How Misdiagnosis Prevented Me from Moving on to Recovery
By Andy (“Electroboy”) Behrman
When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I believe I slipped further and further into the dark abyss. I thought I would never come back and lead a normal life.
For more than ten years, I was misdiagnosed with depression by more than eight mental health care professionals. It all began with my first visit to a therapist who termed my condition “adolescent depression,” and from there I met several doctors along the road who continued not only to diagnose me with depression, but to treat me with medication for depression. Needless to say, this was a disaster, as the medication only served to fuel manic behavior. It wasn’t clear to me at the time, but I was being diagnosed improperly because I only visited these doctors during dark periods of depression and I was not accurately presenting the symptoms of my illness. or honestly answering questions about my condition. In retrospect, had I shared more information with them, perhaps it would have been easier for these doctors to diagnose me correctly and treat me more quickly.
And certainly, I would have suffered for so many less years.
But this is all water under the bridge now.
When I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder (or what was referred to manic depression at the time), I was shocked by both the diagnosis and the label “manic depression.” I was officially a manic depressive. What did that mean?
First, I didn’t know anyone else with the illness, and I panicked because I thought the illness was degenerative. “Will I make it to my next birthday?” I asked my doctor.
I was reassured that I would, but that I would also need to begin a regimen of medication to control my symptoms. Yes, the common ones, which I had not only taken for granted to be “normal” but which were slowly destroying my life. These included a roller coaster of racing thoughts, insomnia, overspending, sexual promiscuity, poor judgment and drug and alcohol abuse which always ended in outbursts of rage, deep depression, suicidal ideation and at times, complete paralysis. How could I live on medication with my raging personality tamed? Would I become dull and boring? After all, I had always been “Mr. Fun,” the guy standing with a lampshade on his head, a margarita in each hand and doing the merengue at parties.
Treatment finally began. In the course of the next decade, I would try more than 37 different medications to control my bipolar disorder and experienced almost every possible side effect from each medication: muscle stiffness, headaches, agitation, sleeplessness and grogginess, to name a few. Ultimately, when my doctor realized that no combination of medication was going to work for me, I opted for the last resort – electroconvulsive therapy or ECT to pull me from the depths of my depression. Without a doubt, ECT provided me with some relief in the beginning (but there was the side effect of short term memory loss) until I relapsed three months after the last treatment. It was then that my doctor ordered me to continue “maintenance treatment.” I had a total of 19 electroshock treatments, until I realized I had become addicted to the premedication of the procedure and asked my doctor to bring the treatment to a halt.
Needless to say, these were trying years and I was without hope. I wasn’t working, I was collecting disability and receiving financial assistance from my friends and family, and basically I was a “shut in” living in my apartment in New York City. I never imagined a life outside this 600 square foot area again. And I had been a highly functional public relations agent and art dealer (albeit my illness had landed me in prison for a brief six month stint for counterfeiting).
Now I was barely capable of taking care of myself (cooking and showering were exhausting because of my depression) and could only watch television. I didn’t even have enough focus to read or write.
But about fifteen years ago, there appeared a light at the end of the tunnel for me. My doctor had found a combination of medications that kept me relatively even-keeled and I was able to get back to a more normal life. I was working again and I had reestablished a social life.
I was even able to take care of myself. But there was a five-year block of time when I was completely disabled and I can’t think of any accomplishments during this period of time, any memorable events or any happiness.
Of course, as soon as I become “even-keeled” and was functional again, I was certain that my bipolar disorder had gone away – simply vanished.
I was wrong. Now I was coping with the illness, and I was tested nearly every day. I must admit that I still take each day as it comes. I’m always prepared for a crash or a relapse Even though I have ten years “under my belt” of being relatively “episode free,” I’m always on alert.
I’m resigned to living with my mental illness for the rest of my life.
The fear and shame are gone; I speak about my illness openly with both family and friends and have even ventured out into the public arena, sharing my story of my battle with bipolar disorder in “Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania,” published by Random House. This was probably the hardest thing I had to do with my illness – to go public. But I did it because I wanted people to know that there were millions of people suffering with depression and bipolar disorder in this country – and millions more undiagnosed. And I thought that my sharing my story – a very personal story – would bring people out of the closet to seek treatment, help family members in understanding their loved ones, and also help mental healthcare professionals in treating their patients.
Since my diagnosis, educating people about mental illness has become my mission, and it’s been a long journey for me, but a very rewarding one.
Learning to cope with the illness has been tremendously satisfying for me, and passing on my knowledge of my coping skills is the most important thing that I can do with my life. And every day I remind people suffering, that there is hope – - you will get better.
BIO: Andy Behrman is the author of “Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania,” published by Random House. His book has been translated into seven languages. He is a mental health advocate and speaker who promote mental health awareness and suicide prevention, speaking to college audiences, mental health care professionals and local and national mental health support groups. His writing has appeared in “The New York Times Magazine,” “New York Magazine” and he is a frequent contributor to mental health websites. He has appeared on Anderson Cooper 360, NPR Radio and on the cover of Bipolar Magazine. He was interviewed by Stephen Fry for his documentary, “Secret Life of a Manic Depressive” which aired on the BBC. Behrman maintains a website at http://www.electroboy.com and can be found on Twitter @electroboyusa He lives in Los Angeles with his two daughters who are five and seven where he is waiting for the feature film of “Electroboy” to go into production in August 2013.