“You’re depressed,” he said over coffee at the college cafeteria. “You need help.”  Before I could take in his words, he had scribbled the name of a doctor who had prescribed him medications on the edge of a napkin and pushed it to my side of the table.

“Call him,” he said.

It wasn’t that his words surprised me; I had known for a long time that there was something wrong.

But how he knew proved a puzzle.

As far as I was concerned, I had done an excellent job of concealing my moods at work; it was only at night I’d let loose and give myself free rein to tell my husband how miserable I felt and how low I truly was. During the day, I’d put on my ‘party face’—talking a mile a minute, cracking jokes, charming students and fellow teachers. I was known as someone with a sharp, quick wit and bundles of energy. I thrived on back-and-forth repertoire, rarely offering a straight answer, eager to share a drink at a bar after class or a joint.

Only recently married, I ignored my husband’s occasional admonitions to slow down, to take a breath, to talk less. And when I crashed, which was often, I knew I could cover it because I had been concealing things since I turned 16.

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Across from me, he gathered the cups and stood. “Please,” he said.

I nodded as he loped away to deposit the dishes and shoved the napkin into my purse. Although it startled me that he had seen my unhappiness, I didn’t pay him much mind. Everyone knew that the poet, who carried shrapnel in his right leg from the war, was a little crazy; he often compared disgruntled faculty meetings to hand-to-hand combat and talked about students as the enemy. Although he was wildly talented, he could be moody and mean and most people didn’t get too close to him.

But from his arrival on campus, there had been something about him that intrigued me—a sense of danger and of woundedness. Of power and vulnerability. How he could work himself into a frenzy over words and writers and disappear for days, unable to be reached.

Meanwhile, I more or less forgot about the piece of paper folded in my purse. I taught my classes, hid under my comforter, tried to write. Late at night, unable to sleep, I roamed our house, my mind racing with regrets, wishes, ruminations. I had almost forgotten the poet’s words, when I came upon him one afternoon in the stairwell, slumped against a wall. His normally chiseled face looked fallen, and I saw there were tears scrawled beneath his eyes.

I hurried back up trying to get away before he saw me but behind me, I heard, “Did you call?”

I wished I could say that was the afternoon that I phoned the doctor, drove to his office, and was diagnosed with bipolar 2. That with the precisely right medications and talk therapy, within weeks, my moods had stabilized.

But that would be a lie.

Hiding from The Truth

In truth, it would be almost five years, and really closer to seven, before I finally received the correct diagnosis.

That between that first doctor, who claimed never to have been depressed in his life and needed his patients to explain the condition to him, who prescribed imipramine that made it difficult to pee and put weight on my stomach and thighs, to the second and third and fifth and seventh, there were sessions that ran from the pointless to the intense to the ridiculous and there was an assortment of prescribed drugs that ranged from Abilify to Xanax, with everything in-between: Prozac, Lexapro, Topomax, Remeron, Depakote, Wellbutrin, Effexor, Pristiq. Some made me sleepy, others nauseous, others so dopey I had trouble locating words.

All the while, the doctors speculated: clinical depression? Mood disorders?  And then, at last, bipolar 2.

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“What’s that?” I asked.

Like most people, bipolar brought to mind up and downs, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Rampaging moods of overspending, promiscuity, irrational anger versus hiding away in bed, sheets pulled to my collarbone, avoiding everything in the world.

“No,” I told the psychiatrist who proffered the diagnosis. “You’ve got it wrong.”

From his chair across the room, he studied me. Tall and narrow with a shock of dark black hair, he had once arrived at our morning appointment wearing two different shoes and socks, explaining, when he saw me staring, that because he and his wife had recently welcomed a baby boy into their lives, he had to dress in the dark. How, I wondered now, could such a person, so upended in his own life, pass judgment on me? But before I could pose the question, he sighed.

“Look,” he said. “This is a good thing. If we name it, we can help.”

I remember the room had no windows and how, at that moment, all I wanted was fresh air. Having a name for what was wrong with me was not better; what I wanted was to be told that everyone was wrong, that they had made a mistake, that I was fine. That despite a disordered upbringing and a mother who quite likely had some form of mental illness herself, I had emerged, AOK.

“I think you’re wrong,” I told him.

Across from me, he tented his fingers and smiled. At least his shoes and socks matched.

“Let’s see,” he said.

He pushed himself to the desk and opened the drawer and pulled out some sample packs of pills and handed them to me. He explained the dosage and schedule. After a while, he finished talking and I stood, smiled, and left the office. At the desk, I wrote a copay, then made my way to the parking lot.

It was summer; sun rays beat down on the asphalt. Inside the front seat, I sat and stared at my hands on the driving wheel. Bipolar 2, I said out loud. And wondered, what the hell it had to do with me.

*Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of essays about living with bipolar 2.

Last Updated: Sep 30, 2021