Photo Credit: Jacqueline Mahrley
Jacqueline Mahrley, 44; married; mom of one son; student studying to be a psychiatric technician in Fullerton, CA
I started having symptoms of bipolar disorder when I was 14, but it took 15 years for me to be accurately diagnosed. Initially, people said I was having "growing problems," "anger problems," "difficulties adjusting to school" or that I was "depressed." When I was 29, I had a bout of mania—and my mania is different from many people with bipolar disorder who have lots of energy and go on spending sprees or become more sexually active. My mania is more of an angry, discontented bad mood, so it took a while for people to recognize what I had. When I had this bout of mania at age 29, the doctors thought I was taking drugs and they hospitalized me. Fortunately, the psychiatric and drug addiction wards were both in the same area and when they realized I wasn't taking drugs, I was sent to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me correctly and prescribed lithium.
Taking the medication was the most awesome thing that has ever happened to me. After all those years of feeling uncontrollable and sad all the time, it was so simple: I could take medication and feel better. It was like the sky opened up and the angels were singing. I have never been tempted to go off of my medication; it's part of my daily ritual now and I know I need it.
Around the time of my diagnosis, I also joined a support group through the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) and that pretty much saved my life. I made friends so fast I couldn't believe it. Here were people who were like me! We went to the movies together, to the park and pool, and it was wonderful. I had lost a lot of friends over the years because of my behavior due to bipolar disorder. I would be manic, get angry and lash out—what friend is going to stick with you through that? I didn't understand what was going on so I couldn't explain my behavior. Meeting people through the DBSA who did understand has made such a difference in my life. I was even on the board of directors for a while, which gave my life a new purpose.
Finding the Right Help
Having ongoing positive relationships with my psychiatrist and my therapist have helped tremendously. I went to eight different psychiatrists before I found the doctor I have now. When you have bipolar disorder, whether you're medicated or not, you're going to cycle. Medication causes you to cycle a lot less, but I can see when it's coming. When I notice certain trigger factors and think I might be on the verge of a depressive or manic episode, I will call the doctor and ask him what I should do. Often the advice is simply to increase one of my medications for a few days or a week, and either I won't have the episode at all or my symptoms will be really mild and I can handle them. Once I'm feeling better, I can decrease the amount again. Similarly, if I know a stressful time is approaching, I call my therapist and ask for coping tips that can help me get through it. Just knowing I have people who can help me when I need it has made all the difference. I think everyone with bipolar needs to have that kind of relationship with their doctors. If you don't trust your doctors, find someone else. Don't settle for someone who doesn't understand you or trust you, or who you don't trust.
People are so afraid of mental illness. There's a misconception that because we have a mental illness, somehow we're different from everybody else. What gets me the most is not being treated like a person simply because I have a mental illness. I try to get out there as much as I can and advocate. I do everything I can to show that I'm not any different.
Making the Most of Each Day
I also take care of myself. I start every day with a half-hour walk, without sunglasses. My psychiatrist calls it "setting my serotonin clock," and I think it really helps. I also take B vitamins because they're thought to help stabilize mood in people with bipolar disorder. I try to go to sleep, get up and eat at the same time every day. That routine helps keep me focused and able to move forward. I also make sure to have time alone every day. I meditate, write in my journal or sometimes listen to a relaxation tape. I'm lucky to have friends, family and a wonderful husband who support me, but that time alone every day is really important for me, too.