One of the most insidious effects of my bipolar diagnosis was the way it robbed me of my identity...
I was not suicidal, nor was I psychotic, or even a whole lot out of control. I initially went to my GP because I couldn't sleep. I hadn't slept more than a few hours for nearly a week, and wasn't feeling tired, and I figured that wasn't normal, I ought to be exhausted...so maybe I better get this checked out. I was also under an enormous amount of stress, and my anxiety levels were sky-high due to some extremely stressful Family Bullsh*t that was going on at the time. Did anyone ask about that? No. Instead, I was asked if I'd ever been depressed. And since I said yes (although I'd never been diagnosed or medicated for it), I was sent home with Zyprexa and Ambien, and told I should call a psychiatrist.
This led to an ever-descending spiral of self-doubt. In my reading, I learned that my writing highs--those times when I could just let go and write for hours on end--were actually "hypomania". And those times when I felt like I just loved life and really enjoyed everything I was doing--that was "hypomania", too...so the last two or three years of my life, which had been wonderful, happy years in which I felt productive, and excited about my future, suddenly took on the sinister aspect of an "illness". Which must be "managed." I learned that if I ever felt that way again--exuberant and loving life--that I should talk to my psychiatrist immediately, because I urgently required a "medication adjustment." And that if I didn't have my medications adjusted, the hypomania could steamroll on into full blown "mania" in which I would be completely out of control and need to be hospitalized (even though I had never been close to being "out of control"). I also learned that if I felt just a little bit sad, I needed to consider that a "warning sign" and to talk to my doctor because I might be getting "depressed". Which would require that another medication or three be added to my "cocktail" in order to prevent me from becoming so ill that I might kill myself (even though I'd never really considered that seriously before). Overnight, my perception of myself went from creative, confident and happy to "very sick and in need of medication for the rest of my life."
For the next two years, I would be haunted by the question, "How much of my personality is me and how much is it?" The answer, according to my psychiatrist, was that a lot of my drive, my energy, my productivity, and my creative whirlwinds could be attributed to it. So I figured whatever was left over once the medications were working, that was probably the real me. And since I lost my ability to think, laugh, create, write and enjoy life once I was medicated, I began to think that the real me wasn't worth very much, was she? She was actually a hopeless, dull-witted, exhausted lump who couldn't even speak without stumbling over her words, and didn't want to do anything but sit on the couch.
Life was pretty dismal for those two years. I no longer had the capacity to enjoy life, and the medications I was taking actually made me more sick. My moods began to cycle, and within a year I'd had three "episodes" each requiring that my medications be adjusted (read "increased") and that new medications be added. My doctor pointed this out to me as proof of just how sick I was.
I am so glad that I retained enough clarity and sense of self to say Enough. Unfortunately, it took a near-tragedy to shake me back to my senses (my husband's heart attack and my inability to respond to it in any sort of normal way). But however it happened, I did finally see the light and realize that my misplaced trust in psychiatry was only making me sicker, and that there had probably been nothing wrong with me in the first place that a little therapy or education in stress management wouldn't have taken care of.
I stopped taking medications over a very short period, probably too short, but then I didn't have much in the way of medical support--my psychiatrist's view of stopping medications was that it would be "stupid" and that I would "ruin my life". He didn't say It would be a bad idea, but if you're hell bent on doing it, here's how to do it safely, no, he just said Don't.
When I came off of meds, I was a mess. I had no idea who I really was anymore. After being told that all the things I had loved about myself were due to my illness, my self-confidence had taken a serious hit. I was terribly overweight and out of shape and dreadfully ashamed of myself for having let myself get into that condition. It took a long time for the anger to fade, for me to accept what I'd allowed to be done to me. And in some ways, I think I am still working on that acceptance, because the anger is still smouldering away in there.
After I was off most of the drugs, my sense of self, my sense of humor, and my ability to enjoy life slowly returned over a period of a few months. It took a longer time for my creativity and my confidence in myself as an artist to return--after all, I'd been told that all of my artistic achievements were actually manifestations of my "illness". For a long time I wondered if my drive to create--to write and to "make stuff"--would ever come back, or if the medications had damaged my brain in some subtle way and I'd never be able to create again--or worse, even want to.
Thank goodness I took my life back into my own hands. I dread to think where I would be now if I hadn't. I certainly wouldn't be myself.
Writing Prompt: Has there ever been a time in your life when your identity, your sense of self, was threatened by a label, an event, or a person/group? How did you deal with it and in what ways did this experience change you? If you've never experienced a threat to your sense of self, what sort of event do you think it would take to do this? Where are your vulnerabilities?