living with a mood disorder

For a long time, I thought I had “ordinary” depression. It was terrible at times, though I managed to function. My first bout of it was in fifth grade, and I would deal with it every couple years after that. I would cry easily, think dark thoughts pretty much constantly, and find little joy in activities. I was hospitalized once when the medication I was on proved ineffective, but I quickly found a medication that I responded to well and stayed on for the next ten years.

During college, after my hospitalization, I thought I had it worse than most, but looking back, I can see that thinking this was just arrogance (look at me suffer!). Many people deal with crippling depression to the point where it impedes any semblance of everyday life. I managed to still do well in classes and maintain most of my friendships (with a few notable and terrible casualties), and after graduating, showed up to work and mostly got things done.

I was put on a mood stabilizer while in law school, with the suspicion that I might have bipolar. I wasn’t given any reasons for why he thought that, but the medication evened things out and made the depression easier. From then on, I took meds that were geared at the depression in bipolar, and those have been great. I still didn’t think I had the mania side of bipolar though. I’ve never had sleepless nights or periods of intense productivity and focus. I’ve never turned psychotic or physically destructive.

Some stuff about six months ago made me reconsider the mania piece of this. Without going into (any) detail, it’s been posited that my mania manifests as risky behavior. It nearly cost me my near-perfect marriage. Had I understood more before, some of it may have been prevented, or at least mitigated. My husband and I spent some time reading books about bipolar, learning what we could, and though pieces resonated, it just didn’t seem to fit me. I accepted the idea that I might be bipolar, but wasn’t entirely comfortable with it. I raised the issue with my psychiatrist, who said she didn’t think I was bipolar in a strict sense.

The current thinking about my mood disorder is that it’s cyclothymia – mostly depression, with some risky behavior or other hypomanic tendencies thrown in for good measure. It seems to fit how I’ve been for most of my life. The depression can get REALLY bad, the risky behavior can start to get out of control sometimes but doesn’t turn into psychosis.

My mood disorder is controlled with therapy (sometimes intense, sometimes just checking in), medications (3 of them), making sure I get enough vitamins, and (trying to) exercise. I know not everything works for everyone, but I am a very strong believer in therapy. Having a neutral person whose purpose is to care for your well-being can literally be a lifesaver. Medications get me to a level where I can process things in therapy, and vitamins and exercise give me energy and improve my mood. All of them are integral to my well-being.

I fully acknowledge that I am really lucky. I have the means and access to skilled treatment, I am surrounded by people who love me and listen to me and care for me, and my illness has rarely gotten to a debilitating point because of these two things.

In spite of those things, the darkness is still very dark, the tears are still numerous, and the sad and sometimes scary thoughts are still very disconcerting. I haven’t felt the months-long abject hopelessness since I did in college, but I have very bad days that not only leave me crying in bed, but wondering if I’m done being happy for another long stretch. I know that it’s in me, that my brain is capable of doing that, and it’s like I’m constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I’ve learned how to deal with my mood disorder. Life isn’t always good, and it doesn’t have to be. But this is part of who I am, it’s part of what makes me human and vulnerable and empathetic to other people’s suffering. And on those very dark days, remembering that I’m not alone helps. No one is alone.

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