Story by Jodi Anderson and Photo by Lisa Anderson
I never thought I would make it to 40, much less 42. In my early adulthood, I wanted to die. I welcomed the thought. At one point, I worked out how I might do it, though I didn’t think I would or could because of the devastation it would cause my family and friends. Depression is a heavy load, and for a long time, I wanted to set it down the only way I knew how: By ending it all, or at least, having it ended.
There were many years before my diagnosis with bipolar II disorder when I thought I was a failure, that it was my fault I couldn’t keep a job or socialize or get out of bed. I saw everything through a black and white spiritual lens, then, and blamed a lack of faith in God for my myriad misadventures. Being diagnosed properly—I was misdiagnosed with mild depression, with disastrous consequences from the wrong medication—was a relief. I now had a medical problem, not a spiritual one. I was not disappointing God; I was sick. Surprisingly to me, I have a Christian counselor to thank for pointing me towards medical science.
Managing a mental illness is not a linear process. After I was on the right medication, I still had to work with my doctor to find the right dosage. That is an ongoing journey. I’m actually quite lucky in that we hit on the right combination, initially, and I am still on one of the meds 15 years later. The dosage has changed over the years; I went down and then went back up, when the troughs of my depression became the norm. The medication is not the be-all-end-all, either: If I don’t sleep well, exercise regularly, and eat healthfully, I am unbalanced and subject to periods of depression. And even doing all that does not guarantee sunny skies.
What is Bipolar II Disorder?
When most of us think of bipolar, we picture someone who goes through longer periods of euphoria—taking crazy risks, spending money—and periods of deep depression. That is bipolar I. In bipolar II, the depression is the main symptom, with short-term “highs” that may last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. I say “highs” in quotes, because I have dysphoric episodes, instead of euphoric. (I joke that I don’t even get the good side of bipolar.) In my hypomanic episodes, which last about four days, I get irritable and irrationally angry and am unable to concentrate. I can’t work. With medication, my episodes are fewer, usually one or two a year, and milder.
Most of us have ups and downs in our lives, but living with a mental illness adds a layer of struggle. Think of it as a handicap: When others are running, I’m barely walking. I have moments of brilliance, like when I graduated summa cum laude from college, while also going through a divorce. And then I’d get fired from a job, because if I’m not fully satisfied in my position, I’m depressed and can’t function well.
Daily, outsiders don’t see the difference, because I have learned to mask. I’m naturally rather good-natured, and smiling comes easily. I have used alcohol in the past to dampen my symptoms, to quiet the voices in my head. It often looked like I was just having fun on a night out. But it doesn’t have to be that serious. We are conditioned to answer, “How are you?” with “I’m good!” Some days, it’s true. Frequently, it is not. Smile anyway. The depression may not feel too heavy on the good days, but it is like an overcast sky, dimming joy and productivity. Very rarely, I’ll have a clear day, and it feels like I’m basking in the full glory of the sun. I feel…normal.
What does successful management look like?
I believe that measuring success by accomplishments is unhealthy, anyway, but it is even more insidious when living with a mental disorder. Medical science does not know how to “fix” me. I can manage only from day to day. Setting long-term goals seems like setting myself up for failure. My résumé is ridiculously spotty, but I have deep and long-lasting relationships. My house is usually dirtier than I’d like, but I am widely read and knowledgeable about current and historical events. When I can’t get off the couch to go to the gym, I can cuddle the cats that I’ve rescued. Maintaining balance becomes the goal.
Success, to me, means that I am doing everything not to go backwards. Depression makes my brain a liar. In the dark days, I relive my faults and embarrassments, and depression tells me I will always be faulty and embarrassing. When the gloom has lifted, I can more easily love myself and have hope for a brighter tomorrow. I can focus on trying to make the world a better place for others. I can look outward instead of ever inward.
Another measure of success is my friendships. I have so many people who love me and some that have seen me through the worst. In fact, I called my best friend of more than 20 years before writing this, and she wanted me to know that while my progress hasn’t been a straight line, I have come a long way. I may lose my way from time to time and fumble along in the dark, but I always find my way back–back to the sun.