OPINION: The diagnosis that made me quit drinking
IN THE last year I can probably count on one hand the times I've been to a social event that didn't revolve around drinking. As someone who quit alcohol 10 months ago this is both challenging and eye opening.
Refusing a drink is blasphemous to our drinking religion. If you're not pregnant, on death's door or driving, then no one understands your choice. Being an innocent bystander to drunken antics makes people nervous, and silent judgment is flung your way.
And refusing alcohol isn't easy. There are many times that I've desperately wanted to crack.
Making conversations with strangers can be painful without a shot or two of courage. It can be isolating being on the "outer" to the inner drunken jokes. And is there really anything better than a cold beer on a summer's afternoon?
But the reasoning behind my decision is strong.
My mental health issues started in school and rapidly snowballed with age. By my teens I was experiencing both anxiety and depression, interspersed with periods of stability.
There were months on end where I'd feel happy, confident and blessed, but these were followed by weeks where I felt extremely low. I questioned my self worth, knew I was bad company and wanted to cocoon myself in my doona and never come out.
Unlike the up days when I was the social butterfly, the down days I wanted to talk to no one. There were enough conversations going on in my own head, that I didn't need anymore.
By the time I hit my early twenties my mental health was at its worse. My parent's divorce, my emigration to Australia and an unhappy relationship fed the black dog steak every day. He kept returning for more.
My anxiety had spiralled into full on panic attacks, my lows had increased in intensity and length and I struggled with social situations. That is, until I discovered self-medication through alcohol.
I've drunk on and off since my early teens, but back then it was only social. I spent many nights in the park with a bottle of cider when I was underage. This then progressed to bars when we all had our ID's.
But I'd never relied on drink to have a good time or as a form of escape. This time was different. I was in a different headspace and alcohol made me feel good.
The demons were chased away and I felt "normal" if only for a short time. I could leave the black dog home on his bed asleep while I danced and drank the night away.
Not long after this I was diagnosed with depression. The medication made me feel a bit more stable, but still didn't beat the release of alcohol.
I continued to drink during a breakup, a subsequent move interstate and even during the first few years of my marriage. It wasn't until a year ago that the problem started to gain momentum.
My low moods had been getting noticeably longer and reaching for the bottle had been the only way to cope. I became so used to functioning with a hangover that it just became my "norm".
Before long I realised that my drinking was out of control, as were my moods, and I knew that I needed to get help.
Ironically enough, help came in the form of a bipolar II diagnosis.
Bipolar II is characterised by manic highs and prolonged lows. During highs, sufferers will feel elated, invincible and often partake in risky behaviours. During lows, sufferers will feel depressed, emotional and irritable.
According to mental health site, Headspace, at least one in every 100 people will experience bipolar during their lives, and approximately 50% of those who develop bipolar will do so by the time they're in their early to mid 20s.
Often these sufferers are initially misdiagnosed with depression.
Researchers have found that for most sufferers there's a delay from the onset of the first symptoms to diagnosis of bipolar of approximately 12.5 years.
In the meantime a lot of sufferers, such as myself, turn to substance abuse for relief.
Coming to grips with my diagnosis has been both a shock and a relief. Somehow the label "bipolar" feels more stigmatised than depression, but that's probably due to lack of awareness.
But the relief of knowing that there's light going forward is like no other.
When it comes to mood stability, my medication and alcohol is like putting on the gas near a naked flame. I may not necessarily get burnt but I'll certainly put myself at risk.
Being teetotal is not without its challenges and I still miss that release. But for the sake of my mental health, my relationships and my life it's a small sacrifice to pay.
I have to remember that a drunken night only lasts a few hours, but the damage done could last for weeks.