I was diagnosed with cyclothymia several years ago. It’s best described as a milder form of bipolar disorder. I had always attached my highs and lows to being a creative soul.
The stigma associated with mental illness intensifies my fear in openly sharing. When people envision mental illness they seem to think it only affects people far removed from them. They can’t fathom those considered “normal” might also suffer from a brain disorder.
But mental illness is a true equal opportunity employer. It is often hereditary. I grew up watching my favorite uncle’s undiagnosed illness destroy his marriages, and alienate him from those he loved most. Now he lives a fairly normal life with the help of treatment and medication.
My official diagnosis terrified me. I’d inherited the pretty legs, high cheekbones and the crazy gene. Would I pass it to my kids? I wanted to sweep it under a rug and throw the rug in a landfill. People ask what it feels like to have your own brain work against you. For me, it simply was life. The worst days I spend in darkened rooms, with swollen eyes and an exhausted soul. Think ordinary life with blackout shades; my exit is visible but my brain shows it barricaded by every ache, insecurity and fear I’ve ever experienced.
Often I’d confide in my brother how out of control I felt, how tired I was of being sad. He’d repeatedly remind me mental illness was a brain disease. “Nai, you didn’t do anything wrong. There are medications that can help. It’s not a crutch. It’s no different than if you suffered from diabetes. It has nothing to do with how strong you are.”
I needed reassurance that seeking help didn’t demote me to low functioning human status. While there isn’t a guidebook on how to address mental illness in those close to you, I can say my brother’s approach is fairly close. He was persistent yet still gave me the impression, real or imagined, that the choice was mine to make. He provided factual information to support his concern and opinion.
Less than one percent of the population suffers from cyclothymia. While both disorders have a manic and depressive phase, with bipolar the diagnosis is more evident due to the major episodes that interfere with “normal life.” A person with cyclothymia remains under the radar longer—often forever—because of the mildness in both stages. A cyclothymia diagnosis is made after charting mood swings that occur for at least two years (or one year in children), are present for at least half the time and repeat at least every two months.
A year ago, to appease my family and psychiatrist, I agreed to try a mood stabilizer for 90 days. I’d been content with the results of my anti-depressant. My lows were less frequent and didn’t last as long. My doctor encouraged me to use those around me to measure its effectiveness. Reluctantly I began a low dose, still anxious I’d be reduced to the drooling idiot in a corner, unable to create. Stability scared me.
Less than two weeks into taking Depakote, while on a drive with my daughter I couldn’t help but notice how bubbly and light hearted she was. I mentioned it to her and she laughed.
“Ever think maybe I’m different because you are too?”
My life is now divided neatly into two parts: BD and AD.
Before Depakote my family was the primary target of my instability. My darkness made me question the most innocent of comments, and label the simplest interaction as proof I was the burden and the must love.
I lived excessively in every way. Movement left no time to be personally responsible on any level. I knew healing required emotion and addressing a life of bottled pain. I chose to master fleeing and recreating.
Tears I cry now are from awareness of the number of casualties my untreated mental illness claimed. I denied my loved ones opportunity to live without constant disruption.
Medication doesn’t erase the disease. Nothing does. It acts as a booster seat, providing an ability to see the entirety instead of the mangled cluttered landscape cyclothymia sold me. It’s my comma, the extra second I need to do what most do naturally, not act on impulse.
Every mental illness is unique and there isn’t a one size fits all answer. But there is help and support. I’ve opened myself to seeing my mental illness as a part of my beauty rather than shame I hide. I fight because I’m worth it.
If you suspect someone you know or love is suffering from mental illness, don’t look away. Don’t ignore it. See if there are patterns to their behavior, try and express your support for the person as they are. Educate yourself and don’t be put off if your concern isn’t met with smiles. The best gift my brother gave me was enough awareness and acceptance to allow me to feel I made the actual choice to seek help myself.
For more information or help:
24 hour suicide prevention hotline –
Author: Naila Helena
Image: Movie Still
Editor: Travis May; Ashleigh Hitchcock