17 March 2011
Winston-Salem, N.C. – As he struggled for decades with a depression that often left him despondent, Eric Wilson never thought to get a second opinion.
"This might be true of many of us," he said. "We feel we have more ownership of what we see as our body and physical health so, if a doctor gives me a diagnosis I don't like, I'm likely to get a second opinion. It just wasn't the same for mental health."
Wilson, best-selling author of the new book "The Mercy of Eternity: A Memoir of Depression and Grace," had to muster everything in him to seek a second opinion for his mental illness.
After decades of broken relationships, multiple flirtations with suicide, and manic highs and lows, he received his final – and accurate – diagnosis of bipolar II mixed. This form of bipolar disorder is difficult to diagnose because its sufferers often are highly functioning and extremely productive. The highs can masquerade as general happiness. The difficulty is when the mood swings drastically and uncontrollably.
Researchers have found that as many as 69 percent of initial diagnoses of people with bipolar disorder were incorrect, underlining the importance of seeking a second opinion. With bipolar, the wrong medication can have devastating effects, plunging a patient into a deeper depression or into rapid cycles of highs and lows.
Wilson describes his journey from a dangerously moody teen to happily married father in "The Mercy of Eternity." He credits the loving persistence of his wife and the wonder of his daughter for pushing him beyond that first incorrect diagnosis of his disease.
He is sure he would never have sought additional help on his own.
"The idea that I had mental illness scared me," he said. "So I felt that any therapist I was seeing had a mastery of this strange, mysterious world of mental health, and I'd do whatever this person told me to do. I struggled with medications for a long time that simply were not working.
"It was a very long process that required a lot of patience and a lot of flexibility, but it's paid off beautifully."
Wilson is the Thomas H. Pritchard Professor of English at Wake Forest University, where he teaches British and American Romanticism, with a focus on the relationships between literature and psychology. His previous book, "Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy," was featured in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and was covered on NBC's The Today Show and NPR's All Things Considered.
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