Girl walking on a railway

Finding Balance in Life With Bipolar Disorder

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Some days there is a knot in my head and I wonder where it comes from. I awake early with the pain of memories lingering in my mind. What do you do when a memory is stuck? It plays like a tape on repeat, reminding you again and again it is there. You were there.

As long as the memory repeats itself, it will always be in you. When it stops, becomes a fragmented memory, then transforms into a whisper and perhaps fades away, it will still be in you. It can never truly be freed. It will never go. I learned when the mind becomes stuck and repeats itself, it is often known as racing thoughts. This was one of the first warning signs to me that perhaps my mind was not well.

Whenever I think about my bipolar disorder diagnosis, my mind plays stories over and over to itself. There never seems to be a place where I can pinpoint any particular moment of pain or suffering. It is just like this memory that is stuck. The stories repeat themselves and become torrents, whirlwinds, spiraling uncontrollably around my mind. This continues to the point wherein the trauma of experience seems mundane. The agony of my mental prison seems simple and not noteworthy.

Then, my body shudders and aches with anxiety. Once again, I am reminded these memories and experiences mean something to me. They are noteworthy because they have replayed themselves to me countless times. I have awoken with a familiar anxiety on more days than I can count. They are all there, these experiences, buried somewhere within me from all the times I have pushed them down and said to myself, “Don’t listen. They are insignificant. They will go.” Time has taught me they are not insignificant and they will not go.

At age 11, I believed magic existed. I have grown, turned, twisted, warped, unraveled and returned since then. At age 23, in the throes of a psychotic episode, I still believed in magic. At age 10, I believed in God. At age 11, my mother had a nervous breakdown and was committed to a psychiatric hospital. I remember the smell walking down the corridor of the hospital to see her.

The corridor was long and the smell kept changing. First, it was a hospital smell of chemicals and medicine. Then, a musty smell, as if that particular part of the corridor wasn’t dusted very often or walked by too frequently. Then, the smell changed to the smell of fear. I cannot describe that smell in words.

I saw a woman standing with hair awry. She was talking. I could not really hear her words, but I did understand the crease and cry of a fearful, desperate voice. Her eyes were wide. She looked like my mother but she didn’t seem to be my mother at all. She wasn’t touching me, but I felt as if she was pulling me, grabbing me toward her. My heart was pounding. I could not look at her. I did not want to be there.

I don’t believe there are many 11 year olds in the world who understand what it means to have a mental breakdown. I most certainly was not one of the ones who did. At age 11, I believed in the devil. My mother had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. In my mom’s case, I could not really associate bipolar with a list of symptoms. To me, the diagnosis meant watching this person I knew and loved, most importantly who I knew to have a calm disposition, to be positive and always coyly smiling at her own little jokes, switch suddenly into a wrathful rage, eyes full of anger and hurt, a stormy, violent being. Her voice would change from a sweet ring, as if she was smiling inside as she spoke, into a screeching, angry, cry.

To anyone who has really looked at another person, and I mean really seen them, people carry emotions in their eyes. When a person smiles, it is really the eyes that wrinkle, glow and get wet with happiness or sadness. I believe children sense this better than anyone.

At the tender age of 11, when I believed the woman standing in front of me wasn’t my mother, it was because in her eyes she was not there. I have seen it many times through her many relapses. It was the first thing I was told when I was on the recovery end of one of my own manic episodes. When the psychosis had begun to subside, people would tell me they could see me again. I didn’t understand what they meant until I looked in the mirror. For months on end, my mind seemed to have retreated into itself and when I looked in the mirror, I could not recognize the person in front of me. It was like looking at a ghost. It was terrifying.

The first and most significant sign of recovery was to look in the mirror and see myself looking back at me. I would often tell my doctors I could not identify with the symptoms of bipolar disorder, (perhaps because a symptom of the disease itself can be a lack of insight) but also because I wasn’t doing a lot of the things typically associated with mania, such as going on extravagant spending sprees and behaving recklessly. While the depressive states were easy to identify, the mania would come on suddenly and throw me into a state of psychosis before myself or those around me could see anything wrong. In the morning I would be laughing joyously and within hours shouting at others in a state of paranoid confusion.

In the beginning this inability to recognize anything wrong in myself gave me a false sense of security. I wasn’t ill, I would tell myself. What I’ve learned about this illness is that it can be very subtle. I would often complain of physical symptoms associated with anxiety but it was very difficult for me to associate the physical and mental pain I was feeling to the term anxiety. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is while it is helpful to learn from others’ experiences of illness and recovery, one of the best ways to survive and defeat this demon is to learn who you are, to know yourself and to know your own mind.

I took in every opportunity for learning more about myself I could, including counseling, yoga, meditation and mindfulness. What I discovered is the line between wellness and illness can be incredibly fine. What seems like productive day-dreaming can quickly transform into racing thoughts, the hallmark of a manic mind.

Oftentimes, I have felt my experiences, even with the illness itself, are not important enough. In the throes of depression, it would take me months to admit to anyone I was suffering. I believe this may be why many people refuse help. I feared to admit I was suffering firstly because I feared being perceived as crazy or not right. Also, I felt like I was admitting defeat to myself.

We are often told we must be calm or we ought to be happy. In the long-run, however, my experience has been to deny myself the right to grieve over my own pain or to laugh at my own mirth has been more self-defeating. Initially, I thought I would find peace in the tenets of the things I was learning such as yoga, which teaches both mental and physical calm. However, what these tenets really did was to teach me how to tune into my own emotions, be they welcome or perhaps unwelcome. In time, by allowing myself to process both pain and happiness, I have found balance. I believe the best way to find balance is to allow oneself to feel both the joy and pain of life. I hope others find balance on their journeys as well.

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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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