I was misdiagnosed as bipolar for 6 years. I’m only now getting my life back.

I have spent a ridiculously long time trying to get my sh*t together. That’s just the honest truth. A big part of that has to do with the fact that I was misdiagnosed as bipolar, which resulted in a six-year-long goose chase, trying medications that were never actually going to work.

It took a savvy psychiatrist, an incredibly patient therapist, two nightmarish hospitalizations, and a battery of psychotropic medications to finally sort out the problem.

I wasn’t bipolar at all. I had obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder, and complex PTSD. And as such, we needed a whole different approach.

I tried antidepressants for the first time. It was like the sun parting through the clouds, with a chorus of angelic voices being heard in the distance (this sounds dramatic, but seriously, it was a huge relief). I started trauma-informed therapy and I learned more about OCD (“pure obsessional” in particular, the kind that I struggle with).

Slowly but surely, something shifted. I started feeling calm. I started feeling… happy? And as I moved away from “survival mode” — really, the only headspace I’d ever known — I was able to ask myself questions I’d never thought to ask.

What makes me feel joy? Who do I want to spend my time with? What goals do I have for myself and my personal growth? What do I enjoy doing, and how do I make more time for it? What kind of future do I want for myself?

These were trains of thought that I’d never explored before. A lot of my previous ruminations focused on keeping myself safe, creating more stability, coping with mental illness, hanging onto my job while deeply depressed, surviving until my next appointment. It was how to get through the day, more or less.

But now? There’s so much more space — in my brain and in my life — to start exploring what makes life worth living.

And that’s just it. That’s what many people don’t understand about mental illness. You can’t hold on for a brighter future you’ve never envisioned and are incapable of imagining. You can’t create happiness out of thin air, when you lack the resources and space to pursue it. When you are trying to survive for another 24 hours, that struggle eclipses everything else.

Imagine living with this for most of your life. How, then, are you supposed to envision — much less understand — something that you’ve never truly experienced or had?

Feeling genuine happiness and safety for the first time feels like waking up from a very bad dream. I rebound from disappoint and sadness quickly. I’m calm in the face of stress and conflict. I’m optimistic and energetic, which is a strange thing to say, because those aren’t words I would’ve ever associated with myself.

And that’s just it: I think some people have the impression that once a mentally ill person seeks out help, it’s only a matter of time before things get better.

But that’s not always true. Even in the best case scenario, for someone like me who was compliant and persistent — and whose care was accessible — it took years before we understood the complexity of what I was dealing with and how to treat it.

I’m left wondering if this is how I was supposed to feel all along, and how many years that misdiagnosis robbed me of. I’m not one to dwell on that sort of thing, but it highlights a really terrible reality for some people when they’re navigating psychiatry — sometimes, one wrong diagnosis on our chart can send us down the wrong path for years.

In my case, a psychiatrist I saw for fifteen minutes when I was 18 years old drastically impacted the next decade of my life. A psychiatrist who, by the way, said I was too young (and my grades in school were too good) to need her help, and accused me of exaggerating my pain just to get medication.

She put “bipolar” in my file, until a new psychiatrist six years later looked at the many medications I was on with little progress and said to me, “Something isn’t right.”

I’m grateful to be truly well and invested in my life for the first time. I’m also incredibly sad for the many folks that don’t receive the care they need and, as a result, spend years barking up the wrong tree and suffering from totally preventable crises.

It took one psychiatric hospitalization to flag for my clinicians that something wasn’t working, and yet another hospitalization months later to safely pull me off of the many (completely wrong) medications that I was on. Meds that turned out to be not only very powerful drugs, but completely unnecessary ones.

I’m now building a life for myself that makes me incredibly happy, while grieving the time that it took to get here.

And that’s… well, how it goes sometimes. My mental health journey has taught me so much about my own resilience, and I cherish this happiness in a way that I wouldn’t otherwise if it came easily to me. Just the same, it’s a sobering reminder of the consequences when someone gets it wrong.

It took eight years total to finally get the proper care for my mental health.

So what have I learned? A few things. For one, I’ve learned to question my clinicians again, and again, and again. At the risk of being annoying, I’ve found that being more active in my care has led to better outcomes. I’ve learned how to advocate for myself and how to fire a clinician, too. (I talk a little more about these things in this blog.)

I’ve also learned what kind of therapy works best for me, and I’m a lot less bashful about letting a therapist know if and when something isn’t helping me (and just as importantly, when something is helping!).

It’s upsetting that we have to work so hard to get the care we deserve. But it can also be empowering, in a way, when we realize that we aren’t entirely helpless.

I wish someone had told me eight years ago that I was allowed to reject any diagnosis, any clinician, and any kind of treatment that didn’t feel right. But now that I know, I’m finally getting what I need.

So if no one has told you this before, I’m happy to be the first: You deserve the best possible care. By any means possible. Seriously.

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9 thoughts on “I was misdiagnosed as bipolar for 6 years. I’m only now getting my life back.

  1. bobcabkings says:

    “Imagine living with this for most of your life. How, then, are you supposed to envision — much less understand — something that you’ve never truly experienced or had?” This gets to something critical. I think that a lot of psychiatrists, therapists, and well meaning friends and family get caught in not understanding that they are “trying to explain the color Red to a blind person.”

    And, I agree, from the other side of the desk, that patients/clients need to be able to tell their treatment providers when something is not working, and be heard when they do.

    I’m glad you are feeling so much better.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pax Ahimsa Gethen says:

    “In my case, a psychiatrist I saw for fifteen minutes when I was 18 years old drastically impacted the next decade of my life. A psychiatrist who, by the way, said I was too young (and my grades in school were too good) to need her help, and accused me of exaggerating my pain just to get medication.”

    How could a trained psychiatrist possibly say that an 18-year-old is too young or too smart to need professional help?? I’ve been in and out of therapy since elementary school, and my grades were always good. That psych doesn’t deserve to have a license.

    After trying three different meds to treat my depression, two of which didn’t help and one of which caused a grand mal seizure that landed me in the emergency room, I’m not willing to get back on that merry-go-round yet. But I’m glad that you’ve found treatment that works for you.

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  3. bscritic says:

    Your first-hand experience is very powerful. Thank you for explaining that therapy requires teamwork between the client and the therapist. Mental health issues are so complex and incompletely understood that expecting providers to figure them out with consistent accuracy is expecting too much. On top of that, there are many incompetent professionals. I don’t think we’ll ever have simple diagnostic tests, so mental health treatment will always be a combination of science and art. I’m glad you have been persistent, self-aware, and a good writer.

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  4. hellotishakitty says:

    I was misdiagnosed with biopolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. I was a wreck from age 18-25 due to the inefficient meds and treatment I received. Then from 25-36 I was med free. Only this year was I able to admit to myself that I was suffering from depression and started an anti depressant. It definitely felt like as you described, with the sun parting through the clouds! And thank you for sharing your story. It is so helpful to hear someone else’s experiences in this.

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