So, um, is it all in my head, then? – by Charlotte Ross
Our latest contribution comes from Charlotte Ross who blogs at charlotteeross.wordpress.com
Recently, I have had a lot of big questions swimming round my brain. They have got in the way of other thoughts and bounced off the inside of my head. Like rubber balls. And they have made it difficult to think about anything else – work or home or family or love or opening letters or phoning the bank. And all of these circling questions orbit an even bigger one, that is lurking darkly: just who the heck am I now?
About six weeks ago, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. I shouldn’t have been surprised, I’d asked for the referral myself from my GP. I had been noticing increasingly marked patterns in my mood swings and periods of depression over the last few years, wondering if perhaps they amounted to more than momentary lows and highs. I had been finding out about the illness, talking to others with it, trying to see if the diagnosis fitted me. And I was pretty sure it did. So I really shouldn’t have felt the shock that I felt when the Consultant Psychiatrist said, “yes, after reviewing your history, I think you do fit the diagnostic criteria for Bipolar II.”
I really thought I would be relieved to know that, to find out the reason why I felt the way I did. Be able to find a few answers. But you know what? I really didn’t. No, I left the clinic feeling pole-axed. And it has taken me, is still taking me time to come to terms with that. I feel quite silly about it. I feel I am making too much fuss. After all, I am the same person who walked into the clinic as walked out. Nothing has really changed except for words. Except it has.
All those bouts of depression that I suffered, I felt I’d “beaten”. I was proud of getting over every single one, but each time I fell into another, I got cross with myself for the perceived weakness that meant I had allowed myself to get ill and depressed again. I wanted to see my life as a happy life, just peppered with occasional moments of depression: I have always hated being referred to as “depressive”. For god’s sake! I’m the cheeriest person you’ll meet! I am a cock-eyed, ridiculous optimist. I am annoyingly sunny and I love life. I am silly, I laugh a LOT. I did not want to think that my life could be summed up like that: “depressive”. No. Not me.
But worse than my changed view on depression were my new views on the mania, I realised. Because I have always lived my life up and down with very little in the middle. I am not severely bipolar, and when I’m high, I am not at all antisocial. I just do everything faster and faster, sleep less and less, have more of a ‘devil may care’ attitude and ridiculous amounts of enthusiasm for practically any venture you’d care to throw at me. My fuse is shorter then too, and I am inclined to be rather impatient. I’m probably exhausting to be around at that point. But the thing is – I quite like me like that. I feel good. I can do things. I can write things. I have energy and a buzz. I make stuff and my kids think I’m fun to be around.
So the bit of this ‘coming to terms’ malarkey that I’m really struggling with is looking at this part of me, which I really like, and wondering if it is really just down to mental illness. Is it me, who knits scarves into the early hours and comes up with plots for novels, and invents cakes or is it illness? Is it creativity or mania? Is the illness an extraneous part of me, or am I the illness? And do I have to treat it? Can’t I just keep that whizzy bit? Find a way to get some sleep, but keep the crazy thrill of doing everything at super fast speeds? There’s got to be some bloody upside to it all.
But that thrill doesn’t stay. That’s the problem. The faster I go, the quicker I get to the top of the summit and then the faster I plummet to earth. Crash and burn. I’m a mum to three children, on my own, and I can’t be crashing and burning and looking after them. And I go to work. I teach. I can’t be falling apart in class, I need to find a balance of stability within myself and my life. I don’t want to lose parts of me, but perhaps in the short term, it’s a risk I have to take in order to manage the responsibilities I have. The flighty part of me doesn’t want mood stabilisers. The grown-up part knows it’s probably what I have to do. I’m frightened I’m going to find I’m not who I think I am when I start taking them. I don’t want to be cured of the bits of me I really like. I really like riding the rollercoaster you see.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best advice and the kindest words I’ve had, have been from my children. We have talked about my illness and talked about what Bipolar means. My children had questions of their own, of course, especially the boys, who in their lives have also come to terms with lifelong diagnoses of their own. They asked, “Can you get better and be cured?” (sadly,no); “Is it like Dementia, that it gets worse until you die of it?” (thankfully, no); “If you take the medicine will you feel better?” (probably). “Will you always have it?”. Well, yes I will.
But my eldest son said to me, “Mum, it’s just a diagnosis. You will get used to it.” He should know.He has got used to his. As has his younger brother. And of course, all three children were right: I’m the same mum, I’m the same me. I just have a new label, a new signpost.
“You will get the right help now, Mum, that’s all it means”, said Boy 1, “What’s for dinner?”
And as I cooked the supper and the kids bickered over the tv remote, I realised why I was upset in the clinic. I had wanted the doctor to tell me I was mistaken, that it was all in my head, that I just had mood swings and the odd bout of depression. But of course, that is exactly what the consultant told me: really, it is all in my head.