I always knew I had bipolar, but I was afraid of “clinical” terms and had a hard time clearly describing my mood episodes to my psychiatrists and doctors. After years of misdiagnoses and the wrong medications, I finally learned how to help my doctor help me.
Searching for Answers, Finding Only Misdiagnoses
After experiencing many cycles of mood symptoms
throughout my high school years, I found myself desperately seeking an
explanation for my highs and lows. In the aftermath of another severe
depression, I found myself in a hospital, facing the fourth psychiatrist in a
string of misdiagnoses and false promises. I was just about ready to give up my
battle to find a doctor who would take my symptoms seriously. I needed someone
who could treat me from the inside out, to heal me, and help me find my way
back to myself again. I needed new medications.… I needed a lot of things.
I Knew I Had Bipolar Disorder
I always knew I was bipolar. I knew that my moods fluctuated in a way that didn’t seem “normal” and that I experienced things that didn’t always make sense. But even though my real diagnosis seemed so obvious to me, I couldn’t get these psychiatrists to fully consider my mood symptoms. Dr. H was the doctor assigned to me when I was admitted to the hospital for my mood episode, and when I met first met him, I had high hopes.
I hoped that he would be the one to take everything into consideration and prescribe me some mood-stabilizing medication that would stop my unraveling. But Dr. H wasn’t so sure that my self-diagnosis was accurate: Maybe I had spent too much time on the internet reading about other people’s mood swings? But through each mood episode, I became certain that I was really dealing with bipolar disorder.
Hospitalized for My Mood Episode
On the first day of my hospitalization, I followed
Dr. H into a consultation room and spilled my guts about the bare bones of my
mood swings. He shuffled some papers, leaned forward a little bit, and asked me
if I had ever been “manic” or “psychotic” before. These terms were clinical and
scary to me, especially as a high school sophomore.
I didn’t know if I should deny those questions
or ask him to explain himself further and describe what he meant by “manic” and
“psychotic.” I wanted to be diagnosed properly, but the idea of mania still
scared me. I wasn’t sure if there was a difference between mania and just
feeling high or elated.
In the end, he brushed off most of my concerns
and prescribed something for my anxiety. I went back to swallowing
antidepressant medications that may have been only worsening my condition. I
just couldn’t put my suffering into words this doctor could translate into the
“right” diagnosis. When it came down to it, I simply didn’t “speak bipolar.”
Even with all my research, I didn’t know what bipolar and all its symptoms meant to me. In part, this is because although there are some broad similarities in our symptoms, everyone with bipolar illness experiences their own symptoms differently, in their own way.
Living with Bipolar vs. Being Able
to Communicate about It
I had lived a bipolar existence for as
long as I could remember. I had trouble getting through the day at school and
stayed home when I could. But this wasn’t enough for Dr. H to write a
prescription for a mood-stabilizing medication. Because I couldn’t talk to my
doctor and help him to understand what I was experiencing, it was harder for
him to give me the most accurate diagnosis.
I didn’t receive the correct diagnosis until
around the time I was posing for my senior picture at the very end of high
school. By then, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Learning the Lingo to Obtain a
Correct Diagnosis of Bipolar
Then I had a thought: What if I changed the way I talked to the professionals treating my mood disorder? Could I find a way to make them understand what I was going through? I read a lot of books and visited many websites about bipolar disorder, and I became more certain that I was dealing with this illness.
In time, I knew the lingo as well as anyone
could. And I learned that when I can’t sleep or eat or focus on anything, I
need to reach out to my psychiatrist. Bipolar had altered my life, but I
learned different and better ways to communicate with my doctors so they could help
me attack an episode from its onset. The more I learned about my illness and
recognized the symptoms simmering within me, the better I could help my
psychiatrist help me.
Helping My Treatment Team to Better Help
Me Manage Bipolar Mood Episodes
the Same Language
Since my diagnosis, so many years ago, I have
continued to get better at talking to my doctor so he can listen. My doctor is
surely irreplaceable, but he can’t help me unless we are speaking the same
The best thing I can do to help myself is to always be fully aware of my experiences and how the treatments make things better or worse. I need to communicate whether a new medication quiets my symptoms but also whether it has caused side effects. I need to monitor those the best I can to help my doctor take care of me. This requires, of course, being aware of how side effects like tremors and weight gain are affecting my life, and balancing side effects against the effectiveness of the medication itself.
Is a Person & a Partner in My Bipolar Management
I have also realized that my doctor is a
person, above all else. Even if he wants to minimize the damage bipolar (and its
medications) inflict upon my life, I have to work right along with him. I need
to keep devouring information on bipolar disorder and how other people manage
it most effectively.
My psychiatrist is a partner in my care, not simply the one throwing pills at me, hoping that something will stick. Bipolar symptoms and medications can be complex and even overwhelming at times. But I owe it to myself to educate myself on how I can best cope in a multitude of situations.
How You Can “Speak Bipolar” & Help Your Doctors Understand Your Symptoms
#1 Keep a
Almost every doctor I’ve ever worked with has suggested this. It helps to be aware of patterns in your mood, sleep, and life events so you can make sense of your bipolar mood symptoms when you talk to your doctor. There are often patterns between life events or lifestyle changes and a change in symptoms. Once you recognize those patterns, you can sometimes stop a manic or depressive episode—by recognizing the pattern in your mood chart and taking appropriate action. Just by putting some thought into how you are feeling will make it easier for you to explain this to your doctor. Plus, you can walk into your appointments with everything you have experienced on paper.
the Vocabulary of Mood Swings
Read everything you can about bipolar
disorder so that when you are describing manic or depressive symptoms, you and
your doctor will be speaking the same language. You don’t want your doctor to
have to interpret or translate your experiences from casual language to
clinical language. Because a lot can get lost in translation. This helps your
team to make better sense about what you are going through.
How Medications Affect You
If you are taking medications, it is
important to know about the potential for side effects so you can reach out to
your doctor if something doesn’t feel right. It also helps to know how you
should expect to feel when the medications start kicking in, and how long that
Your Own Bipolar Story
One doctor had me make a life chart where I
diagramed every major mood episode and the things that were happening in my
life at the time. This is a bigger/more comprehensive version of the mood
chart. It’s even better if you know which medications you were taking (if any)
and if you were hospitalized for a mood episode. By offering such a wealth
of evidence of your lived experience, you not only validate your own sense of
personal history and experience but also have a clear document that allows your
treatment team to pinpoint important details, identify trends, and more rapidly
recognize symptoms. All of this makes it more likely that you will be properly
diagnosed sooner rather than later.
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