Most of us have an origin story. The first time we heard a diagnosis that made sense, that explained and even justified our behaviour, that gave us something to fight against. Something that just made sense.
Mine came when I was nineteen.
I saw my first psychiatrist when I was much younger — he diagnosed me as being clinically depressed, and prescribed me some sort of medication, but my mother freaked when I told her in the car afterwards. She took the prescription and went back into his office to complain. Something about not wanting me medicated, or that he was prescribing me meds without her knowledge. Or something. The next time I saw him I didn’t say a word for the thirty minute visit. That was also the last time I saw him.
Then there was a therapist who I really liked, he gave me little cars every time I opened up. But I only saw him twice before he closed up his little office and moved on. I think I was ten. Maybe eleven-years old. I remember being devastated.
…I might have that backwards. It’s possible the therapist came first.
I do know it wasn’t until many years later that I saw another doctor, or talked to anyone, about my depressions or about the many times I wanted to be dead.
I first met the doctor who would diagnose me when I was eighteen. I was almost completely off the rails by then. It started gradually when I was seventeen, but by the next year I had stopped going to high school full time — skipping days in a row, never being on time, missing tests, not showering, and drinking heavily on weekends.
It was my mother who arranged the meeting. I didn’t know it at the time but she had been seeing the psychiatrist for a few months, maybe longer, and now she was stepping aside and giving me her appointments.
He was young, definitely younger than my mother. Maybe only ten years older than me. I saw him six times over November and December. It felt good to have someone to talk to… someone who took me seriously, and someone who asked the right questions. He ordered blood tests for Thyroid Disease, and Diabetes, because it turned out both can cause depression. I tested negative for both, but it was revelatory… something could be causing me to be depressed that I had no control over.
It was February of the next year, soon after my nineteenth birthday, that I finally got a diagnosis… Bipolar II, which means I go down more than I go up. It fit. The crazy depressions, the suicidal thoughts, the manics, all of it just fit.
Even though I knew classes were over after my appointment, I still had my mom* drop me off in the parking lot of my high school. There were no students left in the building, just a few of my teachers. I was bouncing. I was so happy I might as well have been manic. I told each and every one of my teachers, the ones I could find, that I finally had a reason. An excuse for my behaviour for the past two years
I wasn’t lazy, it wasn’t that I was a poor student, there was something wrong with my brain that prevented me from being a good student. I wasn’t sleeping in and missing classes on purpose, this Thing I had kept me up at night running through the lists of disappointments and failures until I fell into a coma every morning at 5am. Not only that but now I had a medicine, a wonder drug called Lithium, that would cure me.
“See?” I asked Mr. Byers. “How can I be expected to wake up and be in school for a 9am class, when this disease won’t let me get to sleep until five frigging o’clock in the morning?”
As I was talking I remember the poor man slowly backed up until there was a desk between us, and asking “don’t they put Lithium into batteries?”.
I knew nothing about the disease… I didn’t even really understand that it was a disease. I knew nothing of the stigma of mental illness at that point. I knew nothing about the treatments. I didn’t even know the proper term for the medication. I wasn’t handed any pamphlets, I was just given three words: manic depression and Lithium. All I knew was that I finally had an excuse for my behaviour. A reason for why I was the way I was: suicidal, depressed, manic, a failure at school.
By the end of my first week as an official member of the mentally ill, every single one of my friends knew. Not that any of them understood… how could they, when I had no idea what anything meant?
…this was long before schools made accommodations for students in distress, there were no ‘coloured shirt’ days for diseases. There were no wrist bands telling us to Fight The Stigma. We were lucky to have a school counsellor in my high school, but she was there to help with school admissions, not to listen about how much I wanted to put a gun against my head.
But Lithium takes weeks, if not months, to take effect and the initial euphoria of having a Reason couldn’t last forever. So I crashed. And I did crash hard. I was as suicidal as I had ever been. But this time I had a Doctor who understood. Who could see that I needed to be hospitalized.
…when I approached my principal with a plan for my final exams, that maybe I could take them after my stay in the hospital, or even take them while I was in the hospital — not a good plan, but at least it was something — he turned me down flat. I had missed too much school, my marks were too poor… he flat out told me there was no point in continuing either my schooling or the conversation.
No talk of maybe next year, or repeating a grade. Just blah blah you’re a failure please get out of my office. Which just made everything worse…
But this time I had a Doctor that could see that I needed help. So off I went to the local psych ward… it was a disaster. I spent two weeks screwing around like I was at Summer Camp.
I didn’t know how good I had it… surrounded by Doctor’s and Therapists who wanted to help, but I was mostly worried about where my next cigarette was going to come from. I really knew nothing about anything. When I got out there was no high school to go back to, I was still seeing my Doctor but the Lithium was hit and miss. I moved out of home, I came back, I moved out again for good. I tried to do Adult School and work at the local newspaper, but I was showing up to work and school stoned and hungover. So I quit those as well. I picked up a job as a bartender / bouncer at the local drug hangout. That lasted a few months, but I was always late and I was using the job primarily to find dates.
And finally, a few months after turning twenty, a woman who I thought I had a future with broke up with me, and I got fired from my job, so I quit everything and moved to the Big City, stopped seeing my Doctor and started using the Lithium like it was Tylenol… basically whenever I started feeling Dark, I’d take a handful and hope for the best.
…but that’s the Thing about having a diagnosis and being handed medications that will probably save your life, you have to be ready to accept the help. You have to understand that Things can be better, that there is an alternative universe where you’re not suicidal everyday.
It took me the next fourteen years of living the best I could — unmedicated and untreated, sometimes homeless, sometimes a successful citizen, and with the help of a lot of people I found along the way, to understand that.
*…I honestly do not remember what my mother’s reaction was to me being diagnosed the second time.