22 years ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (or manic depressive illness, as they called it back then) based on a set of symptoms, according to the DSM and failure to respond well to SSRI medication. My identity is not in my diagnosis, and neither is yours.
Imagine if we also said, “I am depression,” “I am anxiety,” “I am Hashimoto’s,” or “I am diabetes.” The phrasing doesn’t work for any other diagnosis. I’d also suggest that anytime we turn our diagnosis into an “I am” statement, we are attaching our unique identity to a set of symptoms, and putting our worth in our limitations.
22 years ago, I was suffering from the symptoms of bipolar disorder. I experienced bouts of glorious manic/hypomanic highs, where the world looked brighter and more alive, when I could stay up all night even with an illness like mono, when I felt charming and unstoppable and like the most brilliant person in the room. I also experienced waves of crushing depression, where I was unable to leave my bed, my body frozen, exhausted, and the world was a dark hole I couldn’t climb out of. It confused me because I was taking an anti-depressant at the time. So we upped the medication amount, and the highs got higher. I didn’t have any other tools for support (except my psychiatrist did mention there was emerging research on omega 3 supplements and brain health – too bad I hated burping up fish).
But here is the point I really want to get across:
Just because you were diagnosed with a mental illness by one person, based on a set of symptoms during one period of your life, doesn’t mean you will struggle with those symptoms for the rest of your life. That’s an archaic school of thought, and it doesn’t line up with newer research on brain health.
Often when we ONLY treat symptoms, instead of looking to the interconnecting root causes in each individual body, we don’t heal, and we limit the opportunity to find healing.
There are so many evidence-based tools to support mental WEALTH. Does rapid relief through medication possibly play a role? Sure! But remember, for some people, like me, it may exacerbate symptoms or make things worse, leading to new diagnoses and treatment cycle.
What are the puzzle pieces in my story that potentially led to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder? Some would say I have a genetic predisposition and leave it at that. But based on what we know of epigenetics, we know that our genes are only as influential in the way they express, and they express according to our environment.
Other puzzle pieces to my diagnosis:
- I experienced emotional trauma at the age of 9. We know from research that trauma affects the immune system and gut microbiome in many ways.
- I was on frequent rounds of antibiotics and asthma medication all throughout my childhood, which didn’t benefit my gut health.
- I was put on birth control in 8th grade, due to very heavy periods and bad PMS (which possibly could have to do with poor methylation). Birth control is well-known for depleting B6, which we need for serotonin synthesis. It also disrupts gut flora.
- I was medicated with an SSRI, which is dangerous for anyone who has a genetic predisposition to bipolar disorder. It can create mania. It also depletes B vitamins and as we are only recently learning, can alter microbial diversity in the gut.
- I went on a very low calorie diet during my senior year of high school, which put my body into a state of “fight or flight.”
- I was diagnosed with mononucleosis the very same month I was diagnosed with “manic depressive illness,” and there has been some speculation that Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mono, contributes to bipolar disorder.
There are so many other connecting pieces I could mention: low Vitamin D, potential food sensitivities, circadian rhythm dysfunction, blood sugar dysregulation, and heavy metal toxicity/poor detoxification. I was never given any bloodwork, and nobody ever looked at my brain to see what was actually going on. I met a list of symptoms, and that was it. My new label was created.
Interestingly enough, I don’t regret my journey. I don’t regret the label. I look back on the first 18 years of my life filled with curiosity and compassion, not just for me, but for my parents and the medical professionals who did everything they knew to do at the time. It could have been so much worse. If my struggle had occurred 50 years before, my treatment would’ve looked very different.
However, we know so much more in the 22 years since I was diagnosed, yet treatment options remain the same. How is that? Why are we not digging deeper?
I dream of a new era for brain health, where we look at root causes and whole body health instead of a short list of symptoms treated by a one-sized-fits-all solution. I think that era is slowly emerging. I’m here for it, and I will continue to stay informed on the research as it emerges, sharing when I can.
Remember – your diagnosis is not your identity. You are not limited by a label.
We must do better when it comes to mental health care in the 21st century. We must start digging into root causes, instead of treating symptoms. We must ask why.