It’s a bittersweet symphony, this life.
I’ve always felt a profound connection with this song – Bittersweet Symphony, by the Verve.
As I’ve been hearing this song a lot in the past month, the resulting thoughts and feelings that this song generates for me have been rolling about my brain for some time.
I hemmed and hawed about posting these thoughts, as I am aware the subject matter can be quite triggering for some.
And yet, in the spirit of my ‘Keeping It 100’ project – I decided that I might as well share those thoughts today, the intent being that if I come clean about this particular part of my personal history, perhaps someone out there might feel a little less…alone.
***So please be advised: In this post, I discuss my mental illness, including some details/references to episodes of personal self-injury.***
I was once diagnosed with bipolar axis 2, and I thought that I was – for many years.
I even took medication for about 5 years – which I hated doing – because that’s what I was told would help me get a handle on myself and my negative thought patterns, behaviors, and emotions.
(It’s one of my personality traits: I’m pretty much a strict follower of prescribed rules regarding certain aspects of my life. )
Though the high level of prescribed medications actually didn’t help – for obvious reasons I’ll touch upon in a minute – I took my meds as prescribed, without fail.
And yet, I still found myself with a distinct inability to feel happy.
In therapy, I was told to embrace change, to meditate, to talk about my feelings, and to reject negativity.
And this song – Bittersweet Symphony – signified all of these aspects to me: this song resonated deeply with me because it gave me the words to describe my personal struggle with being bipolar.
Because bipolar was the blanket mood disorder that was ascribed to me.
My being bipolar was the explanation and the reason that I displayed all those ‘negative’ personality traits: moodiness, a penchant for melodrama, emotional instability, anger management issues – even the personal quirks that I talk too fast and too much was ascribed to be further proof that I must be bipolar. (The speed of my delivery must indicate the speed of my thoughts!)
And oddly enough, as much as I hated it, the diagnosis of bipolar was a relief too.
Because being bipolar explained everything.
Even if it didn’t.
When I went off medications in late 2001, my psychiatrist at the time insisted that I shouldn’t because he claimed that possibility that I would self-injure again or attempt suicide.
But my stubbornness er, determination to prove him wrong was a powerful force.
Thus, it is a point of pride for me when I admit that I did not even think of self-injury nor suicide for 12, almost 13 years.
But when my 20 year marriage was on the rocks and I left my husband in the summer of 2014, to stay with LOL, my self esteem was at an all time low.
And I admit that I entertained some dark thoughts while I was staying with LOL.
While I am certain that she felt that she was helping me, I realized within that month, that I had simply traded one form of mindfuckery for an even more insidious form of manipulation.
I felt as if my world was falling apart – and I was simply existing between that rock and hard place, and while I should be ashamed of this, I suppose, thoughts of self-injury came rushing forward like an equally manipulative but familiar friend.
(Trigger warning: discussion/reference to self-injury follows)
Now, allow me to point out that the desire to self-injure is not the same as suicidal ideation.
This is a concept that has only recently been recognized by the psychiatric community.
An act of self-injury is not, and should not be conflated as a suicide attempt, and yet I have been in therapy long enough that I can recall when it was difficult to find a therapist/psychiatrist that subscribed to the idea that self-injury event did not equal a suicide attempt.
And yes, I have a ‘helpful’ but essentially misguided Massachusetts social worker to thank for a three day stay in a state mental ward in 1998 to show for that.*
But if you have never self-injured but have always wondered why the fuck self-injury should not equal suicide attempt, allow me to explain my personal take:
When I have self-injured, it has always arisen from my being in an intensely overwhelming emotional state.
Usually my self-injury arises out of a combination of anxiety coupled with despair, as well as – and this is the most important part – a desperate need in me to have control of something. Anything. The levels of my anxiety and despair have reached critical mass and I am not just emotionally overwhelmed – I feel like I have lost control of everything.
Emotionally, my thought-patterns and self-image have swiftly become stuck in an endless dark loop of hopelessness and negativity.
I have likely hurt someone’s feelings with what I’ve said and done.
It is likely that my words and behavior have concerned (if not terrified) someone I love.
I start thinking in absolutes:
Nothing is good.
Everything is wrong.
It is all my fault.
I cannot fix it.
I feel I have lost control of my thoughts and emotions in response to the situation.
Then, that emotional situation might be coupled with the physical symptoms of what is most likely a panic/anxiety attack:
My heart, blood and breath rates are going through the roof. I am bathed in a cold sweat, and all major muscle groups ache and twitch with tension.
My neck is tight, my chest feels constricted.
If I’ve been on a crying and/or screaming jag, it’s likely that I’m become so congested from crying that I am having trouble breathing, my stomach muscles ache from all the clenching/sobbing, and my throat has probably gone raw from screaming/crying.
My head and teeth ache from clenching my jaw, and I cannot seem to regulate my body temperature.
I am shaking.
I feel nauseous.
If I’ve lashed out physically, I might have gone and broken something.
I have likely terrified or upset others with my physical response.
I may feel like I’ve physically lost control of my body and its responses to the situation.
The loss of control – in the combined mental and physical responses – is terrifying. I feel disconnected from myself. I need to get control of something.
I want to get control back. I want to connect again to my body and mind.
And so then, I might focus on the repetitive actions of scratching/picking at my skin.
In extreme cases, I might move to using other implements – usually something with a point or with a sharp edge – and I might proceed in cutting or scraping until I reach the desired level of pain which brings me relief.
It’s the pain, you know. I need to focus on the pain.
It is my attempt to create a little physical pain as a distraction – to distract myself from my mental pain.
The pain is nothing more than a coping strategy – the effort to create a controlled distraction for myself, from myself.
Self-injury is a coping mechanism some people develop to deal with emotional pain.
But self-injury was, in my case, an unhealthy avoidance maneuver/coping mechanism.
But self-injury, in my case, was never a suicide attempt.
I didn’t want to die; I just wanted to have control of something– and in the case of self-injury, it was a cause/effect paradigm that was much easier to control.
When my levels of emotional pain and the anxiety/panic attack sensations were overwhelming (out of control), this was a pain I could handle, something I could control.
Though honestly, I do understand now how my anxious attempts to create sensation-situation I can control could easily lead to damage – anywhere from permanent scarring to accidental death.
(And yes, I do have scars as reminders of several episodes of self-injury.)
So. There’s the background on the memory of my feelings that led to most of my self-injury attempts, which includes that last major self-injury attempt in 1998.
But back to June 2014 – when my husband and I seemed definitively headed for divorce, I left my husband and I was living with Local Other Lokean.
I was, as you may imagine, feeling an overwhelming level of despair.
(And as I had mentioned before, it was the first time in 12 years that I’d even allowed myself to entertain thoughts of self-injury. That alone was a sign that I was in way over my head in dealing with my emotional pain in a healthy way.)
So I checked myself into the closest mental health facility that took my insurance which happened to be in Bartow, FL.
While there, I began therapy, and again, I was put back on bipolar medications, also for the first time in 13 years.
I thought about what my psychiatrist had said to me in 2001, and I had to chuckle: if his understanding of the unmedicated bipolar patient were to be trusted, why did it take me 12 years unmedicated to get to this moment?
The assigned therapist couldn’t answer that question.
As well, she couldn’t answer why the bipolar medications that I had been recently been given (and took as scheduled without fail) for the last 3 months did not seem to have any of the desired effects.
I still couldn’t sleep more than a few hours a night. I felt just as anxious, just as ‘manic’ as ever, though the meds did affect my memory skills and I did have trouble concentrating most of the time.
If calmer meant feeling as if I was uncomfortably drunk to the point of nausea, then I wanted no part of this version of calm.
But I am a follower of rules in regards to my mental health, so when the doctor suggested I try another medication, I did.
So I tried another medication.
And yet, it was not until relatively recently that any psychiatrist, social worker or therapist thought to question my bipolar diagnosis.
I would explain what my symptoms were, and they would ask if I ever had a diagnosis. I’d tell them that I was diagnosed with bipolar axis 2 in 1997, and then, they would write me a prescription for another bipolar medication.
And it didn’t seem to matter if the medications didn’t work – I was bipolar, wasn’t I?
I started to wonder.
Well, finally in April 2016, I started going to another therapist who also had a degree in psychiatry.
Oddly enough, my bipolar diagnosis was the first thing that he questioned, mostly because I’d begin to question it myself.
So I laboriously described both my past and present symptoms in great detail over the next two months.
As well, we talked about my meditation practice, negative self talk, behavior modifications and mindful choices.
Also, to ease my mind – and satisfy the insurance company – we sat down with the latest DSM of psychiatric disorders and methodically went through the symptom lists of bipolar axis 1 and 2, schizophrenia, OCD, ADHD, borderline personality disorder, and several anxiety disorders.
Turns out, according to his professional opinion, while I am melodramatic, talk fast, and I definitely have my moments of rage and depression, I don’t fit the diagnostic criteria of bipolar either axis one or two.
As well, I am not schizophrenic.
Nor do I have borderline personality disorder.
And I do not have ADHD.
But I do have an anxiety disorder with some rather definite overtones of OCD.
And that, my friends, is all I needed to know.
It’s nice to finally be heard and understood.
As well, it is good to finally be working with a therapist and a correct diagnosis. It’s good to finally be able to function.
While the path to this point was not easy – I am grateful that I am making headway on treating my life-long issues with anxiety and depression.
* By the way: Thank *you*, Claire! Sending three policemen to meet me at my home directly after our appointment on that miserable January day was an especial treat…and your suggestion/threat to the intake staff that I might require a straitjacket to ‘calm’ me when I arrived at the hospital for intake was a lovely though unnecessary touch. Thank you ever so much for giving me and my powers of self-control the benefit of the doubt!)