I remember the first time I thought something was very different about me. I was 9 years old, practicing my violin for an upcoming competition and the pressure to perform perfectly loomed. I spent hours alone alternating between crying (at how beautiful the music was) and screaming out loud at myself how horrible I sounded whilst hitting my bow against the music stand (luckily I didn’t break my bow). Somehow, I was aware this wasn’t quite how “regular” people dealt with stress, and though I knew it was odd that I often went from zero to a hundred in a matter of seconds, I didn’t know how not to. Growing up, I was continually told I was “highly sensitive” and needed to “develop a tougher skin.” My erratic behavior was seen as an eccentric artistic temperament — and as a child, much was forgiven. In my teens, it was teenaged angst, and occasionally, when I went too far, I was grounded or got detention. I learned how to cope, but the raging storm inside my brain never quite subsided.
Fast-forward to 2001, where in my early 20s I was working 80-hour weeks in event sales in lower Manhattan. I survived on little sleep, little food and was the life of the party from the moment I left the office. I worked hard and played harder. I made large commissions and spent more. I had been less than a mile from the Twin Towers when I watched the planes hit, heard them as they fell and helped survivors as they walked northbound covered in rubble and dust. I often got bored and went in search of the next thrill — be it a new friendship or romantic encounter. I didn’t think much about my behavior; however, I did notice that I never could quite feel happy like I once did. The point of this being that all the situations in which I found myself masked my underlying mental-health symptoms.
It was around this time that I first sought help from a therapist. I was diagnosed with dysthymic disorder until I deemed myself to be “all better” and stopped going.
Life continued — as did my symptoms. In retrospect, I think the symptoms likely went unnoticed because they were masked by seemingly healthy behaviors. At 25, I joined a triathlon team on a whim, fundraised and raced on behalf of a charity. I justified my lack of sleep because I “needed to train before work,” my impulsive purchases were for “necessary triathlon gear,” my hypersexual behavior because I was “meeting a bunch of new people” and my thrill seeking was … youthful exuberance. I think the reason I never thought anything was wrong was because I looked, and felt, so functional. It’s a fine line. Finally, at age 32, I arrived at a therapist’s office in debt, divorced, almost homeless and suffering panic attacks. I remember her asking me to look over the National Institute of Mental Health’s definition of bipolar disorder type 2. I remember crying because someone had finally explained me. For the first time in my life, someone understood and named what I was experiencing. I have never looked back.
Since my diagnosis, I have reflected on various difficult periods in my life, all punctuated by some of the cornerstone behaviors of bipolar disorder. For me, the earliest signs were unremarkable — a period of mild depression or a mild hypomanic episode (elevated mood lasting roughly four days) — and thus went unnoticed. I often blamed myself for not being disciplined enough: to regulate my emotions, to get a handle on my spending, to cut myself off from dating until I knew I could “handle it” properly — I never felt that anyone would understand why I was acting the way I was. Couple shame with the fear and stigma associated with mental illness, and you’ve got a disaster waiting to happen.
The 10th of October marked World Mental Health Day and I am reassured to witness an approaching tipping point in terms of mental-health awareness. While every person who lives with bipolar disorder experiences it in a different way, we can collectively erode stigma by talking openly about mental illness and ending the toxic shame, fear and silence that prevent so many from seeking support. I choose to talk openly about my life, its ups and downs, and how I arrived at my diagnosis. But I know that sharing one’s diagnosis can feel risky. A job or other situation may even prevent you from being able to go public. My advice is to remember that you don’t have to hit what you determine to be rock bottom before improving your mental health.
Living with and talking about bipolar disorder has changed me in many ways. It has given me the opportunity to be a better friend, romantic partner, sister, daughter and colleague, and to build a trusted “care team” of friends, family and providers on whom I can rely. Being open about my struggles with mental health has allowed me to come to a new understanding of who I am as a whole person and looking at myself with kindness and compassion.
Chelsea Switzer is the corporate and foundation relations officer at Mazzoni Center. Born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Switzer is a dedicated student of Ashtanga yoga and classical violin, with a passion for anything relating to bread, cheese and whiskey and is a devotee of the Oxford comma.