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My Personal Prescription for Bipolar Agitation

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When the agitation gets this high I seek destruction. I drive faster, I eat more, I kick things, I yell, scream, storm out. Ultimately I think I want to die. Crawling in my skin, crawling out of my skin. Sharp tongue. Raised voice. Constantly rubbing and pulling at the back of my neck where the tension lies.

Tears roll and I scorn them. How could I be so weak and pathetic? What is this even about? Pacing around the house like a caged animal. The answer has to be somewhere. Although I’m not really looking, I just can’t sit still. I can’t find my breath. I don’t even want to breathe. Ultimately I think I want to die.

Pouring the medication into my hand last night I wanted to add more. If three is supposed to be the magic number, maybe six is even better. Perhaps it’s nine. Electric currents of impulsivity fueling my decision making. Each buzz hits my hand and jostles the bottle, one more pill fell into my hand. One more than is prescribed. And again. As I cup them in my hand I wonder if I find the right combo, maybe this time I won’t wake up. I won’t have to fight this intense agitation. Feel like some out of control monster that has to hide away from work, from society. The noise is too loud. The light is too bright. I am too raw to be in the world today. Yet I feel too broken to be alone.

I turn to social media for help, reassurance, something to tell me I’m OK. I’ve pushed friends away long ago. Some just not capable of understanding and some just lost patience as rapid cycling bipolar throws me up then throws me down. I am guilty of not picking up that phone. On days like today I am convinced no one would want to be around me. Hell, I don’t want to be around me.

My house is small. An echo chamber. Just like my mind. If I yell and scream into this space it just comes back at me. I feel trapped. Alone. My neck hurts, my head hurts, my heart hurts. I wouldn’t wish these feelings onto my worst enemy. How ironic because in reality I am my own worst enemy. The skill of self-compassion is missing from my tool box. Truth is I kicked that box out of sight. So here I am. In pain. Raw.

Constantly fighting myself, my symptoms I forget I have tools. Calming techniques for agitation, or at the very least dispelling the negative energy. I think I am beyond sitting quietly for art. I need to blast some music and get this knotted up body moving. Quickly I make my way to the treadmill. Luckily the prescription for exercise is unlimited.

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.

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 It's Time to Start Over Again, Again

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Everyone gets in a slump from time to time. When a slump is coupled with a breakup and mental illness, a little slump can turn a lonely home into an abandoned property with overgrown bushes and boarded-up windows. I think I’ve plastered, without much knowledge, some type of “no trespassing” sign over my skin these past few months, not wanting anyone to see the state I’ve let my body and my mind fall into. It’s a bit of a mess, a few months short of disaster, and I think it might be time for a controlled burn.

By this I mean I haven’t done a good job taking care of myself, mentally or physically. If my body were a building, you’d see I’ve let things rot — losing pride in the property that is my flesh. I’ve stopped exercising in favor of sleeping 13 or 14 hours a day and found comfort in tortilla chips, gelato and wine. I haven’t written a page despite deadlines for school, and turned to Netflix reruns instead of books to fill the hours when my mind won’t allow enough blank space for sleep.

It can be embarrassing to realize you’ve “let yourself go” again, especially when you’ve been to rock bottom once before, and it can seem like a lost cause to haul yourself from the bottom of some well of despair back onto dry land, knowing you — despite your best efforts — may end up at the bottom of that well at any point in the future. This, unfortunately, has been my reality in living with bipolar disorder.

But spring is coming, with its reminder of my hospitalization. With the sunlight and the budding plants comes the uncomfortable tingling reminder life is stirring around me, and that it’s time to wake up. It’s the fresh air coaxing me out of the cave of bleak hibernation, summoning me to rise from the ashes all over again — even if this is part of what can seem like a devastating, endless cycle.

It’s a time to think back to the good times — running half-marathons, cooking new foods, hiking new mountains, stringing together essays — and persuading myself to embrace everything these cycles of good times, no matter how long they stick around, can offer. I may always sleep with one eye open, and walk turning my head back every few minutes, nervous the will to survive will collapse in on me at any instant. I’ve come to find this primal desire will never be a given, and this has been the most devastating realization in the five years since I’ve grappled with a chronic diagnosis. There will always be times when returning from a slump will seem not worth the effort, or nearly impossible.

But what would be the point of any of my days if I didn’t muster all my energy to savor the good ones? And so, taking the saplings of the good times that seem to be on the cusp of growing strong, I need to be a phoenix. There is no other option.

It’s time to start over again, again. This is how it’s been since I was young, and maybe this is how it will always be. It is the toughest pill I’ve yet to swallow. But it’s time to put down the bottle, to put down the spoon, to peel off the comforter.

I want to return to what I once was, once more. When I was 16 and not ashamed of raw emotion, I wrote how it felt like I was walking a tightrope, a thin line of sanity, “one slip and I am devoured, gone.” I wrote, “expect nothing in this life, except sorrows and joys.”

In the days, weeks and months to come, I want to cook meals for myself. I want to get outside and run. I want to nourish myself when I need to be nourished, and abstain when I need to abstain. Of course I will falter and of course I will fail, but the difference is that I will, once again, be trying. I want to return to the world again, to be a sister and a daughter and a friend, not just a phantom pulled here and there by obligation and clocks.

When I was 18 — five years ago today — this is what I would have wanted for myself as I threw my hospital bracelet into the trash, with my family in tow there to support me. I was so determined to leave that darkness of the hallway behind me.

I wrote this at 16, too, and I still think these dramatic things are true, because they were real then, and they are still real now.

“We must endure these phases of barren trees and ashy personality. We must wait in mournful numbers until the waves’ salty water washes over us, covers us in lost emotions of the past — that hope and strength to live and breathe again.”

Follow this journey on Laura Dennison‘s site.

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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A Letter to Myself at 15, From the Woman Who's Still Alive

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Dear 15 year-old Denise,

I wish this letter could’ve gotten to you in time, but you’re alive!

Let me tell you what you need to know outright. Before you even get to high school, almost everyone you know is going to call you selfish and over-dramatic. They’re going to ask why you’re so angry all the time. They’ll ask you “What’s the point of cutting yourself?” They’ll ignore you, call you fat and forget you’re smart. These people don’t know any better.

The truth is you’re bipolar. You know about bipolar disorder, one of the “worst” mental illnesses you’ve read about in books. Yeah, that’s all you, girl. You have bipolar along with borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I know that sounds like a lot to take in at once, and you’re going to be in denial for a very long time, except for those moments of desperation where the only thing that makes sense is you’ve lost your mind.

Soon you will be of legal age and able to make your own choices, but being 18 doesn’t mean doors will magically open. In fact, the opposite will happen to you. These things that have plagued you will suddenly take all the breath from your lungs when you feel like you’re too broken to change anything. These next few years are going to be some of best and worst of your life, so hold on tight. Britney Spears will release a song with that title in 2013, and in your late 20s, you’re going to listen to it and cry in the tub as part of your self-soothing. It’s a good song, perfect for baths when you need a cry.

In a few years, the fog will lift a little. You’ll go back to college and finally start seeing a therapist, something you’ve known you needed to do since you first started carrying a razor and clean-up kit everywhere just in case you needed to cut.

In nine years, you’re going to be put in a mental hospital, but don’t be scared. Let it happen. This will be your salvation. This is the turning point in your life. It’s going to feel great, like sudden freedom and fresh air. Your time to get better will come, and you will be grateful for it every single day moving forward.

In the meantime, though, forgive yourself, be more honest and understanding with your friends and know I can tell you with 100 percent certainty from just 15 short years in the future that things will absolutely, positively get better.

Your life will always be a struggle. Some days, you’ll think there’s nothing wrong, and that nothing ever has been wrong. Some days, you’ll wish you had killed yourself instead of turning yourself in to the campus doctor. That’s part of the disorder, but every day, every year, your life will improve. You’ll begin to look forward to aging because you know that it brings more peace of mind. Even now, six years into treatment, I have dark days, days lost to being sick. Life is hard, and you will feel it more intensely than many can comprehend. But with time and the coping skills you’ll learn, life truly gets better. Since you’re me, I don’t need to tell you the differences between surviving and thriving because you already stay awake at night grappling with them, but soon you won’t have to choose between one or the other.

There’s still so much for you to do, and you’re going to have some incredible life experiences that will leave you breathless in only the best ways. Get through your bad days minute by minute and strive for stability. Stability is excitement these days, and it’s what you’ve always wanted. You’ll get here and further — you just can’t give in to the darkness. I love you, and P.S.: since no one but creepy older men tell you this, you really are smoking hot and beautiful. I mean, grade-A bombshell, and our opinion is the only one that matters. Don’t give in to the haters. Love it now.

Love,

Yourself

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.

The Mighty is asking the following: Write a letter to yourself on the day of the diagnosis. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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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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