Last summer, while hiking with my sister and our three dogs, we stumbled into a nest of yellow jackets. They swarmed us, covering our bodies, stinging repeatedly as we hollered and fled down the mountain.
Safely back at the car, we shook the rest of them out of our pant legs. We loaded up on Benadryl. Everyone else seemed okay, but I felt like someone was stepping on my lungs. My mood dropped precipitously. I reassured my sister I was okay. I drove a few miles to our mom’s house.
My mom was getting ready to leave as I arrived. I lay down on the couch. “I’m fine,” I said. “I just need to lie down for a little while. You don’t need to stay.” I closed my eyes and waited. I felt like I might be dying but told myself that was ridiculous. Hadn’t I been stung often as a kid? I could handle this. I shouldn’t make anyone worry.
Hours later I was still feeling strange. I got as far as the gas station. I couldn’t think and my reflexes were poor. After a while I returned to my mom’s driveway. I knew she’d already changed the sheets on the guest bed. She was asleep. I didn’t want to bother her so I curled up in the back of the car with my dog.
At 5am I made the drive home to Boston.
A month later, while getting immunizations before starting grad school, I mentioned the incident to my primary care doctor. He started to ask questions. I told him I had felt pressure in my lungs. I told him my mood had plummeted but it was probably the Benadryl.
He looked at my very seriously. He said, “One of the symptoms of a severe allergy is an impending sense of doom.” “It is?” I said, “I thought I was just overreacting.” “You need an EpiPen and you need to see an allergist immediately.”
I thought that was unnecessary but I made the appointment. The allergist did a blood test. The results showed that I was a level four. I had a life-threatening allergy. The allergist warned that a future sting could result in anaphylactic shock.
What does this have to do with bipolar?
For me, it is a reminder of behavior I learned long ago. When the symptoms of bipolar disorder first began at age 19 I learned to hide. Although I was finally properly diagnosed at age 28 and have been diligent in treatment ever since, that learned behavior is deeply rooted in me. I revert to it when I’m not doing well.
Long ago I learned to keep my problems to myself, to wait it out until I felt better. I hid my symptoms of bipolar disorder for so long that it nearly killed me.
Why did I hide? For many reasons:
1.) I wasn’t educated about symptoms and didn’t really understand what was happening to me.
2.) I was a classic overachiever and felt that being loved was somehow contingent on being perfect
3.) My parents were former hippies who raised us to believe that poetry, kale, and nature walks were the best antidote to “feeling a little blue.”
4.) I am stoic and have always prided myself on being self-sufficient and in control of my feelings.
5.) I thought that depression was a sign of weakness and that surely I had the willpower to overcome it on my own.
That approach to mental illness nearly cost me my life. The yellow jacket incident reminded me that these ingrained coping mechanisms require a lifetime of awareness. Long after we seek treatment, we must continue to practice reaching out.
Please don’t make the mistake I made and wait so long to seek help.
Communication is the equivalent of an EpiPen when it comes to mental illness. No one should have to make the journey without it.
It is life-threatening to try to make the journey without it.
I continue to learn that asking for help is a sign of tremendous self-awareness and strength.