving out, drastically reduced my alcohol intake… It forced me to reconsider my choices in order to ”live” instead of just ”surviving”.
What was the most valuable advice anyone has given you?
”There’s just so much one can do”. That was my first therapist, just before I got diagnosed. I was telling her how much I wanted to improve myself to be a better person, but I was feeling like it was too hard and she told me that, meaning that there is a limit to what one person is able to accomplish alone. It’s true, you can’t do everything by yourself and everybody needs some help from time to time. It made me cry because she was allowing me to not be perfect and to ask for help, which was a huge relief. Still one of my favorite things to say to people.
What did you discover to be a helpful coping strategy?
To stop the drinking. I used to be a heavy binge-drinker, I could get black out drunk 3-4 times a week. Worst thing you can do to yourself when you have a mood disorder. I still drink, but not often and it’s most of the time within reason. I feel so much better, in control, present and concentrated. It’s a game changer.
How did it feel to reach out for help? Did anything make it easier for you to do so?
It was easy for me to reach out for help from strangers, such as doctors or therapists because I know it’s their job. However, reaching out for help to friends is more complicated. I always tried to be the one who takes care of others, and I hated to be the one who needed care. It made me feel like I owe them something and that I was in need of paying them back one day through another service. But I’ve learned to ask for help. I have also learned when not to do it and to take care of myself in a healthy way when I know it’s not a good time to reach out to my friends. It feels good. I know I can most of the time count on myself, but I also know when it’s time I message or call a friend.
Could you describe in one sentence what is it like to live with bipolar disorder type II?
I feel empty and full at the same time. Empty of purpose, of excitement, of joy, of love, of motivation. But full of negative thoughts, anxiety, worries, sudden joy that disappear quickly… It’s such a weird combination.
Is there anything that still bothers you about having to live with bipolar disorder II, have you made your peace with it? What’s something you want people to know about your condition?
I made peace with the fact that I can feel so deeply. The fact that I’m easily uncomfortable. It forces me to listen to myself and to build a life that will sooth my needs. It’s hard, it takes time, it’s worrisome, but I know that I will slowly get there. I would like people to know that even though it takes time, you can build a life of measure. You don’t have to follow the same path as everyone, build your own.
What’s a positive thing about your illness? How did it have a positive impact on the person you are today?
I’m very empathic. I love taking care of others, and I know I make a positive difference in their lives. It’s what pushes me in general, to know that I’m a good human being always trying to better myself for the greater good.
If you recognise yourself or a loved one in this conversation, please don’t hesitate to seek help by a professional. Psyonline is a website that helps you find a therapist. In acute crisis you can call the Kriseninterventionszetrum or the Psychosozioale Notdienst.
header image: Hal Gatewood via unsplash.com