I have had rapid cycling cyclothymia since practically before I can remember. At two years old, I started exhibiting symptoms of what, looking back now, I am quite sure was hypomania. I used to get these episodes of (not enjoyable) welled up energy, to the point that it felt like it was going to burst out of me, and would beg my parents to “make it stop” - a rather unfair request of my two year old self, since I couldn’t explain to them what “it” was. Nor could the doctors, who half-heartedly diagnosed me with a reaction to red food dye, though where this came from I’m not sure, as it wasn’t a common ingredient in our house by any means. These episodes continued on and off throughout my childhood and teenage years, quelled a bit by my competitively training in gymnastics, which seemed to help the energy dissipate somewhat, or at least gave me an outlet for it. Still, even in gymnastics training, I’d get what my teammates lovingly referred to as “Maya’s Moments”, in which the energy would overwhelm me - often in the form of frustration and agitation, and I’d actually have to leave practice for a while to “let it pass”, for lack of a better phrase.
As I entered my adult years the feelings morphed slightly, to include not only this frustrated energy, but also periods of anxiousness, jitteriness, and lack of focus, interspersed with feelings of low self-worth, low self-esteem, and just overall feelings of worthlessness. I went to numerous therapists, few of whom I felt a real rapport with, none of who could give me an answer as to what I was experiencing. As the years passed, the symptoms became more frequent. In the spring of 2009, my GP put me on a mild dose of antidepressants. They helped at first, but the episodes soon began to intensify. It escalated to the point that, just before my 30th birthday, I was hospitalized for two days, following what I thought were severe, continual anxiety attacks. The hospital upped the antidepressant dosage, but still did not diagnose me. With the increase in medication, I felt worse.
It turns out, it was later determined, that the “anxiety attacks” that hospitalized me were hypomania, and that, because I’m rapid cycling, the antidepressants had made it more intense. In essence, because of the rate at which I cycle, by the time the meds that were supposed to bring my mood “up” hit my system, I was already up, and the effect was compounded. Ironically, it was this medication effect that would finally lead to my being diagnosed (by the one therapist I'd seen who I'd actually felt some trust with).
By the time I was diagnosed, it was almost a relief. For years, I’d been trying to tell doctors, therapists, anyone really, that I knew something was going on with my mental health. I just hadn’t known what. I finally had a name for what I was experiencing, and when I listened to my therapist describe my condition, it seemed obvious that was, in fact, had been living with for years. And now that I had an answer, I could start on a proper course of treatment, and learn how to live the best life possible with my illness.
In the years since my diagnosis, I have become an avid mental health advocate and blogger. Two years ago, I founded the Spread Hope Project, to help reach others who may be struggling with mental health, and to help other mental health and chronic illness advocates promote their efforts and organizations. I hope to one day make my advocacy, and promoting other advocates, a full time career. It’s a lofty goal, but I’m hopeful. I still have rough days, even with therapy and medication and the support of family and friends and fellow advocates. I have a lifelong condition, and I know that, as is the reality with a mood disorder, life will continue to hold (sometimes rapid) ups and downs. There are still times I want to beg someone to “make it stop”, or that I have what would be the adult-life equivalent of “Maya’s moments” (ok, they are basically still the same, I’m just not wearing a leotard while experiencing them). But my advocacy work has given me a purpose. I’ve gone from feeling like there’s something “wrong” with me that nobody understands, to using my condition to help others. By sharing my story, and helping other advocates share theirs, I hope to help others who struggle to feel less alone. I want them to know that there are people who understand, who “get it”, and they have people to reach out to if they need. Most of all, I want to offer them hope.
Read more from Maya on her blog, Lilies and Elephants.