When You're Caught in the Riptide of a Bipolar Episode


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.

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