Surviving Suicide and Finding a Diagnosis

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Sadness, depression, anger, feeling out of place, knowing something was wrong with me; these are among my first memories.

I saw my first therapist at the age of seven, shortly after my parents split up for the first time. I was experiencing shortness of breath and coughing fits so extreme I would vomit. The inhaler didn’t help me breathe and the doctors wanted to put me on tranquilizers. Eventually, I recovered from the physical ailments, but the emotional ailments stuck with me.

It wasn’t until my teenage years that I started seeing a therapist regularly. I hated her. She didn’t listen to me. She asked me questions she thought would give her the information she needed. There was no silence inside those sessions, no room for me to find my words. I used to write letters to my therapist that I never gave her. They were full of words I couldn’t bring myself to say.

No one knew I had tried to kill myself.

When I was fifteen, I started hurting myself and attempted suicide for the first time. My therapist suggested to my parents that I see a psychiatrist. But the psychiatrist only asked me questions in front of my mother. When she left the room, he asked me if there was anything I wanted to say, but I still couldn’t find the words to tell the truth. No one knew I had tried to kill myself. It was a dirty secret that I was terrified to admit. I thought my parents would be angry.

At sixteen, my diagnosis was depression. At seventeen, it was depression and anxiety. At eighteen, I went off to college and attempted suicide for the second time. The university psychiatrist got me into regular counseling. I was diagnosed with major depression and given my first anti-depressant, which had no effect.

I thought I was just a lazy, weak, and useless person.

At nineteen, I moved across the country for a geographic cure and finally found a counselor that listened to me, but still didn’t get the right diagnosis. I was given anti-depressant after anti-depressant, each of which gave me new side effects, but no symptom relief. A part of me thought that the anti-depressant’s not working meant that there wasn’t actually anything wrong with me, that I was just a lazy, weak, and useless person.

After graduating from college at the age of 23, I finally found a psychiatrist who put the pieces together. He asked detailed questions and got a thorough history. He drew a physical timeline of my moods that made the bipolar pattern emerge. He was the first doctor to give me a useful diagnosis that made sense. Rapid Cycling Depressive Bipolar Disorder II.

Sixty-nine percent of people with bipolar disorder are misdiagnosed, and one-third of these don’t get the correct diagnosis for more than ten years. Anti-depressants can be incredibly dangerous to people suffering from bipolar disorder, exacerbating symptoms and generally making people feel worse or having no effect at all.


Photo by kropekk_pl via Pixabay

But because we don’t talk about mental illness, it is impossible for people to know if they are getting correct diagnoses or medications. From my first diagnosis, to the correct diagnosis it was almost ten years. And once I received that diagnosis, it took another five years to find a medication that actually made a difference. Three hospital stays, two more suicide attempts, and fifteen years of avoidable suffering.

The moment I was properly diagnosed changed my life.

The moment I was properly diagnosed changed my life. It was the moment that I realized I wasn’t a lost cause. There was a reason anti-depressants didn’t work for me. I wasn’t just a lazy, useless person. There was an illness that explained my suicide attempts, self-harming behavior, depression, and anxiety.

Getting the proper diagnosis made a world of difference. I am not a failure. I have a chronic illness that can be treated.

Steps to take if you need help:

  1. Make an appointment with a counselor.
  2. If you can’t get in to see a counselor or psychiatrist right away, make an appointment with a primary care doctor.
  3. While you are waiting for your appointment(s) research your symptoms. Knowledge is power. And while I don’t suggest that you self-diagnose, or self-medicate, educating yourself about what you’re experiencing can help you decide if what your doctor or therapist tells you makes sense.
  4. If you don’t feel heard by your provider, go see someone else and keep going to new people until you feel comfortable. If you don’t like your therapist or psychiatrist, they won’t be able to help you.
  5. If you can’t afford to see a doctor, most places have low-cost options. There are therapists and psychiatrists who offer sliding-scale fees and there are state-sponsored programs for low-income people.
  6. If medications don’t help or if they make you feel worse, tell your doctor. Make sure they’re addressing all of your symptoms and don’t give up on medications, because new ones are being created all the time. Even treatment-resistant mental illness can be treated.
  7. If you feel overwhelmed, ask a friend or family member for help. Reach out and don’t stop looking until you get the help you need.
Mental illness does not have to be a death sentence. You are not a failure. You are a strong, resilient person and if you have a mental illness, you have a chronic illness that can be treated.

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