After my diagnosis, I began to define myself by my bipolar. News of being “in remission” brought up fear, doubt, deep questions about identity, and confusion over what it means when my symptoms disappear … and then reappear.
“You Are Not Your Illness.”
Any doctor, clinician, therapist, and social worker worth their salt will at some point make this statement to you as a mental health patient. You are a person, not “a bipolar” or “a schizophrenic” or even “a borderline personality.” Person-first language has become a major tenet of modern medical treatment.
But, if you’re like me, it doesn’t always feel true to you. You accidentally miss one of your meds, and immediately you’re sucked into a vortex of moods, symptoms, or other manifestations of your illness. Like me, you might start to wonder. Am I a personality? Or is what I think of as “me” simply a balance of finely tuned chemicals? And what happens to “me” when those chemicals get out of whack?
I felt this way for years. I thought there was no other way for me to live except in constant awareness of my illness, which happens to be bipolar. As I learned more about bipolar, the more I started to consider many aspects of my personality—such as my drive to succeed, my ability to multitask effectively, my sometimes-outgoing/sometime-introvertedness—as symptoms of my illness. I thought about everything that made me “me” in terms of how it related to my illness.
Turning to My Faith
But then I decided that if God wanted me to be bipolar, so be it. I started writing about my bipolar life. I started a blog, eventually, the writings turned into a full manuscript. I signed up for NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, in Mississippi so I could be a part of their speaker’s bureau, NAMI In Our Own Voice. I went to meetings and events. I was trained as a speaker. I did an interview about my illness for a radio show, then a magazine article, talking about my bipolar life.
All of it was geared toward the goal of giving people hope that if they were struggling with bipolar disorder, God can give them a semblance of a normal life. I felt like I was doing all the right things—working, being a mom, being a wife, and doing it the best I could, given the limitations I tended to live under.
When Stability with Bipolar Causes Fear, Doubt, and Uncertainty
Then, during a psychiatrist’s appointment in 2015, my provider said my symptoms were “in remission with medication.”
And my immediate reaction was fear.
Not, “You mean I’m cured?” but “What does that mean?”
He said that I seemed to be doing so well for so long that he didn’t see any need for me to change medication or limit my activities at school, which I was about to start in three weeks. He said, “Those aren’t words we hear often around here.”
I spent much of the next week in shock. Did he mean I wasn’t bipolar anymore? What about my anxiety about going to the grocery store by myself? What about my constant sleepiness, which I was fighting every day by drinking two cans of Coke morning and afternoon?
I had gone from a person dealing well with a disabling condition to someone who didn’t feel equipped to face life’s ordinary challenges.
What Is “Remission”? Is It the Same as Being “Cured”?
I always advocate for self-education with bipolar, so I looked into this concept of “remission” further. Remission is often considered the cessation of symptoms from a remitting and relapsing disease. The word is often used in the context of a cancer diagnosis, where patients are found to be cancer-free after treatment, or with syndromes like rheumatoid arthritis (RA), which can wax and wane in severity. I see now that it has its place in the “lexicon” of bipolar disorder as well, with our symptoms disappearing and us returning to “normal” functioning, that is, living without impairment or being affected by symptoms and mood episodes.
Remission in bipolar disorder is much like remission in RA—the disappearance of symptoms does not mean I am “cured.” It carries the assumption that I can have them return at any time, particularly if I step out of treatment. So, I continued my medication regimen with three-month checkups with my psychiatrist, and I continued with counseling as well. I figured that if the combination worked to get me to remission, there was no reason to stop it.
Out of Remission & in Hospital
In my case, remission didn’t last long—in October, my husband’s office changed insurance companies, and the new one did not cover one of my medications, which had been a long-standing factor in my treatment. I was taken off of it in order to try cheaper alternatives, only to find within six months that my depression returned and I became symptomatic again. I was hospitalized for depression for the first time in four years. I came out of the hospital with a prescription for my old medication, but those six months off of it had rendered the medication less effective than it had been in the past.
Full remission has been hard to regain. I was hospitalized for depression again in 2018 and for mania in 2020. I have had short periods without symptoms, but they haven’t lasted long. But I can’t give up hope on finding the correct combination of medication, counseling, and coping skills to find it again.
I know now that remission is possible with bipolar disorder, and I fully intend to be there again, as much as it lies within my power.
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