After nearly a decade of taking antidepressants, Shannon V., 30, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder II in 2018. She tried several different medications in addition to therapy, but nothing ever fully addressed her symptoms.
Bipolar disorder causes extreme shifts in mood, energy, concentration levels, and generally affects your ability to function. 1 With bipolar II disorder, you may have depressive episodes and feel hopeless, in addition to experiencing hypomania, a less intense version of mania (which makes you feel extremely energized). People with bipolar disorder often have anxiety disorders2 too, which can exacerbate bipolar disorder symptoms.
Shannon was also diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, which can make her feel extremely worried and lead to panic attacks during the depressive episodes she is prone to. For years she tried to minimize her symptoms and blamed work for her intense anxiety and depression. When the pandemic forced her to work remotely, Shannon realized that work wasn’t the cause of her panic attacks. Slowly, Shannon realized that she needed to accept that her bipolar disorder was the reason she was having a hard time and decided to find a bipolar disorder treatment that worked for her. (Keep in mind that your treatment options may change over time based on new research and newly available therapies. Make sure you have ongoing conversations with your doctor about which treatment options may be best for you.) Here’s Shannon’s story.
I turned 30 on May 1, 2021, and three weeks later I found myself sitting in a psychiatric hospital. I’d finally accepted that I needed help to treat my bipolar disorder symptoms. I’d been experiencing periods of intense depression and anxiety for several years, but up until recently, I’d been living in a state of denial. I finally acknowledged that this wasn’t just an issue with my work-life balance and that I needed to start addressing my bipolar disorder.
During my first semester of college in 2010, I went to my university mental health clinic and was prescribed various medications, but none really helped my depression and anxiety. In 2018, based on my family history and patterns in how I was feeling, I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder.
With my new diagnosis I started trying different medications. But part of me couldn’t believe the doctors. I thought that my moods were really caused by my stressful job as an IT project manager at a startup.
I was stressed out by more than the work itself. Having to get up and dress up every day, organize my lunch, commute to and from work, and try to remember to take breaks during the day were really overstimulating. I experienced really high highs and really low lows, which was exhausting. Other people worked demanding jobs, so why couldn’t I?
When the pandemic hit, my company—like many others—switched to working remotely. At first I thought this would help with what I still described as work stress. Being at home allowed me to do things at a much slower pace than when I went to an office. I thought that without the extra stressors, I would feel better. I didn’t.
Even though the pandemic eliminated many aspects of my job that contributed to my anxiety, I was still working 60 to 70 hours a week. We were helping big-name clients set up disaster recovery plans and were busier than ever.
I had also switched to virtual therapy, and at first, I found it useful. I liked that I could reach out to a therapist on my phone to talk about my feelings the moment they happened, instead of having to wait for my next session. But after a while, I concluded that it wasn’t as therapeutic for me as in-person therapy had been.
I started to feel like I was losing control. I was having more panic attacks and started shaking at my desk. I got to a point where I didn’t want to wake up anymore because I was so intensely anxious and depressed all the time. It wasn’t necessarily that I wanted to end my life. I just didn’t want to feel like this, and I didn’t know how to stop it.
The way I was feeling scared me so much that I went to the hospital in September 2020. I wish I had been able to ask for help with my bipolar disorder then, but I was still attributing my anxiety to work-related stress. My job signed me off for eight weeks of paid medical leave. Since I hadn’t accepted that my bipolar disorder was the real cause of my stress, I didn’t use the time to explore different treatment options.
Then in December 2020 my company went bankrupt. Initially, it was almost a relief. No more stressful job meant no more anxiety and depression, right?
However, I lost my insurance, which had been covering my medication and therapy, as a result of losing my job. I was taking a relatively new drug, and out of pocket, it was going to cost me thousands of dollars a month. I now realize that I could have found a way to cover at least some of that cost through coupons, for example. But my mental state made it hard to even get out of bed, let alone haggle with drug manufacturers.
Given my state of denial and the loss of my insurance, I made what I now see was a very bad decision. I decided that I wouldn’t take any more medication or go to therapy. Predictably, my symptoms got even worse. And my denial was finally starting to slip too. I didn’t have a job to stress me out, so maybe it really was something going on with me.
The pandemic had also made me realize how isolated I was. Although I’m pretty introverted, I was used to seeing work friends every day. But without that easy socialization, and as I felt worse and worse, I didn’t have anyone to reach out to.
Telling someone you’re going through a tough time over the phone is really hard. How do you casually text someone that you’re spiraling into a depression and might not want to live anymore? Whenever I’d tried telling friends that I was having a hard time in the past, no one knew what to say. Having those conversations over a clunky video call or text conversation felt impossible.
One bright spot was that I was able to find a new job sooner than I’d expected. I was excited to start. I convinced myself that this job would be the one that worked out for me. The stress level was less than what it had been in my previous role, and the workload was much smaller too. I was still working in IT project management, with a small, close-knit, and supportive team.
A few months in, around April 2021, I was having severe panic attacks every day. I couldn’t show up for work. I felt like I was letting my team down. It got to the point that my supervisor, who is also the president of the company, noticed something was very wrong. The way he handled the situation changed my life.
My boss didn’t shame me or pressure me to keep performing at work. He told me that there was nothing wrong with needing help for a mental health condition. He told me to go straight to a hospital and tell them I needed help. My job would be waiting whenever I was ready to come back.
That’s how I was admitted to a psychiatric ward. On the first day, I felt a mix of self-pity, self-loathing, and guilt. On paper, I led a privileged life. What right did I have to feel this way?
But by then I was open to finding a treatment. I understood that I had the opportunity to get better. The first night, the hospital gave me a different antidepressant, and a type of antihistamine to treat my anxiety. I also ate meals and snacks every three hours, which made a real difference to me, since I’d lost a lot of weight in the last few months. Between the medication, the food, and private and group therapy sessions, I started to feel like myself again.
The hospital also took away our phones. I had become so used to scrolling through TikTok and Instagram, especially during the pandemic, allowing the videos to drown out my overactive brain. Without my phone, it was like I could hear my own voice again.
By the fourth day, the team decided I was ready to be discharged the following day. I spent every weekday of the next five weeks in an outpatient program, learning new strategies to help manage my moods. I learned thought-stopping, music therapy, breathing exercises, and the importance of movement. And I was given an additional antidepressant to take in the mornings.
I had also realized the importance of building a community that could support me. I started making an effort to connect with the people in my life that I trust to listen to me when I’m having a bad day. It’s a work in progress, but I’ve learned that I have to put the effort in.
I went back to work. At first, I was worried that my supervisor’s compassion was a fluke and that I was going to be blacklisted. But everyone is so supportive. Although I still feel waves of anxiety throughout the day, I’ve learned to use stretching and breathing exercises to help calm myself down.
I wish I’d been mentally ready to ask for help sooner, but I didn’t think there was anything that would work. I also wish I’d had someone in my life who had told me earlier that I needed help. If you’re worried about someone you know who has bipolar disorder, it’s really useful for them to know that you will pay attention and not dismiss their symptoms. At the same time, it’s important to tell them that the way they’re feeling now won’t last forever, and there are treatment options.
At one point during the outpatient program, I was at home when I started having a panic attack. I decided to put what I’d learned into practice. I went for a walk, but it wasn’t calming me down. I started doing breathing exercises—and they actually worked! As I went on, I felt more and more stable. Now, I feel the most in control of myself and my emotions than I ever have.
I’d been through so many treatments, I honestly thought nothing would work. I think it’s important to try to get help. It’s so hard to do when you feel so low, but it pays off when you don’t give up.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
1. National Institute of Mental Health, Bipolar Disorder
- Mayo Clinic, Bipolar Disorder