I remember my response the first time my psychiatrist suggested I could have an underlying bipolar disorder. That it had been the fountain of chaos that erupted in the form of postnatal psychosis the first time it came to call.
Denial. I believed he was telling me as a duty of care, because that was the case for some people. But not me.
I remember my response and where I was when he confirmed my diagnosis of bipolar 1 disorder several years later.
He was standing at the door to my hospital room that looked like a stack of post it notes had thrown up all over the walls. They were covered in technicolour squares that I had scribbled random ideas on and reminders of where I had put my fountain pen or my toothbrush.
I had no short-term memory. My thoughts raced delusionally down corridors in my brain that had been emptied of the rational. At night, I wrote and wrote thousands of mostly nonsensical words. Sleep wouldn’t come, even with high doses of medications. I didn’t want sleep to come anyway. It ate into my thinking and writing time.
But back to that moment when I looked up at my psychiatrist in my neon rainbow dump of a room and asked: ‘Postnatal psychosis or bipolar?’
He didn’t torture me with hesitation. Just delivered the sentence: ‘Definitely bipolar!’
Those words spread through my insides like a cold, nasty liquid. For nearly four years I had teetered on the edge of believing that my mood disorder would be confined to the perinatal period like so many other women. That there would be an end to it.
‘Definitely bipolar’ felt like a life sentence. Devastated doesn’t begin to describe my sick feeling. Then that sickeningness was replaced by questions I cringe at now:
‘How can I subject my children to a mother with this illness? How can I ever achieve anything again?
I was very achievement oriented back then, and self-stigma told me vicious lies.
It will be 16 years in August since bipolar disorder flew fiery through my life the first time. I am glad I didn’t know what was ahead of me then because fear would have told me I wasn’t strong enough to get to the other side of hell so often.
If I could go back now, I would tell myself that although my life would be different, it would still be my life. I would tell myself that my entire relationship with fear would change because of this illness. For the better.
That I repeatedly reach points of wellness where I stretch out my hands and grab fear by the shoulders. I stare deep into its eyes and compare it to what I feel during psychosis. And I find most everyday fears evaporate in the memories of what I’ve survived.
I wish I had known that my children would benefit from having a mother with insight, not only into her illness, but life. A life I’d describe as good.
I am not naïve enough to believe I’ve had these empowering experiences through force of will, intelligence, doing the work, taking the medication, fairy dust…
I will say this repeatedly in different mediums and articles, because it is important to acknowledge, again and again and again: I live with immense privilege. I am a straight, white, cis-gendered tertiary educated woman with no concurrent disabilities, who can afford private health insurance.
It is helpful that I have worked to gain insight into my symptom pattern. Exercising and taking medication that works for me, is also crucial. I am not shackled by addictions to substances that could derail my stability. But every one of those things would be much harder to enact and maintain, without my privilege.
My privilege does not mean I haven’t suffered. It doesn’t invalidate my experience, but it must be acknowledged for context every time I tell my story, otherwise that story is shallow, loses meaning, and does a great disservice to the many people who live with this illness, but without privilege to boost them to the head of the line when it comes to accessing the best care, and being the most supported they possibly can be, during the challenge that is living with this chronic, intermittent, potentially fatal illness.
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