Bipolar 2, Mental Illness and Pop Culture

When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, things began to make sense. Over the years, various doctors and therapists had insisted that my depression was unipolar and that sometimes I just went through “bad spells.” So, I thought it was normal that my mood just kind of ebbed and flowed… I may not have been able to leave bed for the whole week, but once the weekend came, I was up all night, I could socialize and imbibe, and I wouldn’t worry about my bank account being overdrawn.

Everything finally made sense four years ago. A trial run of Accutane for the hormonal adult acne that cursed my 30s landed me at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) with a major depressive episode. I met the man who’d become my psychiatrist.

One of the first meds my psychiatrist tried putting me on was a little white pill, an anti-depressant. And boy, did that ever work! Within a couple weeks, I was jumping out of bed, wanting to do nothing but shop, make elaborate vacation plans and have sex. I mean, I was getting moodier, quicker to snap and easily annoyed. But that’s just how I am sometimes! Thank god I wasn’t depressed anymore. My new doctor had found the trick! I was cured! I could just be my impulsive, combative, easily-aggravated, fun and messy self.

It turns out, I’d gone from a depressive episode to a hypomanic episode. This was enough for my psychiatrist to diagnose me with bipolar 2 disorder.

With hypomania, your moods can vary between euphoric and irritable and there’s a lot of impulse control issues. The lack of impulse control and grandiose thoughts can lead to risky behaviours such as overspending, overdrinking, hypersexuality, gambling, insomnia, racing thoughts, reckless driving and getting into fights. This time, my hypomania was triggered by an anti-depressant. Hypomania—and bipolar depression—can be triggered by a lot of different things – a medication change, a traumatic event, a major life change (moving, marriage, divorce, childbirth, etc.), a change in weather, or even just being cut off in traffic.

It took trial and error, but my psychiatrist and I found the right balance of mood stabilizers and an anti-depressant. I began attending support groups, I began seeing a talk therapist and I received cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). I started feeling better. I was calmer and happier and more confident, but in a healthy way.

Once I started feeling more balanced, something came over me that I hadn’t felt in a very long time—a desire to create! I used to want to write, but I always felt too anxious to share it. I didn’t think I had anything worth sharing. I would write something, criticize it, and just listen to that voice in my head that told me it was trite and to not bother, that I had nothing new or interesting to contribute. But using my CBT tools, I welcomed this desire instead of running from it. I took a few night classes and realized and recognized my talent. I started a website, and started submitting my work for publication. Along the way, new creative pursuits came; collaging, embroidery, and most notably, podcasting.

Since my mental illness is a big part of who I am, I wanted to create a space where I could share mine and other peoples’ stories and to be an advocate. I wanted to talk about mental illness, mental health, addiction and trauma, but in a way that was true to my spirit. After re-watching Young Adult—a film where its protagonist felt like it could’ve been partially based on my life—it came to me! Mental health and pop culture!

My first episode was me sharing my truths: that I live with bipolar 2, trichotillomania and social anxiety disorder, and I’m a recovering addict. I talked about my personal mental health shero, Britney Spears, and how much I relate to what she’s been through and the great amount of admiration, love and respect I have for her for continuing to deal with her own struggles and triumphs while in the spotlight. And I shared about how much of myself I saw in Young Adult’s Mavis Gary (played by Charlize Theron) in her brashness, egotism, love of junk food and her seeming to be mentally stunted at the age where she was at her “peak.”

These aren’t the most flattering things to admit about oneself, but I figured that if I was going to have guests trust me, I needed to be real.

Since last June, I’ve talked with people from Toronto and beyond with lived experiences in mental illness, addiction and trauma. I’ve learned more about why certain pieces of pop culture have resonated with friends, and I’ve reached out to strangers to find out more about them—something my social anxiety would have prevented me from doing in the past!

I’m a pop culture junkie—music, movies, TV shows, celebrity gossip, awards predictions, tabloids, cultural criticism, you name it. In the past, people have tried to tell me that my interest in celebrities and their work was shallow or frivolous. I feel that with Pop & Down, I’m part of a bigger conversation about why pop culture is important to us.

Pop culture can be hugely helpful when it comes to one’s mental health. It can mean a lot if you see yourself represented, like I have in Young Adult, Britney and more. Seeing traits we love—or want to learn to love—about ourselves reflected on the screen can help us feel less alone. A song can bring us back to a good memory. An actor’s story of recovery from addiction can turn you into a fan. Turning on a TV show that makes you laugh, or an old favorite, is sometimes all the self-care we have time for, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

And as for the poor representations of mental illness, addiction and trauma in the media? They make me all that more dedicated to getting realistic stories out. To welcome more people to share their lived experiences on Pop& Down and hash out these conversations of problematic representation. And to keep sharing my story, to keep advocating, and to keep putting myself out there in a stable, thoughtful way that is true to myself. No, I’m not a doctor. I haven’t studied psychology or social work. But one time I did win a pop culture game show! I’m a woman who lives for pop culture while living with mental illness.

I never thought I’d have a calling. But once I learned I’d been living with bipolar and began treating it, I wanted to share it with, and relate to, others. Talking mental illness’ connection with pop culture has connected me with so many like-minded people with similar experiences. I’ve also been fortunate to write a few pieces on the subject! But with being properly diagnosed with bipolar 2 and being on the right dose of medication, I’m able to approach my new passion and goals with a balanced, yet hopeful perspective.