Nearly nine years ago, I reached out to a life-long friend and told her something I had not shared with anyone else—not even my wife Bethany. “I think I might be bipolar.”
A few days after our conversation, I sent my friend an apology on Facebook Messenger. “Sorry if I worried you with all that talk about being bipolar. Most days, I feel great, but my down days are a bit disconcerting. Am I crazy? Of course I am—I’m a Naughton! Seriously, I’m good most of the time, and that’s all any of us can hope for.”
She was absolutely right, but this story wouldn’t be very interesting if I told you that I asked Bethany for help the very next day. It also wouldn’t be true.
In fact, I never did ask Bethany for help. Not directly anyway. Thankfully, intuition is another of my wife’s superpowers. I was having a pretty rough day a couple of weeks ago, and after giving me a chance to cool down, Bethany asked, “So what’s going on with you?”
I couldn’t pin down an exact reason for feeling the way I was that day. The pandemic and how it might affect my family, my friends, and my students had certainly been weighing heavily on my mind, but I had felt that same feeling of general anxiety countless times before.
Ever since I quit drinking alcohol a little over three years ago, I have been much more aware of my struggles with anxiety. In hindsight, I know now that I used alcohol as a way to self-medicate. The more anxiety I felt, the more I drank. And on days when I felt good, I drank then, too, out of habit.
For the past three years, I have been operating under the assumption that I’ve been living with undiagnosed anxiety and depression—as well as addictive personality disorder. I didn’t need a doctor to tell me what I already knew.
Or did I?
“Sometimes it’s really hard to be me,” I said in response to Bethany’s question, while choking back tears. “I hate feeling like this!”
Last week, with Bethany’s encouragement and support, I finally talked to a healthcare professional about my issues. After discussing the things that have been bothering me, including my anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, ceaseless internal monologue, and dependence on alcohol and now my smartphone, I was given a mood assessment that screened for possible signs of bipolar disorder.
Answering seven or more questions with a “YES” response indicates the subject may be bipolar. I answered “YES” nine times. Having a family history of mood disorders is also a strong indicator. Members of my family in previous generations have been diagnosed with addiction, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, PTSD, and, (you guessed it), bipolar disorder.
So, friends, it would seem that your friendly neighborhood newspaper columnist has bipolar disorder. This should come as no surprise to those closest to me. It explains the sometimes silly “highs” I often experience and the scary “lows” I endure as well. (It might also help explain the photo that accompanies this column each week.)
Obviously, I am not surprised by this diagnosis at all, considering that I confided my suspicions to a trusted friend nearly a decade ago. What did surprise me, however, were some things I learned as I read more about my condition. Anxiety is actually a common symptom of a hypomanic episode. Hypomania, (associated with bipolar II disorder), is defined as a sustained state of elevated or irritable mood. Because many of the symptoms of hypomania are misattributed to personality, patients are not usually aware of their hypomanic symptoms.
While I didn’t recognize that I had been experiencing hypomanic episodes, I was acutely aware of the depressive episodes I’d been dealing with over the years. According to what I’ve read, it’s common for depressive episodes associated with bipolar II patients to be more frequent and more intense than hypomanic episodes. I’ll drink to that! (Well, not anymore. Again, alcohol as self-medication. Not a good treatment plan.)
I am confident that I have a good treatment plan now, though. I’ve started taking a prescription medicine that will hopefully help stabilize my moods. I have a follow-up appointment scheduled with my doctor this week to discuss how it’s working so far. I’m also trying to spend more time walking outdoors, making music, listening to music, and practicing meditative breathing exercises.
Now, the big question is, “Travis, why are you telling the world about your mental health issues?”
I want people to know that it’s okay to not be okay. If you are struggling with a mental illness or a mood disorder, you should not feel any more embarrassed about it than a person who suffers from a physical ailment. Bipolar disorder is caused by misfiring neurotransmitters that overstimulate the amygdala, which in turn causes the prefrontal cortex to stop working properly. The resulting emotional overstimulation triggers manic episodes and worsens depressive ones. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. Please, if you need help, get help. It’s okay.
I am not okay. But I will be.