At age 27, just months after my wedding day, my life was overturned by a diagnosis of type I bipolar disorder. It was the shock of my life, but once I examined my past and learned more about the illness, it all made perfect sense.
I held out hope that I had always been completely “normal,” while suppressing a decade’s worth of suspicions that my teenage struggles were something more than just “ups and downs.” Through psychotherapy in my twenties I had been able to move beyond the depression and attempted suicide of my teens, becoming the musician and artist I always dreamed of being. After university and grad school my plan seemed on track when I won the position of principal cellist of an orchestra in a distant city. To make the job work, I embarked on a grueling weekly red-eye commute for two years that had my family, friends, and me questioning my sanity.
After my wedding in 2013 (in a state of hypomania), I decided to take care of all of my business and get clarity on my mental health once and for all. My doctor requisitioned a consultation with a psychiatrist. The 45 minute assessment took two hours, but I was sure they would confirm my “normalcy.” While waiting for the results, tragedy struck: my infant half-brother, Alexander, was diagnosed with terminal cancer and was given just months to live. Days later I attended my follow-up psychiatric consultation and received a surprising diagnosis of type I bipolar disorder. All I wanted to do was investigate my teen depression, but it turned out that more than one experience in my twenties had actually been a manic episode. To be sure, I later consulted another psychiatrist for a second opinion, who said I had basically described the illness to him. My bipolar was confirmed.
When I researched bipolar disorder it all made perfect sense: I had a family history of mental illness on both sides, childhood trauma and sexual abuse, major depression and a suicide attempt as a teenager which was treated incorrectly with SSRI antidepressants. It was a classic bipolar recipe. What sealed my diagnosis was more than one episode in my twenties that turned out to be manic: specific periods of time where I experienced extreme elevated mood, grandiosity, lack of sleep, extreme irritability, hypersexuality, racing thoughts, flights of ideas, and generally feeling amazing, followed by major depressive crashes.
Now faced with treating a major mental illness, on top of the grief of losing my little brother, I was forced to turn my hectic lifestyle around. I examined my work schedule, stress level, diet, exercise, and sleep cycles. I had been seeing a therapist for years, somehow always knowing I needed treatment, but now I had to undergo weekly psychiatrist appointments, and participate in a weekly bipolar group study. I sought out bipolar peers, attended support groups, and spent over a year finding the right cocktail of medication, all while questioning nearly three decades of personal history and thought processes.
One habit at a time I was able to reclaim the life and career I was meant to have. I discovered what was really important, and that doing less is actually more. I hope that by sharing my story, and tips that I’ve learned since my diagnosis, I can help you do the same!
All rights reserved. Copyright Erika Nielsen@Sound Mind 2016-17