The Stranger Within: One Year Later
Twelve months and four seasons have come and gone since my life was forever altered by the pronouncement of the words "I'm diagnosing you with bipolar II disorder." Here's the end to the beginning of that story, and the beginning of a life which is very different from the one I was living only one short year ago.
It's always been a source of wonder and amusement to me that during my frequent searches for an item I've misplaced, I always seem to find something else that brings back a memory or two. And, like many of the elderly Moms and Pops at the assisted living community where I work, I often get so lost in the new distraction that I completely forget what I was doing before.
It happened again earlier this evening as I was going through some of my old blog entries here on AN and ran across a piece I barely even remember writing, called "The Stranger Within: Living With Mental Illness". At the time, I'd just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was so confused I didn't know whether to pick my watch or wind my nose. Psych had never been one of my favorite subjects in nursing school, and not only did I not have even a grade-schooler's level of understanding, I was thunderstruck by the diagnosis. It wasn't like I hadn't suspected it---I'd always been mercurial and prone to fits of rage, as well as times of soaring rapture and high energy.
But there's a yawning gap between merely suspecting a thing and hearing it confirmed by a medical professional with several impressive degrees on his office wall next to the framed print of Pluto (the dog, not the demoted planet). I'll explain that bit of cognitive dissonance later.
Then followed weeks and months of medication trials and changes; side effects triggered weight gain, spun my blood sugar out of control, and made me crazier than I already was. I struggled at work. I developed suicidal ideation and thought the new bottle of Ativan I'd just refilled might be the way out, only I didn't know how many pills it would take NOT to wake up in the ER with a tube up my nose. Only a few weeks later I was dancing on the moon and being so disruptive at work that I was sent home under strict orders not to return until I got the mania under control. By that time, I was logging more hours on my psychiatrist's sofa than my own.
In other words, I was a hot mess.
I'm not sure exactly when the meds got straightened out and life began to settle into something resembling a rhythm, but January of this year was the most stable month I'd had since the onset of the nightmare. Actually, it might have been the most stable month ever. Of course, nothing lasts, and recently my 'stranger within'---or Big Ugly as I call it---raised its dual heads and began to growl again; it seems to enjoy pulling sneak attacks when I can least afford them. But the boundless get-up-and-go and the surge of goal-oriented activity have pulled me out of a serious jam at work, and this time I seem to be floating down gracefully, rather than crashing into the pits as I have after some of my other manic phases.
There's a sunny side to everything; bipolar is nothing if not an optimist at times. In my case, it's the sheer amount of learning that's taken place over the last year. For one thing, my diagnosis has solved a great number of mysteries: it explains why I've always felt like the odd man out, even when surrounded by friends and family. Why I experience moments of great truth and beauty, and then bouts of rage and black depression. Why I'm so creative at some times and brain-dead at others. Why I've had to learn absolutely EVERYTHING the hard way.
There is also a certain peace in realizing that my difficulties in life haven't been all my fault, even though I know it's up to me to choose how I'll react to a given situation. This is not to say I'm happy about carrying this albatross around my neck for the rest of my days, let alone that the headhunters at the next company I work for may very well snoop around in my health history and find Big Ugly right there in stark black and white. But it's for this reason that I find myself now, a year after the diagnosis, as something of a poster child for my kind of crazy: SOMEONE has got to help put an end to the stigma of mental illness. And who better than a person who lives with it by day, and takes it to bed with her by night?
However, the real bright light in all of this distress is the amazing people who have come into my life as a result. First among them is my beloved "head doc", who never once has allowed me to leave his office without feeling better than I did when I walked in. Though much younger than I, he is a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, and thus far wiser than most people twice his age. He is also funny (how can you not like a doctor who collects funky items featuring a dopey-looking cartoon hound?), smart, caring....and he is the only person alive who's allowed to call me on my BS without getting an earful.
And there are countless members here at allnurses who have shared their own stories with all of us, and from whom I'm learning the everyday coping skills I need to get through the rest of my life with Big Ugly. It seems as though every day there is some new discussion of mental health issues in the outer world, but while those conversations are often biased and sometimes downright scary, the growing dialogue here at allnurses reflects the intelligence and compassion of its membership.
That gives me hope for the future....not only my own but that of millions of mentally ill Americans, too many of whom aren't fortunate enough to have a team of family, friends, and professionals who won't let them slip beneath the waves and drown. I may not know when my next mood swing will strike, but I do know that with proper help, the stranger within---a shadowy entity who exists within ALL of us---will never again take control of my mind or my life. And if I never learn another thing from living with mental illness, that alone is enough.Last edit by Joe V on Feb 22, '13
About VivaLasViejas, ASN, RN Guide
VivaLasViejas has '19' year(s) of experience and specializes in 'LTC, assisted living, geriatrics, psych'. From 'The Great Northwest'; 58 Years Old; Joined Sep '02; Posts: 26,305; Likes: 41,653.Feb 22, '13Your honesty, as always, is refreshing.
Thank you for being a beacon. Thank you for setting the bar for all of us and then daring us to reach for it. Thank you for educating, listening, guiding, and thriving.
You are a powerful woman. You refuse to diminish, pander, or provide excuse in the face of a society that is still learning, still in its youth in the way of psychological understanding.
Through your words of struggle and triumph, you routinely remind us not of what makes us all different, but what makes us all the same.
And we are all the richer for having you among us.
~~CP~~Feb 22, '13This article made me want to stand up and cheer. Thanks for showing us all that mental illness is not a character flaw. You are one strong lady and I'm so proud to "know" you.
I hope all your landings are gentle.Feb 23, '13Thanks, all. Weird, what happens when your Muse decides to drop a deuce on your noggin at 2300......it's like this story almost wrote itself.
Gonna take a chance and go see Silver Linings Playbook tomorrow with my hubby and sister. I've seen several trailers for the movie, and I already know there'll be some cringe-worthy moments for me (the lead character's conniption about Ernest Hemingway at four o'clock in the morning is eerily reminiscent of some of my own less-than-stellar moments). But I think it'll be worth it.Last edit by VivaLasViejas on Feb 23, '13Feb 23, '13((((((((((((((Viva)))))))))))))))) you most certainly have come a long way! and I am proud of you the way you face life and learn more about yourself every day. A real power of example! I appreciate so much that you are willing to share with others who may have the same struggles!
xoFeb 23, '13Dear Viva,
Thank you so much for your article. I have struggled for years with horrible mood swings, depression, and anxiety. This week, I finally recieved a diagnosis of ADHD with Depression from my Internal Medicine Doc of all people, the sad part is that I cannot get in to see a new highly regarded psych until June! So...I started on meds for adhd and depression, these first couple of days have been tough, "zoning", and sleeping as if dead. But I am hanging in there, I am going to get to the bottom on this and find out how to help myself and I pray that I too can help remove some of the stigma of mental illness. Thanks again for your wonderful story and inspiration for me.Feb 23, '13Eloquent as always Viva. What you said about understanding in what way the difficulties you face are not your fault is right on target.
Sometimes bad stuff just happens. And sometimes when bad stuff happens we handle it badly. Everyone. Not just people with mental health issues.
I think one of the biggest stigmas people with mental health issues face is that other people think that all the bad stuff actually is the fault of the individual who is struggling. It's almost impossible to handle an illness when people are so determined to blame someone who is already drowning.
I hope that many good things happen in your life. You deserve it.Feb 23, '13Well, "Silver Linings Playbook" was everything, and more, than I thought it would be. What it was NOT, was triggering....yes, there were a few cringe-worthy moments when the bipolar lead character is ranting about irrelevant stuff at 4 AM (my hubby kept glancing at me sideways, as if to say "Now you know what I live with!", but otherwise it was enjoyable all the way through. No wonder it's up for the Oscars; it's not just a story about mental illness, but so much more: it's about love and obsession, football and family.....even DANCING!! What else could a girl ask for?Feb 24, '13Quote from VivaLasViejasI think I saw that there is a book, I assume upon which the movie is based (is it ever the other way around? I am not sure) Anyway I assume the author's intent would be a little more clear and realistic. Lots o assuming here ... lolWell, "Silver Linings Playbook" was everything, and more, than I thought it would be. What it was NOT, was triggering....yes, there were a few cringe-worthy moments when the bipolar lead character is ranting about irrelevant stuff at 4 AM (my hubby kept glancing at me sideways, as if to say "Now you know what I live with!", but otherwise it was enjoyable all the way through. No wonder it's up for the Oscars; it's not just a story about mental illness, but so much more: it's about love and obsession, football and family.....even DANCING!! What else could a girl ask for?
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