Understanding Bipolar II Disorder

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by RI Editors

This essay in the Peculiar Minds series is by Tresa Edmunds, AKA Reese Dixon.

fly highWriting this post has been tough, not because it’s hard for me to confess having a mental illness – I’m kind of notoriously open book about everything in my life – but because I am currently in the middle of my depressed pole. I have Bipolar II disorder, and most of the time it’s my superpower, but right now it’s my kryptonite. Right now even attending to the needs of my child or getting into the shower every few days is almost more than I can manage, and when I am depressed, the first thing to go is my creative mojo.

Normally I have an abundance of creativity, so during these times I try to let go of the shame of depression by thinking of it as time to pay the piper. My days are stuffed with parenting my disabled child, writing for three blogs, filming for a youtube channel, writing a novel, designing crafts, creating recipes, and participating in loads of charity work. I am constantly getting asked, sometimes with hostility, how I do so much. Before my diagnosis I would get mildly insulted and talk about time management, but now I know better. I get so much done because the combination of genetics and chemistry in my brain compel me to.

I’ve always been the moody child in my family, taking things more personally than the others, being wounded more deeply, having a sense of fairness and justice that I couldn’t let go of, but once I hit my teenage years it started to affect me differently. I was morbidly depressed. And because I was in a dysfunctional and abusive family, I thought it was a normal response, and maybe it was. But then there were other times, times when I’d stay up all night making felt finger puppets to pass out to friends at camp, or unwind all the bobbins in my embroidery floss kit just to wind them all back up but neater. My behavior made sense to me, and nobody else was paying any attention.

It was only in the last couple of years that I began to seek treatment, and only a year ago that I got the proper diagnosis. I’ve done a lot of therapy in my life to deal with my family, and those tools served me well in coping with my mental illness over the years. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helped me to understand the importance of rewriting the scripts that play over and over again in one’s head, so I created my own ad hoc version of treatment, using the tools of therapy and lots of coping mechanisms to get through the roughest patches. I thought I suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and the occasional bout of depression. In my mind Bipolar Disorder was Carrie on Homeland, Drew Barrymore in Mad Love, people who acted crazy and frenzied and out of touch with reality, which was never the case with me. I never even suspected this would be an issue. When I finally did seek treatment it was for my OCD, which had progressed to the point where fears and unwanted thoughts were impinging on how I related to my son. My first therapist put me on Zoloft for the OCD, and that’s when everything changed.

As soon as I took that pill, I plummeted into the darkest place I’ve ever been. Every thought in my head felt like it belonged to someone else, someone who hated me. I couldn’t sleep; I couldn’t sit still; I could barely stay in my skin. I feared for my safety and I feared for my sanity.

A few weeks later I scheduled another appointment with the psychologist, but my original doctor left the practice. I was disheartened at having to start over with another doctor, but that blackness was still hovering around the edges of my life, so I went. After a few questions, my current doctor began explaining my whole life to me. The reaction I had to the anti-depressant was a classic mood disorder reaction. And once she probed into the patterns of my moods it became clear to her in a hurry that I was a textbook case of Bipolar II. As she described it to me, I wept in her office. It explained every struggle I have ever had with myself.

Bipolar II is notoriously hard to diagnose because people who have it are so high functioning. Until they’re not. In many ways it is a very different animal from Bipolar I – I’ve never had a break from reality, I don’t have delusions of grandeur, I’m not acting out with risky or impulsive behavior – but it is still just as much a danger for suicide. And I can see why. I always feel like my hypomanic phases – happiness, an abundance of energy and creativity, love for the world, optimism and positivity, and more ideas then I can even manage to commit to paper – is my normal. Stacked up next to that my depressed phases seem even more bleak and dismal, even more hopeless, even more of a failure.

But the hypomanic phases themselves aren’t all pure joy. For days I’ll be coasting along on all these amazing feelings. I’m connected to the world and my fellow man. I’m on top of my game and feeling brilliant. And then I realize I’m going too fast. I get angry at everyone around me who can’t keep up. Normal speech patterns irritate me as I want everyone to get to the point already. A vibrating thrum pulses through me, compelling me to do more more more, never stopping for food or attention to my family, hearing a voice in my head telling me of something I should be doing even as I’m doing something else. Accomplishing one task isn’t enough. I have tabs open on every browser, every sense engaged, thinking on several different tracks at once, until finally I burn up.

And then I plunge back into the darkness.

The drugs that are necessary to treat a mood disorder are contraindicated for pregnancy. And since I am on a never-ending fertility quest, it’s best if I don’t take them. Which means that I have to be hyper-aware of my rhythms, give myself structure, be rigid in my sleep schedule, diet and exercise, and be gentle with myself in my peaks and my valleys. I have to know that the darkness I’m currently staggering through isn’t permanent, and have faith that I’ll see the top of the mountain again.

Tresa Edmunds picTresa Edmunds, otherwise known as Reese Dixon, is a writer, craft designer, and award winning activist. She blogs at reesedixon.com and tresaedmunds.com





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4 Responses to Understanding Bipolar II Disorder

  1. EmilyCC says:

    This post is heroic. Wishing you better days, my friend.

  2. jendoop says:

    I’ve also heard that bipolar is difficult to diagnose, actually I think many mental illnesses are. Especially frustrating is how this effects treatment – when you are at your most desperate it seems like meds and misapplied treatments push you deeper. It can be hard to continue, hard to last until the next therapy appointment, until the next upswing, until you feel the Spirit again. Now I depend on memories of past good times to get me through, that is one advantage of dealing with this as an older person, I know that better times will come.

    I have a loved one who was diagnosed with Bipolar II and was given the impression that she’d never function normally. She called me asking if I thought she could ever have a normal life. (I know the whole idea of “normal” is bunk, but you know what I mean, she wanted a family, a job, to live on her own, to have a healthy relationship with a man, etc.) I wish I had this post back then. I told her yes, I believed she could, but hearing it from someone who has lived it gives a stronger sense of hope.

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. There are many others out there, and I believe that if the stigma weren’t so great there would be a slew of comments saying how much they appreciate your story. We’re beginning to have a better attitude towards depression in our culture, but most other mental illnesses still scare people, and the media doesn’t help that perception. Thank you for showing us the unique abilities, talents and contributions a person with mental illness is able to contribute to society.

    You’ll get through this tough time and then amaze us once again. Just keep swimming 😉

  3. I’m deeply touched by such raw honesty. Thank you for opening your heart, to help us better understand what’s inside. Much respect and love.


  4. Anna Turley says:

    This was both painful and relieving at the same time for me to read. Wow. Thanks. I feel like I just got a view into the mirror. Sending love your way Dear Sister!

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