Not the first time I knew I needed mental health help – but certainly the most memorable – was when I found myself rearranging the kitchen chairs for probably the tenth time by early afternoon, crying because I didn’t want to be doing it but unable to stop myself. It was a compulsion – hence Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. There were other things – systematically pulling out my hair, peeling the skin off the bottoms of my feet until they bled – that pointed to a significant problem. I had an incompetent counselor who referred me to one visit with a young psychiatrist, a woman slightly older than myself who looked at me, isolated at home with two very young children, one with special needs, and in ten minutes diagnosed me with depression and anxiety-related OCD. She prescribed a common antidepressant and a sleeping pill.
The good news is that I got help. The bad news is that I was misdiagnosed.
Over 15 years later, as we near the end of Mental Health Awareness Month, I feel compelled to talk about how important it is to inform yourself so that you get a correct diagnosis. While it’s important to seek out help in the first place, it’s equally essential to educate ourselves about what might be going on. If you go in when you’re depressed, as most people do (albeit reluctantly), the doctor has no way of knowing about your college spending sprees and your convenient ability during that time (and maybe others) to not only get by on four hours of sleep a night for weeks or months, but feel fine with it, not only fine but energetic and productive, working three jobs and taking a full load of classes with absolutely no stimulants. Or, if you’re like other people, you might have been labeled a hot head (or worse) because you used to get into a lot of arguments and fights (even without alcohol), drove erratically for certain periods of time, or in the past you exhibited other symptoms (like hypersexuality) listed in books and online questionnaires.
Unfortunately many doctors I’ve seen don’t ask about your history of such things. You go in with a certain set of symptoms that indicate depression, and that’s what they treat. They ask you questions about your current symptoms and diagnose you based on that. They give you an antidepressant and two days later you go hypomanic, like, ohmygod I feel somuchbetter!! And in your mind, you are better, of course you are, because you’re no longer rearranging chairs around the kitchen table and crying and peeling skin off your feet. But what you don’t realize is that you went too far the other way. You will do things you wouldn’t normally do. You will make poor decisions and regrettable mistakes. And at some point, the churning inner turmoil will return. Because it’s not depression and anxiety. It’s bipolar.
So, this month and every month, let’s put the focus of Mental Health Awareness Month on awareness. If you’re at a point where you need mental health help, good on you for admitting it and seeking it. But do one more thing for yourself, one more really important thing – research. I recommend starting with Bring Change 2 Mind, Glenn Close’s organization. And don’t end there – keep clicking to other resources. Just as you would if you suspected you might have a physical illness of some sort, educate yourself about mental illness so that you can advocate for yourself. Otherwise you could end up suffering a lot longer, like I did.
I lived with the cycle of not-so-healthy hypomania and debilitating depression for an additional 14 years before I realized I needed to find out myself what was wrong with me and then seek the correct treatment for it. It wasn’t until the second time that I read Manic, a memoir by Terri Cheney, that I was able to recognize I was in what’s called a mixed episode, and that I had been in one 14 years earlier when I had been misdiagnosed. I read other information on bipolar, and things in my past finally fell into place. Armed with that awareness, I took myself to a different doctor who had proper diagnostic tools and more experience. Even then, it still took a few months to find a medication that worked for me, but at least we were finally on the right track.
Don’t be reluctant to take health knowledge into your own hands. It’s your life. Awareness makes all the difference.