I’ve been reflecting recently on the way I view my own mental health. I write often on here, and on twitter, about hitting a ‘hypomanic period’ or a ‘depressive period’ because, as I leap from one to another, I think of them as separate events. But not only does a hypomanic ‘period’ inevitably lead into a depressive one, they aren’t isolated incidents. They are, cumulatively, cyclothymia itself.
It’s been useful (necessary?) for me, up to now, to think of them as separate events which I pass between and through rather than thinking of them, along with my ‘stable’ periods, as a whole, and a connected manifestation of cyclothymia. I needed to think of them as distinct periods which had clear starts and ends because then I am not always ‘within’ cyclothymia – I didn’t know how else to conceptualise it, how else to describe it without suggesting it defined my entire life. Increasingly, this kind of thinking has made me feel more despairing about experiencing highs and lows; why can I never stamp those emotions down permanently? Why do those feelings keep resurfacing when I beat them down last time? What am I doing wrong that I can’t win the war?
I’m thinking, today, about the language of chronic illness. I found this article an interesting read: 5 ways you’re not ‘living’ with chronic illness which recommends some shifts in how we think about our own chronic ill health in order to prevent it taking over/directing one’s entire life. When I decided to stop therapy and come off meds I believe I addressed the first point – stop looking for the why. There are many, many theories from genetic to social and beyond that propose reasons why individuals develop cyclothymia and other conditions; none of them offer me a solution. So why was I pursuing treatments which offered me little help but were founded on one or more of those theories? As I’ve said before, med free is not the right choice for everyone, but I got so little from the various drug treatments I tried, walking away instead of pouring more energy into finding the ‘miracle’ cure for me was the right way to stop living under cyclothymia and start living with it.
Point 2 is also something I’m fortunate I’ve been able to achieve.
Point 3 gives me pause though; you’re not living with chronic illness if you’re hating yourself. Self-loathing is both symptomatic of cyclothymia and caused by it. I, like many other people I have spoken to with this illness, have lost things and people that mattered because of some of the ways cyclothymia manifests itself in both action and personality. And, as I mention above, I come to hate myself for not being able to fix myself, for not being able to simply step out of this restrictive jacket of cyclothymia and into a life of cheerful ease. Which leads me, as it does the article, into point 4; you’re not living with chronic illness if you’re fighting it. This doesn’t mean stop trying to improve my health and manage my illness; it means accepting a paradigm shift from thinking of it as something to be ‘cured‘ or ‘fixed’ to thinking of it as something to be managed, contained and yes, as the article’s title says, lived with.
I am not failing because the ups and downs keep coming. I am not [and I struggle to write this, but I must try to explore the idea] unlovable because I have mood swings. I am coping. I am managing to get through my life in lots of ways that are great, and celebratory. I am not a fighter – I am resilient. Winning (if we must persist with the language of a fight) with chronic illness like cyclothymia, means carrying on each day and finding and using new ways to make life easier, moods more manageable, and life more fulfilled.
For example, right now I’m once again in a particularly brutal down-swing. And I find myself compulsively harming myself; simply to contain my emotional extremes, in order to, for example, prevent myself from crying on the bus home, or from weeping during a party. If I think of each down-swing as a separate event, I have no explanation for my self injurious behaviour.
If I think of all my down-swings as part of a single experience of mental ill health (which of course, is precisely what it is and why my entire emotional experience is diagnosed with a single condition) then my current behaviour is simply a resurgence of a symptom I have less frequently than some others. It’s just a ‘flare up’ of one of the least pleasant elements of this illness. And if that’s true, it’s not that I’ve totally failed to maintain my previous progress, it’s just that, this time, the down-swing is particularly intense and as long as I keep moving forward (point 5 from the article) after this, and keep thinking of what I can do to make those symptoms less destructive and emerge less frequently (perhaps by identifying what has pushed me that bit further this time – stress?) then I am living with cyclothymia. I am still in control.