When I was in my teens and early 20s, both during the period when I read the DSM like a Bible of self-knowledge and during the anti-psychiatric period where I rejected the DSM altogether, I took it for granted that the diagnostic categories in the DSM reflected actually distinct disorders. I know now that the correspondence is much more complicated.
Here’s a metaphor. A mental disorder is like an octopus. It has eight tentacles, wiggles around, squishes to get through tubes, and changes color. The diagnoses in the DSM are like little cardboard boxes. Now imagine that an octopus is falling through the air (don’t ask me why, it just is) and you’re trying to catch it in a relatively small cardboard box. As it falls, the octopus keeps changing shape and color, and when you finally catch it, three tentacles are sprawled over the edges of the box. Oh well, at least you got most of it, right? I mean, until it crawls out.
That’s basically what psychiatrists are doing when they diagnose: trying to catch an octopus in a box. The actual condition, this complex reality that starts in our brains and is intertwined, whether we like it or not, with our personalities and experiences and interpretations of the world, is too big and shifty and multi-tentacled to fit neatly into a box. Sometimes though, diagnosticians can catch most of it, treat accordingly, and it all makes sense for a while … until the octopus moves. Which it will eventually do, because it’s a living thing.
For those of you who have no idea what the hell I’m talking about, let me be more concrete. It’s not uncommon for a diagnosis of major depressive disorder (MDD) to change to bipolar II when hypomania emerges among the recurring depressions; for bipolar II to change to bipolar I when the person has their first full manic episode; or even for bipolar I to change to schizoaffective disorder when hallucinations persist outside of manic and depressed episodes. I’ve personally observed these progressions in my own family. Was the initial diagnosis wrong? Not really; the symptoms changed, the presentation developed.
Furthermore, I know a lot of people (most notably myself!) who have outlying symptoms, symptoms that don’t quite fit the diagnosis that seems most appropriate for them. A good example of this is someone with a bipolar II diagnosis who’s had one full-blown manic episode in 50 years. Does that one episode make her bipolar I? The flavor of her disorder is definitely more depression/hypomania. The people I know who have schizoaffective disorder probably fit their diagnosis the best, but schizoaffective disorder is a controversial diagnosis that some psychiatrists want to get rid of, so that just kind of proves my point.
Lately I’ve come to believe that there’s a multidimensional spectrum of psychotic/affective disorders, similar to the (also very complex and multidimensional) autism spectrum.*** And where you are on the spectrum can shift over time, in more than one direction.
Refreshingly, I am not the only person to think this way. There’s even actual scientific evidence for it. The “Kraepelinian Dichotomy,” which made a hard distinction between mood disorders and schizophrenia, is being called into question. (I’ll post some links below for those who want to dig deeper but are too clinically depressed to google.) Let me just state here that in one study, 45% of patients with psychotic disorders did not fit a diagnosis of bipolar or schizophrenia, but had elements of both. That’s almost half.
Here’s a little graph to illustrate how I kind of envision the spectrum:
The Y axis is mood, ranging through shades of depression, hypomania and mania. The X axis is psychosis, ranging from no psychotic symptoms through fluctuating paranoid delusions to round-the-clock hallucinations with anosognosia. Then there’s the Z axis coming out towards you, a third dimension, for anxiety.
You will notice that I took a shocking liberty and put “negative symptoms” (of schizophrenia) on the mood axis, although schizophrenia is not supposed to have a mood component. Well, I may be wrong, but do a google search and you’ll find articles in medical journals trying to figure out what the difference is between negative symptoms and depression. There must be a difference, because the Kraepelinian Dichotomy says these are totally distinct disorders, right? And then you will find stupid answers being proposed such as that depression is different because depressed people feel “sad” and schizophrenic people don’t.
Sorry to break it to you but I don’t feel sad every time I’m depressed, nor is sadness required for a major depressive episode in the DSM. Often as not, I just feel sort of bored and disgusted with everything (anhedonia), and like I’m moving through molasses (psychomotor retardation). My body aches, my brain feels slow and stuffed with cotton, everything takes more physical and mental effort. My speech slows down and I have flattened affect. These are all considered mood symptoms in my case because I’m diagnosed with a mood disorder. However a schizophrenic person could have the same symptoms, and their anhedonia, psychomotor retardation and flat affect would not be considered mood related. So are they really inherently mood symptoms, or do they only look that way in a certain context? And what about psychosis – if I become psychotic during a depressive episode, does that mean psychosis is a mood symptom?
Anyway. Back to the graph.
Coordinates represent a point in time. A person might cycle between two or more sets of coordinates, or move steadily in one direction across the graph. Over the course of a lifetime, some people will have a dot here or there (an isolated episode of psychosis, for instance, or postpartum depression) while others of us will have a big old winding road-map of places our brains have been.
It’s OK to come up with official names (diagnoses) for the most common patterns on these road-maps, as long as we don’t let them limit and distort our perceptions of them. Diagnostic labels are useful mainly for medical professionals and researchers; understanding the particular dimensions and coordinates of one’s own condition is much more useful and empowering to those of us actually living with it.
With his book “Why am I still depressed?”, Dr. Phelps helped me begin to reconceptualize my own recurrent depression as a form of bipolarity. Since I have double depression (probably the reason I don’t experience clear hypomania very often), the chart on this page made a particular impression on me: http://psycheducation.org/diagnosis/bipolar-diagnosis-spectrum-or-yesno/
I totally geeked out over this article. This is the source for the 45% statistic and the whole thing is just super interesting: A dimensional approach to the psychosis spectrum between bipolar disorder and schizophrenia: The Schizo-Bipolar Scale
This scientific editorial concludes: “Moving to a spectrum concept (be it with categories or dimensions) with recognition of overlapping pathogenetic factors and varying expression (dependent upon both genetic risk and environmental exposure) would allow a confident and clear diagnosis to be offered (perhaps ‘psychosis-spectrum illness’ or ‘ mood–reality disorder’), with a clear explanation that some specific tests and a period of observation will help to clarify the likely course of illness and response to treatment. This would be greatly preferable to the current situation and the inevitable consequences of damage to the therapeutic alliance caused by diagnostic revisions.” If you agree with me that that quote was awesome, and are now meditating on the implications of a term like “mood-reality disorder” (but what is reality??? feeling philosophical now), you’ll enjoy the whole thing: The beginning of the end for the Kraepelinian dichotomy
***Random footnote: I’d like to see a graph with the same concept for the Autism Spectrum, with dimensions including social and sensory components and whatever else autistic people jointly decide is most important.