So You've Just Been Diagnosed, Now What?
Congratulations. Now you know. All those confusing years of odd behavior, differing personalities, recklessness, impulsive shopping, long-lasting depressions immediately followed by rainbows and attainable dreams … all that makes a little more sense now. But I’m also sorry. I don’t know what you may be feeling but I know how I felt when I was told.
That evening after therapy when my psychologist voiced her suspicion, I walked four blocks to get to my apartment in Washington, DC. I don’t remember much of that stroll. I just remember it was raining and I cried the entire time. I didn’t want to be bipolar. This illness scared me – because it’s aggressive, confusing, deteriorating over time, and worst of all PERMANENT.
The proceeding months were quite analytical for me. I’m already a very analytical thinker but this was on a whole other level. I read every book and article I could get my hands on. I listened to every interview, coping strategy, memoir I could find. I wanted to prove my psychologist wrong because I was healthy. I was just a little troubled, and a little unstable, and perhaps a little extreme, and a lot obsessive compulsive, and maybe quite a bit more emotional than the average person. Okay, so I knew deep down bipolar was definitely in my genes.
But I wanted to be sure.
So I got more opinions. More confirmations. More analytical. And as I evaluated my behavior during the past 15 years, I started to think differently about who I am and what I have done. Those situations I couldn’t explain because they were “out of character” suddenly became clear. Depressions that appeared out of the blue even after everything else was going great could be explained. I found a bit of the why in my feelings. Something I had searched for my entire adult life. And after coming to terms with the illness, I felt like I could breathe again. The confusion and inability to explain why we do what we do is often suffocating.
But I was also very sad because I had to grieve the person I was in order to give birth to the person I had to become.
I had to shed my skin to be renewed and grow out of a caterpillar into a butterfly. Okay, too many metaphors. But you get my point. Rebirth and change is always hard.
After my diagnosis, I didn’t have a handbook to tell me what I should do. I have always been a bit rebellious so I winged it and figured it out myself. But I don’t recommend that. So I want to share with you some tips to process your diagnosis that I learned first hand. They are not bullet proof, but heck, I’m still around, right?
Get a second opinion and a third, too
Total, I got five professional opinions. Each one confirmed what I already knew. So I suggest you seek maybe one or two more professionals and ask to be evaluated. I recommend you don’t tell them about the illness to see if they independently reach the same conclusion. I also think it’s important to see them during various moods. When a little hypomanic, we tend to downplay that something is wrong. And when in a depression we forget we have our ups. So misdiagnosis is common.
So you have already been evaluated multiple times but you still have doubts? I don’t know you will ever fully embrace the label but that is why psychology is hard – nothing is ever certain. But if deep down you know bipolar fits, then stop fighting it. And know that it is time grieve. Like I said before, I had to shed who I was to make room for the woman I was to become. And this woman is bipolar. But if it makes you feel any better, remember that grief has its stages and all things pass. So as a reminder, this is more or less what you may experience:
Denial: “I can’t be bipolar, the doctors are wrong about me.”
Anger: “I’m not crazy! And why was I never told before if it’s so obvious?”
Bargaining: “Maybe bipolar is why I have been so out of sorts all of these years.”
Depression: “What’s the point if it’s not curable? Is this my life now?”
Acceptance: “There is hope because if other people manage, I can too. I’m strong.”
Educate yourself as if your life depended on it
This disorder is quite complex and manifests itself differently from person to person. There are several types and then there is the type bipolar that can’t be categorized. Moods change unpredictably and unprecedentedly. Their intensity, frequency, and length also vary. In other words, bipolar disorder doesn’t follow a mathematical formula. So it’s important to know everything you can to start identifying how the illness is manifested in you based on how it occurs in others. Have these questions always present:
What are the symptoms I usually experience before an onset of an episode?
Lack of a need to sleep?
How long do my episodes last?
They change throughout the day
A couple of days
What do I do that often makes me feel a bit better?
To do lists?
Calling a friend?
Establish a treatment regiment
This is perhaps the most important step in your new life. Please don’t ever forget that this is an aggressive illness and though it doesn’t have to be crippling, it definitely needs to be managed. In an ideal world, I suggest thinking of your treatment plan in two ways: what you can do personally and what you can do professionally.
Examples of a personal treatment regiment are:
Setting a routine
Creating a nutritional plan
Adopting regular exercise habits
Learning deep breathing techniques
Examples of a professional treatment regiment are:
Having weekly or bimonthly sessions with a therapist
Having weekly or bimonthly sessions with a psychiatrist
Attending a support group
Taking medication (if you choose to, more on this on another episode)
Have the tough conversation with your loved ones
People who thrive despite their illness are usually those who have a strong support system. And I know not all of us are privileged to count on friends and/or family to walk with us on this journey. But if you are one of those lucky ones, you need to understand that your friends and family should also be involved in this process. Thus, you must have the tough conversation with them.
When I was diagnosed and later hospitalized, my friends in DC were extremely supportive. They saw me at my worst (three days without showering, runny makeup, and wearing an oversized-blue-hospital gown). Despite that they empathized and provided me with the comfort of a home away from home. My family, on the other hand, well, it took them longer to accept my illness but once they did, I haven’t stopped counting on them.
Set boundaries and make a plan to avoid triggers
Part of what makes living with this (beautiful) mind so challenging is having control over our emotions and our reactions to situations. Impulsive behavior is to bipolar as yellow cabs are to New York or Belgium is to waffles. They go hand-in-hand. Without a proper system set in place to control your impulses, you may end up getting into loads of debt or buying a horse like Kay Redfield Jamison said she did in her memoir, An Unquiet Mind.
Setting boundaries is a crucial aspect of our wellness. We first need to identify our triggers and set a plan in place to avoid them. For example, one of my triggers to depression is hermitting (yes, that’s a word according to the Urban Dictionary), or not leaving my apartment for days. Since I am already an introvert being conscious of this trigger is already hard for me. So I have dogs. And I have to walk them, everyday.
Below are a few examples of common triggers and how to avoid them.
I don’t have much to say here. Just be kind to you. What is in the past is done and there is no point in reminiscing on all the idiotic behaviors you have had. Learn and move forward.
You are a new you.
Tune in to OWN IT’s next episode, One Day at a Time: How to Manage a Depression like a Pro.
Follow me on Instagram @jackie_loweree for updates, links to the blog, inspirational quotes, pretty pictures, and more.
The Ins and Outs of OWN IT: How to Show Bipolar Who's the Boss
A blog for people with mental illness written by an unstable, unpredictable, and uninhibited woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder
Covers all topics including relationships, coping mechanisms, entertainment, and everyday resources
Updated and shared twice a month, news and updates available on Instagram @jackie_loweree , and if you don't have an Instagram, no problem, just check my site - all posts will be here
Disclaimer: OWN IT is a first-hand account of bipolar disorder designed to orient those diagnosed with mental illness. It by no means intends to offer medical advice. If you are diagnosed with an illness, or think you may suffer from one, please seek professional help. Otherwise, take my words lightly and have fun reading!