When Having Bipolar Disorder Means Your Head Is a Balloon

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My head always feels full; like a balloon that has been blown up almost to the point of popping.

Except what’s in my head isn’t air. It’s worry, constant worry, over the impending anxiety that hits me as soon as my feet hit the bedroom floor each morning. Anxiety takes over as soon as I open my eyes and turn on the switch. Every day my brain decides which switch to turn on, and there are many. Happy, sad, hurt, anger, excitement, optimism, rage. I don’t get to choose. Every moment of every day I fight with my brain for the right to choose what mood I want to be in. If it were only my choice, if I didn’t have this disorder, I would choose to be content every day. But that’s not how it works. Bipolar disorder leaves me feeling helpless, unable to feel how I want to feel and think how I want to think. Inside my head, thoughts race and swirl and jumble until I am so confused I just don’t want to think anymore.

When my mind finally quiets, it’s not because I have nothing to worry about. It’s because even though I could have been happy yesterday, today I experiencing a darkness that leaves me thoughtless. I don’t have any racing thoughts because I just don’t care. My mind is slow and so is my body, and the want to get out of bed and care for my daughter isn’t there. I hate my appearance, even though I refuse to do anything about it. Part of me really wants to take a shower, but the switch just won’t turn on. Part of me really wants to eat, but the switch remains off. These are the times my head feels like a deflated balloon, a sad excuse for a party favor, that takes twice as much air to blow up again.

My brain turns on the manic switch and my mind is all over the place. I am happy, excited, ambitious about the future, invincible and on top of the world. I can get anything done when this is the switch my brain picks for the day. I am super mom, super woman. There is no need for sleep, because how can I get things done, how I can I make plans, how can I be better if I am asleep? I don’t need my medication, I’m having a good day and it’s because of my own strength, not because of the pills.

So I don’t take them. I don’t take them for a few days, and that’s when my mind unravels. That’s when the balloon is letting out air and flying all over the room. That’s when I’m angry, hateful, aggressive and just plain pissed off. At everyone, at everything, at every person who has been there for me throughout this hell that is having bipolar disorder. They’ve done nothing wrong, and I know that, I really do. But the switch just won’t turn on. I hate them, all of them, for what my brain is telling me they’ve done and haven’t done to help me. Its selfish, this switch. It doesn’t care about the feelings of others, or my feelings either. It cares about not needing medication, rage, hate and stops me from going to my appointments with my therapist and psychiatrist. From rage I return to the darkness, and that’s when I realize I need my medication to function properly. At this point the sadness switch is on, the helpless switch is on and the part of me that makes decisions decides medication is the best option.

So I go back on my medication. My moods are even, the balloon is a decent size. Until they aren’t, and again, the balloon is too full.

The Mighty is asking the following: For someone who doesn’t understand what it’s like to have your mental illness, describe what it’s like to be in your head for a day. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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The Spectrum of My Emotional Rainbow as Someone With Bipolar Disorder

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It’s of nature but not a seemingly natural progression. It’s my nature — and one that cannot inherently be changed; sometimes muted, sometimes controlled, it is still always present, always has been and always will be.

My blue, indigo and violet days are heavy. I feel full of wet sand. Staying awake just to spend my days staring into space is difficult enough; how am I expected to eat, shower or answer my phone? I curse my bodily functions that require me to find the strength to go to the bathroom. I try to comfort myself with the knowledge that I am doing my best, just by staying awake and staring into space. Then I realize it’s time to call my doctor.

I stare into space for hours at a time, telling myself over and over that I have to find the strength to call my doctor. Unwillingness floods my entire being: if I call my doctor, I’ll have to talk to her. Days and weeks pass by, and all I can find within myself is unwillingness. Then I find a spark.

Sparks are red, orange, and yellow: fiery. Aggressive, dissatisfied sparks tell me that spending all my time staring into space, feeling full of wet sand, isn’t good enough. My blues tell me it’s all I can manage, and I spin into a turmoil of hopelessness – wanting to be able to do anything other than what I am able to do. The spark insists I find a way, demanding action of a different course. Dark murmurings speak of suicide. I close my eyes, picture myself feeling green and balanced, and start rehearsing what I will tell my doctor.

The darkness begins screaming its demands of death. I write down what I need to tell my doctor. It makes it easier to concentrate, and I know this way I won’t leave anything out that she needs to know.

I take a shower for the first time in two weeks. Violet shame fills my tears that fall into the dirty water.

Do you need to go into the hospital?”

No,” I whisper. “I’ll go if it gets to that point.”

My doctor and I exchange pieces of paper. I give her one filled with my pain. She gives me four filled with drugs and instructions.

I take the drugs and follow the instructions. One day, I wake up and my smile feels warm, instead of the cold, saggy mask it had been. Today is an orange day. There must be some secret pink to this day too, because I clean and cook and sing and dance! I make plans for the next four months with 13 different people. I begin three art projects, but not one of them seems quite right, so I put in a movie about an art forger. It’s a brilliant movie. Why should my husband have to go to work? I could do this. My research begins.

I already noticed the sparks of yellow and red; they’re beautiful! I know they mean I’m supposed to do something, but they’re so beautiful I don’t care to try to remember what. I should go to the art supply store so I can practice the skills I’ll need. Need… oh. I need to call my doctor.

I call my doctor, and she can tell I’m really feeling the beautiful yet destructive fire. She gives me instructions. I follow the instructions because I’m awesome like that. Changing around the drug cocktail. Change is beautiful. Cocktails are better. I tell her this, and she tells me no cocktails. What a party pooper. I write it down though. It’s difficult to concentrate because of the auditory hallucinations, but I tell myself I can listen to the music after I take my new drug cocktail. I follow my instructions and let go of the fire.

Green is my favorite color. Vibrant yet peaceful, I truly live when I’m filled to my toes with green. I’m balanced. No calls to the doctor are needed. However, in case you didn’t notice, my life isn’t as orderly as a rainbow. It’s more like a tie-dyed T-shirt. Colors bleed, jump and dance through my emotions. Sometimes I can’t think of anything else other than what I’m feeling.

I never said it was easy to live life with a rainbow in my head.

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

The Crisis Text Line is looking for volunteers! If you’re interesting in becoming a Crisis Counselor, you can learn more information here.

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A Love Letter to My Husband, From His Bipolar Wife

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To My Beloved Husband,

We have known each other for over 30 years, ever since you asked me out to lunch and showed me the photos of the house foundation you were building with your own hands. I was impressed. We spent several years dating and enjoying time with your wonderful daughters. But after four years, you moved to build your dream house while I stayed in the Bay Area to pursue my career.

Through great luck, we reconnected in 1997. At that time, I had been recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was having major challenges of severe, recurring depressions as well as less frequent hypomanias. I wondered how anyone could want to be with me because I felt as if I was “damaged goods.” For almost a year, I kept you at arm’s length. I didn’t want to tell you about my depressions and hypomanic moods. I felt ashamed. 

But you persisted. After a year, and with the help of my therapist, I realized I had nothing to lose by telling you the truth. The worst that could happen was that you would reject me at the news. To my wonderment, you did not.

Early in our second round of dating, I had a particularly bad episode of depression and confided to you that I felt terrible. You did not flinch and asked what you could do for me. I told you just to hold me and I gave you my doctor’s number in case you had to call and I couldn’t. Seeing your total compassion and acceptance broke through the high wall of my self-criticism and avoidance. 

One year later, almost 16 years ago, we were married on a beautiful day on the shoreline in Point Reyes with our families and closest friends. And since that time, while we have had the ups and downs of even the best of marriages, we have been extraordinarily happy together. I had dated many men in my life and had never married, but at 48, married to you, I found my soul mate.

A few months ago, we faced a new challenge. As a result of one of the meds I was taking for bipolar disorder, I developed tardive dyskinesia (TD), a somewhat uncommon reaction to anti-psychotic drugs that can cause involuntary movements, in my case of the mouth, face and tongue. There is no documented cure and it is usually not reversible, especially for women of my age. Again, you didn’t waver in your support. We saw many doctors together. You would always take detailed notes while I asked lots of questions — and you would add the questions I forgot to ask. 

Several months later, I developed a new set of symptoms, non-psychotic musical hallucinations. This is a rare but documented condition. It was, for me, like hearing a cacophonous clash of many marching bands playing constantly in my head.  It was intrusive and scary. Once again we saw the specialists. And once again we were told there was no known cure and limited evidence of reversibility.

Luckily for me, you had been trained as a masseur. You gave me the great gift of massaging my mouth, face and neck for 10 minutes twice a day every day. Within two weeks, the hallucinations had stopped and the TD was less bothersome. The hallucinations have not returned.

I am so grateful that together we have faced down scary times, educated ourselves about difficult conditions, found help where we could and learned to live with what can’t be changed. And together we have been able to create a vibrant and loving life filled with family, friends, our shared and separate passions, our careers and travel. My – and our – life is so much more authentic and rich because the challenges we have faced have taught us to communicate with authenticity and love. Having a life partner like you who adores me and whom I adore has made all the difference. I feel extraordinarily lucky.

The Mighty is for the following: Write a thank you note to someone who helped you through your mental illness. What about that person makes him or her a good ally? What do you want them to know? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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Why I'm Being Honest About My Toughest Year With Bipolar II Disorder

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molly shalz If I tell them, they’ll think less of me. Even I have a hard time believing it happened. But it’s the truth. It’s my truth. And after holding it in for nearly a year I’m ready to tell it. My story is worthy of being told.

I got sick last year. Not the kind of sick you’re thinking about. Not a fever or a stomach virus. No, not that kind. And not the kind of sick that is widely accepted in our society.

I’ve made no secret that I am diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. My life has been a constant struggle of trying to stay well and, let’s be honest, a functional member of society.

But here is what has unfolded in the last three years…

When I learned I was pregnant with Sawyer in June 2013, I immediately went off all of my medicines that helped control my illness. I stayed off of them for the duration of my pregnancy. And then when she was born I continued unmedicated for another entire year while I breastfed her.

So, doing the math, I was unmedicated for almost two years. A bipolar person with no meds and hormone fluctuations all over the place. This does not make for a well-adjusted, functional person.

By May of last year, I was an emotional disaster. I couldn’t concentrate or focus on anything. I didn’t realize it at the time but I was in a full-on manic episode, which actually began right after I stopped breastfeeding Sawyer in January. It was bad. Really bad. I didn’t know which way was up or down. But oh, that roller coaster was fun at the time. My thoughts were all over the place. It was like the tilt-a-whirl in my brain.

Think of a movie on fast forward mode. That was my life. My mind racing at all times. I couldn’t shut it off. It was so loud in my head. I was tired, but I couldn’t sleep. I would stay up way too late writing, many times I was drinking at night. A glass of wine (or two or three) was the only thing that slowed my brain down long enough for me to breathe and sleep.

I was seeing a new therapist and had gone to my psychiatrist begging for medicine because I knew something was wrong.

I started running every other day even though I hate running. I lost weight due to my exercise routine and not eating as much. I didn’t need food. I was surviving on how thrilling life was. I’m not sure how much weight I lost, but I remember being really excited when the scale read a number I had last seen when I was in college.

At times I felt invincible, on top of the world. Other times I dropped to my knees, utterly exhausted by my own energy.

I spent a lot of money I shouldn’t have spent. I made bad decisions, but believe me when I tell you, they felt so right at the time. It doesn’t excuse my behavior. But it does explain it. Read up on bipolar manic episodes. A lot of people think they would be fun. But the aftermath tells a different story. It was a textbook manic episode. I had every symptom. Weight loss, not sleeping, racing thoughts, overspending, obsessing over a certain task (running, in my case), abusing a substance and some other ones I won’t even discuss because . . . ugh. I just won’t.

In early June I was hospitalized for the first time. After coming down off my manic episode with severe depression I was hospitalized a second time in early September. And while everyone else was partying it up for New Year’s Eve, I was once again in the hospital. It was the worst depressive episode I’ve ever had. Going from a manic episode directly into a depressive episode. Oh God. I’m not sure how I’m still here.

I’m finally writing this, at the urging of my husband and my best friend, because they know what I’ve known for awhile. I haven’t been able to write on my blog because not writing about this was like having a huge pink elephant in the sidebar. I have always been honest on my blog. I’ve always shared what’s going on in my life. But this time, I was deeply ashamed and stayed quiet to please everyone. It is now clear that hiding this has been to my detriment as I have lost something I dearly love… writing. Since I was 16 it has been a sort of therapy for me. Writing and sharing my struggle and all the while still being hopeful. It helps me.

But this… I wasn’t sure about telling the world about this. I am scared – no – terrified, to put this out there. What will people think of me? Will they think less of me? Will they betray me after learning the truth of what has happened over the last year. Will they stop talking to me or wanting to be my friend?

I know I have nothing to be ashamed of. This illness is not something I chose. This illness is not who I am as a person.

The reason I have chosen to be open about this is because I want others who are going through this to know that they are not alone. You are not alone. And if we hide it, try to sweep it under the rug, well that serves no one.

I thought about my kids. I thought about if they, God forbid, have an illness such as mine, would I want them to feel ashamed? Would I want them to stay quiet and go through their struggle alone? The answer is no. I wouldn’t want that for them. I would want them to feel safe telling me anything. Life is hard enough. I would want them to be open with me and feel free to live their life out loud. Because that is the definition of bravery and hope. Standing up and saying, hey, I’m hurting but I’m not giving in.

This illness haunts me like a ghost. It follows me wherever I go. But I fight it. I fight hard. I turn around and punch depression in the face on a daily basis. I tell it where it can go.

And that’s what I’ve been doing the past year. I’ve been fighting. I’ve been in so much pain and confusion I can’t even explain it. Just know that it is an absolute miracle I am sitting here today, writing this for you to read.

At times, death was a very real possibility. I didn’t know if I would make it to my 37th birthday. (I did so it’s OK!)

I’m not really even sure how to end this blog post. I didn’t know how to start it either. I mean, what do you say anyway . . . “Hi! Oh, you know, I’ve been good. I went to a psychiatric hospital three times! The food was bad. So what’s going on with you?”

Awkward.

I will hopefully be able to share more details as time passes. But it was eating me up inside not to share this part of me.

There’s nothing wrong with me. I didn’t fail. I’m not “less than” someone else because of this. But I still have to tell myself that every single day to believe it. Some nights the shame is too much to bear.

But somehow, I still find hope.

Follow this journey on A Day in Mollywood.

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

The Crisis Text Line is looking for volunteers! If you’re interesting in becoming a Crisis Counselor, you can learn more information here.

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When People Ask How I Stay Optimistic in the Face of Mental Illness

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Many people have told me they admire my penchant for positivity, that they wish they could have my sunny-side-up approach to life. They say if they’d gone through the hell I’ve been sludging through for the past few years, they probably would have succumbed to it, and they certainly wouldn’t be cracking jokes and wearing a bright, genuine smile.

Strangers would never guess I have touched madness. The cashier I’m chatting up at the grocery store wouldn’t peg me as the type who almost ended it while I heard the voices of demons and fought to convince myself God doesn’t want me to die at my own hand.

The librarian wouldn’t believe me if I told him I’d spent the last night warding off panic attacks for four straight hours because I didn’t know if I’d be able to turn my books in on time or not.

Even most of my friends couldn’t guess the spirited glow in my eyes has burnished to a quenched black hole thanks to none other than depression on many occasions. They find it hard to picture these things because I laugh exponentially more often than I cry. I never fail to see the bright side in my situation and am quick to point out the bright side in the circumstances of everyone I know.

So what is my secret? Simple: I fire back optimism at every curveball life hurls my way. I choose optimism always and everywhere. Choosing optimism is not the same as choosing happiness. It is acknowledging that I’m not going to have good
days every day, and it’s OK to feel sad, but I need to latch onto the hope that tomorrow might be better, and if not the next day, then maybe the one after that.

Don’t be mistaken — it isn’t plugging my ears and trilling “lalala the
house is burning down but lalala nothing’s going wrong.” It is seeing all aspects of an event — good and bad — and accepting I cannot change them and might as well go the high road. Even when things seem bleak, I decide not to despair, and sift out the positive sediments. Even if they’re just minuscule flecks of fool’s gold at the bottom of the pan, they still glitter and add beauty to my life.

When I roll out of bed later than I mean to and feel anxiety build in my chest, I choose optimism and feel thankful for being more wide awake. When I realize the remission spell I was so certain to have reached was just hypomania, I choose optimism and remind myself it could have been worse. When everything is crumbling to the ground, I choose optimism and cling to the belief that this falling apart is just a way to make room for reconstruction and improvement. Every second of every day I hold fast to optimism because the only other choice is giving up. I am determined that if I’m going to survive, I will thrive while I’m at it. And the only way I can do that is to simply pick optimism to be my team captain and refuse to let any other viewpoint claim me. There is no other option for me, and I firmly believe my ride-or-die commitment to seeing the grass is just as green on this side as it is over the hill is the main thing that has kept me alive through the past nine months of chronic mental illness. It keeps my life vibrant even on the darkest hours, and most of all, it keeps me going day in, day out, no matter what.

It’s my secret weapon. But I’m glad to share it with you, too. Look at the bright side, and if you can’t see it right away, dig a tunnel to it with your own bare hands if you have to. It’s there. I promise. It always is.

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

The Crisis Text Line is looking for volunteers! If you’re interesting in becoming a Crisis Counselor, you can learn more information here.

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In the Mind of a Person With Rapid-Cycling Type I Bipolar Disorder

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I’ve always been emotionally explosive. I’m like a raw nerve. I wasn’t diagnosed with bipolar disorder (Type I, severe, rapid cycling) until I was 32 years old, but when I finally got the diagnosis, hoo boy did my life-long wild and erratic behavior suddenly begin to make a lot more sense to me.

It was an enormous relief — to have some sort of explanation for the rampant mood swings, the overwhelming irritability, the rages, the meltdowns, the all-or-nothing approach to absolutely every aspect of my life.

Finally, I felt less alien, less alone. There were others out there just like me, bouncing off the walls, invincible, out of their head with grandiose plans to achieve this, that and the other… and then, the next week, having to cancel everything because life was over and there was nothing left in the world. Therefore, I could not leave my bed, much less my house. And this isn’t hyperbolic. To be frank, this is putting it rather mildly.

I live, primarily, inside of my head, the roar and silence of my mind consuming nearly all my mental and emotional energy. I find it difficult to emerge very often. Although depression and mania are expressed in opposing timbers, they are equally demanding and clamorous in my mind. Because they insist on my undivided attention, the world surrounding me is dimmed. The voices, feelings and needs of my family, friends, anyone, everyone, are drowned out. To hear, engage, converse, react appropriately (in the societal sense) I must concentrate hard and, even then, I fear I’m not getting it right.

My mental illness makes me feel selfish. Immature. Self-possessed. Self-obsessed. Needy and greedy as a child — a wretched woman-child. A blight, a leech, a mistake.

A dominant portion of my genetic make up is the predisposition for anxiety, engendering considerable fear, self-doubt and rumination. It presents itself most potently during mood fluctuation — usually at the height of a mixed episode when agitation becomes extreme. Then the anxiety itself promotes a depressive swing, underscores it. The hopeless, frantic rumination presses in. I’m afraid to be alone but desperately averse to the company of others.

This is social anxiety magnified. Overtaking me. Engulfing me. Controlling me. There is the tiny cross-section of time: intermittent bouts of hypomania, in which I am hyper-verbal, creative, expressive, gregarious, enthusiastic, euphoric. They are fantastic. And fleeting.

At various points of occurrence, the illness presents a false demeanor. I am caught up in the play acting, the pretending. I am fun, spontaneous, likable.  It is a farce, though, this pleasant and engaging personality, this false congeniality.

The more I learn about bipolar disorder, the more unbelievable it is that it took well into my 30s to be properly diagnosed. Furthermore, I think my mood swings might be slightly more complex than I originally thought. My depressive and manic periods can last three to six months, switching back and forth, tag-teaming me mercilessly. Compounding that, I’ve already been told I am rapid-cycling, which means that within a depressive or manic period, I have shorter, more subtle mood shifts throughout the day.

Read: My mind is set to spin cycle, and neither delicate nor permanent press settings are options.

I think the patterns in mood-switching are becoming more predictable, but I’m still taken by surprise when I suddenly find myself mired in depression or consumed by mania. I suppose when one is “crazy” and going “crazier,” they are probably too damn “crazy” to realize it.

The mornings are always the worst. Regardless of whether I am in a manic or depressive period, each morning weighs me down. My eyes open with reluctance as the anxiety kicks up into full-force. My armpits already slick with anxiety sweat, my breath is shallow. My heart speeds up. The dread is overwhelming. The dread, the anxiety, the feelings of worthlessness are almost too much to bear. I take my medication, the pills which are supposed to make me not so unhinged.

But I am. Still. So. Unhinged… unhinged enough to know the suicidal ideation isn’t that far behind me. In fact, I can see it rearing its ugly head again.

 My last trick of the night, folks. After waking, I lay back down. I pull the blanket around me, over my head to block out the light from the cheerfully obnoxious sun. What a bastard.

The sunshine remains unceasingly cruel, mocking me, almost taking pleasure in my suffering. I keep the blanket tucked around my head, even though it is getting hot and uncomfortable. It’s hard to breathe in there. I don’t like that. Sometimes, I think I want to die, but I’m afraid of the suffering. I forget that I will most definitely do not want to die later in the day, post-mood shift. The afternoons are better, and the evenings are excellent.

Every morning I forget that, since I am taking the pills, I am feeling better. For part of the day. At least the whole day isn’t just one long, drawn-out morning.

It takes an hour or more for me to coax myself into an upright position, to put my feet on the ground. To slowly stand. To look in the mirror and quickly look away, hating what I see.

I don’t start feeling better until about halfway through my workout when the endorphins kick in. And then the creativity returns, the ideas come, the planning, the small glimmers of hope. These feelings are not steady throughout, but they make enough of a dent in my misery to propel me through the rest of my workout.

Post workout, I am feeling pretty, even for a while, just so long as I do not linger in front of the mirror. Mirror, Mirror, on the wall. Mirrors seem to have magical properties — they are able to transform my mood almost instantaneously. If I can remember to keep away from mirrors and other triggers, to take my medicine on time and to employ healthy coping strategies, I can get through the day, relatively unscathed.

If I can do that, then I can actually take advantage of the fact that I’m bipolar, because, even though each day’s most basic demands leave me completely exhausted, my bipolar brain is the very reason I’m able to write the way that I can. If I wasn’t unhinged, I’d not likely have a comparable grasp of the English language, of syntax. Words are a powerful display of feelings, and sometimes people, even the ones we love, don’t understand or have access to suppressed feelings locked away for one reason or the other.

And I’d chose this any day.

Follow this journey on Salt and Pepper the Earth.

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

The Crisis Text Line is looking for volunteers! If you’re interesting in becoming a Crisis Counselor, you can learn more information here.

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