The Challenge and Power of Accepting Your Mental Health Diagnosis


Content note: This story includes mentions of suicidal ideation.

When I was 18, I found myself in the throes of a debilitating depressive episode. Wracked with guilt for the debt my parents were accruing to send me to an out-of-state college, I took on a hefty course load, an internship, and two part-time jobs in the hopes of graduating a year early. But I couldn’t keep up. Each night, exhausted by my schedule, I lay awake as snippets of my day replayed through my head in jarring remixes. The sleepless hours piled up and the racing thoughts overwhelmed my mind. I began to fantasize about suicide as an escape.

At the time, I blamed my mental health on my environment, focusing on past traumas and financial stressors rather than the symptoms that were surfacing. So when I finally sought help and a psychiatrist diagnosed me with bipolar disorder, it was hard to accept. In my mind, if certain details of my life had been different, I wouldn’t have ended up here—bipolar II almost seemed too tidy an explanation for my suffering. I also equated the condition with harmful but common stereotypes: unstable, dangerous, volatile.

But I was desperate to feel better and willing to try any treatment. As the weeks rolled on, I struggled to stick with my prescribed medication due to a bunch of unpleasant side effects. When I had to stop taking one antidepressant, I developed terrifying brain zaps (electrical shocklike sensations) due to withdrawal. A few years in, I lost faith in my psychiatrist and ghosted her.

It wasn’t until my early 30s, during the height of the pandemic, that I had to reckon with the fact that I might actually have bipolar disorder. I moved states, away from my home of six years, to care for my grandmother after she broke her hip and back. Detached from our community, my husband and I felt isolated and lonely. I fell behind on my freelance writing projects and lost clients. Two years into this arrangement, Roe was overturned; reporting on the loss of my reproductive rights as a health journalist devastated me. Then, one after the other, my two dogs died. The nonprofit my husband worked for lost funding, forcing me to take on more work. Hours-long bouts of depression, rage, and suicidal thoughts consumed me.

What I didn’t know then is that bipolar episodes are often attached to high-stress periods. For months, I endured the worst depression of my life. I couldn’t get out of bed (after all, I didn’t have dogs to walk or feed anymore). My career, once a huge source of purpose, suddenly meant nothing. But it finally hit me that I was very not okay when I began lashing out at my husband, whom I adore. The amount of irritability I felt toward him was not appropriate or normal.

When I decided to get help again, at the age of 31, it was thanks to a writing gig. I had been reporting on bipolar disorder and could not ignore how much I related to the descriptions of hypomanic and depressive episodes. It felt embarrassing to admit it, over a decade later, but I had been running away from an explanation that fit. After an in-depth consultation with my new psychiatrist, I was prescribed mood-stabilizing and antipsychotic medications. And a few weeks later, I began to come back. On a beach trip with my family, I delighted in the simplest joys: putting on glimmery eyeshadow, ordering my mother a birthday cake, playing pickleball at sunset.



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