Content warning for mental illness, self-harm, and suicidal ideation.
From the moment I decided to start a blog, I wanted to write this post, but it’s difficult to know where to start.
We’ll start with a specific moment in my writing path. I’d just received my third manuscript critique that mentioned an inability to connect with my main character.
The criticisms echoed in my head over and over.
But I loved my protagonist. Her actions made perfect sense to me. And yet here I was, with multiple readers who just plain didn’t like her. Worse, they couldn’t even understand her.
This particular round of feedback triggered a violent depressive downswing that resulted in an hour of lying in bed, curled up into a ball, my fingernails biting into my palms as I sobbed uncontrollably.
Have you ever experienced a terrible loss and been completely overwhelmed with sorrow, so awful that your stomach clenches with it and you can’t breathe?
It’s like that.
So here I was, in the throes of despair, wondering why no one related to my protagonist’s moods, and it clicked.
I’d made my main character bipolar, like me.
Her snappishness was born out of the irritation and anxiety of hypomania. Her tantrums were a release valve for her feelings of worthlessness, lashing out at others. Her overreacting, her moodiness, even some of her minor personality traits. All borrowed from my teenage pre-treatment self.
I’ve struggled with bipolar II since my mid-teens, when the symptoms became severe. Sudden spikes of temper, vicious outbursts, fits of depression and vivid suicidal ideations, interspersed with my “normal” chatty and perky and optimistic self. (Which we would later find out was really just a state of hypomania). At the time, my moodiness was written off as “being a teenager”, but none of my friends were struggling as badly as I was.
My particular case is often rapid-cycling, which means I can be hypomanic-cheery most of the day, then plunge into despair for two hours in the evening before it passes and I’m perfectly fine again.
I wasn’t diagnosed at all until I was 19, and misdiagnosed until I was 22. I went through a whole slew of diagnoses: depression, depression with anxiety, seasonal affective disorder. I also tried several medications, many of which made things worse. Instead, I self-medicated with alcohol and engaged in risky behaviors, almost daring the universe to take me down. I began self-harming as a way to punish myself.
By the time I received my bipolar II diagnosis, I was doubtful about more medication, but I’d hit rock-bottom. I was desperate to try anything, and I was lucky. The first batch of mood stabilizers we tried worked, and I was able to find some semblance of normalcy by taking meds alongside the use of therapy.
I was 24 before I really started to stabilize. More than a decade later, I still struggle sometimes, even with meds.
It’s like there is a constant heckler in the back of my mind. Sometimes she’ll blurt sudden intrusive thoughts out of nowhere, telling me I’m worthless and stupid. After treatment, I now have the tools to recognize these thoughts as “just the bipolar talking”. I can work to ignore them, but I still hear that voice in my head.
It makes critique harder to take, because that little voice in my brain warps “your book needs work” into “you suck and you’re awful”. After every round of critique, I suffer a downswing. Within a day or so, I can think clearly and process the feedback, but I’ve yet to do it without a depressive phase first. I keep powering through because critique is a natural part of the process. My writing will never improve without it, and dealing with the bipolar mood swings is just a reality I have to accept.
On the other side of the scale, my hypomania can also sometimes result in anxiety. You know how you hear that creepy high-violin sound in a horror movie and your brain is suddenly on high alert? Imagine that for hours at a time.
And if I’m too hypomanic, I can’t focus on anything for more than a handful of seconds. Sometimes, I’m so mentally exhausted it takes all my spoons just to get through the day.
As such, some days are just writing losses.
And I’m okay with that.
I’ve already won. My life is a thousand times better than it was before treatment. I’m still here, still writing despite the bad days when I want to give up this whole author thing forever.
And I’ll keep fighting.
If you believe you may be struggling with mental illness, I strongly encourage you to seek help. Please look up assistance programs in your area, and if you’re dealing with suicidal thoughts, please call the national suicide prevention hotline: 1-800-273-8255.
You are not alone in this, and you can make it out.