As the flames rose, the rational voice in my head told me that it was getting late and I should go inside. The louder voice in my head kept whispering, “But I don’t want to go inside. It’s still early, and I just want to sit here and read my book by the fire.”
All the windows around my yard had gone dark, and yet I still felt exposed. But I didn’t care. All I knew was that I didn’t want to go inside, and there was nowhere else to go because my safe escapes were all closed due to the pandemic.
I ran out of firewood a couple of hours into my Saturday night plans of sitting in my yard, having a whiskey drink, and reading my book. Instead of just enjoying my book in the soft breeze of the night, a voice in my head kept yelling that it didn’t feel right without a fire going. I needed the fire. But I’d been drinking, so I couldn’t drive to get more firewood.
Then I remembered the pallets against the side of the house. The massive, imposing pallets that were twice the size of my fire pit.
As if I was just grabbing a small piece of wood to throw into the fire, I walked over and grabbed one of the pallets and calmly walked it over to my firepit, putting it on top, with its sides hanging off the edge of the pit.
I threw a little starter brick into the middle of it.
A couple of small flames began to take form under the pallet in my fire pit. In my head, it made perfect sense. I went back to my drink and my book.
About an hour later, as the flames got going, the wind started picking up. It was a soft breeze at first.
It was only 1 AM, it was a Saturday, and I wasn’t listening to any music or anything, just sitting quietly in my yard.
My rational voice started to speak up, but there was no way I could go back to the house. Not yet. I couldn’t do it.
The flames got higher as the wind picked up. A light went on in one of the apartments around my yard. My neighbor walked out of his house. Asked me what I was doing. I looked up and noticed that the smoke had started making its way to their third-story window.
Without saying a word, I stood up, grabbed the hose, and watered down the flames that had engulfed the pallet. My fire pit was deformed. The pallet was more than half gone. I went inside my apartment and waited an hour, holding my breath the entire time. Then I went outside, grabbed the remnants of the pallet, put them against the side of my house, moving my fire pit back to its place, and making sure my yard was empty. I didn’t leave my house for two days after that.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that was my most severe hypomanic episode, followed by a depressive one.
The following Monday, I talked my therapist through what happened, and that was the session where I finally suggested that it might be time for me to do a psych evaluation.
It took me four months after that to schedule my psychological evaluation. It was supposed to take 90 minutes. The doctor had me diagnosed in 30 minutes flat.
In addition to Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I also have Bipolar II Disorder.
At the end of the diagnosis, she asked me if I was interested in treatment options.
“Of course,” I replied, surprised. It turns out that a lot of people who get the diagnosis aren’t ready to tackle it.
All I wanted to do was find a way to stabilize these mood swings.
I wasn’t surprised at the diagnosis. I was surprised at how emotional and relieved and overwhelmed I felt once there was a name to everything, but that also meant that I would need to go back through memorable points in my life and evaluate what my diagnosis meant.
Bipolar II vs. Bipolar I
When people hear “Bipolar Disorder,” they usually think of Bipolar I. Think Claire Danes from Homeland or Ian Gallagher from Shameless. Part of the reason why Bipolar never occurred to me is for that same reason. Sure, I’ve suffered from insomnia and depression and made some reckless decisions, but I’ve never had extreme manic episodes.
A few years ago, I had a psychiatrist as a client and wrote copy for his webpage around depression and bipolar disorder, but I didn’t dive too much into Bipolar 2 during that project.
After I got off the phone following my diagnosis, in tears, I looked up Bipolar 2. I found a chart outlining the symptoms of depression and hypomania associated with it, took a screenshot, and sent it to one of my best friends.
“This is literally me.”
Here are the symptoms of hypomania that I can map to precise moments in my life:
Having higher-than-normal energy levels, being restless or unable to sit still, having a decreased need for sleep, having increased self-esteem or confidence, or grandiosity, being extremely talkative, having a racing mind, or having lots of new ideas and plans, being easily distracted, taking on multiple projects with no way of finishing them, having decreased inhibitions, having increased sexual desire, engaging in risky behavior, such as having impulsive sex, gambling with life savings, or going on big spending sprees.
OH, OK. I THOUGHT I WAS JUST A CREATIVE, RECKLESS FAILURE OF A PERSON FOR MOST OF MY LIFE.
Hypomania differs from full manic episodes because they don’t include hallucinations, paranoia, or delusional thoughts.
The depression is pretty much the same.
What’s next for me
I’ve checked off the most difficult steps: Getting diagnosed, beginning treatment, and talking to my brother and dad about it.
But the diagnosis is just the beginning.
I can’t just write off responsibility for 20 years of decisions.
Yes, the average age-of-onset of Bipolar Disorder is about 25, but that doesn’t mean every reckless decision I made in my 20s (and OK, early 30s) was because of my disorder. Without a doubt, it probably increased the severity of everything during my hypomanic episodes, but what does that look like?
And more importantly, can I begin to forgive myself without holding on to the “What ifs” of my past?
Would I have finished getting my degree? Would I have drunk less? Would I have been more successful in my career? Would my finances be in better shape if I didn’t ruin my credit in my 20s?
WOULD I HAVE SLEPT MORE, MAYBE?
I don’t know. Possibly.
All I know is that I’m not scared of my brain as much as I used to be.
I have a road map.
There are signs to recognize.
And there is so much more to understand about my disorder, my own brain, and what this means for my future as a creative professional.
As I do with everything in my life, I will be sharing this journey as it makes sense for me. I’m not sure what that will look like just yet, but if you follow me on Twitter or Instagram, I imagine I’ll be sharing more frequently on there and when it makes sense, share longer posts on here.
I also have to reflect and come to terms with what this means for my professional past and future, so if you’re at all interested, that post will be over on my Substack.
One thing is for sure: I have felt so fucking lonely and lost in my mind for 30 years, and if I can help one person feel a little less alone in their journey by sharing mine, it will be worth it.
As with everything in my life, there will probably be memes and jokes, and I am always open to talk about it. But it is a heavy lift for my emotional state, so if you ever reach out to me and I don’t respond right away, give me space and time to get back to you.
I will leave you with this one distinction: When it comes to the language around bipolar disorder, there is no consensus around whether or not you should say someone is bipolar or has bipolar disorder.
My personal preference is that I have or suffer from bipolar disorder.
*Title song lyric from “Take It Easy” on me by Beth Hart