When Bipolar Disorder Feels Like a Race

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Sometimes, I have brilliant moments of clarity – times when I can really see bipolar disorder for what it is, and what it is not.

Today, I see a track of unevenly-spaced hurdles. There is always an up and always a down in front of me. Since I was diagnosed, and maybe even before that, I had always felt like I was racing to the finish against everyone I knew who was my age. They were all getting college degrees and fancy jobs. They pushed their limits and successfully ran their races, while I fell farther behind as I struggled to get over my hurdles.

Today, I realized something…

It isn’t a race.

There will always be times where I jump too high, and there will always be times when I crash over the other side. But, I have to keep moving.

It isn’t a race.

The people I know aren’t fighting the same battle I am. And everyone has different struggles. Bipolar disorder is mine. Ultimately, the only thing that could qualify as a true finish line for any illness is death. And, who wants to race towards that? I came to the realization this morning that I can slow down as I approach my hurdles.

This is especially important because sometimes I feel like I’m running with my eyes closed.

I need so much help to get over these mental obstacles on my track that I often have felt weak. I need help coping, picking up the pieces and trying to remain stable. But, as the years have passed and I’ve watched my fiercely independent friends run into their own life problems, I have noticed the ones who don’t accept help are the ones with failing relationships, broken idolizations and empty forms of happiness.

As I have become more interdependent with my husband, my family and my doctors, I can feel my stability become a stronghold. The once fragile fibers of my life are reinforced by the love and support around me, and this makes me stronger.

It’s a process – a process that will only be complete in death. But, death is no longer the thing I look forward to on days like today.

Today, I look forward to the days that fall in between the “madness.” I desire the nights of calm and quiet. I am blessed that, amidst the chaos, I will find peace. Sometimes I need reminding that each mental hurdle doesn’t last for forever and sometimes I need help with the jumps. But, I always pick myself up and continue, one way or another. In the end, there will always be another hurdle.

But, after each hurdle, there will always be grace.

If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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Before You Toss the Word 'Bipolar' Around, Consider This

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It’s tempting, isn’t it? Automatic almost. The go-to word you want (and will) use for someone who is pleasant one day and terrible the next. Who seems to have dual personalities. A mood-shifter in a matter of minutes. I know it’s tempting. For the first time in my entire life, I used the word myself, and I felt like the hugest hypocrite in all the land. I dare not use it again if it the glove doesn’t fit the hand that lost it.

Do you know which word I speak of? And don’t worry. I won’t chide you, scorn you or turn sour towards you for using it. How could I? I used it myself less than 48 hours ago.

The word itself defines an illness — one that can be earth-shaking, mind-twisting, trouble-making and at times uncontrollable or inconsolable. Does the glove fit?

Yes, the illness itself can be an detrimental all on its own. It can mangle relationships. Convince you out of a happy and healthy life.

Like any other mental illness, “bipolar” disorder is attached to a stigma. The negativity surrounding bipolar disorder is so severe it is a risky move to so innocently use “bipolar” to describe an individual who is moody, when we know the illness does not fit the person. Let me rephrase that. Many people don’t know if the illness fits the person. And when they use it, they aren’t even referring to the person’s real mental state. Many don’t know what the word even means. Who the heck was the first to read an article on manic depression or bipolar disorder, and entirely miss the point?

What’s ironic is this. When I became ill for the first time (I was heading towards my breakdown), I remember seeing the words “bipolar” strewn across a magazine cover. And it had an illustration of a head. The head was divided down the middle. One side was white. The other black. I forget the exact title. It was something like, “Is Your Teen Bipolar?” Little did I know, I was holding the secrets to my own mentality in my hand. I never bothered to read that article, and who knows where that magazine is now.

Being bipolar can make a person seem to have split personalities or to be mood-shifters. If their cycle is so erratic that their horizontal axis sky rockets to manic highs and plummets down to depressive lows every several weeks or so, then, yes, I can see the comparison. But whenever I have heard “bipolar” used out of context, it is not labeling an actual person with the condition. It is labeling someone who is a terror one day, and then a saint the next.

The concern is not that calling a person “bipolar” is an insult to people who are bipolar. It is that people who inaccurately use the term are transforming the term “bipolar” into an insult. It is always used negatively. It can be used in derision or comically. “She’s always in a bad, pissy mood. Oh, she must be bipolar or something.” (A sentence often followed by laughter.) “He’s bipolar. He’s happy one day, then, angry the next.” (Something close to what I myself said less than 48 hours ago — so, see, even I am guilty of using it.)

When has “bipolar” ever been used in a positive context or used to characterize someone showcasing good or favorable behavior?

Let’s say, you call your stepmother a witch. Now, we all know when we call a woman a witch, we don’t mean the good kind. Automatically, you are associating your stepmother with everything negative that a bad witch embodies. And yet, your mother is not a witch (unless, she does in fact practice witchcraft, which is something else entirely, and I’ll stay away from that for the time being). However, because society deems the term “witch” when used to describe a woman as something bad or even malignant, we are automatically drawing the conclusion that your stepmother is bad or malignant. And even though, the friend to whom you are complaining about your evil witch of a stepmother knows you are not seriously accusing your stepmother of witchcraft, your friend is now thinking, “Man. What a *itch.” Right? You are furthering the bad witch stereotype and hurting your stepmother’s name in the process. Which perhaps was your aim anyways. It is an insult that isn’t meant to be definitive but illustrative. But it is an insult nonetheless.

Anyone can get carried away with the use of popular phrases or terms. People with bipolar disorder can get carried away with anything their compacted minds decide to hone in on. If you were to accidentally call a person who actually has bipolar disorder “bipolar,” you might not realize you hit it on the nose. If he or she actually did struggle with bipolar disorder and you joke, “Are you like bipolar or something?” expect either crickets chirping, a punch in the face or a back turned to you followed by the sound of their footsteps fading away.

Most won’t. I really think the worst you can expect is a seething glare that burns holes into the back of your brain. Because, yes, many of us are touchy. Not all of us are all cool and calm as me (kidding). And no, we are not all volatile. If anything, I imagine we are quiet and subdued, struggling in silence, perhaps, taking your blows.

I am not writing this to antagonize or verbally assault you. I am writing in hopes you’ll refrain from using a term that can prove dangerous if said to or around the wrong person. A term that can hurt or harm. A term that gets under my skin sometimes and makes me shake my head and makes me hope they are teaching kids about mental illness in schools these days.

We all know we never learned about it growing up. But now that we have the knowledge, we have the power. And now that you know, I hope you reconsider your tendency to throw the term around.

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When Bipolar Disorder Feels Like Being Lost at Sea

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Imagine being lost at sea in a tiny little raft with nothing but the vast ocean surrounding you. You’re floating along seemingly alone, stranded and powerless. You are completely at the mercy of Mother Nature with a never-ending cycle of ups and downs. You learn to ride each wave as it comes at you, but what you really want is to stand on firm, dry land just like everyone else.

You learn to be brave because there are sharks out there that prey on your vulnerability. You learn to weather the fiercest of storms. You learn your deepest fear is one day you’re going to not only drown but you will want to. You learn how to be strong, how to be tough and how to be resourceful, and how to manage.

You also witness miracles and such beauty, it escapes imagination. You develop an open heart and mind. You become a piece of art: fluid, magical, tenacious and breathtakingly captivating.

You are weathered, tired and your entire body hurts and is sore. There is a thirst inside of you that you don’t think will ever be quenched. Your scars are so deep that they will never heal. You’re alive, fighting and hungry. You acquire an appetite for a life filled with purpose, for happiness. This is your life, our lives, a life living with bipolar disorder.

It isn’t some joke. It isn’t some cliché. It isn’t a choice. It isn’t an excuse. It just is.

It doesn’t make anyone less of a person, and it isn’t something to apologize for either. It is an illness. We didn’t “catch it” from living a bad lifestyle or making poor choices. Bipolar does not define your character as a person or you as an individual. I am not bipolar. I have bipolar. There is a big difference. Never forget you are not alone.

“I didn’t choose the bipolar life. The bipolar life chose me.”

Peace, love and happiness to all.

– M.

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5 Ways Bipolar Disorder Distorts My Body Image

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Bipolar disorder makes my life difficult in different ways. My mania and depression both affect my relationships, my ability to work and my life as a mother. My sometimes unstable moods also affect my self-esteem and make it difficult to see myself in a realistic way. My bipolar disorder distorts my body image in five ways, which make it seem like I never really have a healthy view of myself.

1. Mania inflates my self-esteem.

During a manic episode, I turn into someone else. I’m too talkative, easily excited and overly ambitious. When I’m manic, I’m also very confident in my appearance, which would be a great thing if the confidence were realistic. My inflated self-esteem causes me to spend too much time in front of the mirror doing my hair and makeup, makes me dress to show more skin and changes my attitude toward sexual encounters, which sometimes leads to promiscuity. I am not myself when I’m manic, and I don’t see myself in a realistic or respectful way.

2. Depression destroys my self-esteem.

Depressive episodes always come after mania, which means I go from loving myself and my appearance to essentially hating everything about myself. The depression part of my bipolar disorder completely rids me of any positive thoughts about my appearance. When I’m depressed, I look in the mirror and see a fat, ugly, worthless woman who hates her nose and thighs. Again, this view is unrealistic and is actually pretty damaging. Depression distorts my self-esteem by showing me what I think are flaws when I look in the mirror.

3. Depression causes weight loss.

When I’m in the midst of a depressive episode, I don’t eat much or eat well. Sometimes I go days without a meal and several weeks of grazing and barely eating causes me to lose weight. Not only is this physically unhealthy for me, but I praise myself for losing weight because of my depression-induced, poor self-image. Weight loss during a depressive episode is physically and mentally unhealthy. On top of the weight loss and poor self-image, when I come out of the depressive episode, I feel bad about eating normally and gaining back the weight I had lost. The weight loss caused by my depression hurts my self-esteem both when I’m depressed and when I’m not.

4. Mania closes me off to criticism.

When I’m manic and overly confident, I believe how I feel about myself is true, and ignore the concerns those close to me have about my manic behavior and change in my appearance. My friends and family may come to me with their concerns about my lack of self-respect for my body. However, I blow them off and become offended by their concerns because my mania makes me unhealthily head strong. Mania causes me to ignore constructive criticism and covers my ears when those close to me voice their concerns about my change in appearance.

5. Depression opens me up to criticism.

Depression is the complete opposite of mania in every way. Instead of causing me to ignore criticism from others, depression makes me more susceptible to all forms of criticism from other people. Any small or misdirected comment throws me into a dark pit of sadness, where I doubt myself and my appearance. When I’m depressed, I care too much about what others think of me and put my self-esteem in their hands. Even if someone simply says I look tired, my depression makes me hear it as if the person were saying I look awful. During a depressive episode, my heart is easily hurt by the criticism of others, even if it is supposed to be constructive and kind.

My bipolar disorder makes it difficult for me to have a healthy body image and makes me see myself in unrealistic ways. Only when I’m stable do I see myself as I truly am and only then do I love myself completely. In order to stay stable and to see the right version of myself in the mirror, I make sure to do what I can to combat my mood swings by taking my medication and talking openly about my unhealthy body image. I gain back my self-esteem when I’m stable. I want to keep it close to me and not let mania or depression have their negative affects on my body image.

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A Conversation Between a Pharmacist and Someone Who Needs Her Psych Meds

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Once in a while, I forget to tell my psychiatrist I’m low on my medication. My shrink is cautious and protective of his patients, so he rarely issues refills. I have to be mindful of this, since many of my former therapists in the past had the less responsible practice of leaving one, two, even 10 refills on the script.  While this was tons easier for me (I could go for months without seeing the shrink), it didn’t help make the psychiatrist or me accountable to our relationship and work together.

Anyway, when I do forget with my current shrink, it’s embarrassing. This last time I had to call him on a Sunday. I left a message. Then I called or stopped by the pharmacies to see if they carried the Trifluoperazine I needed. After talking in person to the pharmacist at the Target and CVS in my neighborhood, I proceeded to call the 24-hour CVS in another town for convenience’s sake. None of them had it in stock. It didn’t surprise me since the pill is quite an old medication most patrons of CVS do not use. But it did frighten me. Left me feeling uneasy. Vulnerable. It is…an anti- psychotic. Hospitals are more likely to carry it, my psychiatrist told me later, because they experience more turnover of psychotic patients than your friendly CVS.

And that’s precisely the problem. I have a block asking for Trifluoperazine in “normal,” civilian surroundings. The conversation with the pharmacist goes something like this (I’ll give you what we said and what we were really saying):

Me: Hi. I wonder if you have a certain medication in stock.

Code for: I have a mental illness and I’m still sort of ashamed of it but I need my medication.

Pharmacist: What medication? 

Code for: Just how sick are you?

Me: It’s called Trifluoperazine. 

Code for: I know, I know, it’s an anti-psychotic but I promise you if I stay on my meds I will not get psychotic or dangerous or weird.

Pharmacist: Can you spell that?

Code for: We haven’t had a request for that in years!

Me:  T-R-I-F-L-U-O-P-E-R-A-Z-I-N-E. 

Code for: See, I know what I’m talking about. I’m a healthy, normal, sane woman.

Pharmacist: Uh huh.

Code for: Ah, so you are prone to psychosis. I hope you’re OK now. I don’t want you hanging around the store.

Pharmacist: How many milligrams? 

Code for: How psychotic are you?

Me:  Oh, only one milligram. 

Code for: I promise, I hardly need the stuff.  It’s just for maintenance.  Honestly. I really don’t need it that much at all.

Pharmacist: When do you need this? 

Code for: Now we’ll find out just how psychotic you are.

Me:  I need it right away. I don’t have any more pills left. 

Code for: OK, OK you called my bluff: I am prone to psychosis. If I go several days without the drug I get shaky and unstable. And, yes, besides that, I’m irresponsible. I didn’t tell my doctor ahead of time. I’m a mess.

Pharmacist: We’ll have to order that. It will take a few days. 

Code for: You must be really bad off.  We never get requests for this drug. It’s only in the psych wards that they have a full supply.

Me: Oh. Well, do you think you could advance me a few pills until it comes in? 

Code for: I’m begging you. Yes, I have a problem. If I don’t get the meds soon, I might have another breakdown.

Pharmacist: I told you, we have to order it.  We don’t have any currently. 

Code for: Just go to a hospital.

Me: OK, thanks.

Code for: Sure, push me into a mental funk because you are too stingy to carry my medication. I know I’m not the only one! Surely other psych patients need it!  You are depriving a whole population! Tyrant.

I throw my bag over my shoulder and leave the drug store sort of empowered, with my head high, vowing to give my psychiatrist plenty of advance notice the next time my pills dwindle low in their vial.

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My Personal Bipolar Disorder Glossary

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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.

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