Often times, the experience of bipolar disorder gets condensed into DSM jargon and a few brief, unemotional paragraphs in psychology textbooks. As a result, the disorder becomes a collection of somewhat inaccessible, detached medical jargon. We are so used to the phrases “mania” and “depression.” We may be able to recite a textbook definition of the two, but what do these states of mind and their equally important “in-betweens” truly feel like?
Of course, everyone’s experience with bipolar disorder is different, but in the interest of bringing greater understanding to the disorder with a humanizing touch, I’ve put together my personal bipolar disorder glossary. It is a collection of the vocabulary I formed as a teen to describe what I was feeling. This was before any medical jargon infiltrated my brain, before I knew the technical terms for what I was experiencing and before I was even diagnosed. In that sense, I feel the terms are accurate and raw.
Bruise Days: Bruise days are days when you wake up and everything suddenly feels different than it did the day before. There has been some definite, ominous shift in the way the world works. Think of the skin on your forearm. Normally, you press this skin and feel very little, certainly not pain. Now imagine you wake up one day and on your forearm is a gigantic, grotesque bruise. It’s purple and green and blue, colors not there the day before. When you press on this area, unlike the day before, you feel everything. You feel it all deeply, as if you are pressing right into the marrow of your bone.
Bruise days are like this, except in the mind. Riding the bus down the city street, it seems like colors you have never seen before have suddenly been created. This can be exciting. Life can seem like some sped-up carnival ride, a mix of excitement and over-stimulation, But it can also be devastating. On bruise days, every emotion is amplified times 10. When your co-worker does not ask you to eat lunch with her, you worry you have failed and will always fail at making social connections for the rest of your life. When you see a young construction worker walk down the street, you concoct his whole life story with excruciating detail and usually become very sad. Maybe this construction worker had an abusive dad and could be living a life much happier than the one he is now. On bruise days, even certain words or notes in a song can send you into what seems like a different dimension and a disorganized chasm of thought. A bruise day is usually a sign some sort of shift is coming. This shift can be one of two things- peeling back the film or hibernation.
Peeling Back the Film: This is the moment when everything in life comes into focus. It happens before you can even notice it’s happened. Suddenly, a film is lifted, like in those Claritin allergy commercials. Whatever thin layer of murkiness has been clouding your vision and leaving the world dull, flat and unimpressive instantaneously dissolves. Colors become brighter. People become more interesting. The edges of objects become rounded and inviting. With this new outlook on life, you feel welcome to try new things you might never dare to try before and talk to new people who might have otherwise scared you. It’s a picnic. It’s a party. It’s a good time to be alive, whenever the film is peeled back. When this happens, you are always 100 percent convinced life will stay this way forever. Like an onion, you figure there must be a few levels, a few instances of this process to truly get to the good part. This ties into false epiphanies.
(False) Epiphanies: This is one of the most devastating aspects of bipolar disorder. False epiphanies follow peeling back the film. It is when you eventually come to realize the elation, joy and beauty of the world that followed peeling back the film are not, in actuality, permanent. It is a crushing feeling: You must consider maybe the fuzziness and dullness with which you saw the world before the film was peeled back is actually the norm. Knowing this feeling of elation exists, but being unable to obtain it without devastating consequences (like inevitable hibernation) is heartbreaking.
Because with each false epiphany, there is a time when this epiphany is not false at all. There is a period of time where you believe you have truly figured things out. What this means varies from false epiphany to false epiphany, but it’s usually along the lines of having unlocked the secret formula to remain happy forever. You become entirely convinced by some great force of God, nature or your own hard work, whatever ailment has plagued your brain since childhood has been vanquished. You sing songs, write poetry and stay up all night savoring the beauty of knowing life will, for real this time, remain this good forever, because you know now all the answers.
Of course, these epiphanies are called false epiphanies for a reason. Things eventually slow. Reality eventually hits. You are forced, once more, to acknowledged you’ve been made a fool by your own self, your own brain.
Hibernation: Hibernation is often a result of recovering from the wild ride of all of the above terms. Hibernation is not wanting to face the world you thought you’d understood and conquered. It’s not wanting to admit to your latest false epiphany or to clean up any messes you made while you were sure everything you did was 100 percent right. It’s a period of time where you turn the sleep tracker on your Fitbit off because you don’t want your family and friends to know you’re sleeping 20 hours a day on the weekends. It’s when you don’t shower, when you show up 20 minutes late for work every day because you can’t drag yourself out of bed, when you eat as if you need to save up calories for some harsh Alaskan winter. You eat like this because you’re upset with yourself. You eat like this until you feel just on the verge of vomiting and fall back asleep to hopefully prevent this.
Hibernation is what you do until you can, hopefully, return to equilibrium. How long hibernation will last is always a scary unknown. It is a necessary evil, though, because often during this time, being asleep in bed is the safest possible spot to be in. Hibernation is when your mind hurts from both thinking too much and not thinking at all. It’s when you can smell your own feet and armpits and greasy hair. It’s when your spine and shoulders ache from not leaving the bed. It is a trap: You want to get up, but you can’t.
Equilibrium: Equilibrium is what it sounds like, but it’s also health. It is counseling, self-care and medication management. Obtaining and maintaining equilibrium is lots of work, which is good, because this means it is primarily in your control. Reaching equilibrium sometimes, sadly, involves either good or bad luck. So it is a blessing, and should be considered such. It is a state many take for granted, including those who struggle with mental illness, including myself. It is something that needs to be my goal every day, something to cherish and collect.
In conclusion, bipolar disorder is much more than mood swings. It is a cruel disorder, one that lulls you into a sense of false security time and time again. The key, I suppose, (if there is a key at all), is to ride the waves rather than fight and flail against them, to know cycles come and go, to take care of yourself to the best of your ability, in whatever way that may be, and to enjoy all of the good times you do have. Because the good times are, of course, the most straight-forward. They require no further explanation: contentment, happiness, joy and peace.