Once you’re diagnosed with a mental illness there’s a paradigm shift. Everything you thought you knew about yourself is turned on its head. You cease to be a multi-dimensional being; instead you are flattened into a cardboard shape with a label and an assortment of medications. You long for the days before you had this label, when you were just Stephanie, medication-free and free of insidious side effects.
I received my diagnosis of bipolar II three years ago when I was 43. I don’t remember completely how my psychiatrist came to her conclusion as to what ailed me. I do, however, recall that she gave me a battery of tests that I dutifully filled out. Moments later was the “voila moment” and I learned of my diagnosis, one that didn’t particularly bother me at the time. Bipolar II sounded fairly exotic and I knew there were some celebrities with the same condition. I was prescribed pills, told to meditate and to read the book Feeling Good (not at the same time).
Weeks went by and I tried some of my psychiatrist’s suggestions. I bought the book but decided that it looked juvenile and promptly put it under a pile of clothes. I earnestly tried to meditate but could not let go and just be. The pills were the easiest. I had no problem swallowing but they didn’t help. I wasn’t feeling better, in fact, a good deal worse.
I returned to my psychiatrist and told her which of her suggestions I had taken and which I hadn’t. She looked at me a bit pitifully and told me how good the book was and how meditation would be transformative. I listened and nodded affirmatively but inside knew that I wouldn’t be meditating or reading the book with the silly title any time soon. She gave me a new prescription for a mood stabilizer. I didn’t like the way that sounded. Hey, she thinka I’m really sick! What I thought was mere depression had suddenly morphed into something quite serious.
During my next visit I was really down, barely recognizable to myself. The mood stabilizer was not working. My psychiatrist cheerfully announced that it was time to add Lithium to my cocktail. Thoughts of mental institutions raced through my mind. Ghosts devoid of names floated before me, welcoming me to the club. There was surely no way of going back.
I feel slightly better I told my psychiatrist at my next appointment. I believed that I had enough medication to last for months if not years. I’m wrong. I needed to be fine-tuned and this involved taking an anti-psychotic. Suddenly, mood stabilizers seemed friendly. I asked, in a panic, if I am psychotic. My doctor laughed and said, “No, no, this medication is also used for depression!” Phew! I’m so happy not to be psychotic, just sad, that my mood instantly elevates (but not too much because I still have that mood disorder, after all.)
Armed with my venerable array of medications I begin to face life. Not much time went by before I started to experience slight tremors that caught the attention of people with whom I work. I explained the tremors away. “I’m cold.” “I’m hot.” “I’m nervous.” No one seemed to believe me yet I persisted in telling my version of the truth. Heck, I didn’t even know which of my five psychiatric medications was causing the tremor. I don’t care either because I’m starting to feel better and don’t want to change a thing.
Labels and medication have made me into someone else. Or perhaps they have scraped away the detritus that was obscuring my essence. I’m not thrilled with the medication regimen or with all the blood tests but I comply. Somewhere along the journey I realized that I am still Stephanie, albeit a calmer and more sanguine version of myself.