Shades of lavender, Kelly green and cobalt blue color the strands of Clare’s short-cropped hair. She likes vivid hues; it was once hot pink, and before that, more subtle streaks of color. Her hair is simply one of her colorful identifiers. Her name is Clare Goodspeed, but she often goes by Cricket. It was a moniker chosen as part of an earth education program, and somehow, it’s a perfect fit. “I was in [this program] in high school, and part of it involved teaching fourth and fifth graders about nature. We all took on ‘nature names’ to make it seem more magical, and mine just kind of stuck,” she says.
Cricket, the daughter of two journalists, was born in Hong Kong in 1993. Her family later moved to Oakville in Ontario, Canada, where she spent her childhood. During the already tumultuous years of adolescence, Cricket was diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder, a mood disorder described by recurring episodes of depression accompanied by episodes of hypomania. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, hypomania is a milder form of mania that lacks symptoms like hallucinations and delusions.
Cricket was diagnosed in November 2012, but her “illness adventures” began a few years prior when she was misdiagnosed with depression. “The depression is a bit of a blur, because it was really gradual. There were a lot of time my parents asked, ‘Do you want to see someone about this?’ and nothing came of it,” she says. When Cricket finally received professional help, she saw a psychologist, who officially diagnosed her with depression. “I’m not bitter about (the misdiagnosis) because that’s what it looked like at the time…crying a lot, being down a lot, and feeling hopeless and having bad self esteem and self image,” Cricket remembers. She was placed on a variety of different antidepressants, none of which alleviated her symptoms.
According to a survey taken by the National Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association, 69 percent of patients with bipolar disorder are initially misdiagnosed and more than one-third remained misdiagnosed for 10 years or more. Fortunately, Cricket’s use of antidepressants uncovered her true diagnosis much sooner than that. The drugs, she said, exacerbated her symptoms of mania, which were not evident before.
The road to a proper diagnosis, however, was anything but simple. Cricket admits her medications make her memory hazy; it’s hard for her to remember exactly when things happened, but there are some details that she can clearly recall. One is a date: November 15. Some years ago on that day, Cricket attempted suicide via an overdose of trazodone, an antidepressant she also used as a sleep aid.
She planned it so she would be home alone, with no one to interrupt her; her father and brother were at church for the evening, and her mother was at work. She didn’t make a spectacle of things but simply took the overdose and went to bed. “What made me call the paramedics was feeling my heart beat really hard, but really slow…and getting slower,” she remembers. “It was really painful.” Cricket then picked up the phone from her bedside table and called 911.
“Part way through the conversation I remember wanting to tell them, ‘Nevermind, I’m good…I’ll go to sleep now,’” she says. She didn’t, though, and after the paramedics came, she vomited the remaining undigested pills. Cricket is convinced that is what saved her life.
She remembers everything else through odd details: a paramedic commenting on her messy room; a pressing fear her cats would escape when they helped her outside to the ambulance; and throwing up on a “really cool purse with elephants on it.” The purse was saved, Cricket says, and so was she, due in part to the charcoal she was forced to drink at the hospital. “Weird, eh?” she laughs. The concoction made her teeth black and she remembers using that to make her family laugh. “Here I had just attempted suicide and I was still cracking jokes. I guess that tells you a little bit about how I am.”
There are moments when the emotional toll of her attempt creeps into Cricket’s voice as she retells the story. But in what seems to be her typical fashion, she focuses on the funny moments, even in such a somber memory, and says she is glad she is still here.
Living with bipolar II disorder
Once Cricket was properly diagnosed, finding the right combination of medication became a priority. Even now she is not convinced she and her doctors have found the best combination, and she says it’s an ongoing process to figure it out.
Common misconceptions dictate that medication fixes or eliminates symptoms of illness, but in many cases it reduces the severity of those symptoms to create a more stable state. Such is the case for Cricket, who still cycles through episodes of mania and depression.
“Sometimes it’s actually really awesome,” she says of her manic episodes, which typically last five days. “You feel great. You get a big ego and feel invincible and impulsive. It’s really fun when you’re at parties, but it’s also a dangerous state to be in at parties.” Cricket remembers wanting to try marijuana and other drugs during a manic state, which would otherwise be unlikely behavior. What frustrates Cricket most often in manic states, though, is the inability to sleep. Her boyfriend is familiar with this frustration as well. “He needs his sleep, and suddenly I don’t,” she laughs. “I want to stay up and party! I want to play video games, and play music, and sing and dance, and do art and run around. And it’ll be 10 p.m. on a weekday and he has to be up at 5 a.m. the next day. I get really frustrated when he wants to go to bed. I’m getting better at understanding his needs too, but it’s hard when you’re in a state like that.”
However, none of this compares to a mixed state, in which one experiences both mania and depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, someone in a mixed state might feel agitated, have trouble sleeping, experience major changes in appetite and have suicidal thoughts. Cricket understands how it is likelier to feel suicidal in a mixed state. “When you’re in a depressive state and you want to die, you don’t have the energy to do anything most of the time,” she says. “But when you’re in a mixed state, you have the mentality of being completely depressed and totally irritable and easily angered and you have all of this energy out of nowhere so it’s really dangerous. I’ve never been more frustrated in my life than I have being in a mixed state…just existing that way is difficult.”
Working with bipolar II disorder
Ninety per cent of Canadians with serious mental illnesses are unemployed due largely to prejudice about their conditions, according to an article in the Toronto Star. The article cites a sweeping new report by the Aspiring Workforce report, commissioned by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Many of the affected Canadians who responded to a survey by the Aspiring Workforce researchers reported that the stigma surrounding mental illness was a major barrier to their return to the workforce.
“People are afraid,” one survey respondent said. “They don’t understand (mental illness) and don’t want to be educated. They don’t want to realize it is the same as diabetes or epilepsy.”
There are additional reports of workplace discrimination related to mental illness. According to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, 31 percent of disability cases were based on a mental health issue in 2013. The majority of those complaints were workplace related.
A story by CBC News furthers the mental health dialogue, relaying accounts of workplace discrimination. The Manitoba Human Rights Commission reports complaints regarding mental health issues are increasing. Chris Summerville, head of the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society, said the the stigma is getting worse and employers need to take this seriously, according to the article.
Cricket has not experienced outright workplace discrimination, but feels the difficulty of staying employed while learning to handle her diagnosis. Her job history includes a stint as a camp counselor, a worker at a plant nursery and a dental office assistant. The last job was her favorite, but her time there ended for the same reason as the others: She was not well enough to work. Cricket says she would start crying uncontrollably or get overwhelmed. She would feel stable for a while and think she was okay to work, but she would inevitably feel worse and have to resign. She also remembers that many employers and coworkers tried to be understanding of her illness at first, but were less willing to deal with it over time.
“What’s a struggle for me is still not being able to work, and being poor, and not being able to go to school—all because of my illness,” she says. Cricket left high school early due to her illness and was only two credits short of graduation. She is currently enrolled in a program to finish those credits, but admits she is too exhausted and depressed to complete it. “Right now, I’m having a hard time feeding myself and keeping up on chores,” she says. “Being able to do that is a victory right now.” Though she is focused on being able to complete these tasks and make any progress she can on her path to wellness, Cricket has larger goals she would still like to achieve. But for Cricket, ever the realist, the question is not when she will achieve them, but if she will be able to.
“I’ve been like this for so long now that I can’t picture when it wasn’t like this,” Cricket says. “It makes me feel like it’s not just me being sick, like this is how I am. I’m incapable, and it feels like I never will be, and I honestly don’t know if I ever will be. And that breaks my heart because I know if I wasn’t sick I could help people.”
While this isn’t a new revelation for Cricket, it’s clear that it’s a tough reality to resign to. When she speaks of her future, the sarcastic, self-deprecating humor is gone, and an emotional wistfulness takes its place. “I want to do social work in the military and be a mental health counselor, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get to the point where I’ll be able to handle a job like that,” she sighs. “Plus I need to get a bachelor’s and master’s degree in social work, and right now I can’t finish my two high school credits. It feels like I’m totally stuck.”
Being the change: fighting stigma
Cricket may be uncertain of her professional future, but she’s sure of one thing: Mental illness stigma is harmful, and we must all do our part to eliminate it. Unlike many who experience mental illness, Cricket has no issue with sharing her story. Especially, she says, if it means she’s making a difference.
“When I got misdiagnosed with depression in high school my best friends just stopped talking to me…what assholes. They said they didn’t know how to deal with me and I was too emotionally unstable,” she says. “I’ve been lucky enough to pick friends nowadays who are pretty understanding. But the average person I meet…if they find out I have bipolar disorder they jump to a lot of conclusions, which are all wrong because they don’t understand the illness, basically.”
Those conclusions drive Cricket to be more open about her diagnosis, she says. With increased education and greater understanding, there is a lesser chance others will have to deal with the kind of “friends” Cricket did in high school.
“I try to be open with my diagnosis because it’s a relatively common illness, and people just hide it because of the stigma. But the only way to break down stigma is to talk about it! Lots of people don’t understand what being bipolar means, so if I do tell them I have it, I usually make sure I have time to give a brief explanation of what it entails. Because they think I’m crazy and dangerous otherwise…and I’m totally not,” she chuckles.
Education will happen, Cricket says, when those who have mental illnesses share their stories, and when everyone else makes an effort to be understanding and supportive.
“I want people to know that we’re still people and we are just sick…we’re not crazy,” Cricket says. “And we need love and understanding and stigma is just as big of a problem as the illness itself. Just talking to people about it can help. If I can change a few people’s minds, that’s good enough for me.”