I’ve learned an awful lot about myself and my new chronic illness over the last couple of weeks. It feels much longer than that. Here are some of the things I’ve learned.
1. I have a disease that has a 1 in 5 chance of killing me. Rather, a disease that gives me a 1 in 5 chance of killing myself. I’m not an expert on chronic illness, but something tells me those odds are kind of high, whether death is self-induced or not. Good thing I made a pact with myself a long time ago not to do that. I know what it does to everyone else left behind. It certainly explains some of my thought patterns, though.
2. The medicine I’m taking (lithium carbonate) may only be good for 3-5 years, depending on what it does to my kidney function. Though if my kidneys aren’t unhappy, I may be able to take it for the rest of my life. I hope so. Lithium is still the best treatment for bipolar illness, not to mention the simplest and cheapest. In the meantime, it makes me ravenously hungry 4-5 times a day, particularly for protein. Something tells me I’ll have to up my exercise. For now, I’m tolerating what is in essence a poison salt fairly well. Aside from the odd hand tremor, everything’s good.
3. The hunger: if I don’t pay attention to it, bad things happen to my brainpan. Low blood sugar seems to be one of the absolute worst things I can do to myself. I’m finding this to be the most annoying aspect of my journey so far. I’m terrible at paying attention to my diet, which seems to be something I have to change immediately, particularly if I don’t want to completely pork out. I’m already twenty pounds heavier than I was a month ago, something that all by itself just about makes me suicidal. I’ve struggled with my weight my whole life, and to be where I am now makes me incredibly sad. A year and a half of work, completely ruined. 😦
4. Sleep is the other thing that, if unbalanced, will send me spinning very quickly. If it was just depression, or just mania, that would be one thing, but since I get mixed episodes, I have to stave that shit off as best I can. Mixed episodes are a peculiarly nutty generation of the human mind that makes someone depressed and manic at the same time. That’s all kinds of fun, lemme tellya.
5. People are going to be insensitive and rude on occasion when they find out I’m bipolar (which means I’m probably just going to keep that to myself for the most part). It’s only been two weeks and it’s already happened once. They probably didn’t even realize they were being rude. I imagine it’s something that anyone with a chronic illness has to deal with sometimes. I just have to get really good at identifying such people and saying, “You’re bad for me, go away.”
6. Waiting for my meds to settle in and even out is not fun. I’ve missed several hours of work because of it, but if I can’t think, then I can’t work (or worse, I can’t work if I’m sitting sobbing at my desk). I won’t be done with this dance for at least a couple of months and not until after several blood tests and possibly dosage changes. I have to tell myself it’s all temporary and that better things will be on the other side.
7. Apparently I have to be hypervigilant about staying hydrated. Lithium is one row above sodium in the periodic table and as such can screw with the body’s sodium and water levels because it has the same valence (aka charge: gosh I’m glad I was paying attention in chemistry class). Which means if I’m exercising and get dehydrated, my serum lithium levels can get too high, aka TOXIC. Which means a trip to the ER, two days of no lithium, and treatment with a lot of salt and water. No thank you.
8. Caffeine is no longer my friend, mostly because of #7. Caffeine is a diuretic, and its stimulant properties can bring on mania, in sufficient amounts of course. It doesn’t meant I can’t ever drink caffeine again, but I have to do so in moderation.
It’s hard not to be discouraged by the list of things I can’t or shouldn’t do anymore. On the other hand, there are a lot of things that are better now that I’m taking proper medication, and have stopped taking birth control pills. My skin is clear again, I sleep relatively well and regularly, violent/suicidal thoughts came to a screeching halt, mood is about 60% stabilized, anger is down about 40-50%, I’m getting more done, taking much better care of myself, I’m less anxious/more calm, more in tune with mental boundaries (i.e. what I can and can’t do without “triggering”), more thirsty, and more hungry.
Then there are the more nebulous effects. The ones that make me think I may have had this disease since my late teens, because that was the last time I remember experiencing life with the vividness that I have lately. Colors and sounds are just a bit MORE, feelings are sharper, my brain seems more HERE. At first I thought I was feeling nostalgia, but it’s not that: it’s just been that long since I felt life this way. I do think of things that I haven’t thought of for a long time, but they’re neither good nor bad. Just experiential, like the way my mother’s apartment looked, or the way Lucia’s Garden, a store in Houston, smells.
I wonder how long I’ve been “asleep”.
Then there are the philosophical implications of it all. Where do I stop? Where does the illness begin? Is there a difference? If not, how do we judge which of my behaviors are “normal” and which ones are not? Psychiatry has been asking these questions for over a century, and there are some who believe that all psychiatric “illness” is created as a way to pathologize anyone not conforming to the current standards of “normal”. I disagree. I believe someone goes from being eccentric to being diseased when they can no longer function in life, or they become a danger to themselves or someone else.
I’m sure I’ll be asking myself these questions for a looooooong time to come along with a lot of others. In the meantime, I keep trying to Zen-ify my life. It really does need to be as simple as getting good sleep, eating good food, getting a lot of exercise, doing things that make me happy (gardening, karate, yoga, cooking), and staying as stress-free as possible. I imagine that means some things and perhaps people will have to be pared away, but perhaps for the first time in my life, I am the most important person in my life, and when I am done taking care of myself, then and only then will I make room for others. Obviously there has to be some leniency when it comes to the husband and daughter, and we’ll all need help through this transition, but after 39 years, I’m done being second fiddle to anyone. It’s a pity that it took a near mental breakdown to get here, but I’m finding an awful lot of silver linings in this black cloud, and I feel as though the Universe is watching over me for the moment.