Lifting the Lid Off the Black Box

As with my previous post, this was originally shared as a Facebook note.  I had hoped on this blog to tell this story in a much more chronological fashion, but chronology is working against me these days.  So here is the summary of recent events, and the more descriptive posts about these events will follow in due time.

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Four months ago, I shared a post titled “What if no one is listening?”  At the time it felt like a huge scary step to share my long history of depression with everyone, and I was leaving out a major point.  One that it seems timely to bring up with the recent premiere of the new series Black Box.

For those who haven’t seen or heard of the show, it is one in a long line of stories about someone extremely talented in his or her field who has a secret struggle.  In the case of this show, the struggle is bipolar disorder.   Like the main character, I have bipolar disorder.  Unlike the character, my life happens in the real world and does not actually involve the cool special effects hallucinations or the really hot mania-induced sex.  Do these things happen to some real people with real bipolar disorder?  Absolutely.  But the reality more often includes a lot less TV-worthy excitement and a lot more pain and suffering.

The best written explanation I have found so far is the book Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder.  I’ve been through several fairly useless books so far, and this was the first where I was reading through all the descriptions of symptoms and thought processes and yelling, “YES!  It’s exactly like that!”  The book does have sidebars aimed at friends and family, but the main parts of the book would be even more informative for anyone deeply interested in knowing more.

For those less deeply interested, here’s a brief synopsis: bipolar disorder (of which there are several varieties) is an illness caused by chemical imbalances in the brain.  There is some genetic component, but it appears to develop as a combination of genetics and stressful life events.  It pretty much always requires lifelong medication, and even with medication there can still be occasional episodes of mania and/or depression that break through.  A combination of medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes is the best way to reduce the number of episodes.  Bipolar disorder can appear anywhere from childhood to the elderly years, but most often starts somewhere in the teens or twenties.  It’s common for it to go undiagnosed (or misdiagnosed) for many years, and this time spent without proper treatment can increase the severity of the illness.

The well-known symptoms are periods of depression alternating with periods of mania (or hypomania, a less severe elevated mood).  Depression includes both a decrease in energy and an increase in negative thinking.  Mania includes an increase in energy and also an increase in positive thinking.  There are so many more things that go on though.  Trouble focusing, having intrusive unwanted thoughts, paranoia, anxiety, irritability…all these and more can happen even when not in the midst of a major episode.  Obviously these past two paragraphs are an oversimplification, but hopefully enough to satisfy those who are not going to pick up other reading materials on the subject.

So what about me personally?  I have type 1, generally viewed as being the “worst”.  The technical definition is that people with type 1 have had at least one episode of full mania (as opposed to hypomania) lasting either at least a week or any duration if it’s severe enough to require hospitalization.  There are also typically episodes of depression lasting at least 1-2 weeks at a time.  I was manic for a full month in January/February of this year, and when it ended I felt so terrible that I may as well have been depressed even though I technically wasn’t.  I ended up at the emergency room due to a friend calling the cops, in counseling due to the emergency room visit, back to the emergency room when I told my counselor I had a suicide plan, and into inpatient care for a few days in mid-March.  Despite clearly having this illness for the vast majority of my life (at least back to late middle school/early high school and possibly farther back in childhood), I was not diagnosed until that inpatient stay.

To bring this back around and tie it in with Black Box again: yes, there were some moments that felt very familiar.  Staying up all night writing frantically after missing a single pill.  Feeling so agitated at waiting for the elevator that she gave up and took the stairs.  Worrying about the possibility of passing this illness along.  Desperately begging someone to give her one reason to live.  Wondering if it’s better to live a longer life when medicated into a normal (aka. boring) state, or die young after a brilliant madness.

I hope that it is possible to be medicated and still be interesting.  To be medicated and still be creative.  I want to believe that there’s something special in me that will still be there even if the illness is tamed.  So I’m in counseling and at this point still having medications adjusted.  Some days go pretty well.  Some days are epic failures.  I’m hoping that the ratio between good days and bad ones will improve over time.  I am sharing this because I don’t feel there is any shame in having an illness, and I may be able to help someone else by answering questions or showing someone that he or she is not alone in feeling this way.  So please, if there is anything you wish to know more about, feel free to ask.  I will do my best to explain, at least from what my own experience has been.