Sometimes I wonder if my life would be different if I didn’t live with bipolar disorder (and everything else it comes with). As I mentioned in an earlier post, and as I am sure many of you know/can appreciate, your life changes after such a diagnosis. I have learned to live with it, I am used to taking 4 different medications, at 3 different times each day (plus the occasional benzodiazepine as needed) and going to regular psychiatrist appointments.
How would my life be any different? What have I missed out on? Did I miss out on anything significant? Is my life any less fulfilling? The answers:
- It turned out the way it was supposed to, and I can’t have regrets;
- I haven’t missed out on anything that would have changed my life;
- No I did not miss out on anything significant;
- My life is fulfilling, and having/living with a mental illness gives me a unique perspective on life.
I think what perhaps has hindered me from attending events or doing this or that was anxiety. During a hypomanic phase, I am confident and can handle a lot more. During a depressed phase, I may or may not be anxious, but I am so low I feel like doing nothing. Anxiety is really the culprit. Anxiety has been around the longest too. I think things changed more for me when I realized that anxiety had entered my life and would come and go, and at times, you never know what can set it off.
After I started having panic attacks and was diagnosed with various anxiety disorders in 2003, I noticed I limited myself with respect to what I thought I could and couldn’t do or handle. Certain activities, events or even the thought of them were terrifying to me. Keep in mind my anxiety really started the day before my first final university exam. I was at a time in my life where I was supposed to be going out and having fun and enjoying life.
Luckily my close friends are not party animals and when we did go out clubbing or to parties, I was able to handle it, and they were pretty good at knowing when I had had enough and if/when I had to leave because I was anxious; there were no arguments.
At that time, I was in a relationship with someone who was very nice, sweet, creative but had a very serious drinking problem. I didn’t pay attention to or chose to ignore the fact that he did not know his limit and was headed on a toxic path and he was dragging me down with him. He constantly embarrassed me, was rude to my best friend, and I somehow turned into his babysitter. As a result of being on medication for anxiety, I gained a significant amount of weight and was just relieved that someone wanted to be with me and still found me attractive. I could not make the connection that he was causing my anxiety to become worse. I also really liked his friends and they were “safe” people generally, so I never worried about being in “scary” situations when I was with them (especially if we were somewhere where alcohol was not going to be involved). It got to the point where I had to wise up in the middle of my second year of university and get rid of this negative presence in my life. I didn’t mind staying friends, but I could not be his babysitter or be responsible for getting him home anymore. It was so embarrassing to be dating the guy who slept in a ditch while walking home drunk one night, or passed out drunk on someone’s kitchen’s floor, or was thrown out of taxis for being too drunk.
One thing about me that most of my friends know is that I can’t stand being embarrassed. That sets me off!
So it seems my anxiety did not prevent me from dating, drinking, going to parties. It did make me afraid to travel and I did not go on any “spring break” trips or vacations with friends. As I grew more experienced with dealing with my anxiety, I eventually made it to NYC, Vegas, Dominican Republic, and even London to visit my sister twice! I haven’t been farther than that, but there are some people who have never travelled at all. I still have no desire to take flights longer than 7-8 hours and am afraid to be that far away from “home”. It’s because of the fear of the unfamiliar, and because I am claustrophobic, I am restless and don’t want to become agitated on an airplane. I’m also afraid of having a prolonged episode of anxiety and not having adequate resources to deal with it. I am my own best resource for my anxiety, I just doubt myself!
I know the triggers for my anxiety now, but sometimes when you haven’t had a panic attack in months, you forget what the initial somatic signs are and wonder why your chest is tight, or why you have palpitations and are nauseous. Then when the panic sets in…“Oh yeah… I must be having an anxiety attack”. Because some of my triggers are actually nausea, tight chest and being overheated, it’s hard to tell if the anxiety causes these symptoms or if I was just not feeling well and then became anxious. Either way, anxiety is one of the most unpleasant, scary feelings you can have and during a panic attack, it’s terrifying. It may only last for a few minutes, or 20 minutes, but it seems like hours to the person experiencing it.
Do I ever wish that this (mental illness) didn’t happen to me? I don’t know. It’s been with me my entire life, whether I realized it or not, right? The important thing, for anyone living with a mental illness, is not to let it define you. I don’t introduce myself to someone and describe myself as bipolar or an anxiety sufferer. What I do wish is that it was easier to be open about things like taking medication and attending doctor’s appointments and having the moods and symptoms I have, in public, at work, and not fearing being judged and worrying about stigma. I started reading Here’s The Deal: Don’t Touch Me by Howie Mandel because I wanted to get back into reading and for personal interest (I have my own germaphobia issues). I came across this passage:
Seeking help for mental health issues doesn’t come naturally for many people because of the stigma. It’s easy to tell someone at the office, “I’m going to take an hour off to go to the dentist”; no one will thing twice about that. But if you happen to tell your co-workers, “I’m going to see my psychiatrist for an hour,” they might think you were a crazy person. We’ll take care of of our dental health, but not our mental health. At this point in our lives, it may be too late to change that thinking. The connotation of therapist or psychiatrist is ingrained. The answer may lie in just changing titles. Maybe it would be easier telling your co-workers, “I’ve got to take a couple hours off for a little Howie Mandel.”
Maybe I will try that next time I have to leave work an hour early to go to my psychiatrist! I usually just say I have a doctor’s appointment if anyone asks, and no one probes further. I’d like to see the reaction I’d get.