questionnaire

My new favourite pastime seems to be playing state-change detective.

A dip in energy levels? Do I need a rest, a double espresso perhaps? Or could this be the beginning of the end? Feeling anxious when I wake up with a jump start at 5:43 am? Will the anxiety dissipate on its own, or with the help of a small blue pill? Or am I backsliding?

Filling in the “bilan clinique” questionnaire for my next appointment with the psychiatrist provides a useful distraction.

questionnaire

The hypomania section is really easy: a multitude of ticked boxes.  When I’m “up” – shorthand for hypomanic – I’m textbook. Except that at this stage I know myself well enough to avoid certain patterns of behaviour. For example, I contain the impulse which could lead me in the direction of casual sex – a.k.a. the “never join Tinder” rule.

In the depression section, I feel pleased that I don’t have to tick anything really nasty. Sure, I’ve gone through periods where my brain convinced me I was failing atrociously on all the fronts that mattered (work, marriage, motherhood, life in general). I’ve seen the world through a negative, warping lens. I’ve been lethargic, reluctant to go outside (bordering on agoraphobia) and physically unable to socialize.  But, even so, I don’t think words like “despair” and “hopelessness” really apply, and I can say with absolute confidence that I have never considered self-harm, let alone suicide.

I think that may be one of the reasons why I went undiagnosed for so long. I didn’t tick enough boxes to qualify as clinically depressed, but I never went to see anyone when I was feeling the opposite. Show me a bipolar person who dislikes feeling “up”, even if the “up” is so extreme that it is quietly frying their brain cells.

My worst times have been more like an anxiety fever dream: worries (both real and  fabricated) surge out of nowhere and take me over, becoming obsessions; reason begins to circle the plughole. The anxiety disrupted my sleep, affected my weight, and sometimes brought on a form of paralysis.

I have a vivid memory of sitting hunched over on my bed one evening after work, staring at my feet, unable to make my children dinner. Deciding what to eat was simply an impossibility. I waited until my husband got home, and he found me there, weeping. Silently of course, because I didn’t want my kids to worry.

It’s the temperament section of the questionnaire that I find the hardest. The psychologist who explained it to me was very insistent that I should answer these questions not as “up” me or “down” me, but try to get beyond those versions of myself, to my baseline, default state and habitual behaviour.

It’s so difficult for me to do this that I pack the papers in my suitcase and enlist the help of my mother.  But even she – the Expert – struggles with some of the questions.

For many, I could confidently tick a box to describe me when I’m “up” (off the charts optimism, multi-tasking ability, energy, drive to socialize, boundless creativity, memory recall, empathy – in short, superpowers)  or “down” (patchy memory, loss of self-confidence, indecisiveness …)  But when I’m neither-nor, I haven’t a clue how to respond.

I kind of wish there was a “meh” column. I opt for a few question marks, instead.

Is total absence of a baseline temperament a thing?  Is there a blank space where that is supposed to be? It’s a bit like the nauseating aura I get before one of my migraines. There are flashes of light and colour, as if I’ve looked at the sun – or a light bulb – for too long, but also blind spots.  However hard I try to focus on something right in front of my eyes, it is simply not there, as though it’s been photoshopped out or blurred, like a child’s face in a French paparazzi shot.

This is all very disconcerting, and could potentially lead to a “who am I?” or “do I even exist?” type existential crisis that I’m not quite ready or equipped to have right now, thank you very much. So let’s just leave it at that, and say I have a number of questions for my therapy team.

The worst part, however, comes near the end where there are a series of statements that cause me to question whether any of me is actually me, and not some sort of symptom of my disorder.

I’m translating from the French, but standout examples include:

My biting sense of humour has got me into hot water. Hmm. Well, I did get fired for mocking my boss’s sock suspenders online, so that probably counts. Although I managed to turn it into a positive, eventually.

I swear profusely.  Fuck yeah (not on paper, but plenty IRL). Unless I have my parental control filter switched on, which is not, contrary to what you might imagine, when I’m parent-ing, but when I’m in the company of my own parents.

Do you mercilessly rip the piss out of people you barely know? Um, well, only every boy I’ve ever tried to “charm”.

Is nothing sacred? Are all my favourite things about myself going to fall away, one by one?

I’m prepared to accept that where disorder, temperament and personality meet, there may be a fuzzy space, without clear boundaries. I’m prepared to accept that bipolar people may be more likely to be or do this or that.  I’m prepared to allow that my personality traits may be exaggerated by bipolar ups or downs.

But, that said, I really want them to remain mine nonetheless.

birthday

It’s not easy to forget the date, as the diagnosis came on the eve of my 42nd birthday.

I was signed off work for 15 days, initially.  But those days stretched into weeks, then months. I finally felt sane and stable enough to make a decision and negotiate my way out of my contract in early January, signing the exit papers in March, a full (*counts on fingers*) 7 months later.

That day remains a bit of a blur, to be honest, but here are the things I do remember.

It was a Monday.

I was a mess but I dragged myself to work because, for the first time in my life, I found myself afraid to be at home alone.

I’ve never come close to contemplating self-harm, but that day my brain was racing around in ever decreasing circles, like the needle on a record, and there were voices (well, my voice or, to be more accurate, a whole cacophony of my voices) echoing in my head.  I couldn’t pick up the phone or write an email. I hadn’t slept. My heart was racing. My palms were sweaty. I’d lost about 7 kilos (a stone!) in a single week.

But despite all this, I didn’t want to stay at home, even though a note from my GP, allowing me to do so, was burning a hole in my pocket.

I spent a good deal of time that day in the staff toilets, head firmly wedged between knees, trying to focus on breathing.  I spoke to the nice lady from HR, at length. I went for a long walk at lunchtime (because eating wasn’t an option). I took Lysanxia after Lysanxia, but the drug no longer seemed to be having any discernible effect.

Mostly I waited. For my appointment in the late afternoon with a psychiatrist at the Centre for Stress and Anxiety, conveniently located close to my place of work.

Extract from an email to my Mum, at 00:07 on Sunday: “I had some blood tests today – well actually it’s yesterday now – just in case thyroid or some deficiency could be to blame. In the meantime I have some pills to calm the adrenaline (remember my A-levels) and am seeing the psychiatrist I saw once before on Monday.  I think I’m willing to get some proper medical help with my ups and downs which are getting a bit too extreme for me to cope with.”

I’d seen the same psychiatrist exactly a year previously. September always seems to be a bad month. Back down to earth with a crash after the holidays. Back to work for me. Back to school for the kids.

The last (and also first) time we’d met, I remember her asking me some questions about the highs and lows I’d been describing. Did I spend more money during the highs? Did I engage in any risky sexual behaviour? A colleague of hers had been seeing me on and off for “anxiety issues” for the past three years, but I think this lady put her finger on the problem that very day and, if memory serves correctly, the word “bipolar” was even spoken aloud.

I didn’t return to see her for a whole year. I must have felt better, shortly afterwards. Or perhaps I wasn’t quite ready to face the music just yet.

The day before my birthday, when I returned to see her, I tried to explain how out of control I was feeling, in between the sobs.

Gently, she explained to me that I was experiencing what is referred to by psychiatrists as a “mixed state” – a state combining features unique to both depression and mania. The despair, blended with fatigue, contradicted by the racing thoughts, the flight of ideas, the nervous energy, the depressive ruminating (moo!) … all this madness could be labelled, explained, and even knocked on the head, simply by taking a small, white pill.

As I walked along avenue Marceau, prescription filled, I called my husband, in floods of grateful tears.

There was something wrong with me, but I wasn’t broken.

I could be fixed.

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