Depression, Bipolar, and Anxiety: A Fight for Sanity

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A psychic once told me that my mood disorder was caused by the Pitocin used to induce my mom’s labor: I was prematurely forced out of the safe place in utero. I disagree with her logic, because my twin sister was booted out with me and she’s normal. But I do think I emerged from my mother’s womb with a serious dent in my limbic system—the brain’s emotional center—and short a few neurotransmitters.

Symptoms from Early On

As a child, I suffered from severe anxiety and exhibited symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I performed rituals, such as turning off the lights 20 times before I went to bed, and obsessed about things like where my tongue should be positioned when I swallow. I flapped my arms when I got excited, much like a child with autism, and I was easily overstimulated and overwhelmed by sounds and changes in light.

My depression continued to morph into a new beast with every stage of development. In junior high, I developed an eating disorder; in high school, I abused alcohol. When I arrived at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, I was newly sober and started therapy for the first time. That’s when I realized all of this pain had a name: depression.  

Would Medication Help?

My therapist strongly recommended I take some antidepressants, but I was adamantly opposed. All of the folks around me—especially in 12-step groups and sobriety circles—viewed psych drugs as “happy pills,” a cop-out from the hard work of recovery from an addiction. Others convinced me that spiritual growth was born from inner turmoil, and that I’d be opting for a “quick fix,” eliminating the opportunities for lessons and insights learned in pain.

A year and a half later, after researching the biological basis of depression like a fourth-year med student cramming for exams, I decided to try a small dose of antidepressants. My therapist/doctor and I tried a few combinations before stumbling on the winning combination of Prozac and Zoloft. For the first time in my life, I could relax enough to have fun. I could concentrate on my studies without all the frustrating attempts that ended in tears, and sobriety became much easier to sustain. I no longer craved booze to quiet the noise in my head.

Following college graduation, I enjoyed 10 years of mental stability. Yeah!

Childbirth, a Trigger

Nothing disrupts a woman’s biochemistry—especially her adrenal and endocrine systems, her entire hormonal flow—like conceiving, carrying, and giving birth to a baby. Thus, motherhood delivered me to my most severe depression.

Shortly after I weaned my second child, Katherine (now age 6), I descended into a harrowing place in my mind, where my thoughts were constantly trying to convince me to take my own life. It seemed that no matter what I did, the voices followed me, persuading me that rest and peace were found only in death.

I saw six different psychiatrists, each diagnosing me with something different: from borderline personality to ADHD. I tried 21 medication combinations, and every kind of alternative therapy out there: acupuncture, craniosacral therapy, yoga, Chinese herbs, magnets, homeopathic remedies, fish oil, and so on. I was hospitalized for a few days, and spent two months in a partial-hospitalization (outpatient) program, meaning I slept in my own bed but attended group therapy daily as well as psych visits.

But I didn’t get better.

A Diagnosis of Bipolar

Finally, my husband, Eric, and a friend suggested that I see a team of experts at the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorder Clinic. Following the consultation, I was hospitalized for a second time in the Johns Hopkins inpatient psych unit, and I found my present psychiatrist (number seven).

I gradually began to accept her diagnosis of bipolar disorder and to realize that I was dealing with a life-threatening mood disorder, one that would never totally go away. My symptoms would get better, yes. And I could manage my illness with medication (combination number 23), therapy, a healthy diet, regular sleep, exercise, and lots of support from friends, family members, and fellow manic-depressives. But I would forever have to fight for my sanity.

Looking Forward

Like you, I’m on a journey. I’ve learned quite a bit in the 39 years I’ve been fighting with my brain, and I’d be happy to share some of that knowledge…and the dialogues…with you. But I’ll never be done learning or tweaking my recovery program. That’s where the adventure lies.

I wish Helen Keller were wrong when she said, “We would never learn to be brave and patient if there were only joy in the world.” But I’m also proud of the woman I’ve become through my struggle with mental illness.

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Medical Reviewer: Brian McDonough, MD
Last Review Date: 2010 Mar 1
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