Letter to Someone Recently Diagnosed With Bipolar Disorder

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Dear Friend,

If you have just received a bipolar diagnosis: Inhale. Exhale.  Don't be afraid.

I learned that acceptance of my mental health diagnosis was the most important step toward wellness. That acceptance did not happen right away.

A college student with bipolar disorder

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in December 1980 while a student at Wesleyan University. At that time, I was committed to a state hospital by two doctors who determined that I posed a danger to myself and others.  After 15 days, having been medicated out of mania, I was discharged from the facility.

During my stay, the doctors offered to treat the illness with lithium. Believing that taking medication meant something was wrong with me, I declined the offer. As a 21-year-old adult, I was allowed to make my own decision. In hindsight, I wish someone I respected had challenged that choice. However, at the time, no one knew I was processing my illness as an anomaly.

By March 1982, two months before my college graduation, I had a psychotic break that was frighteningly reminiscent of my grandmother's bipolar I illness.  My parents and I consulted a therapist who told us that my illness was so severe that I could eventually end up in custodial care. Finishing college, marrying, and having children were unlikely for me.  I was committed to a state psychiatric hospital for a second time. Doctors informed me that I would not be discharged from the hospital until I agreed to a medication regimen to continue after the hospitalization. Although I agreed to the medication regimen, I continued to deny the illness.

Norman Cousins wrote, “Don't deny the diagnosis, try to defy the verdict.” That is precisely what I have done.

But I’m healed

By 1983 I decided I was healed and stopped taking medication without my psychiatrist's approval. As you would imagine,  I ended up in  a psychiatric hospital shortly thereafter. Once again, I was deemed a danger to myself and others. After being medicated out of mania, I returned home and resumed my medication regimen as prescribed, made my life small, and continued to deny my bipolar I diagnosis. I remained in recovery for the next three years, thinking those personally horrific manias had ended forever.

In November 1986, I recognized an abrupt escalation in my mood. This was the first time I was self-aware enough to go to a hospital on my own.  I was hospitalized for the fourth time. After being discharged I finally accepted my bipolar I diagnosis and enlisted the expert guidance of a pastoral counselor. I wanted to decrease the frequency and severity of my cycling.  He led me through a two-and-a-half-year therapeutic process in which I  examined my psychic blockers.

I have been living in recovery for more than 25 years.

Defy the verdict

Norman Cousins wrote, “Don't deny the diagnosis, try to defy the verdict.” That is precisely what I have done.

In my memoir, Defying the Verdict: My Bipolar Life, I detail what I did to live a healthy life in defiance of the therapist’s accurate verdict. The most important first step in my lasting recovery was acceptance of my diagnosis.

I now live a healthy life according to my wellness recovery plan that includes meditation, exercise and prayer as well as identifying and avoiding triggers so I can live as peacefully as possible.  I also visit a psychiatrist quarterly for medication management.

If you have just received a bipolar diagnosis, I implore you to accept your diagnosis and create an individualized wellness recovery plan. As with any illness,  early detection and acceptance make way for better management.

Always remember, a mental illness is a physical illness. You can live a full life with a mental health diagnosis.

Keep the faith.

Charita