When I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder II, a milder form of the illness, I was surprisingly relieved. Joyous even, because after 25 years of desperate searching and working with a string of therapists, I had finally found the answer to what had been seriously disrupting my life since I was 11 years old.
Manic depression—a term I prefer because it more accurately describes my experience—is a mental illness that shuttles between the exuberant highs of hypomania and the crushing lows of depression. While hypomanic, I feel magnificently well; ideas flow fast and furious; creativity bubbles; I want to do all, see all, be all. Nothing seems impossible. But eventually a dark depression steals in, consuming joy, leaving me feeling apathetic, limp, hopeless.
Over the years, as detailed in my book, "Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Manic Depression," undiagnosed manic depression caused me to drop out of college twice, lose friendships, endanger my jobs, and endlessly worry family and friends. Medication changed that for me.
When I began what turned out to be a four-year slog to find a medication combination that worked, I knew nothing about the effects drugs had on the body and mind. While I was able to tolerate most medications well, some caused frightening and debilitating side effects: tremors, cognitive impairment, gastrointestinal problems, etc. The most devastating issue I faced, though, had nothing to do with side effects but rather the interminably long and slow trudge to find right med cocktail.
To combat the feeling of hopelessness, I kept meticulous notes, researched as much as I could (if only the Internet were as useful back then as it is now), and spoke my mind with my doctors. And I never once hesitated to fire a doctor if I felt he or she wasn’t as invested and curious about my health as I was.
Once stabilized, I thought my job was over: Just pop pills twice a day, and I’d be fine. If only. Medication, I quickly discovered, was just the first piece of the puzzle.
Sleep, it turns out, is the great reset button when you’re manic depressive. Getting to bed and waking at the same time each day helps buffer me from the vicissitudes of life and my illness.
Diet plays a crucial part in keeping an even emotional keel. That meant out with my beloved junk food, fast food, sugar, and carbohydrates. (Yes, that meant pasta, too.) Research shows that simple carbohydrates, such as the kind found in processed foods, can wreak havoc with your mood. Proteins, greens, vegetables, fruits, and complex fiber-rich carbohydrates play nicely with manic depression. (I’ll be the first to admit, I’m no angel. I cheat, but I do try to eat a baseline of healthy foods.)
Exercise has shown to have beneficial effects with mood disorders. (Again, no angel here. The most active thing I do is jump to conclusions. But I do try at least to walk daily.)
Talk therapy has proven invaluable. Once I understood that my behavior wasn’t just a collection of personality quirks but was also the result of a chemical imbalance in my brain, I knew I had to do all I could to learn how to live and thrive with this illness. A talented therapist is almost as good as an effective drug.
Last, humor is the prescription no doctor or therapist can give you, but it’s crucial. Having a sense of humor was how I coped for a quarter of a century as I searched for answers, grappled with side effects, and deal with the daily challenges of the illness. Laughter, it turns out, is truly some of the best—and free—medicine out there. So, bust a gut at least once a day.
Click here to find out more about David's book “Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Manic Depression.”