Why My “Label” Was A Gift

It was 3 AM, and my heart was racing. I was searching the internet for medical conditions that would account for the horrible abdominal pain I’d been in for the previous 4 months. I had gone to the doctor three times and gotten three different diagnoses and treatments (including a full-body CAT-scan) and was nowhere near improving. With my heart racing in the dark, quiet room, I felt awful. My stomach hurt and I was upset for no reason I could discern. I’d felt awful for months. At Christmas break a month before, I’d cried and told my mother that there was something wrong with me, but I didn’t know what it was. I felt like I was becoming invisible. The color had faded out of me, leaving only a sad feeling inside an empty outline. There was a song lyric I couldn’t stop repeating:

Well I thought someone would notice

I thought somebody would say something if I was missing

Well, can’t you see me?

Come on, color me in, come on, color me in.

Give me your blue rain, your black sky, your green eyes.

My friends were wonderful, my social life was vibrant, and I was in college, the coolest environment I’d ever been in. But something was seriously wrong with me, and I was desperate to find out what. I had dealt with depression in middle school, so I knew I was having more mental illness symptoms than just suicidal depression. Since the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with my gut, I looked up mental illnesses that could cause unexplained pain. I read through pages and pages of symptoms, not identifying myself completely in any of the conditions. When I got to bipolar disorder, my mouth dropped open involuntarily; it had to be this. This was what was wrong with me.

This gave me some hope, because now there was something I could do. I made an appointment with the closest psychiatrist to my school, about 40 minutes away. I don’t remember how long it took me to get an appointment (two weeks?), but I do know that in that amount of time, I had crafted a plan to end my life by hanging in an abandoned barn just off-campus. I thought I’d save that plan for after my appointment because that appointment was all the hope I had. If the doctor didn’t have any answers, that meant I couldn’t get better, and it was comforting that the barn would still be there if I needed it.

My girlfriend drove me to the appointment in a borrowed station wagon. It was midwinter in Ohio, so everything we passed was smoothed under a thick blanket of snow, and the sky was a tired color of white. I filled out the intake questionnaire; faced with all those questions, I realized how many things were wrong with me that I hadn’t even considered. In the appointment, the doctor asked me questions, the last three of which were “Are you considering suicide?”, “Do you have a plan?” and “What is your plan?”

The doctor calmly told me that I have bipolar II disorder and that I needed to go to the nearest psychiatric hospital ward. I told him no thank you, that I didn’t want to, and he said that either my girlfriend could drive me straight there or he would call an ambulance to take me directly from his office to the hospital. My girlfriend went back to campus alone to pack me a bag, came back, and took the newly-diagnosed me from the doctor’s office to the hospital.

As terrible as the next few months of my life were (it was hell on earth), I’d been given a great gift: a diagnosis. What was wrong with me had a name. That meant other people had it, that the symptoms are known and treatable, and I could now read other people’s advice and experiences. I could make appointments with professionals. There were medications, therapy, and treatments available. Some people got better, which meant I could get better, too. Most importantly, I was not alone.

I first understood the tremendous blessing of receiving a diagnosis during my first therapy appointment with a psychologist who specialized in bipolar disorders. She was the first talk therapist that I’d gotten to speak to since my two hospital visits (hospitals don’t typically provide much talk-therapy outside of groups; they are there to stabilize you and help you make a post-hospitalization care plan, which can include a talk therapist). There was a particularly striking moment that this realization came upon me, and it remains crystal clear in my often shaded memory. It was around 5 PM, so there was late afternoon light coming in through her office blinds. I was sitting in a comfortable wingback chair and she was sitting on a light brown sofa with round, cream-colored pillows beside her. She had beautiful fingernails and hair. I was listening as she told me about the challenges I would face in the years ahead. I couldn’t believe how much information she had. She had an entire professional career dealing with treating people who had bipolar disorder. Such a wealth of information, all available to me every Wednesday at 5! I went from being completely in the dark: scared, hurting and alone, to having a care team rich in resources. That was the moment I internalized my new reality; I had bipolar disorder.

Some people are afraid of labels, and doubly so with mental illness diagnoses. Will people think I’m freak? Will I be a pariah? Am I broken? Will I be alone forever? Am I doomed? Of course, to each of these questions, the answer is “no.” You are still you. Nothing new has been added to who and what you already are, other than a new word with which to describe part of your reality. When you’re diagnosed, you’re given your first big Clue. And like so many other clues in life, you can take it to Google and find endless results, full of personal stories, professional advice, message boards, communities (like TheMighty.com), practical coping skills, education on how to be an effective patient, and most importantly, you can find hope.

If you get a mental illness diagnosis, start your research with that as your search term. You can add terms like “coping with,” “treatments for,” or “blog” to it, depending on what you want. But research. It’s a good thing to get that label, even if it’s not something you ever wanted to be. No one wants this for themselves. But we’re not alone, and our collective knowledge saves lives every day.

I’ve spoken to countless others with mental illness who had the same reaction of hope and relief that I did when I received my diagnosis. It’s the relief that comes when you’ve been wandering in darkness, and someone turns on a light. Suddenly, you can see the obstacles you face, so you’re no longer tripping over and bumping into them, with no clue as to where you should be going. You’re able to give those obstacles names and then ask for specific help getting rid of them. I am so grateful for everyone who has ever been part of my care team and support network. Most of my obstacles I could not have overcome by myself. I’m still working on many of them, but at least I can see them clearly now.

My illness was a curse, but my diagnosis was a blessing. I hope yours is, too.


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Thoughts? I will listen.