7 Things You Can't See About My Life With Mental Illness

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I decided to start writing to help people like me, but I didn’t really pursue it seriously until my sister passed away unexpectedly last year. I needed to transfer my grief into something productive (that’s just my personality) and so here I am, writing to help others with a diagnosis succeed. I want to give hope, but I also want to share the harsh realities of mental illness, especially since I’ve struggled so much this past month.

It seems people think navigating through this bipolar life is easy for me. Well, I wish that were so. Most days it’s a battle. Seriously, a knock down, drag out fight with only one winner standing on the other side. I could share example after example, but I’ll try to keep it to a few. With a mental illness, there are a lot of things you don’t see. That’s what people don’t get because if you talk to me any day of the week, you’d be surprised (and honestly most people are) I have a mental illness.

Here are some things about me you might not know:

1. I need more sleep than most people.

People don’t see all the times I go to bed early on a week day (like 8 p.m.) or sleep in late on a weekend (always on a weekend because of work).

2. I need to constantly be aware of my emotions.

They don’t see how hard I have to hold back emotions (I’ve gotten really good at hiding it). They don’t see how many times I have to check in with my body and my feelings. I have to be so in tune with my body, it’s sometimes ridiculous.

3. I need to constantly distract my mind from obsessive thoughts.

Obsessive thoughts for me are constant worries. I have so many worries. Mainly worries something bad will happen or someone will die. I have to constantly refocus my thinking. I have to continually analyze and talk myself out of obsessive thoughts. I’ve had to become an expert at distracting my mind from negative thoughts.

4. I have to be cautious with alcohol.

I learned the hard way it’s best not to drink with a disorder like mine. Not only is alcohol a depressant, it also interferes with the medication I take. Nowadays I only drink alcohol on special occasions and even then, I limit my alcohol intake to one or two drinks.

5. Crowds are scary for me.

I can’t be around huge crowds because I start getting anxious. My anxiety increases when I feel I have no way out. I have to avoid places that have a lot of crowds because it just isn’t a pleasant experience for me and could cause a shift in mood.

6. I have stay on a pretty strict schedule.

Routines are very important for managing my bipolar disorder. Going to bed at the same time every evening and waking up at the same time every morning is key to keeping mood swings at bay. Also with the medication I take, I have to get a solid eight hours of sleep or I’m so groggy I can’t operate a vehicle. A set schedule also mentally prepares me for the activities I have to devote my energy to. With bipolar, my energy level fluctuates based on the activities I do. I have to make sure I have sufficient energy to engage in the tasks I need to do, whether it be work or play.

7. I need to be vigilant of triggers.  

This has gotten easier over time. One of my triggers is violence. I don’t do well with violence and steer clear of violent shows and news stories. Sometimes, it’s inevitable. So many shows depict violence. There are some where I can just look away, squeeze my husband’s hand and he’ll tell me when it’s over. But some shows the violence is never-ending and I just can’t handle watching. These are the shows I no longer watch. One such example of a trigger: My husband and I were watching “The Walking Dead” mid-season premiere and I couldn’t finish it because I was having flashbacks. I literally couldn’t breathe. If my husband hadn’t been there centering me, I think I would have passed out.

But you don’t see these things. I show you only what I want to show you. I’m always waiting for the next tragedy, the next shoe to drop.

You never know what someone is battling.

A version of this piece originally appeared on the International Bipolar Foundation’s blog.

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Why Making Lists Helps My Depression

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In 2011, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. That means when I’m depressed, I’m in a deep, dark hole with no foot holes to climb up and no rope to pull me out. When a depressive episode hits me like a UPS truck, I go through the motions of just trying to scrape my way through the day. If I get out of bed at all, I force myself to shower, coax myself to eat and push myself out the door. During my depressive bouts, I try to use the coping skills I’ve developed through therapy and learned during my inpatient stay in a mental health ward. One of my favorites, and the one I think works the best is making lists.

I arm myself with lists to battle depression. There are no cons to keeping lists, only pros. The lists I keep when I’m depressed give my seemingly messy life a little bit of order. Every thought, every task is neatly written in columns of a neatly lined page. When I’d rather sit in darkness and do nothing, lists help me prioritize. They’re handwritten letters of encouragement, and each word is a cheerleader on paper. Crossing off individual tasks, big or small, brings me a great sense of accomplishment that immediately boosts my mood. Depending on the list I make, doing so gives me something to look forward to. Whether it’s a list of goals or dreams or plans for tomorrow, there is always something to look forward to.

I have several lists I keep to get me through my depressive episodes. I like them all, and love how they make me feel. The first list I fill out is my Gratitude List. As I number the page, I recall everything in my life I am thankful for, and my spirits are lifted. The second list is a basic To-Do list. This list is full of daily tasks I would normally find daunting during a depressive episode. They may be big, they may be small, but they are all equal on my yellow-lined paper, and I feel equally satisfied when I cross them off. Another list I keep is an I Want to Remember list. This list helps me take a break from my negative thoughts to recount memories and write down which ones I wish to remember always. An obvious list to keep while depressed is a Joy list. I list everything that makes me happy, even little things like warm rain, a child’s smile or the softness of my kitty’s fur. Finally, I keep a list of my Accomplishments. As I write and then reread this list, my confidence goes up and my negativity goes away.

Keeping lists is my favorite way to cope. I feel order in my life, success when I cross off a task and have hope for the future. I read and reread these lists as many times as I need to until I feel better, and then I throw them away so I can’t cheat the next time. I list my way through depression not only because I actually enjoy it, but because I need to do it. When I’m down, I lose and forget the other coping skills I’ve learned throughout my battle with bipolar disorder. I arm myself with lists because they’re easy; just grab a notebook and a pen and get started. I’ve thought of adding some humor to my lists because laughing is a great medicine for depression. The list of lists I could make is limitless, but it always keeps my mind focused elsewhere instead of on my despair. And that’s the goal of list-making. To move your mind in the direction of a comforting fortress that will protect you from the dangers of depression and help you fight.

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A Letter to My Husband, From a Woman With Bipolar Disorder

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To my selfless, patient, empathetic soul mate,

I have so much I want to say to you, and then I have nothing at all to say to you. What I mean is, I want tell you every single thought that processes through my mind, but sometimes I can’t put them into words you’ll understand.

But you try. Don’t you ever for one second think I don’t know you try, because I do. I see it, I hear and I feel it. Every single time you pick me back up when I’m shattered into pieces on the floor. Every single time you bring me back down when I’m fighting through a trembling and breathless panic attack that makes absolutely no sense to you. Every single time you embrace my stable days when I’m the peachiest version of me you ever get to experience. And especially, every single time you pick up my slack with house work and parenting when I haven’t the energy to pull myself out of bed, much less to function as a “normal” wife and mother should.

I honestly don’t know how you do it. Let me be clear… as horrific as this stigmatized and exhausting disorder is to have, being the one who loves someone with that disorder is hard, too. I realize, even though I don’t tell you, you go through so much with my illness. You can’t vent to me most days because I start to hate myself for not being better for you. You can’t vent to other people because they will probably say things like “she’s crazy” or “she’s a bitch” just because this whole illness is stigmatized to no end.

I know I treat you unfairly sometimes. Usually it’s because I need an outlet to be my real self. Hardly anyone knows the real me. And only you know the realist version of me there is. It’s exhausting to wake up every day and pretend to be just like everyone else. To walk around with this huge secret on my shoulders I want to scream from a roof top.

I know there are times my diagnosis creeps its way into our conversations, and I’m sorry for that. I know you don’t want to always talk about it like it controls my life. But here’s the thing — it does. And when I talk about it more than usual it’s because I need to talk about it and can’t with anyone else. In fact, anytime I have to tell someone else, it feels like I’m coming out of the closet. How will they react? Will they be scared of me? Will they treat me differently? All of these, and more, are thoughts that race through my mind while I hesitate, sweating and trembling, to spew this news to someone new. Sounds dramatic, right? That’s because it is.

I often wish you could experience my moods swings just once so you can truly get it. But then I realize I wouldn’t wish this disorder on my worst enemy, much less my spouse. There are times I can’t tell the difference between normal moods swings and bipolar mood swings. Is how I’m feeling about blah blah blah a true and justifiable feeling, or is this the unreal reaction to an unreal situation? Is how I perceived or am perceiving this scenario real, or is my brain trying to tell me it is? There’s a blurred fine line, and it’s difficult to distinguish between false perception and reality. That’s where you come in like a knight in shining armor to tell me that nothing is different and to let it pass.

Also, there are times when I’m being so paranoid I think every exchanged whisper within ear shot of me must be pertaining to me. I overanalyze every look or reaction from people around me. I worry and stress about every thing I say, wondering if I gave anything away of my illness. I walk on eggshells all day long, every single day, and it’s exhausting.

But with each time you rescue me, I worry you’ll wake up one day and think “I can’t live this way anymore” and you’ll pack your bags and go. Then like always, you remind me you’re my rock and stability. You’re with me “in sickness and in health,” no matter how many times I alternate between the two.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for everything little and massive thing you do for me, and us as a family. Thank you for being the strongest link.

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5 Reasons Why I'm 21 and Abstaining From Alcohol

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Being a somewhat newly minted (as of September) 21-year-old and a college student and as someone who attends parties… things get tricky when you make the choice (yes, technically it’s a choice) to abstain from drinking alcohol.

I’m trying this no drinking thing. How long will it last? I don’t know. How long should it last? I don’t know. Why am I doing it? That much I do know. Also, has it been easy for me so far? No. But I’ll tell you why it’s so important right now as someone living with mental illnesses:

1. I’ve never had a good history with alcohol. Ever. From my first sips at 15 while living in Europe to a negative experience in high school to drinking to numb before medication and then drinking post-medication… yikes. It’s been bumpy.

2. Nine times out of 10, the fun doesn’t last for me. Usually I drink and my mood goes up and I catch an intense high, higher than most (and people tend to think I am drunker than I actually am because of this). Then, after having what feels like an insane amount of fun, I crash harder than most. I cry or feel worthless and empty. I question things. The pain is loud.

3. Bipolar disorder does not always go well with alcoholHence why reason #2 happens for me more than most people. Every single time I drink.

4. On that note, my psychiatric medication, particularly mood stabilizers/antipsychotics, do not go well with alcohol either. The alcohol reduces the effect of my medication quite a lot. I learned last semester, after going a few weeks where I would drink every weekend, that one drink (with or without medication) would set my mood off for the entire week – depression, hypomania or mixed, as well as rapid cycling. It was rough, and I finally realized that maybe it isn’t worth it for me.

5. Addictive and obsessive personality. That’s me. Between having an addictive personality (hence eating disorder history) and having obsessive compulsive disorder, I know drinking is a very, very fine line for me. I always want more and never feel satisfied. I feel like I need to achieve a certain feeling or high, and I have enough self-awareness to realize that for me this could go too far very easily, as it did with food and exercise in the past.

So now that you know why, I’ll tell you how I got there: negative experiences adding up, strong encouragement from a therapist and friends, medical encouragement from a psychiatrist etc. I don’t want to be an addict. And I’m not saying everyone with bipolar or everyone in college or everyone who drinks is going to become an addict. I just know myself, having gone through this mental health journey in the past year. I don’t want to take that risk. I’m going to struggle during certain moments at parties when the temptation is high, but I’m going to do my best to fight it. I figure telling people I am sober is the best way to start – accountability is super important with things like this (my prior experience having been with my eating disorder).

On the positive — I have awesome, supportive friends and family, as well as my mental health team. I just have to tell people so I can hold myself accountable.

Follow this journey on Obsessions, Words and Everything in Between.

The Mighty is asking the following: Create a list-style story of your choice in regards to disability, disease or illness. It can be lighthearted and funny or more serious — whatever inspires you. Be sure to include at least one intro paragraph for your list. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to community@themighty.com. Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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How Mental Illness Changed My Definition of Independence

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It took me a long time to get to the place where I felt strong and independent. Once I felt like I had finally found my independence and I had matured, I learned what other people say, think or feel about me didn’t matter. I felt strong and successful.

I accomplished so much during those times. Epic (and I mean epic) book drives, volunteering, public speaking… the list went on. I took my next leap of independence and then suddenly, everything came crashing down.

When my bipolar disorder (undiagnosed at the time) got out of hand and my life came crashing down around me, so did my independence. Suddenly I was back at home living with my parents, sleeping in my childhood bedroom. It took months before I could do anything on my own. My mom described it as having an adult toddler in her home.

I couldn’t put my socks on by myself because I couldn’t decide which foot went first. I needed to be told exactly what to do or I would lay there and do nothing. For the first few weeks I even needed my mom to sit on the bed beside me so I could fall asleep. It was an all-time low for me.

Once I started getting better, I began struggling with my lack of independence. I was ashamed of what had happened to me. I was ashamed of how sick I had become and how much help I needed to recover. Even more so, all my successful moments in my life that helped define who I was were clouded with the concept I was simply having a manic episode.

I felt like a failure.

There’s a country song I hear on the radio all the time. The one line says, “Feelin’ pretty good and that’s the truth, It’s neither drink nor drug induced.” Of course I understand what the songwriter meant by this, but every time I hear it my heart sinks. It would just be so great if I could feel great without having to take medication every day. But I can’t. That’s my life.

The past few years I have struggled to figure out where my independence is with my bipolar disorder. But I’ve learned something pretty amazing during this journey.

Independence doesn’t mean doing it on your own. It means knowing when to ask for help. 

Independence doesn’t mean not caring what people are saying about you. It’s calling them to the mat and telling them to stop.

Independence doesn’t mean taking on tons of work. It means learning to say no.

Independence doesn’t mean having lots of friends. It means figuring out what type of people you should be surrounded by and then doing just that.

Independence doesn’t mean not being on medication. It means understanding the importance behind them and taking them responsibly.

Independence doesn’t mean doing whatever you want. It means prioritizing and making important decisions that will affect the rest of your life.

And lastly, independence means being proud of yourself and what you’ve been through, instead of being ashamed of your past mistakes and the struggles of life.

What does independence mean to you? Tell us in the comments below.

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When It's Hard to Be in the Moment With a Bipolar Brain

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It is truly a rare moment I am present. My bipolar brain likes to race around its internal universe. Sometimes at mock speed or sometimes at an agonizingly slow obsessive pace. Lost in past memories, jumping ahead to future events on the calendar, doubting decisions, unable to process and follow directives at work, agitation so fierce I want to rip my own skin off. I’ve taken to listening to music in headphones at work to drown out the internal and external noises. It works for the most part. But nothing’s perfect, right?

My husband and I share a love of baseball and music. On weekends this is our escape. We are often found at the baseball park or a concert venue. As it goes with a mood disorder, I’ve had to miss some events due to anxiety, sensory overload or depression. It’s a hard thing to admit, to have to utter the words I can’t handle the things I enjoy right now. Even harder to accept and not get swept away in anger at bipolar disorder for taking these things away from me. Just like for all of us, some days are easier than others.

However, last night under the glistening stars celebrating our wedding anniversary, my husband and I were cuddled up listening to one of my favorite artists. We had a wonderful dinner. We got aisle seats (simple pleasures). The band was on fire. The lyrics reached into me just like they do through headphones. The emphatic and sometimes empathetic vocals brought tears to my eyes. The crowd sang along. I sang along. As I looked up to the open sky, I felt so grateful to be present in that moment. To allow the power of music to take me away. Take the chaos, the voices, the constant inner dialogue and usher it out of my mind. Sitting next to my loving husband and really being with him meant the world to me.

I don’t take these rare occurrences lightly. If it was the musical angels from above looking down on me I want to say thank you. If it was the fact I’ve been practicing breathing, slowing down, becoming more intentional I also give thanks. It was a magical night and I am so grateful I didn’t miss it.

The Mighty is asking the following: Share a travel moment related to disability and/or disease that made you laugh, cry, roll your eyes or was otherwise unforgettable? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to community@themighty.com. Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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