There is a method to my brain chemistry: the mental descents that detrimentally impact the way in which I interface and engage with the world. I did not always understand this. At first, I was convinced I had a neurodegenerative illness or a tumor, a purely physical phenomenon that was stripping me of my personality, muting my emotions, and rendering speech tremendously difficult. It took neurological tests, dozens of such descents punctuated by periods of normalcy, and continued exposure to mental health professionals before I gained even a semblance of an idea as to what was going on.
I start by feeling normally: showing up to work and performing what is asked of me; engaging excitedly with friends by sharing stories & actively listening; and sleeping a normal amount of hours having volunteered & socialized after work. Next, there is a period in which it becomes harder to make eye contact, focus, and engage in conversation. Although this is not too intense, it is frustrating; it feels like the sky darkening and the wind gusting before an impending storm. Thereafter, there comes a point at which I feel unable to perform basic activities of daily living, to communicate verbally beyond monosyllabic replies, to feel emotions apart from intense anger and a bit of sadness. It is during this storm that I become convinced that I do not actually have a mental illness, that I am making it all up as a way by which to manipulate those around me.
It is in part that logic that led me on several occasions to stop taking my medicine. I have learned that for others, it is the opposite: feeling better once on medicine leads them to stop taking them. For me, healing and recovery has required both medicine and multiple types of therapy. I hope that others experience less turmoil and missed progress as they figure out the combination that works best for them. Some folks may need just one class of treatments, others manyーit is all okay, and it will be okay.
For me, what spurns an emergence from a poor mood state generally requires forcing myself to engage either personally or professionally no matter how difficult, over an extended period of time, or scheduling an appointment during which I put into words and try to rationalize my ruminations ー which can be either conscious or preconscious. Sometimes it takes a week before I can remember to do one of those and gain the willpower to act upon that memory. Perhaps these strategies can work for others, too.
Recently, with therapy and medicine, these cycles have become less crisply delineated. I remain more convinced of my mental illness during the descents; I can emerge from bed, show up, and even tell stories that I so enjoy telling, in spite of conversational replies remaining very difficult. I have also learned that what I have been calling depressions might be mixed episodes, with qualities of both mania and depression, given their frequency. This has all been confusing, and at times aggravating, but it is a clear indication that I am making progress.
All that said, I have learned a few key lessons that I would like to share. A friend of mine, who knows of my situation, told me that conversing with me when I was feeling poorly was akin to engaging with a friend who had a cold. Whereas I felt that I was making conversation agonizingly difficult for her, it was truly not a big deal. My perception is very much skewed. The clinical psychologist who I see twice a week has me think critically about the way I function in different mood states. Perhaps being a quiet listener and functioning more slowly, albeit brought about via a terribly unpleasant mood state, can be appreciated by both me and others. What is also important, as he has told me, is to recognize that being depressed (or angry and frustrated) that one is depressed, makes the depression all the worse.
Ultimately, this bipolar spectrum condition has made me more thoroughly appreciate all that makes us human: the complexity & richness of our emotional spectrum and the depth & breadth of meaning in interpersonal relationships. For those looking to support a friend or family member with a mental illness, one of the most important actions one can undertake is to truly listen and take at face value an experience being relayed to you. As my clinical psychologist has said, there is no more accurate indicator of mental health than that.