Introducing my friend 'Bipolar Blonde', Jamie Van Gessel. Jamie is an amazing young woman who attends the Bipolar Babe Teens2Twenties support group. I asked her to be a guest on the Bipolar Babe Blog as she is an amazing writer at 16 years old.
She is also a young advocate and a role model to many in her age group. Please welcome Jamie…
As sixteen year old girls living in Canada go, I’m fairly average on the surface. Granted I was born in Pakistan and have lived in the Netherlands, but from a first impression you’d never guess. If you saw me at Starbucks with friends you’d see that I have blonde hair and blue eyes, that I’m fairly tall and slim, and that I like to talk. If you knew me as an acquaintance you’d know that I’m in the Challenge program, that I’ve had some crazy nights, and that I dropped Chemistry. If you knew me as a friend you’d also know that I’m designated gifted, that I’m usually late and that I don’t always show up for class.
Even if you knew all that you’d be surprised when I tell you that I have bipolar disorder: your eyebrows lift and you mentally take a step back, and you say something like “I had no idea, you don’t seem like it”.
But what “seems like it” anyways? Hallucinating or being extremely happy, like a fat kid in a candy shop, and then instantly switching to being unable to move and being house bound?
Being crazy, like someone you’d see on a cop show, a rat in a never-ending maze? Sorry to mislead you with my fairly “normal” outward appearance, I had no idea you had a set description of what being bipolar meant.
See, bipolar is a very misinterpreted illness, with many stereotypes attached just like countless other mental illnesses: people with bipolar should snap out of it, they’re exaggerating. They’re aggressive and unpredictable, they’re dangerous. It doesn’t help that it’s a taboo topic, even more so than depression and anxiety. The moment I tell someone that I’m bipolar their perception of me changes completely. They can’t help it, it just happens. What I’m hoping to do, as are countless others, is trying to change the severity and negativity of that new point of view.
Bipolar affects at least 1% of the population at one point in their lives (Statistics Canada), and it affects both men and women equally. Bipolar disorder is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as being “characterized by at least one manic or mixed episode (mania and depression) with or without a history of major depression”. It usually first appears during adolescence, and with adequate care is manageable. However, many circumstances result in extreme cases such as hospitalization and suicide because of delayed diagnoses and people who delay seeking treatment.
One percent of the population is affected—that’s 1 in every 100 people you know. If you have 500 Facebook friends, you probably know at least 5 people living with bipolar.
Bipolar disorder is different from typical teenage mood swings that are classically associated with adolescent years: sudden changes in behavior generally caused by a shift in hormones. The difference with bipolar is the frequency and extremity of these switches. In true cases these similarities mean bipolar can go unnoticed and untreated for months on end while the teenager suffers in silence because “they’re not depressed, they’re happy as well. Must just be the fact that you’re a teenager.”
As well, bipolar can be misdiagnosed as depression which can actually be quite dangerous. When I was in grade 9 I was sent (after a waiting period of more than a month, which is quite short for our system) to a psychiatrist who prescribed Sertraline—an antidepressant. It was only a year later, after having stopped with the psychiatrist and the medication and having visited the emergency room regarding self-injury and an emergency psychological evaluation, that a different psychiatrist told me that antidepressants can make mood swings worse and more frequent for someone with bipolar. After lots of mood-charting and consultation she added a mood stabilizer called Abilify to the Sertraline (which I’d restarted under the supervision of my family doctor) and proceeded to keep tabs on me once every few weeks making sure the medicine was helping and the side effects weren’t too bad.
Before the Abilify I was tried on Lithium and Seroquel XR—both mood stabilizers—under which I had fairly intense side effects. With the Lithium the skin around my eyes became extremely dry, cracked and irritated. With the Seroquel XR’s sedative effect I couldn’t wake up on time in the mornings. Now don’t forget that these medicines have helped thousands of people, but as my psychiatrist says—there is no magic pill that works for everyone.
Not only is finding the right medicine important, it’s equally important to have a healthy lifestyle: enough sleep, a healthy diet, physical exercise and counseling. As I’ve learned multiple times over, there’s no silver bullet that makes it all better, you’ve got to work at it.
Bipolar for me looks like this: I get something called “hypo-mania” which is less extreme than full blown mania. When I’m in this phase I’m “high”, sometimes very happy, usually louder than normal, my mind races, I make lots of plans, I’m excited and ambitious, I take risks both metaphorical and literal, making this phase also a dangerous one. Contrary to what you might think you can be suicidal while being in an “upswing”, and this is worse because you’re more likely to act on it whereas if you were bedridden from crippling depression.
After a certain period of time I switch to depression, which manifests with me sleeping for much longer than normal, being unable to get out of bed in the morning, wondering about the meaning of life, wanting to disappear, hurting myself, and being uncharacteristically sad to an extreme level.
I stay on “normal” ground for periods of time, but on a bad day I can switch from hypo-mania to depression and back again more than 4 times, and on the other hand depressive episodes can last for several days.
So there you go, a snapshot of what my bipolar looks like. You might never guess because I like to pretend it isn’t happening and I’m a pretty good actor.
However acting won’t be enough when it comes to legal matters. Because I’ve sought out professional therapy the fact that I’m bipolar will remain on my record for 7 years, and the courts can use it against me if they so wish. As well, it could affect my career choice after high school and limit my options, i.e. if I were to pursue a career as a police officer, the process would be a lot more arduous than for someone else. This is an archaic system, but there are people looking to make changes to create true equality for people like me.
The funding given to mental health is inadequate. The fact that it takes months of waiting lists to see a counselor and months more to see a psychiatrist is unacceptable. It discourages people from even trying to get help. Some offices of child and youth mental health have to resort to only serving those who are extremely suicidal.
This is not okay. You shouldn’t have to ask whether or not someone’s child is suicidal, and on hearing “No, they’re just really sad all the time” have to say “we have to put you on our waitlist then, it shouldn’t be more than 6 months”.
I know the game, I’ve been through dozens of community support members and counselors. My phone contacts are full of “Emergency number” “Crisis Team” “Crisis Line” etc. I have a crisis plan, I know what I’m supposed to do when I hit a depressive episode. I’ve known I have bipolar for about a year now. And it’s discouraging, after all this time, to still be trying to achieve being stable. But what gets me through it is knowing that I’m on the right track, and sometimes it’s not enough to know that—because I’m 16 and shouldn’t have to be monitoring my mood and following the crisis—but when I look at how I can use my struggle to help others, it’s all worth it.
I’m nervous about telling my story to the world. There’s a lot of people who think that my being bipolar is a private matter, something I shouldn’t publicize. Personally I couldn’t care less about people knowing—I wouldn’t hide the fact that I were diabetic and honestly I don’t see the difference between acknowledging either. You need to monitor both, they’re both with you for life, and you can live your life completely normally if you take care of yourself. But for some reason, me publishing this is either brave or attention seeking, it’s either groundbreaking or inappropriate.
I have some friends who think badly of me because of this; they don’t understand it, I scare them, it scares them. Their disapproval over something I can’t control hurts, and it hurts even more when they expect me to be extremely responsible about it. I’m still a teenage girl, and I still want to do teenage things, and am still trying to come to terms with the fact that I can’t.
However my friends are extremely rare and wonderful, they’ve helped me a lot as have my counselors and family. My parents have had a difficult time trying to figure out how to support me but they’ve done a fantastic job. It’s not easy for them, but they do it anyway. My mum takes a half day off work every time I have a psychiatrist appointment, and my dad drives me to all my meetings. It’s hard for everyone who’s important to me—friends and family—to accept that I can be so unhappy I’d hurt myself, but the way they’ve continued to encompass me with support and love is incomparable.
Coming to terms with mental illness is hard to do, but it’s important, and I hope from the bottom of my heart that each and every one of you try your very best to do so. There are extraordinary resources out there—Bipolar Babe in BC being one of them. And for any of you going through some bad stuff, there’s hope. If you’re in need of help right now, call a crisis line.. If you need to talk to someone, a school counselor can be a wonderful thing. If that feels too personal you can always go to a youth clinic for access to a counselor without your parents knowing (although there is a waitlist) or you can ask your parents to contact your local Child and Youth Mental Health center. As you can see, there are options, and the most important thing is that you keep yourself and those around you safe.
I am bipolar. That is something I still can’t always come to terms with. I’ve had opportunities denied because of it and I know that the path to recovery is still a long one. But by putting one foot in front of the other, and by continuing to bust myths around the illness I’ve got, I know I’ll get to live a “normal” life just like anyone else.
If you made it through this article, thank you. I really appreciate it. Thank you for listening.
Visit Jamie's blog at: bipolar-blonde.tumblr.com