Changing Habits General Growth

Why Bipolar Disorder is So Hard to Diagnose, and What You Can Do About It

It’s weird because we’re so used to having clear-cut answers in life. When I would have a cold, I would go to the doctor and he would prescribe antibiotics. The point is he knew what’s wrong with me and what needed to be done to make me feel better. I know bipolar disorder is a lot more complicated and I wish it wasn’t. For starters, I had symptoms of bipolar for three years before even seeking help. It’s because I had no clue about bipolar disorder and never heard of it. My psychiatrist was the first one to tell me I was bipolar and I asked him – what does that mean? He then explained it in detail. After was the long journey of trying to find the right combination of medications compatible with me. Medications with the least side-effects. At the same time, I started a lengthy research process on trying to find out as much as possible about bipolar disorder. It was a hard reading about a mental illness with no cure. A mental illness which takes time for you to find an equal ground or – find stability.

Over the years, I’ve read how several people are sometimes misdiagnosed with a different mental condition. The most recent being Sinead O’Connor. She was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, given the wrong medications for 12 years and now diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. I have bipolar and can’t imagine what she’s gone through her entire life.

So, I wanted to post my most recent journal entry. Last week, I took some time to sit a ponder about bipolar disorder and the challenges we face. I wanted to know if there’s a way to make it less devastating on someone’s life. Maybe if it wasn’t so hard to diagnose? Or, maybe getting diagnosed during the early stages would lower the over effect on someone’s life? I wonder the same for me and what would have happened if I got diagnosed three years earlier in 1997 instead of 2000. Interesting questions…right?

Why I Was Diagnosed Late

I think for me it was not knowing enough about mental illness. In the early 90’s, mental awareness was not a popular topic for discussion. I guess people were less vocal about having a mental illness because they were afraid how others would look down at them for having depression or bipolar. I just didn’t know enough about mental illness to figure out something could be wrong. I blamed my condition on my lifestyle like drinking, drugs and not taking care of myself. I blamed my condition on the choices I was making. I truly thought that once I stop doing drugs and start taking care of myself I would get better. It’s only after stopping alcohol and smoking weed, I observe my pattern. I even started to exercise without having any success at getting better. This is when I knew I had some sort of problem and decided to seek help by visiting my family doctor.

Let’s fast forward to now and how mental awareness is at an all-time high. Read through my blog and you’ll find celebrities like Demi Lovato and Catherine Zeta-Jones writing about bipolar. They are advocates building mental awareness. It also helps that social media has become so popular over the years. I can touch the corners of the earth with a “tweet” on mental illness and how we need to pay a lot more attention to it.

Bipolar disorder also shares similar symptoms to other mental illnesses. This just makes it harder on you to pinpoint the fact you have a mental illness or something else. Even if you seek attention for a mental illness it’s hard to figure out what symptoms are because of bipolar or simply depression. You might think your suffering from depression without any clue that you’re manic too. Co-occurring symptoms even psychiatrists agree can throw you a curveball. It causes delays in diagnosing you correctly. With a mental illness, it’s important to get help right away before the condition worsens.

My Reason

I guess diagnosing my condition was difficult for two reasons –

a) I didn’t know enough about mental health and how it affects everyone. Not having enough information made it harder for me to know what symptoms were problematic. A lack of information didn’t give me any reason to think anything was wrong. I blamed my lifestyle choices not that I can be living with bipolar disorder.

b) The stereotype played a huge part in me getting the right help. Even after visiting my psychiatrist I waited to get my medication filled. I felt having a mental illness was a sign for the weak and meant you were broken. It meant I wouldn’t amount to anything in life. I would fail. I wanted to not admit something was wrong and taking medication meant something was broken with me. I wanted to get better on my own. But, instead, the time just worsen my symptoms.

Fixing This Problem

I say it’s a problem because getting a diagnosis is something we control. It’s something we choose not to do because we don’t take mental health seriously enough. It’s a problem we bring upon ourselves. But, we can solve this problem by doing the following –

1) Attentive to Mood Patterns

Your mood is magical. When you’re in a good mood you’ll be social, interact differently and get things done. When in a bad mood, you’ll be someone completely opposite. When I look back before being diagnosed, one of the biggest indicators that something wrong was my mood. I would be outgoing, social, working and getting things done then “boom” everything would stop. I didn’t know enough to think something was off but now I do. You should use the same queues in your life.

Track your mood and consciously think about the way you are feeling. It’s normal to have 1 or 2 bad days, but if you notice a pattern where you’re not happy or depressed frequently then gets some help. You can even talk to someone close letting them know how you feel. They’ll shed light on if your mood is normal and if you need to get professional help.

I think a major reason why we fail to get help sooner is we don’t pay enough attention to ourselves. We are too busy with others and external thoughts that we fail to direct our energy internally. Consciously think about yourself and how you are feeling. Look for a pattern even create a mood journal to help you keep track of how things are going mentality. If you notice a pattern where you’re sad, depressed and different from you’re normal self, then it does help to go see a professional.

I noticed my ups and downs way before seeing a psychiatrist. I finally decided three years later once things took a turn for the worse.

2) Transparency

Always be transparent with the way you’re feeling. By this I mean to be honest with yourself and when speaking to someone about your struggle. The worst thing you can do to yourself is not being honest about the way you’re feeling when speaking to a medical professional. This is the reason why so many people are misdiagnosed. Even a small error in communicating your symptoms can cause a misdiagnosis. Imagine seeing a doctor and not telling them about your constant mood swings? This is one of the main characteristics of bipolar disorder. Mania is what distinguishes a diagnosis of bipolar and depression. I’m sure there are others but hopefully, I got my point across.

Above I talked about writing down your thoughts and moods in a journal. I highly recommend this habit because you can present your journal to your psychiatrist during your initial appointment. The doctor will get an entire picture over the last few weeks. This will help with a more accurate diagnosis.

3) Spread Awareness

I feel I was diagnosed late. I sometimes wonder how things would have turned out if I was more proactive with my mental health. But, this shouldn’t stop me from doing my part and helping others. I try and do my part by blogging and letting others know it’s ok to have a mental illness. You can still accomplish everything you want in life. I do my part by talking about my symptoms, medication and what to look for if you feel depressed or hopeless. This makes me feel better and it allows me to help others get the help they need too.

If I can push someone to seek professional help earlier then I can make even more of a difference in their life.

4) Get a Second Opinion

I’m a big fan of getting second opinions. I’ve had two psychiatrists both agreed I have bipolar and both agreed on the course of action. I’m happy to say I’m managing it just fine. I encourage all of you to get a second opinion because it helps that two professionals agree on your diagnosis. This is another way to have a thorough physical examination. It’s a way for two doctors to ask similar and different questions. One might find something interesting which will help you get an accurate diagnosis. I feel getting a second opinion is a way to protect yourself from unintentional mistakes. We fail to see doctors as human beings who can make mistakes and need some guidance of their own too.

The key when getting second opinions is to be completely transparent (honest) with both. It’s so easy to get misdiagnosed when you’re telling one doctor one thing and the other something different. The best way to avoid this is by having a mood journal detailing everything. This way the same information is being delivered to both doctors.

Final Thoughts

I took me three years to get help after I started to notice my symptoms. I just didn’t have enough information and didn’t know something like bipolar can happen to me. It’s not something I thought about in my late teens. But, I’m wanting to be proactive in helping others. I encourage all of you to be conscious about the way you feel. You’re not weak because you get decided to get help. You’re stronger because you took proactive action. 🙂

Helping others beat bipolar disorder. After living with Bipolar for over 16 years, I have self-educated myself to come up with creative ways to live a normal productive life. It`s time to give back by helping others transform!