I’ve never liked the color white. It is bland, cold, sterile and is the backdrop for most bad memories. My father died in a windowless white room — in a white bed, covered in white sheets. My first apartment was white, and the unfinished walls were a stark reminder that this arrangement was temporary. This was not my home. And the color reminds me of absence: of what could be but is not there. So when I entered my new psychiatrist’s office — a large white room, overlooking several posh restaurants in the SoHo district of lower Manhattan — I was unsettled.
My hands shook, legs bounced and I struggled to focus. Words made little to no sense.
Of course, I’d be lying if I said the color alone caused my panic. It didn’t. My anxiety peaked hours earlier, when I wondered if this randomly selected shrink would hear me. If he could help. But the aesthetic definitely made things worse. It reminded me how sick I was. How desperately I needed help.
The good news is, white walls aside, he proved to be a fantastic doctor. He was (and is) empathetic, sympathetic, compassionate and kind. He is also extremely knowledgable, and an hour later, I left his office with new prescriptions and a new diagnosis: bipolar II.
In my heart, I already knew I had bipolar. I had been dealing with manic highs and crippling lows for years. And while I have struggled with mental illness most of my life — I was diagnosed with depression when I was 15 years old, when I went from being a straight-A student to one who could barely pull a C or D — this diagnosis was 18 years (and two suicide attempts) in the making.
According to Dr. S. Nassir Ghaemi, the director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, delayed bipolar diagnoses are relatively common. Ghaemi told Health the disorder is difficult to diagnose, as many of the symptoms overlap with those of other mental illnesses. What’s more, according to a 1994 survey by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, roughly half of people with bipolar disorder see at least three mental health professionals before getting a correct diagnosis. And this was my experience. While my teens were marked by deep bouts of depression and my 20s were marked by several hypomanic episodes — I drank excessively, worked out obsessively, partied regularly, spent freely and dropped out of college — my symptoms were ignored.
I was just a reckless millennial: stupid, careless, impulsive and irresponsible.
But as I aged, my manic episodes took on a new form. I am writer and, when I am manic, I find myself overwhelmed by words. I jot ideas down on napkins, receipts and in the “notes” section of my iPhone. I send dozens of pitches to my editors. I stay up late, contemplating, creating. During one episode, I wrote 20,000 words in just over two days. And I run, not for a few miles but for a few hours. Of course, this may not sound bad. I am productive as hell and acting out in a healthy manner, but my manic periods are also filled with danger. I eat too little and drink too much. I have trouble focusing. I struggle to keep on task, and I am anxious and irritable to a fault.
Seriously. I have lost my shit over everything from spilled coffee to burnt toast.
But the worst part? The crash — and make no mistake, I always crash — because the predominant symptom of bipolar II (at least in my case) is depression. I am discouraged, despondent, helpless, hopeless and numb. I feel suffocated by a curtain I cannot see and isolated, stuck behind a wall which does not exist, and while I may be a rockstar writer when I am manic, when I slip into a depressive episode, none of that matters. I miss deadlines. I lack motivation, and then I feel like a failure.
The guilt becomes overwhelming. I become suicidal.
However, my children take the greatest hit because they never know which mom I will be: the colorful character who runs, skips, crafts, bakes and dances wildly. Who sings loudly. Or the sullen shell of a human being who lies on the couch while they watch TV.
That said, most days I am well. Thanks to medication, meditation and therapy, most days I am good, and my diagnosis isn’t all bad. Because of my illness, I value “little things” more. I appreciate playing dress up with my daughter and snuggling with my 5-month-old son. And I value the lessons my disorder has allowed me to impart on my kids.
My daughter has learned the importance of sympathy and empathy, the weight of an apology and she is very in tune with her feelings. We discuss them on a regular basis. But my journey is ongoing. I know my illness will not go away. So I keep going and fighting: for them and for myself.
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A version of this story was published July 2019.