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My Bipolar Pandemic: How The Frantic Energy of Lockdown Led to Diagnosis

On International Women’s Day, March 8th, 2020, I stood on a mountain looking down across a snowy world. The day was crisp and bright and beautiful, and around us I could hear men call their female friends and family to congratulate them on the holiday. I think of that as the last normal day.

Four days later, I was in class when a student asked about a recent news post and I checked my email. Presumed positive COVID-19 cases. The first in the country. All universities to be closed for three weeks.

We sent our students home, watching our busy, bustling mid-semester campus fade into empty silence. Then restrictions were put on movement from city to city. Around the city. In and out of campus, including our faculty housing block. On leaving the house for other than essential reasons.

So I sat in our enclosed balcony and watched the world come to rest.

Yet it wasn’t rest, not for any of us. There felt like frenetic activity was happening, overworked medical practitioners and healthcare systems worldwide run ragged for endless months, teams of scientists working at light speed on vaccines, public health officials briefing daily, hourly, updating restrictions and sharing news. 

And on the other side of all this hectic motion, a draining force, too. People felt depressed, listless, unable to motivate themselves for action in the face of an invisible and life-changing danger. 

And I couldn’t relate to either group. I wasn’t an overworked medical professional heading out for exhausting shifts day after day. And I wasn’t paralysed to be home and unable to help, either.

Instead, I watched the unfolding events incessantly, tracked statistics, shared articles, wrote pages of my own work and pages more in emails to colleagues and students. I was, odd as it might seem, excited, even elated, to be a specialist in the history of medicine living through the major global medical event of our generation.

That energy and enthusiasm, that need to be doing things, quickly led to clashes with others. Academia, for all its popular image of sole researchers sitting alone in offices they only share with books, depends heavily upon communication and collaboration of all kinds.

My energy was getting in the way of those collaborations, and in the way of myself. I was sending too many messages, starting too many things, writing way too often and way too much. To the point where it wasn’t fun anymore. To the point of inducing headaches from the implacable need to be doing things.

And then there was a moment. Like being on a roller-coaster when you have been climbing ever upwards, you hear a clunk, and know you are about to fall. And it was a feeling I had felt before. 

The next few days were dark. I had no energy, no enthusiasm, no ability to take pleasure or comfort in the things that I usually would. The previous week I had been flying; now I could barely get out of bed. And I was trapped, seemingly forever, in this prison of despair. 

Then, as suddenly as they arrived, the darkest clouds dissipated, my mood shifted again, and I knew I needed help. 

Nearly four years prior to this, I had been given my initial diagnosis: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. That diagnosis, hard as it was to deal with, had opened up a world of support. I kept my usual appointment with my therapist, and told her – I need an assessment for Bipolar.

We found a suitable psychiatrist, I was assessed, and the results came back. Preliminary diagnosis of Bipolar Affective Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified, co-morbid with OCD. 

My Bipolar symptoms fall into the category of “mild” or “less severe,” that is, compared to the symptoms other people experience, not that bad. But as many people have noted with “mild” COVID-19 cases, the terminology used by medical professionals to categorise illness obscures the lived experiences of sufferers.

Mild illness can still be gut-wrenchingly hard to live with.

I sat with my diagnosis for a few days, gathered some courage, and went back to friends who had already supported me through one diagnosis, to tell them the new one. 

It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but it was something I needed to do. Because for me, living with this means living with other people knowing about this.

Disclosing is hard. So why have I written this, why put all this out here for anyone to read?

Because at one point in my life I couldn’t bear to disclose my OCD, and was sustained by those who could, and comforted by hearing how other people live with their conditions. And now I do feel able to disclose, so I feel it is an act of solidarity with everyone who struggles with their mental health to do so. 

If one person reads this and feels less alone in their diagnosis, feels better able to ask for the help they need and deserve, this will be worth it. So here I am again, disclosing.

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