I was 20 years old when it became clear that things weren’t OK with my mental health. At the time, I was in uni and I wasn’t sleeping much. I was drinking every night and going out all the time—typical uni student behavior. But then, something changed and my friends started to notice I wasn’t acting like myself.

I was tearful as well as paranoid and scared of things that wouldn’t have freaked me out in the past. I stopped putting on “real” clothes and just wore whatever was within reach. I just didn’t care anymore about anything. My friends encouraged me to see our school counselor, so I did. She realised during our therapy sessions that something was very wrong and arranged for a meeting with my family. There she explained that I was sick and needed to be admitted urgently to the local hospital psychiatric ward.

I was terrified, but the psychiatric ward wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be. There, I was diagnosed with depression. My week-long stay involved doing meditation, yoga, and aromatherapy, as well as counseling. It felt almost like a retreat. I was also put on antidepressants and told to see a psychiatrist regularly after I was discharged.

I didn’t want to be on medication so, at my follow-up appointments, I would repeatedly insist that I felt fine, even though I didn’t. I kept trying to convince my doctor to lower my dosage, and eventually he took me off of the antidepressants.

Understanding what mania is

Six months after being hospitalised, I had my first manic episode. I felt invincible and I couldn’t sleep. I started doing random, odd things like going into a bookstore and buying a bunch of books, including one about mermaids that was in French—I don’t read French. One night, at 1 am, I was having too many racing thoughts and I couldn’t sit still. I didn’t understand what was going on, but I knew that I wasn’t OK so I walked to my local emergency and checked myself into the hospital.

Again, I was admitted to the psychiatric ward, where I had to do several tests like filling out a 500-question survey about my mental health. I also had to have my blood drawn every morning so they could rule out that I wasn’t having a manic episode from drug use or issues with my thyroid (Hyperthyroidism has been found to cause mood disturbances). About a week after I was hospitalised, I was finally given the right diagnosis: bipolar I disorder—not depression.

Knowing what I was dealing with

Bipolar I disorder is a condition that’s marked by manic episodes (or “highs”) that last for a week followed by depressive episodes that last at least two weeks and according to Health Direct affects 1 in 50 Aussies each year. The manic periods can also show up as risky behaviors that are so severe that the person needs to be hospitalised so that they are not a danger to themselves or others.

Upon leaving the psychiatric unit the second time, I was put in an intensive outpatient program that involved behavioral classes, which help me learn how to manage my life so that it doesn’t affect my condition. I didn’t want to go to them—I had uni work to stay on top of and this wasn’t something else I wanted to deal with too. So, I started skipping those classes.

My doctor called another family meeting and warned me that if I didn’t go to the behavioral classes and take my medications, my bipolar disorder could take on schizophrenia symptoms, such as psychosis. The doctor’s warning scared me to becoming invested in my mental health.

I started going to the classes and actually paid attention. I also started to take my medicine religiously, whereas before I would regularly “forget” to take it.

Since then, I take my medication every day and go to therapy regularly. At 31, I lead a “normal” life. I am married and work as a nurse practitioner. My husband and I hope to start a family soon.

Misdiagnosis happens

I was frustrated by my misdiagnosis at first, but I now understand it. At the time, I wasn’t exhibiting symptoms of bipolar disorder—just depression. Getting a proper bipolar disorder diagnosis is like putting together different pieces of a puzzle, which makes it something that’s not easily diagnosed.

Doctors need to really evaluate you. This includes a physical exam, a discussion about your symptoms, and a blood test to rule out other health conditions. Then, a psychological evaluation may occur if no physical causes are found. It can take several months until you have a proper diagnosis, and that’s a hard pill to swallow when you want a solution ASAP. I can see why a lot of people—an estimated 71%—are misdiagnosed with depression.

I wish the process was simpler but, for now, it’s not. My advice for anyone going through something similar is this: Know that this is a process and know yourself. If you get into these situations where you are paranoid, depressed, or just feel like something is off with your health, keep a journal to track what’s going on with you. It can be helpful down the road for you and your doctor to go over.

And, if you can, try to have patience with the process. It can be scary at times, but it’s possible to get a proper diagnosis and lead a normal life. I’m proof of it.

 

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