19 January 2017

The (Not So) New Diagnosis

   The first time I heard the words Bipolar Disorder was back in 1996 when I sought treatment from a therapist in Mobile, Alabama. I was convinced I was legit wackadoodle (not an official mental health term, but one I find endearing) on account of some character flaw or maybe I was cursed or maybe it was my lousy, no good childhood. I didn’t know why. I only knew I needed help. Everything bad and terrible about my past was firmly planted in my present which made for a decidedly messy future. 

I was married with a toddler when I decided I had to get help. My life should have been great, but there I was falling to pieces. I was safe, but I never felt safe. I was wildly ecstatic or deeply depressed. I was one thing or another. Never anything in between. I loved. I hated. I screamed. I broke things. I was out of control. My daughter was going to grow up like I did which filled me with despair.

I followed up with a psychiatrist who had the therapist’s notes. I told both of these mental health care professionals (almost) everything and that was scary. Telling meant I may get locked up somewhere. Being locked up seemed like a real threat to me back then. My sister had been “hospitalized” when she was honest about what ailed her. I was as (if not more) whackadoodle than my sister. This fear of being locked up has been with me since I was sixteen years old.

“Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.”

I was happy to have an official diagnosis. I was happy to take whatever medication my psychiatrist prescribed. If a pill could keep me somewhere in the middle instead of living the extreme highs and lows, I was all in. My husband needed a good wife. My daughter needed a good mother. I just needed to stop already. In the beginning, if I had told those doctors about the child abuse I’d experienced, that I banged my head on walls… If I told them I was often fixated on suicide… If I’d truly told them everything, would I have been given a different diagnosis?

Six years later, we were living in Georgia. We had two kids then. I’d been on and off countless medications as different doctors tried different things to help me manage the symptoms of Bipolar Disorder. Life wasn’t always bumpy, but sometimes I went through periods where I was functioning in a fog as we played around with dosages, hoping we’d find the magic mix of meds to make me better. During that time I was given additional diagnoses- Attention Deficit Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder were the two other biggies.

I remember once, when I was selling on eBay to supplement our income, I purchased $800 worth of winter coats at The Children’s Place outlet. See, I was gonna sit on them for a year and then, make a killing come winter. I know! This was a genius plan! Only, I spent every penny in our bank account on those winter coats. We didn’t have any groceries and how would we have gas money for the month? Or money for those medications I took? Or for anything? I did stuff like that every now and again. You know, just spend all of our money on something and then, come back down from my grand plans with zero cash and zero excuses.

I started taking lithium about this time and would remain on it and a plethora of other psychotropic drugs and mood stabilizers for the next decade. I had weeks of wonderful and moments of terror. If I wasn’t baking two hundred cupcakes for my husband’s high school band, I was camped out in bed for three days, crying and pretending like I had the flu. Sometimes, everything was alright. Sometimes, I could function like everyone else.

I stopped taking my medication altogether in 2009. I was going to meditate, practice yoga, and talk to the Universe instead of doping up. By that time, we had three kids. After a year, I spiraled out of control again. I gained 100 pounds, because I thought if I could get really, really fat and have a heart attack and die, no one would know it was on purpose. Look, it made sense to me back then. Kinda like those winter coats did. My mister was seriously considering leaving me and taking our babies with him too. And I didn’t blame him one bit.

Fun things like this happened every so often. A teacher friend of my mister’s wanted to stop by for a quick visit before a meeting in town. When my mister told me she was on her way, I acted like she called and asked to have sex with him in the front yard. “How dare she?!” I screamed at him as he stood in the kitchen with the phone still in his hand. No matter how hard he loved me, I was never gonna believe it and that truth was etched on his face. Instantly convinced this phone call and visit was some brazen show of their illicit affair, the woman he loved inexplicably went into a rage. This friend had been to our house with her husband. We’d played poker and drank beer. She’d taught one of our kids. I made her a set of beautiful hand stamped stationery for Christmas. Now, she was a whore.

When she arrived, I wavered between a gracious June Cleaver and the psycho chick from Fatal Attraction. {Stick a pin in Fatal Attraction. It’s important.} I made the kids go sit in the living room while she talked to my mister. I told them to get in there, goddamnit. We were at Defcon Five! She said she was hungry. I thought, how dare she?! and offered her a plate of pasta with this deranged smile on my face. I never took my eyes off her as she ate those leftovers. I pretended she was eating her pet rabbit with fava beans and a nice Chianti.

My mister barely said a word to her for the fifteen minutes she was there. Anything he said would be interpreted as confirmation they were sleeping together. “Give us more notice next time,” I said, practically pushing her out the door. “If I know you’re gonna visit, I’ll have something special made up just for you! Do you like rabbit?” The crazy was oozing off of me then, because that was not hospitality. That right there was a threat I’d beat her ass if she ever came around again.

Good times, right? My mister took me to a new psychiatrist. I thought for sure I was headed for the crazy hospital, but nope. I got a whole new slate of medications. Hello, Zombie World! I functioned better, but still wanted to die. The thoughts came and went. I still woke up in the middle of the night screaming, even though no one could hurt me like that anymore. My family was happier. I was happier.

One last move in 2012 found me with yet another psychiatrist. By that time, the Bipolar Disorder diagnosis had been refined to Bipolar II, rapid cycling. This meant I had four or more episodes of mania or depression in a year. {This is important for later, so stick a pin in that too okay?} We changed up prescriptions as needed, always fine tuning that medley of medications I consumed morning, noon, and night.

I was hospitalized the first time in 2014. Sixteen days. I went in voluntarily after over medicating for three straight days. I was pretty sure I was about to traumatize my friends and family with Ye Olde Suicide Plan. When that door clicked behind me, something inside me that was already broken snapped. Through a tiny window, I watched my mister walk away.

I was in and out of the hospital four times over the next two years. I did six months of outpatient therapy. I did intensive therapy with an incredible guy I called Bob Hoskins, ’cause swear to God, he looked just like him. We had amazing breakthroughs in between life threatening breakdowns. I would get better and get worse. I was fine and then, I’d fall apart. Implementing strategies and suicide crisis plans and taking charge of my mental illness helped, but I wasn’t sure I was gonna make it out alive if I had to ride this roller coaster of dramatic ups and downs much longer.

I graduated from therapy and left my perfectly fine psychiatrist. And that’s when the shit hit the fan. I started taking new medications (one I was determined to get to help stop binge eating) when I hooked up with a horrible psychiatrist who, like many doctors before her, saw an illness and not a patient. At the beginning of 2016, I went into a major depressive episode. I was going to kill myself for sure. I mean, this was it. I planned and planned. I couldn’t make it look like an accident. I was just going to have to do it.

Now, if you aren’t familiar with suicidal folks or you think we’re a bunch of Fakey McFakertons from Fakersville, let me tell you something. One: Suicide attempts are absolutely a cry for help. Two: Suicide seems like a viable option when you’re in the throes of clinical depression. That’s that. Thankfully, a friend stayed by my side and another friend got me in with this new psychiatrist one town over. I know, I know. Yet another psychiatrist.

I joked around at the time about how everyone said this new guy was brilliant. Seriously. Everyone said so. He was young and had a young person’s ideas about mental health care. He didn’t sit across from his patients, ask if they were suicidal, write some prescriptions, and send them on their way. Not every doctor I’d ever seen was this way, but most were. In this distressed state, all I wanted was some relief. I’d been crying on my carport for a few weeks. I’d counted up all my pills and figured out how much tequila I’d need to down them with to die.

I thought the new guy would ask me the same questions I was always asked. Was I staying up for days? Was I sleeping at all? Was I thinking of killing myself? Was I engaging in dangerous behaviors? Did I want to harm myself or anyone else? Was I bathing? Was I eating? Was I eating too much? No matter what answers I gave, I’d be given new medications and sent along home. That’s what they always did. Unless they shipped me to the hospital.

None of that happened.

The new guy asked me new questions. Nothing about Bipolar symptoms. He asked me about my past and my present. When I got defensive, he didn’t back down. I was sitting there and he was doing something that had never been done before… he was seeing me and not something written on a chart. I wasn’t expecting this. He looked at the nine pill bottles on his desk, my most recent pharmaceutical cocktail. One by one, he picked up the bottles and said, “Stop taking this. Stop taking that. Why was this one prescribed?”

I thought, Oh, he’s playing the let’s change it all up game. I was going to be sent home with a handful of new medications, make like a zombie for a week, and then, crawl back into life until the next time this happened. He told me I could keep taking two of the medications and then, he sat back.

“All of these medications aren’t helping you. They’re harming you. You don’t have Bipolar Disorder, Beth. You have something called Borderline Personality Disorder.”

   My immediate response was disbelief. I asked him how that could be. I asked him how he knew something like that after 45 minutes! I’d been treated for Bipolar for over two decades. And what the hell is Borderline Personality Disorder? And how will I function on only two medications? And wait… you want me to stop taking all the other meds cold turkey? This new guy wasn’t brilliant. He was CRAZY.

I left stunned. I had an appointment with someone who specialized in a kind of therapy for patients with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). I just graduated from therapy! I didn’t want to do anymore. I was angry on the drive home as I Googled BPD. I felt ashamed. Something was wrong with my personality. This wasn’t a chemical imbalance. This was my fault.

I didn’t disclose the new diagnosis to anyone. I’ve been so transparent about my journey with mental illness, but I was embarrassed about this. I went to a few sessions with the therapist and then, stopped. Everything online about BPD made me feel twenty million times worse. BPD is Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction or Winona Ryder in Girl, Interrupted. Those people were screwed up. Oh my God, I was screwed up! Screwed up and exhausted by all of these diagnoses and treatments and episodes and roller coasters.

“Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a serious mental disorder marked by a pattern of ongoing instability in moods, behavior, self-image, and functioning. These experiences often result in impulsive actions and unstable relationships. A person with BPD may experience intense episodes of anger, depression, and anxiety that may last from only a few hours to days.”

How could I have been misdiagnosed for over two decades? Turns out, it’s pretty common. 75% of women with BPD are misdiagnosed with Bipolar Disorder II, rapid cycling. I mean, c’mon. The two disorders sound kinda similar with the ups and downs, right? I decided to read the books recommended by a therapist, go through the dialectical therapy workbook. Follow the new guy’s instructions about the meds.

I learned there’s a ton of misinformation out there about BPD. It’s not a life sentence. People can get better if they learn new strategies for coping with the symptoms. I learned why I do the things I do and feel the way I feel. I learned I’m not my mental illness. It took me nearly a year to get my head around what BPD is and what that means for me.

The quality of my life has improved exponentially. Not because I’m magically cured by a different diagnosis. Not because having BPD is easier than having Bipolar Disorder. Those are simply words. It’s the treatment that’s changed. I have the correct information I need to treat what ails me. When things get out of hand, I can hold up, wait a minute, let me put some Luda in it. (Okay, not really, but really, ’cause I love me some Ludacris.) With a year of thoughtful study and intent and regular sessions with an observant, invested psychiatrist, I’ve seen progress. Ups and downs, yes. Catastrophic moments, yes. Understanding and improvement, YES!

I was just at my three month check up with the new guy. I knew it was time to share this here. My doctor and I went over all the stressful, intense things going on, because that’s what you do with your psychiatrist. He wants me to continue with a medication for PTSD he called in a few months ago when I had a trigger. We marveled at the progress together. I told him how much better I feel now that I’m not taking so much medication and can honestly look at my life and what ails me. I told him that this is difficult, but exciting after years of riding Space Mountain.

See, that’s funny on accounta Space Mountain is a roller coaster that’s in the dark.

We all have our paths. If you have a mental illness, medication might be one of the tools you use for management. Therapy might be. Yoga might be. You may have ten different tools in your tool box to help in the care and keeping of you. We’re all different, but knowing what it is that needs fixing sure helps us decide which tool’s the best one for the job. Ya know what I mean, friends? So, I have BPD. I have some new tools in my tool box. And I’m gonna be alright.

Hold up. I am alright.

Edited to include this video by Kati Morton about how important it is to receive a diagnosis.


  • Shannon

    Thank you for your openness about mental health. It’s helped me be open about mine as well. You inspire me on the regs, and I appreciate you. ❤

  • Meg

    Thank you for sharing. You help remove the stigma of mental illness so that people can get help rather than shame. You are a hero.

  • Jackie

    Hi Beth! Thank you for sharing. I am ashamed and embarrassed about issues that I have. It really helps… a true blessing how raw and open and honest you are. I live near you… in Adel. I would love if you shared the name of your Doctor. I need one. My email is jacquelynrockey@yahoo.com and I am on Facebook if you would like to msg me. Thanks in advance sweet lady!

  • JAnet Helton
    JAnet Helton

    This has helped , what my kid said the day was her darkes hour to date. She went to bed defeated , got up a fighter.❤ we are here as a large supportive family. We got this together! #momof3girls

  • Sue Stone
    Sue Stone

    Im glad to see and hear you are doing great! I miss you?

  • Natalie

    Thank you for this. My 12 yr old was diagnosed, and we are just learning about it. Thanks for sharing.

  • Jo-Ann Mayo
    Jo-Ann Mayo

    Thank you for sharing this Beth!. So important to keep fine tuning our mental health until it becomes more manageble

  • Dannielle

    I am proud to ‘know’ you. Love and light, lady!

  • Susan in Atlanta
    Susan in Atlanta

    I’ve recently been diagnosed with Bipolar Depression. BPD does sound a lot like it! So glad you found the new doctor. I’ve been playing all the medication cocktail games, too. I have to exercise to feel better. I really want to drink, though. Thanks for being so transparent (and hilarious). It’s very brave of you to share your journey.

  • Tracye

    I’m so glad you were finally properly diagnosed. So many people never are. You hang in there and keep making progress and when you feel desperate know you are loved and very important. Much love.

  • Pamela Emerson
    Pamela Emerson

    Beth , thank you so much for sharing your journey. I am delighted that you have found the help and guidance you deserve. I wish my sister would have found doctors that could have helped her live a better life. In the end it wasn’t mental illness that directly ended her life but I believe she would have taken better care of herself given the right tools. Sending loads of love, Pam

  • Laura Ruffner
    Laura Ruffner

    Oh, Beth! I am so profoundly happy for you, for your bravery and for your progress. It gives me so much hope! Rock on, Mama! Rock. On!

  • Patsy Back
    Patsy Back

    Thank you for continuing to share your journey of life. This was a very informative and educational read.

  • Heather

    Beth- Thank you for sharing this. I started following you maybe a year or two on facebook and your openess and often humorous discussion about mental health has been a positive influence on my life and has helped me in so many ways. I’m so happy that you are down the right path now with the new diagnosis and wish you the absolute best.

  • NIcky

    I am so proud of you, Beth. Keep going. You can do hard things.

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Copyright 2017 by Beth Hallman. All rights reserved.

Posted January 19, 2017 by Beth in category "Mental Health

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