I was speaking with my therapist of five years earlier this week and she finally put a name to a pattern of behavior I’ve experienced for as long as I can remember. I asked her what it meant to be bipolar II, and felt for a moment like I was being diagnosed with something, a sickness. But I quickly remembered that science is a thing we created to help us describe the world. And that being labeled bipolar isn’t so much a diagnosis as it is a description of a pattern of feelings and experiences and actions.
I’ve resisted labels of all kinds for a long time. Two former therapists diagnosed me with depression when I was younger, but I felt like they were over reacting. Everyone was sad. Everyone had a hard time navigating feelings. I was 20 for fuck’s sake. It maybe didn’t help that a lot of people I was close to would also have qualified as clinically depressed. My sample size of human experience was small.
The thing about being a singular human person is that it’s sometimes hard to recognize when something you’ve always experienced isn’t something others have experienced. I really and truly believed for a long time that everyone experiences highs and lows, that everyone has impulsivity, that everyone obsesses over how much or little they drink, how much or little they talk, how much or little they eat. And yes, many people do experience some of these things with varying degrees of frequency. But when I read about bipolar II and talked with my psychologist about symptoms, I felt this weight lift off my shoulders. There was finally an explanation for so much of what I’d known of myself.
Last week I went to the mall for some make-up. I’d previously been stressed about having to spend $20 on said make up, which is why I’d put it off. I’d scoped gas stations for days waiting for prices to drop. My friends would describe me as frugal, if not cheap. Literally one of my best friends has gone on record calling me cheap in his podcast for not wanting to waste a swipe of my metro card when I visited him in New York, but last week when I went to the mall to buy $20 worth of make up, I charged $700 to my credit card in the span of an hour. A hat, a shirt, a dress, heels, lingerie, jewelry. This isn’t the first time. Last time, in September, it was $300 on books I don’t even have time to read. The time before that, March, it was $400 on clothes at a store off Melrose I drove by one afternoon.
Anyone who knows me knows I struggle with impulse control. I lament how much eating sugar and dairy effects my skin and my mood, and yet I eat donuts three or four at a time when I see them. I eat chocolate bars every night. Some of the things I do with Nutella would disgust you. I ordered pizza three days in a row this week and ate the entire thing in one sitting each time. This happens around the end of February. And in March. This happens in September. It is not all the time. Sometimes my impulse control is great. I will go months without overindulging in things that aren’t good for me. But sometimes, sometimes I will just eat and eat and eat and never be satiated. And I will feel and spend and drink and it isn’t enough.
My reckless spending often accompanies other instances of recklessness. Drinking. Things related to drinking that are dangerous, things that are not so legal. I finally learned the name for this feeling, these patterns of extremely elevated mood. It’s called hypomania.
Here is what hypomania feels like in my body:
You know that song “Chandelier” by Sia? I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist. That song is my anthem when I’m hypomanic. 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, drink. I remember the first time I ever felt this. I was 18. It was June. I was driving to my boyfriend’s house and even though I loved him, all I could think was how badly I wanted to throw back some shots of tequila and fuck a stranger. I have no idea where this impulse came from. I’d barely even fucked my boyfriend, let alone run around town looking for sex. I couldn’t even drink legally. The car windows were down. My sunglasses were on. I was speeding on the highway and screaming along to music blasting from my speakers. The whole world felt romantic in a dangerous way. It was thrilling. I wanted to indulge all of my whims. For me, elevation has always been related to alcohol. Some bipolar II people seek sex with strangers when they’re in their hypomanic states. Others spend recklessly. I do the spending + alcohol. Also talking too much. Here’s a list of hypomanic behaviors:
When I read this on Monday, a hundred things ran through my mind. How the first month in lived in SLC, and occasional months thereafter, I would not be able to stop talking. I would walk into a class and immediately start talking to everyone. I was so frustrated with myself. Each day I would say to myself, today you are going to walk in that room and not say a word. But every day I was just talk talk talk talk. Thoughts racing? Check. Inflated self-esteem? Yeah. I was not in a good place during that time, but I wasn’t depressed. I felt not like myself. I was all over the board. And then there’s that last one. Excessive involvement in activities that have a high potential for painful consequences such as unrestrained buying sprees. I’d add to that unrestrained drinking with a prayer in my heart that the car would crash or the whiskey would wrestle me to the ground.
Here’s what hypomania looks like in my head:
I took this photo on New Year’s Eve at the end of 2012, beginning of 2013. Someone I cared about a great deal had just died suddenly two weeks earlier. At that point I’d spent maybe 6 total hours sober since the night he died. In the photo, my outstretched hand holds a glass of champagne. I was already very drunk. That’s my friend T in the corner filling up our glasses. There were fireworks and loud music. Everyone was dancing. The air was warm and smelled like smoke and sweat. Nothing mattered. I lifted up my dress on the side of the road and peed on a tree. I been making out with a girl who’d taken me to get my nose pierced earlier that week. In my glass of champagne were twelve grapes, a Brasilian tradition we incorporated because T is from Brasil. The idea is that each champagne soaked grape is one month of the new year and you eat them one at a time and make a wish for each month. And even though I ate each grape and wished no death please for every month of 2013, I didn’t feel any of that. Not the loss or the pain or the fear. I felt like a hurricane. It’s hard to say if I was having a hypomanic episode at this point because everything was so messy. I was drinking all the time. I was grieving all the time. I was on the other side of the world in southern hemisphere summer.
But this is how the world looks to me when I’m hypomanic. Like a sexy tv show montage. Cut to girl throwing her hair back, laughing, dancing, drink after drink, sex & strangers in public places, music with a beat, heat, mistakes. It’s not that I do all of these things, but that I see my life this way in these moments.
The other side of hypomania is depression.
I was talking to one of my oldest, closest friends this week about being bipolar, as she shares the diagnosis. Do you do the eating thing, too? Yeah you do the eating thing, she said. The periods of sometimes eating and eating and sometimes not really being able to eat at all. When we are up, we spend money we don’t have at restaurants we can’t afford. We eat decadently. Oysters and appetizers and desserts for days.
But after the eating and the drinking and the spending and the reveling in reckless behavior, there’s the place where I can’t feel anything. This is where I feel myself heading now, just coming off of one of the more drastic hypomanic episodes I’ve had in recent memory. A thing I did that made me feel infinite and indestructible three weeks ago when I do it now makes me feel little more than a flutter in my stomach when I think about it. I’ll cry at the drop of a hat. I cried all the way to work and back today for no discernible reason while listening to Nada Surf. Once when I was in one of these moods, I cried at an Olive Garden commercial. Teary, as it turns out, is a state of being sometimes.
My weight has always fluctuated. Not drastically but noticeably to people in my life. Sudden gain or loss. I keep two sets of sizes of pants for this reason.
This is what a depressive episode looks like in my body:
This is a photo I took during one of my worse depressive phases. This is a distance burning off the side of I-5. The feeling I had on this drive, that my past was too heavy a burden to bear and that everything was hopeless, is a feeling I don’t have often anymore. I am generally very optimistic and grateful to be alive. But sometimes, I go to this other place for a period of weeks. Fortunately I haven’t had an intense depressive period in recent memory. I have safe guards in place to prevent me from getting too low. They involve falling back on a safety net of friends, taking photos of everything I do (because this helps me stay focused on the moment, which in itself is never terrible), and eating well.
My therapist mentioned that I should start tracking my mood. She said I’ll likely see it make a roller coaster shape over time if I plot out the points on a graph. It’s hard for me as a writer to chart my mood, though. I have a hard time just writing agitated or sad or glum or anxious. Because the second I write one word, a flood of others come rushing in. It’s more like, Mood: like I’m filled with gray static on the inside or Mood: everything is on fire or Mood: dizzy with nostalgia and encumbered by seemingly unrelated memories of inconsequential moments from the past.
Fortunately for me (and maybe unfortunately for my followers), I am so expressive on social media that I have years worth of data on myself. I have instagram photos and tweets and blog posts and facebook posts, and if I look back at certain times of the year, I will see myself transition from sad, terribly unpoetic photo captions to hyperbolically joyful captions.
I made a joke to a friend the day I spoke to my therapist. I asked him if anyone could see my spotify history on facebook. He said people might be able to see it on my spotify profile, which upset me because I didn’t want anyone to see I’d listened to Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” 47 times already that morning. I lamented that nothing is sacred and not so jokingly crafted what sounds a lot like a McSweeney’s article headline: “How to Chart Your New Bipolar II Diagnosis Using Your New Spotify Premium Account.” For the record, this is maybe not the best way to tell a new person you’re trying to get to know that your history indicates bipolar tendencies (to say the least).
Some of my hypomanic music: Sia’s “Unstoppable,” Eminem & Rhianna’s “Love the Way You Lie,” Daft Punk’s “Contact,” anything with a good beat, really.
Some of my depressive music: Nathaniel Rateliff’s The Wheel album circa 2007, The National’s “Terrible Love,” Nada Surf’s “Fruit Fly.”
The second part of this blog post is related to the other labels I’ve been exploring in relation to myself. They have to do with queerness and alcohol. Part of the reason I’m hesitant to even refer to myself as bipolar is the same reason I’m hesitant to refer to myself as an alcoholic and is why I still occasionally feel like a liar when I call myself queer. There are narratives for these things. My mom tells me I’m not an alcoholic because I don’t need to drink when I wake up every morning. And this is certainly true. But I have enough of a history with alcohol that is much more similar to that of my alcoholic friends than it is to my friends who don’t struggle with substance abuse.
The other night I was talking to my friend about why weed was never our drug of choice. He said, I’d rather just drink the entire bottle of whiskey and burn the whole house to the ground. That. Is maybe the singular most resonant thing anyone has ever said to me about alcohol. But it’s also a feeling I get when hypomanic. So I’m beginning to think maybe drinking and bipolar go hand in hand.
My point is, I’ve never quite fit the popular narrative (as much as there is a popular narrative in things like TV and film and novels) for alcoholic and I’ve never wanted to identify as such in a way that is seemingly disrespectful to any of my friends with addiction issues. When I talk with them, they understand me in a way that feels so clearly like identification, but their stories are also so much different than mine.
Queerness is the same. For awhile I didn’t think of myself as queer because even though I’ve been attracted to women as long as I’ve been attracted to men, I’ve never had a serious relationship with anyone but cis dudes. I worry that if there were a queerness test, I’d fail. Sometimes I wish these were thing that could be tested in my blood. So I could accept them and proceed with knowledge that I am one thing or the other. But it’s not that easy. Partly because these things aren’t simple binaries. And so I am in a constant state of doubt about everything I am. Am I a writer if I don’t write everyday? If I don’t publish a book? Did I only become a writer when I got an essay published in a big venue? Am I an alcoholic if I can sometimes go out and have only two beers? Am I bipolar II if I’ve never had suicidal thoughts (or at least not since adolescence)?
I know it is dangerous to make some of these identities and identity struggles analogous. I know writer isn’t the same kind of identity as queer and queer isn’t the same kind of label as alcoholic. All I’m trying to say, I think, is that while I avoid labeling myself as some of these things, I also find a lot of clarity in the moments I do let myself adopt these labels. Because if I am these things, I feel like it grants me access to a connection with other people who identify this way, and that allows me to talk about tools for navigating the world.
I think that’s why I’m writing all of this in a public forum. Because I went out the other night and met a person who is also bipolar II and talking to him made me feel for the very first time like I’m not just a crazy girl who is too emotional and too much to handle. Those moods that my ex always called “lying on the floor silent and listening to music Ali” and “excitable overly talkative bouncy Ali” are not exclusive to me. They are hypomania and depression. This doesn’t mean that I don’t take responsibility for my actions in these moments. But it means that I can trace a pattern, a pattern others like me have traced and dealt with so that they can live their lives more safely, hurting themselves and others less.
And I think that talking about these things is how people like me find each other. And when we find each other, we are less isolated, and all the labels, regardless of how perfectly or imperfectly they fit any of us, feel something less like trap and something more like freedom.