Today I will be featuring my first Guest Post by my new friend, Jess Kanotz. I have had the pleasure of getting to know Jess over the last few months and learning about her inspiring story. Funny enough, she only lives a few streets away from me! This blog post was originally published by Jess on her blog, Our Bipolar, on 10/4/2019. She kindly agreed for it to be republished here. In this blog excerpt, Jess shares the story of her bipolar diagnosis, treatment, and self-care. I hope you enjoy it!
MY BIPOLAR DIAGNOSIS STORY
I was diagnosed with bipolar at 19 (my favorite number since childhood, coincidentally) in 1999. I had just started my sophomore year at Pitt as a psychology/pre-med major, with plans to be a psychiatrist (what are the odds?). Since the summer before freshman year, I had been taking an antidepressant. I tried a few, but none helped my depression. About a month into my sophomore year, my new antidepressant seemed to be doing something, but I didn’t feel like myself. I have always been an introvert and not one to make fast friends, but I was making more friends than ever. People were always laughing at what I said, although I wasn’t trying to be funny. Countless thoughts raced through my head at all times. Sleep became more and more elusive, my appetite kept decreasing, and I was always thirsty. I started having strange thoughts. One night in my dorm room, I fell out of bed—the top bunk—and thought that the devil pushed me out of bed. I knew I shouldn’t share this with anyone, but I thought it was true, nonetheless.
These changes in my health and thoughts eventually culminated in my first manic episode—by far the worst one I’ve ever experienced. After a night of no sleep and looking in the mirror for who knows how long thinking I had X-ray vision, I called my dad at 6 AM, figuring he’s an early riser. I was bursting to tell him about the X-ray vision and also that I was addicted to water (because I couldn’t stop drinking it). I also thought I had discovered that I had multiple personalities which had just fused together (I read Sybil in high school).
Naturally, huge alarm bells started going off in my dad’s head, and he immediately drove up to Pitt. He phoned my psychiatrist, who wanted to admit me to the psych ward of a local hospital. I overheard their conversation and begged my dad not to put me in a hospital. Fortunately, my father is a therapist, and he was able to persuade my psychiatrist to place me in his care. She prescribed me tranquilizers, which I took with breakfast, and my dad drove me home. Later, at an appointment with my psychiatrist, she diagnosed me with bipolar I.
I remember very little from that fall and winter. I withdrew from Pitt. I knew I could never go back and face my friends again. My parents and I decided that I should take a year off from school to recuperate, but after a couple months, I was eager to return to college and what felt like normal life. I enrolled at W&J for the spring 2000 semester so that I could live at home and commute. I also changed my major to English, since I always enjoyed reading. It seemed manageable—I knew that studying psychology would be a constant trigger for my illness.
I was prescribed Depakote to treat mania as well as the antidepressant Zoloft. Over the years, other medications were added or subtracted, since I continued to cycle through manic and depressive episodes, but none nearly as severe as my first one.
Finally, after my meds not working (and likely exacerbating my symptoms) for several years, I made the decision to stop taking all of my medication without seeking my doctor’s approval. I initially felt much better, but after about a year, manic symptoms began to reemerge. At this point, I was living in the DC area, and I started seeing Dr. Todd Cox, who prescribed me lithium in 2007. I responded to lithium right away and have been taking it ever since, along with Seroquel as needed.
Of the utmost importance for someone with a mental illness is having an outstanding psychiatrist. My psychiatrist is Dr. Todd Cox, who I started seeing when I lived in DC. I’m still under his care—we have Skype or FaceTime sessions now that I live in Pittsburgh. I have appointments with him every month or two, depending on my needs. Every person with a mental illness needs a Dr. Cox. He doesn’t accept insurance, which is relatively common in psychiatry, and his hourly rate is high—a decent car payment when I see him monthly. But I gladly keep seeing him because he’s by far the best psychiatrist I’ve ever seen and I trust him implicitly. He’s the doctor who finally prescribed me lithium and changed my life. Lithium is the first-line treatment and gold standard for treating bipolar, though my previous psychiatrists never prescribed it to me. After being prescribed lithium, within six months I met Bryan, my future husband, and was hired as a copy editor at the company I still work for today. I cannot imagine what my life would be like today without someone like Dr. Cox. He unfailingly provides top-notch care and gives the best advice on how to navigate stressful situations or life events and stay well, or as well as possible.
MY SELF-CARE FOR BIPOLAR
- I will always need to take medication. I will not be cured of bipolar one day (barring a drastic advance in medicine).
- I need to do routine lab work every couple months to ensure that my lithium level and thyroid function (which can affect mood disorders in those who also have a thyroid disorder, like me) stay within range.
- I function best with 9 hours of sleep each night. I usually get at least 8½, but 9 is the goal.
- I consume very little caffeine, since it can spur on manic symptoms. My body is used to not having it. Sometimes I want a cup of coffee, so I drink decaf. I know, the horror! There’s actually some pretty good decaf out there.
- I drink very little alcohol. I average about 1 drink a month in social settings. I have never been much of a drinker, so this is easy for me.
- I try to eat healthy (not easy for me!) and exercise a few times a week.
- I can’t watch the news or talk about politics in this day and age. This is hard since I really liked talking about politics in the past. Instead, I read all my news—I read headlines and decide whether I should read the article or sit this one out. I also subscribe to Countable so I don’t miss any votes in Congress.
- I am careful about the movies and TV shows I watch and the books I read.
- I limit the number of large events or gatherings that I attend. Being around big groups of people overly excites me but also causes social anxiety, and both of which can cause manic symptoms for me.
- I avoid interacting with people who are triggers for me, those who cause me extreme stress just to be around them. Even if I think I feel fine around these people, I’m not. My brain will demonstrate my distress soon enough. If I must attend an event where a trigger will be present, Dr. Cox and I plan a strategy, including how to adjust my medication in the days/weeks prior and what to do if the trigger interacts with me, among other things.
- I try not to take on too many activities or do too much in any given week. If I see that next week is filled with activities, I move what I can to a less-busy week.
- I try to keep my personal relationships with friends and family as stress-free as possible. If there’s a disagreement, I try to resolve it quickly and apologize.
- I purposely keep a small group of close friends. As an introvert, a small circle works well for me. I could never maintain close friendships with tons of people nor have the energy needed to do so.
- I have lost or ended friendships due to bipolar, either directly or indirectly. Sometimes a friendship with someone like me becomes too difficult for one side or the other. I understand that and am at peace with it. Being friends with someone with bipolar can be too taxing for some people. My actions at times might be hard to forgive, and my limitations might be hard to handle. At times I have withdrawn from friendships when I couldn’t handle the social interaction. I’ve learned a lot about having friends since my diagnosis, and I’d like to think I’m a better friend now than I was a decade ago and especially two decades ago.
In reading this list back over, it kind of sounds like my life isn’t much fun. Despite my limitations, I feel that my life is really full and fun the vast majority of the time. I laugh with Bryan and Pearson every single day, I adore living back in Pittsburgh near my family and working from home, I have long-time friends near and far who I cherish, and I have even made some new friends since moving back to Pittsburgh. All the work that goes into staying healthy is definitely worth it.
Author Bio: Jess was diagnosed with bipolar I over 20 years ago. She started her blog, Our Bipolar (www.ourbipolar.com), with the goal of reducing the stigma of mental illness while supporting those in need. She is wife to Bryan, mommy to 5-year-old Pearson, and a journal production editor by trade. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Do you have a question for Jess? Leave a comment!