Guest: How bipolar disorder II made me a better person

BOOYABAZOOKA [CC BY-SA 3.0] / CREATIVE COMMONS
Receiving an accurate diagnosis can stabilize everyday life

I received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder II this past June, shortly after I turned 20. It was the first ray of light that broke two dark, choking years of my life.

I was put on Prozac last October after being diagnosed with major depressive disorder — a common misdiagnosis for people with bipolar disorder, because who in their right mind would pay a psychiatrist $400 when they’re high on life?

The first week on anti-depressants was like seeing colors bleeding into a grayscale image. Even tears became tokens of hope. But Prozac precipitated my first hypomanic episode. I realized that I had spent a whole day last November staring at Gram-Schmidt orthogonalization while irrelevant thoughts and strong feelings avalanched with absurd intensity. The tragic magnitude of that moment surpassed any external event in my life. My mind became an alien place and certain goals seemed unreachable.

About 2.6 percent of the U.S. population, or 5.7 million adults, are affected by bipolar disorder every year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The behavioral markers of bipolar disorder include rapid mood swings from extreme lows to manic highs, racing thoughts and excessive energy during manic phases, difficulty concentrating and controlling impulses and suicidal thoughts during depressive phases. What distinguishes bipolar I from bipolar II is that people with bipolar I have at least one manic episode characterized by hallucinations and delusions, whereas people with bipolar II do not experience psychotic symptoms during hypomania. Bipolar disorder remains one of the most stigmatized and debilitating mental disorder of our time. Exactly two anonymous essays written by undergraduates with bipolar disorder showed up the last time I googled the keywords “bipolar disorder + Harvard Stanford MIT undergrad.” This is why I’m writing this article under “B. Ye” and not my full name — I’m worried that my future employer will decide to not hire me based on this article and that insurance companies will not accept my application due to liability issues.

Receiving the diagnosis of bipolar II this June was a godsend. The right medications (in my case, lithium and lamictal) restored order to my universe. I’ve been able to perform cognitively demanding tasks and remain emotionally stable ever since. Do I slip into days of low productivity? Yes, but not more often than your average Joe. The caveat is that medications relieve symptoms and help people make better decisions, but they don’t shift baseline cognitive functions or dramatically change personality traits.

Living with psychiatric disorder is easy if you’re disciplined and determined to do well. Every decision you make is a dot on a graph: Do you want an upward trajectory or a downward spiral? If an irregular sleep pattern has triggered manic episodes in the past, for example, then choosing to study in the library over going to a bar on a Friday night is a no-brainer. And if you struggle with a psychiatric disorder or experience difficulty optimizing your workflow, beware of the top ten mistakes of behavior change from Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab.

Life doesn’t happen to us — it happens for us. Resource constraint can be a good thing if it makes you more resourceful. Having wasted a big chunk of life due to unfortunate circumstances and poor judgments is a good thing if it fuels you with a sense of urgency and leaves you a better decision-making framework. It’s cliché but true: Life is a self-fulfilling prophesy.

 

Written by: B. Ye

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