Not me opening this website again because I haven’t been sleeping much all week and feeling restless.
I never thought, growing up, that the biggest challenge ahead was going to be mental health. Actually, I didn’t understand the concept of mental health until I was 21. I thought the challenges ahead would be working hard to get the job of my dreams, falling in and out of love, deciding where I want to live and saving up to build an earthship. I was anxious about the fact I would never be able to read all the books ever written, and that I’d never have time to do all the things I wanted to do.
Now a couple years later my biggest challenge is finding the will to live and the motivation to exist. Dream jobs or career are out of the picture entirely, the future seems particularly murky and inaccessible, and I’m trying to go about life one day at the time.
On the bright side, I have finally found out what is wrong with me: I have cyclothymia, a type of bipolar disorder. I suspected I had it since I was 16, but went through periods of denial and proceeded to live a more or less normal student life. Fast forward seven years and here I am, unable to socialise, barely functional, exhausted from a year of back to back episodes, on medication, my only exciting dates being my monthly 30-minute visit to the hospital where my psychiatrist can yet again validate my feelings and give me medication. Let’s just say that it hasn’t quite been the best year of my life.
This isn’t a self-pity thing, I’m just genuinely impressed at how quickly everything can go downhill. I want write down about my specific experience with cyclothymia, because it really helps me to read detailed accounts of other people’s experiences, not just the DSM-style articles online. It just helps me make sense of what is happening to me.
To be entirely honest, I had completely forgotten about cyclothymia until spring of 2020. In high school, I discovered cyclothymia when we studied romantic literature. It was very relatable, and I had no idea it was a disorder, I thought it was just a way sensitive writers of the 1800s had conceptualized how we all experience moods. I forgot about cyclothymia when I discovered the Meyers-Briggs personality test. All my weird mood incoherences could suddenly be explained by the fact that I was a sensitive introvert seeking harmony (INFP-T if you were wondering).
In the spring of 2020 I woke up one morning feeling absolutely euphoric. I locked myself in my room, was pacing around. I had so many thoughts, so many ideas. I ordered six books on archeological excavations in Nineveh. I was feeling very, very good about myself. I decided that I should become a modern Assyrian goddess and made sketches for the body-jewelry I thought I would need to fulfill this sacred role. I was basically on cocaine.
Then I crashed. It was like a switch going off. I started crying uncontrollably and called my mom to ask whether anyone in my family was bipolar.
I started monitoring everything: what I ate, how I felt. I stopped drinking alcohol and caffeine. I started doing two hours of yoga in the morning and taking vitamins. I’d always slept soundly and generally catch all my eight hours a night. I thought if I checked all the boxes of a healthy lifestyle, and I still experienced such intense moods, it probably meant something was up.
My caffeine tolerance is terrible. Drinking anything remotely caffeinated (even hot chocolate) has always been a gamble. It either puts me in a creative frenzy, or gives me anxiety attacks. In any case, i’m in a terrible state of agitation.
I gave up on the idea of cyclothymia because my euphoric hypomanias have been few and far in between. I mostly simmer in low-grade depression.
Summers are particularly bad, because it’s hard to keep busy, and there is so much time at hand to ruminate. This year I convinced myself I had P.M.D.D., and went to see a psychiatrist about it. I described only my cyclical lows, but she said it sounded like cyclothymia to her, and I left the consultation with a benzos prescription and the adress of a bipolar diagnosis centre. The cyclothymia hypothesis was back on the table. I am now on Lamotrigine after a few weeks of the lowest lows of my life.
That was for context, but basically I’d like to share some subtle signs that I am now wondering might have been symptoms of cyclothymia all along.
Health anxiety and hypocondria. I have convinced myself so many times that I have an illness (generally STIs, and I usually obsess over it for a week on average). The advantage is that I get screened every year. I have a visceral anxiety about getting HIV/AIDS, which is apparently a common symptom of OCD. I don’t have OCD though.
Another thing is mild paranoia. It presents with gradual build up of frustrations towards a person or institution. I get very upset and emotional, and tend to passively agressively vocalise my fears. There is usually a reason for it, but looking back, my responses to perceived threats are quite intense. I once got very upset that I could no longer access JSTOR after having graduated from university, and proceeded to create an instagram page to store and make available academic articles, in a fit of rage against the way big platform conspire to capitalise on knowledge that should be accessible to everyone. I created a separate super-secure email adress to do so and tried to rope in all my friends in the project. A week later I couldn’t care less about JSTOR anymore.
I’ve also been incredibly upset with people, thinking they were out to get me or wanting to hurt my feelings on purpose, instead of understanding it might’ve been miscommunication and that they had no malicious intents towards me. This is a very subtle thing for me because I mostly consider myself a kind and open-hearted person, and these instances didn’t fit my vision of myself, so I think my memory cut them out of my auto-narrative.
Impulsivity. I’m quite an anxious person, so I’ve never really impulsively done drugs or gambled or taken reckless risks. My impulsivity usually manifests in texting people and posting on social media, and buying semi-expensive things that I consider “long term investments” (or comfort-hoarding), such as music instruments, gadgets, softwares, art supplies, books, and clothes, gifts. The impulse buys are usually anxiety-fuelled. I know I could probably borrow the things I need from a friend but I need to have one for myself so that it will always be at hand. I need my copy of this book I haven’t yet read but am very excited about. For example, these are some things I have bought this year: a pottery wheel, a projector, FinalCut pro. Just in case I become inspired to make videoart. I think it’s really a nesting thing. As for the texting, it usually comes from a place of euphoria and wanting to connect with humans. I feel the need to be intimate with everyone, even people I hardly know. It just makes sense to me that we are all human, and share so many things, that we can instantly connect. I try not to feel ashamed of it but it does feel cringe once the heat of the moment is over, and the messages are still there unopened or ignored.
Surge of creativity. this has accompanied my my whole life since teenagehood. the sudden tingle of creativity flooding the body, planning and plotting many projects, making lists and buying supplies, starting and never finishing any of it. I have so many stacks of half written or fully written sci-fi/Y.A. drafts of books lying around in boxes at my parents’.
Fatigue. I call it “tiredness behind the eye” (no one understands what I mean by that). It’s a crushing sort of tiredness, that makes you feel terribly sluggish and incapable of doing simple things, even moving muscles of your face or keeping your eyes open. Generally, this happened to me when I was younger and had to accompany family on boring outings. My brain felt very foggy, as if I could fall asleep any minute. It became impossible to have any expression aside from RBF and I would be constantly yawning, and feel melancholic and guilty and distressed at the same time because I could see I was disappointing people. But it also happens in other contexts, I think it just feels especially wrong when it’s with family.
Right now I’m having sleep disturbance, which rarely happens to me. I’m the kind of person who falls asleep pretty much the second my head hits the pillow, and sleeps soundly until the alarm. I sleep worse when on my period, and if I wake up before my alarm, I cannot fall back asleep. As soon as my eyes are open, I feel a rush of energy flood my body and there is no going back. But if I don’t get 8 hours, I tend to feel very tired. This week however, I’ve been sleeping 3h/4h/7h/3h/8h/3h per night, and I feel very rested.
Twitching and body aches. Stress gives me intense, unexplained lower back pain. The way I figured out it was stress is that it kept happening when I had an essay due soon. I also have an eyelid tic, that hasn’t bothered me in years but has now returned full force, so my eye is twitching a few hours a day (it might be due to the lamotrigine though). Stomach aches is also a classic.
Music. I have an obsession with music. It has just become a comfort thing at this point. I just need it to play in the background constantly. When I’m experiencing euphoria however, music becomes incredibly pleasurable. I put the volume to the max and just feel everything in my body and soul and spend hours just listening to songs and dancing. Generally a good indication of hypomania.
Ok, that’s all I can think of for now. If anyone with cyclothymia ever reads this, I’d be really interested in reading about your subtle symptoms :)