girl in knit hat and sweater, walking on the coast

Bipolar disorder used to be called manic depression. In many ways, I think that term more accurately describes its riptide that carries you out to a point of hopelessness. It’s not an either or thing: manic, neutral or depressed. We don’t only feel three emotions. There is an entire spectrum. Sometimes, right in the middle, you get a spontaneous merging of opposites, a mixed episode, a period of increased risk of suicide.

Those days when everything blends together, emotions are out of control, depression and mania escalate. So you’re on the edge of the cliff, with more than enough enthusiasm and impulsivity to jump, as opposed to just crawling into a ball and crying through it.

I’m on medication. I have a strong support system. I know my weak points. I manage my life around them. I have a set routine. I go to bed early. I get enough sleep. I go to therapy when I need to. I read a shitload of books. I think I know more about depression and bipolar disorder than anyone realizes. I tailor-made my career around what I need as opposed to what I want. I avoid known triggers. I have done the work.

Manic depression still manages to kick down my barricaded door once in a while. Mixed-up, explosive emotions set on the highest volume, come screaming in, packaged in what psychiatrists neatly describe as “an episode.”

I want to explain what it feels like, not for sympathy, but to create a platform for understanding. For those of you who face the same demons, these words will hopefully help you feel less alone. I know I wish someone had told me how they felt so I didn’t feel like I was the only one going through this.

For any of you who have never experienced “the black pillow being held over your face while you struggle to breathe” feeling, I want to try find a way to let you in. We don’t get irrationally panicked for no reason. The anxiety, the prickled emotions, the heightened sensitivity, are all very real. It really feels like you’re fighting for your life and that you’re not in control of the devil suffocating you.

What manic depression is like:

  1. For me, there’s always a trigger. It can be something ridiculously small, like a comment. It can be something massive, like a breakup or accident but something sparks the fire.
  2. One thing (i.e. the trigger) goes wrong. Then suddenly, in your mind, everything feels wrong. You can go from happy about your career, your life, your relationship and in a second it’s all gone to shit in your opinion. One trigger creates the irrational belief that nothing is okay.
  3. You feel helplessly alone. In your mind’s state, it feels like nobody understands or cares (even if they actually do). This causes you to withdraw into yourself and isolate yourself from the world. In a mixed episode there is seldom sleep, but once it tapers into depression, this is usually the first port of call. Emotions are raw. Everything hurts. Any sensation is another gust of wind to the flames. You get a “fuck the world” attitude and shut the planet out.
  4. Emotions feel explosive. Not just sadness. All feelings feel heightened, anger, aggression, irritation, anxiety, impulsivity and irrationality.
  5. You have zero desire to do things you have committed to, activities you would normally enjoy or social engagements you said you would attend. You will skip the braai, the yoga and the book you couldn’t put down the day before. You don’t care about anything. This is, unfortunately, where we lose so much. In this state, we often make impulsive and damaging decisions, say things on the fly that can end relationships and walk away from the things and people we love. In that moment we just don’t give a shit.
  6. The person and thing we care about least is ourselves. At the peak, we become extremely self-destructive. For me, that means driving recklessly along an open, empty road. Fast, fast, fast. Music blaring. Laughing at near misses of concrete walls and sharp turns. It’s irresponsible. Looking back, I am horrified at what I did. In that moment? It was the only way to run away from the devil.

There’s also a strong desire to reach out for destructive relationships, those assholes from the past who you know will only destroy you. They are the ones you want to call, those names you write on the lists in doctor’s rooms “in case of emergency,” but they hold no attraction because (I suppose) you actually don’t want to be helped.

In recent months, I’ve been brave enough to talk my way out of it. Strong enough to stop that spiral. But every now and then, you say f*ck it and let the current take you. You feed the monster. Blare the music. Drink. Cry. Scream. Drive fast. Call the wrong people. Get reckless.

And sometimes you just want to but don’t. I was in that space recently. I wanted to get in my car. I wanted to be destructive. I wanted to throw it all away, but I didn’t. I kept myself locked inside. I cried. I drank a glass of wine. I turned off my phone. I got off the internet. I wrote this post. I examined the feelings and let them have their say. I let the tide carry me, but I didn’t let it take anyone else with me.

I will not allow myself to destroy lives anymore. I give myself some space from people so I don’t say things I will regret later. I stay off the roads so even if they are wide and open, I don’t put any person, animal, plant or road sign at risk. I don’t keep pills or weapons in the house that could kill me. I don’t send any emails or texts and I don’t make any calls. I breathe, and then I cry some more. I blare music into my headphones and just flow with the current.

Despite how horrible it all feels in the moment, there is still that tiny memory that sits in the back of your mind: This has happened before. It doesn’t last forever. This isn’t you. It will pass. This too, shall indeed pass.

After hours or days (mixed episodes don’t last as long as “normal” mania or depression may), the wrestling with yourself and your demons ends. You’re left exhausted, numb and sad. If you managed to not follow the urges to be destructive and damage your world, the recovery is usually quick. Sadly, if you succumbed and let the dark knives consume your space, it may mean a lot of broken pieces to pick up (most often not just pieces of you, but of others too). I have been there and it’s the absolute worst part of having bipolar disorder, the point where you step off the edge of reason and hurt the ones you love.

This time I was lucky. There were times I wasn’t. There will be times I may need to fight harder. Perhaps you, or someone you love, hasn’t managed to pull through “an episode” unharmed. Please know this: It isn’t your fault. It isn’t their fault. It is nobody’s fault. Sometimes the riptide is simply too strong to fight. There is always that tipping point where we no longer have control.

We can’t win every fight, every time. Manic depression, bipolar disorder or whatever you want to call it, is a powerful disease. Sometimes the frightening monsters we can’t hold back are mistakenly perceived as “us” and they really aren’t.

I am not complaining about having and holding this disorder, please don’t get me wrong. Given the choice, I think I would still opt to have bipolar in my world. It has given me endless passion, creativity and compassion. I have learned so much and consider this a tremendous gift.

But – and there is a but – some days are really, really hard. I chose to write about one of those days.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us about the first time you reached out to someone about your mental illness. Whether it was a friend or a professional, we want to hear about why you opened up, how it went, and why you’re glad (or maybe not glad) you did it. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.


Dear Dad,

Mental illness is hard to bear when you’re alone, but fortunately that’s something I’ve never had to experience because you’ve been there with me through it all. I’ve always been grateful madelyn as a child with her father

for your efforts to understand my bipolar disorder, but I’ve never verbalized it, and for that I am sorry. I’m choosing this Father’s Day to thank you for all the ways you’ve ever been there for me, and I want to start by thanking you for being there since the beginning.

I was challenging as a teenager. I broke all of your rules, disobeyed all of your requests and got myself into a lot of trouble. Even though you had to discipline me seemingly all the time, you tried to understand the feelings behind my poor behavior. You always knew there was something more going on, and you’d ask me how and what I was feeling. I got annoyed by all of your questions, but I see now you were simply trying to figure out what was wrong because you knew my behavior was more than just teenage rebellion. When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a young adult, after an entire adolescence of issues, all your questions were answered.

madelyn as a child with her father You were there with me when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, sitting beside me as the doctor explained my new diagnosis. When you took me home, you began doing your own research into bipolar disorder so you could gain a better understanding of the illness and learn how to help me through it. I will always be thankful to you for trying to understand, even if it did take a few years for you to understand completely. What matters is you tried, and you tried hard until you knew what to do to help me cope. I know I got impatient with you as you learned about my illness, and I’m sorry. My diagnosis was hard on you too, and it took just as long for you to wrap your head around as it did for me.

madelyn as a teenager with her father You supported my decision to move away from home to get better, even though you didn’t like it. You blamed yourself for my desire to leave, but I promise it wasn’t your fault. You took care of me after I was diagnosed and after my first hospitalization, when my new medication gave me tremors I couldn’t control. I couldn’t feed myself or brush my own teeth, and you helped me with both of those things — among others.When my medication was finally figured out, I wanted to regain my independence, and that is why I left. Even though I left, you didn’t let the distance separate us. You remained there for me via phone calls and Skype the entire time I was away, and welcomed me back with open arms when I returned.

For each of my three hospitalizations, you were there at visiting hours. You sat with me and talked with me and listened to me tell you why I believed I was in the hospital. You tried to understand, didn’t ask too many questions, and just sat there to comfort me and make me feel like I was not alone. Your presence made me feel more normal, or as normal as I could feel as I sat in the mental health unit. Your being there with me, smiling and holding my hand, brought me a wonderful feeling of comfort I will always be grateful for.

You’ve been there for me during my entire journey with bipolar disorder, and I am so thankful for that, madelyn as a teenager riding a snowmobile with her father and thankful for you. I am thankful for your desire to educate yourself on my illness, and for your willingness to understand what I go through. I am thankful you put up with my mood swings and don’t hold them against me. I am thankful you are my dad, and I am thankful you are the one in my corner. Thank you for always being there for me, and for being the best dad you can be to your daughter with bipolar disorder.

Happy Father’s Day.

madelyn as a child with her father

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Write a thank you letter to someone you realize you don’t thank enough. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

It was one of those nights when I was horribly depressed.

My partner had come from work and drove through horrible Manila traffic to see me and make sure that I was OK. While we were having the brownie a la mode I wanted, I felt a sudden gush of guilt.

I became horribly aware of his efforts to be with me, to make sure I was OK, and to ensure that I feel loved. That he made sure he was always within an arm’s reach. That he tried his hardest to comfort me when I was crying. That he made sure I was never really alone. That he drove for at least an hour to get to me, and that he needed to drive me for at least another hour to where I needed to be (home with my mom), before driving back home for another hour.

I was looking at him there, thinking Do I really deserve this? I started thinking that, maybe, I’m not worth the effort. I’m volatile, unstable and not very special. Maybe I was more of a burden than anything. I had this thinking that, for me to be loved, I had to conform to a standard. I had to be able to give something in return.

I feel that whatever I have to give would never be enough. I feel very afraid of the kind of life he will lead with me: the possibility of children also having bipolar and/or ADHD, the constant emotional rides, the insecurity. Other people might see me as “high functioning,” but I feel that he will be the one to see me in my ugliest, most vulnerable state. I’m afraid that he will come to regret his decision to stay with me later on.

What shattered me was what he told me when I said I wasn’t worth loving. He said, “That’s not for you to decide.”

It was true. Sometimes, we get absorbed with the idea that we have to be lovable that we no longer allow ourselves to be loved. With this, we undermine the other’s capability to love by setting limits on what they can and cannot love. That they cannot possibly love us because we are not good enough to love.

But shouldn’t love be without conditions and prerequisites? Isn’t the nature of love this unquestioning affection that says “I love you just because.” No questions. You are loved, not because you earned it, and not because you will return it. You are loved in a way that transcends bounds and without seeking for any reason.

When we were young, we were taught that for us to be loved, we have to be good enough, pretty enough, smart enough. We were told that we had to work hard for that love. In turn this makes us feel that we are not deserving, so when we are faced with an unquestioning love, we feel that we have to refuse.

The challenge then, is how to accept love when we feel that we least deserve it. To look at ourselves beyond our disorder and see that we are truly worth it, even if we think we are not. Most importantly, to see ourselves in the eyes of others who love us, and not only through our own hateful eyes.

The Mighty is asking the following: What do you want your past, current or future partner to know about being with someone with your disability, disease or mental illness? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

I have bipolar disorder.

I am bipolar.

Same difference? Some will say yes, many will say no. There are a lot of positive messages out there about the fact that we are not our illnesses.

I have multiple sclerosis (MS), but MS doesn’t have me.

I have Asperger’s syndrome, but I’m not Asperger’s syndrome.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not criticizing those messages. Indeed, they are positive, optimistic and even empowering. They remind us to consider ourselves as more than just our illnesses. But, I do have some reservations, too. Or rather, a different angle.

For example, I have bipolar disorder. Bipolar doesn’t have me, I have it. It doesn’t define who I am — I am still myself. But, does it? The difference is subtle. Who would I be, without my bipolar disorder? Would I be the same person? Would I have the same quirks, habits, preferences and dislikes? How much of my bipolar disorder makes me… me?

You see, I believe that without it, I simply would not be me — at least not in the way that I am right now. Some of these traits are bothersome: They impose limitations on me (I’ll get into more details on that in a sec), and sometimes, they take over with a force stronger than a tsunami. But some other traits are just the opposite: They are positive. They make me compassionate, sensitive, empathic. They make me strong.

Yep, I just said they make me strong. Because they do! Battling with your mind day in and day out is difficult. Even with medication that keeps me for the most part stable, I have bad days. There are days I’m more sensitive, days when I don’t quite function, or even days when I function too much. I can be super depressed for a day (or three), or hypomanic for a day (or three). These are tiny episodes, not long enough to be medically declared as such, but just enough to mess with my day (or week). And when I don’t have “baby episodes,” as we could call them, I still struggle with anxiety and panic attacks. Going through all these ups and downs and managing them while trying to maintaining a semblance of a normal life takes strength. Lots of strength.

My struggles makes me strong.

Would I be as strong if I had never had to navigate all these unstable moods? I’m not so sure. Maybe. But probably not. I could do without all the yo-yo-ing, definitely. But I’m glad to have that inner strength and resilience.

But what about those limits I mentioned earlier? All those positive messages we see everywhere on social media try to steer us away from viewing ourselves as having limits, right? They have us believing that we can reach for the stars, and that anything is possible if we put our minds to it. And isn’t that a good message?

Well, yes.

But also no. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely good to have this mindset of not giving up or of not withholding from trying something just because we are scared of failure. And we should never accept limits imposed on us by others. If we have a dream, we should definitely look at how we can achieve it, and go for it.

But, I believe it’s also important to understand our personal limits. They will be different for everyone, and might stem from personality, preferences or circumstances. I do have limitations, and I’ve learned to recognize them. My concentration is not as good as it used to be, I have anxiety and I do have unpredictable moods despite taking medication. Said medication also has undesirable side effects; for example, I am very fatigued in the mornings until about 10 a.m., and although I do function enough to get my daughters to school, I wouldn’t make any huge morning commitments, and I often do need to go back to bed after school drop off (I am blessed with a great neighbor who will sometimes bring them for me if I judge that I shouldn’t be driving — a good support system is key to living with any chronic illness, but that’s a topic for another blog post!) That being said, the stability the medication brings me far outweighs the side effects, so I take them diligently.

Briefly said, there are situations that are simply not a good fit for me, and fostering the ability to recognize them before throwing myself into them is a good life skill that actually helps me stabilize my moods. Otherwise, I’m exposing myself to constantly be swimming counter-current, fighting my core self — and that’s a fight no one can ever win.

I have bipolar disorder.

I am bipolar.

They are both intricately part of me.

I am myself.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one commonly held opinion within the community surrounding your disability and/or disease (or a loved one’s) that doesn’t resonate with you? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

My most recent therapy session left me feeling discriminated against, unfairly judged and extremely offended. My new therapist, who I had only seen a few times at this point, was the root and cause of these unsavory feelings. As soon as I walked through her door and sat on her uncomfortable red couch, she had decided on my mood. She had determined I was hypomanic, before even asking me how I was feeling, and made that determination based on my appearance.

That particular day, I had carefully chosen to wear a skirt and a blouse. I decided to do my hair and my makeup as if I were going somewhere special. I chose to do these things because I had the time. I am a single mother of a very energetic and demanding 13-month-old girl who doesn’t allow me much time in the bathroom most days to clean myself up. But on the day of this therapy session, she took a long nap, and I had time to put myself together before therapy. I was feeling good, feeling confident — and that’s not to say I don’t feel that way on a regular day. But my therapist wasn’t interested in the reason why I looked so nice, she was only interested in labeling me.

She said that in previous sessions, I must have been experiencing depression because my hair was up, my face was untouched and my clothing was plain. She was judging me when she should have been asking me what was going on, or how I was feeling. If she would have asked those things, she would have known that I had more time that morning to get ready. She would have known I had just started a new medication, and that one of the side affects was increased energy. She would have known earlier that morning, I had received a call from a perspective employer who was considering me for a job, and that I was hopeful and excited. But she didn’t ask, she just assumed. And the only reason she assumed was because I have a mental illness.

If I weren’t affected by a mental illness, she may have told me I looked nice that day. If I didn’t have a mental illness, she would have assumed during the other sessions, I was tired because I’d been up since 6 a.m. with the baby. But because mental illness is part of my life, she discriminated against me and sorely misread my hope, extra time and excitement as hypomania. I wanted to ask her, “What does it mean when my mom doesn’t do her makeup on the weekends, but does during the work week? Does that make her either depressed or hypomanic?” The answer is no, because my mom doesn’t suffer from a mental illness. She would be described as relaxed or ready for work, whereas I am described as up or down.

During that session, it was made clear to me my therapist sees my illness as black and white. She sees me as a walking, talking illness, not as a person who is afflicted by bipolar disorder. We had only seen each other a few times, and not nearly enough for her to know my hypomanic tendencies. I know it is her job to track my moods and be aware of the triggers and warning signs, but it is not her job to judge me because of how I look.

I wanted to tell her to be careful with her comments. I wanted to tell her she was doing more harm than good. But I was too upset, too offended to say anything. I felt like I couldn’t defend myself because if I did, I would be deemed argumentative, which just happens to be a text book symptom of hypomania. And that seemed to be all she was interested in knowing; the text book definition of hypomania, and not how hypomania presents itself in a case by case basis. I left the session feeling more insecure than I had felt in a long time, and feeling like I didn’t want to go back because of how I would be perceived.

If I do go back, what do I wear? Should I leave my hair up, or wear it down? Do I dare to put makeup on? These are not questions I should have to ask myself. I should feel safe with my therapist, not judged. Instead of solving problems, a new one was created. And now I feel like I’m on my own to solve this new problem of being insecure. I won’t go back, and I am terrified to try again. I’m so discouraged, so disappointed, and I don’t know how that can be repaired.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us a story about a time you encountered a commonly held misconception about your disability, disease, or mental illness. How did you react, and what do you want to tell people who hold this misconception? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Bipolar mania can start off fun. Life takes on a heightened excitement, ideas flow, passions burn and the world ignites in a huge array of colors. It’s all great, until it is too much. The colors become too bright, the ideas are too many, the thoughts won’t slow down and my world explodes. Having the tools to assess and help your mental state, especially when in mania, is a crucial thing. These are five things I have found helpful in my own manic struggles.

1. Accept Reality

Mania is most dangerous when I don’t realize I am in it. It’s equally bad when I deny it. The first key to controlling a manic episode is to acknowledge it is happening. This is much easier said than done — who wants to talk themselves out of all their good euphoric ideas? Who wants to stop the energy, zest or bubbly feelings? I usually don’t, until it’s too late – until I have lost control and I’m flipping and falling inside my mind. It takes courage to accept reality, and to be humble enough to admit to yourself you are struggling. But, it is the first step into both stopping and recovering from a manic episode.

2. Talk

It may seem embarrassing, talking about the validity of your thoughts and actions while you’re struggling with mania. It may even be uncomfortable for you to look at yourself like you’ve fallen prey again. It can be disappointing when you’re not in control of yourself. But, I have found sitting down and discussing how I feel when I am manic with my parents, my husband and even my therapist, helps me see myself more clearly. I can then separate myself from the illness, and recognize my actions aren’t necessarily my own – my brain is simply acting up again. This is another way to get a grip on what is going on and start moving forward.

3. Sit Still

When mania makes my world catch on fire, I want to do everything all at once. My brain is firing at a million synapses a minute, and I want to keep the energy going. It is so tempting to fuel the fire by submitting to all of the impulses and racing thoughts. Don’t — it will burn you in the end. My psychiatrist always tells me stopping the mania is like putting out a wildfire. Mania is never controlled, as much as we would like to think it is when we are enjoying the high. I’ve learned one of the best things to do to calm the impulses is making myself sit still. I will sit down outside in a comfy chair by the window, sip on some decaf tea and practice staying calm. It definitely takes some control and self-discipline, because who wants to tell their euphoric mind it needs to tone it down? But it helps calm the episode for me, and that’s more important.

4. Deep Breathing

This one goes hand in hand with sitting still. When my thoughts are starting to race, I make myself sit down and breathe. Five to ten seconds on the intake, slowly, and five to ten seconds exhaling, slowly. I close my eyes, imagine calm places and practice breathing. I will do this a few times throughout the day, especially when the mania rears up particularly hard. It helps with the sense of urgency I get in manic times and tones down the impulsiveness.

5. Routine

The last thing, which is probably the most helpful for me, is staying in my routine. I go to bed, wake up, go to work, eat and workout all at the same times every day in moderation. I try hard not to overdo anything or take on more than I know I can handle. This can be tricky, especially when you think you can handle everything while you’re manic. Pace yourself. Routine is key to resetting your internal clock, which is what gets frenzied while in mania. Sleeping, especially, is a necessary way to reset this clock and help pull you from the mania.

Mania is never easy to recover from. The earlier you can catch it, the less destruction it can cause. I have found these steps lessen mania’s impact on me and help my ability to cope with it. Like the depressive side of bipolar, mania is not within your control. You can’t pick and choose when it hits, how hard or for how long. But, you can use steps to get through it, and pick yourself up when it’s done. It isn’t easy, but I promise it’s worth it.

**Editor’s note: This piece is based on an individual’s experience, and shouldn’t be taken as medical advice

The Mighty is asking the following: Coin a term to describe a symptom, characteristic, aspect, etc., of your diagnosis. Then, explain what that experience feels like for you. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Real People. Real Stories.

150 Million

We face disability, disease and mental illness together.