A psychic once told me that my mood disorder was caused by the Pitocin used to induce my mom’s labor: I was prematurely forced out of the safe place in utero. I disagree with her logic, because my twin sister was booted out with me and she’s normal. But I do think I emerged from my mother’s womb with a serious dent in my limbic system—the brain’s emotional center—and short a few neurotransmitters.
Symptoms from Early On
As a child, I suffered from severe anxiety and exhibited symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I performed rituals, such as turning off the lights 20 times before I went to bed, and obsessed about things like where my tongue should be positioned when I swallow. I flapped my arms when I got excited, much like a child with autism, and I was easily overstimulated and overwhelmed by sounds and changes in light.
My depression continued to morph into a new beast with every stage of development. In junior high, I developed an eating disorder; in high school, I abused alcohol. When I arrived at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, I was newly sober and started therapy for the first time. That’s when I realized all of this pain had a name: depression.
Would Medication Help?
My therapist strongly recommended I take some antidepressants, but I was adamantly opposed. All of the folks around me—especially in 12-step groups and sobriety circles—viewed psych drugs as “happy pills,” a cop-out from the hard work of recovery from an addiction. Others convinced me that spiritual growth was born from inner turmoil, and that I’d be opting for a “quick fix,” eliminating the opportunities for lessons and insights learned in pain.
A year and a half later, after researching the biological basis of depression like a fourth-year med student cramming for exams, I decided to try a small dose of antidepressants. My therapist/doctor and I tried a few combinations before stumbling on the winning combination of Prozac and Zoloft. For the first time in my life, I could relax enough to have fun. I could concentrate on my studies without all the frustrating attempts that ended in tears, and sobriety became much easier to sustain. I no longer craved booze to quiet the noise in my head.
Following college graduation, I enjoyed 10 years of mental stability. Yeah!
Childbirth, a Trigger
Nothing disrupts a woman’s biochemistry—especially her adrenal and endocrine systems, her entire hormonal flow—like conceiving, carrying, and giving birth to a baby. Thus, motherhood delivered me to my most severe depression.
Shortly after I weaned my second child, Katherine (now age 6), I descended into a harrowing place in my mind, where my thoughts were constantly trying to convince me to take my own life. It seemed that no matter what I did, the voices followed me, persuading me that rest and peace were found only in death.
I saw six different psychiatrists, each diagnosing me with something different: from borderline personality to ADHD. I tried 21 medication combinations, and every kind of alternative therapy out there: acupuncture, craniosacral therapy, yoga, Chinese herbs, magnets, homeopathic remedies, fish oil, and so on. I was hospitalized for a few days, and spent two months in a partial-hospitalization (outpatient) program, meaning I slept in my own bed but attended group therapy daily as well as psych visits.
But I didn’t get better.
A Diagnosis of Bipolar
Finally, my husband, Eric, and a friend suggested that I see a team of experts at the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorder Clinic. Following the consultation, I was hospitalized for a second time in the Johns Hopkins inpatient psych unit, and I found my present psychiatrist (number seven).
I gradually began to accept her diagnosis of bipolar disorder and to realize that I was dealing with a life-threatening mood disorder, one that would never totally go away. My symptoms would get better, yes. And I could manage my illness with medication (combination number 23), therapy, a healthy diet, regular sleep, exercise, and lots of support from friends, family members, and fellow manic-depressives. But I would forever have to fight for my sanity.