My Experience with Bipolar II Disorder (Hanners)

Trigger warning for description of a suicide attempt, and discussion of sexual assault.

All my life, I’ve been told by those around me that I am highly intelligent, and could do just about anything I set my mind to. I got good grades in school, for the most part (though they dropped a fair bit close to graduating high school), and was known as a happy-go-lucky kid that always found the positive side of just about anything (or anyone). When I started university to get my degree in Computer Science, my family was excited for me, as I was myself. Being a software developer had been a dream of mine since I was an early teen, and had been so eager, I taught myself programming languages by poring over the books I borrowed from the library. I wanted to change the world with my education software I dreamed of building a career on eventually building. This confidence in my abilities was reinforced by my family and friends. Nobody really thought to question this confidence, myself included.

When I was 16, my usual vigor for life faded, and I slipped into what I now realize was a major depressive episode. This is when my grades started to drop. I had always loved school and learning (yeah, I was a teacher’s pet back then), but this slowly disappeared. I would do a half-assed job on my homework, or I’d forget to hand it in. I secluded myself in my parent’s basement, hiding myself away from my family. At one point, I attempted suicide, by trying to strangle myself. I lost my grip on my neck even before I passed out though, and I just didn’t have the energy to try again after that. I couldn’t seek help, either: everyone had such high hopes for me that I couldn’t possibly admit to anyone that I’d just tried to kill myself. I suffered in silence until the end of high school.

The change in environment as I transitioned to university energized me at first. I was studying a topic I was passionate about, and motivated by my career dreams.  My grades were up again, and showing myself to be one of the top of the class. My prior knowledge of programming languages made my first year in university easy. I breezed through with a GPA in the high 3’s. During the 2nd semester, I even managed to get a contract through a work-study program working with a team of students to build a website for a client. My team got along so well, that I got the idea that we should continue working together, by starting our own web development business that would help support us through university. This is something I dove into with great energy.

Unfortunately that energy soon turned to anxiety. I’m not sure whether I realized I bit off more than I could chew, or if the depression just sapped my confidence, but the result was that I felt like every achievement I made was phony, or just pure luck. A sexual assault around this time just added stress, which sent me into more suicidal thoughts, and the urge to self-harm. The depression was so bad that I was constantly confused, and losing focus. I even had a few episodes of dissociation, where I felt completely disconnected from my body, and was watching myself with a bird’s eye view. I went into therapy around this time, to deal with the emotional fallout from being molested, but no attention was paid to my mood at this time.

By the time I graduated, I had mostly dealt with the assault, gone full time, and within 6 months, started a job doing tech support. I was excited, and very eager to start my career. In the meantime, I missed the learning environment, and began learning what I could about linguistics. I got this awesome idea to create an online multilingual dictionary – and thought I could do it myself. The money I’d budgeted for transition costs, went instead into books on language learning, and I would pore over these books. I picked up the basics of so many languages, but never enough to functionally converse. Yet I had in my mind I could speak all these languages. To make matters worse, everyone around me encouraged me, fuelling this inspiration which was so far from reality.

These mood swings continued for some time. Finally, in the summer of 2010, I started therapy for depression for the first time. CBT was initally very effective, and it didn’t take me too long before my energy levels returned. I remember going to a music festival, and, despite being unemployed at the time, I was on top of the world, spent over $300 during the weekend at the festival, and got inspired to learn to play the fiddle. So, even though I couldn’t afford it, I went and rented a violin as soon as possible. Thinking that if I couldn’t get a job, I’d make my own, I also began making plans to start up a new business, and enrolled in a business training program. I did great, at first. I was picking up the fiddle quite well, and was very attentive in my classes.

Within a week of classes though, anxiety took over again, and before I knew it, I was convinced I was a fake, and starting a business again was the worst idea I could have come up with. This feeling got progressively worse, and as I tried to continue, the depression reached a point where I was having suicidal thoughts again – this time seemingly for no reason at all. It wasn’t long after that I lost the will to even get out of bed anymore. I was confused… Hadn’t the CBT worked? Didn’t it help make me able to deal with this depression? I went to my doctor, and it was decided that an antidepressant was needed. I started Cymbalta shortly after that.

The antidepressant made me feel really good, even right away. That first day I took a ferry to go visit a friend of mine, and I was feeling so great and energetic! It was a miracle! But my mind was all over the place, and couldn’t slow down. I couldn’t keep still either. I got irritated at people who were in my way, and had to fight off the urge to shove them out of the way. Sitting down was no good, my legs wouldn’t sit still. The next day was even worse. Finally I had to ‘borrow’ a seroquel from a friend, just to settle myself down.  My roommate took to calling me ‘Turbo’ for the next week. Then, all of a sudden, it stopped, and I crashed into depression again.

On the Cymbalta, I was cycling pretty rapidly. I’d become hypomanic about once every two months, and it would last for about 3-4 days, before slipping into depression again. It was during one of these hypomanic episodes that I created During the depressive episodes, it was next to impossible for me to get any work done, because I was so fatigued and confused all the time. Finally, in July this year, I had an assessment from a psychiatrist, and we took a good look at my past experiences, and realized that these highs I’d had in the past (including before the antidepressant) were hypomanic episodes. I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder NOS (Not Otherwise Specified), and shortly after that it was upgraded to Bipolar II disorder. I was taken off my antidepressant, and would go on a mood stabilizer, Lamictal, in a few months.

Through September (and a good part of October), I went hypomanic again, this time feeling intensely horny. I’d just been dumped by my partner (partially due to my diagnosis, though there were other issues too), and I went looking on craigslist for women to hook up with. But this time, even though I was hypomanic, I was also experiencing symptoms of depression at the same time. I hadn’t yet fully gone off the Cymbalta, as they needed to taper it down slowly. I was in a mixed episode, and I can honestly say that was one of the worst experiences of my life. It made me completely dysfunctional. I even had a brief period where I had a psychotic delusion, believing that the men walking behind me were hired to follow me and find out where I lived. I remember being absolutely convinced this was true and unable to shake this off, even though a part of me knew rationally that this was ridiculous. The incident only lasted for an hour, thankfully. I went on seroquel for a couple weeks to finally settle it, but after the first week, I was left feeling like a zombie all the time.

Today, I’m working my way up on the Lamictal, and even though I’m not yet at the full dose, I’m already stabilizing quite nicely. I started a new job in web development, and one of the people I hooked up with previously has now become my partner. I’m as happy as can be, and for once, it’s not due to being manic. It’s a relief to be close to stable, already the depression has been relatively minor lately, and I can actually focus at my job. The Icarus Project calls Bipolar Disorder a “dangerous gift” and I’d have to agree. A lot of good things have come out of my hypomanic episodes, but not without a price. I love my hypomania, it usually feels great, but it’s not worth the depression that inevitably follows.

Note: Mixed episodes are not recognized as a symptom of bipolar II disorder under the current DSM-IV/TR, and are supposed to be enough to meet the criteria for bipolar I. This is changing in the upcoming DSM-V to allow for mixed episodes in bipolar II.

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