woman flexing her muscles standing on a rock

Today, I am a version of “normal.”

I have all my hair, all my limbs, and all of my communication skills. I smile. I walk. I laugh. I dance at the party. I cheer at the game. I raise my glass to the toast. I look alive. Yet, unknown to almost everyone, this is an illusion – something I create to keep my invisible illness even more hidden, a secret.

After an encounter with a coach back in my high school soccer playing days, I learned to harbor my illness deep inside of me as much as possible. His exact words when I attempted to reveal my struggle with bipolar disorder were this: “But, you look fine.”

From then on, I was convinced the world held no empathy for invisible illnesses. How could they? There was no cast to sign, no wheelchair to push, no doors to hold open because my arms were occupied with crutches. No. There was nothing to see. So, therefore there must be nothing wrong.

As I continued to struggle in silence from my friends, I pushed the symptoms deeper into the prisons of my mind, making sure I didn’t make a scene. I tried my best to be someone else’s version of normal. It worked, in that sense. Outsiders saw a regular, happy person living her life. But they didn’t see the other side. Behind my eyes, inside my brain, I was dying with all of my pain and all of my secrets.

I felt embarrassed when I had to tell someone I was struggling, and humiliated when they looked at me like I was making it up. I began to belittle my own struggle. It wasn’t as bad as I was making it out to be. This led to a lot of self-loathing, confusion, and anger. I was furious with my mind for not being able to work “right,” as if I had even the slightest bit of control over that in the first place.

It was the worst when I’d go to my friends’ weddings or see old teammates and have to describe my life over the past few years. They had successfully run their races. They had jobs, careers, college degrees, and tales of adventure. What did I have to show? I had been battling in a mental war that had an unparalleled horror to anything I had ever experienced. How do you say things like that in small chit-chat? The depths my heart had reached seemed to surpass anything anyone else would have wanted to hear, never mind understand. So I lied. I pretended my life was like theirs. But, I hated feeling like I had to hide.

After much trial and error, I found a psychiatrist who clicked with me. He brought me to a place I hadn’t been since I’d gotten sick. And, he made me realize something I had been fighting against for a long time.

It is OK to struggle. And, it is OK to tell people.

He said, “Elissa, not everyone can understand your illness right away. But, if you tell someone about how that illness affects you deep into your core, that it moves your being into hell and back, and they still aren’t willing to try to understand…they aren’t worth having in your life. The people who matter, the ones worth holding onto, will value you over something they don’t understand. They will accept you.”

I didn’t believe this, not at first.

Ever since I was told I “looked fine” when I was struggling with the very thought of trying to stay alive, I had come to the false assumption that everyone felt that way – that no one wanted to understand.

woman flexing her muscles standing on a rock

One day after my psychiatrist told me the truth, I decided to test it out. I told my friend I had something hard to say, and I told her about my bipolar disorder. Her response was this: “I have depression and I suffer in silence, too.”

This idea still leaves me in a saddened awe  –so many people struggle with an invisible illness, and yet they hide it from the world. Whether it is a brain injury, a mental illness, a disability, a chronic illness or an emotional turmoil, people try to hide it. But, the thing about burying something like that so deep down is it eats at you until it feels like you have no hope.

I believe the biggest mistakes in this world come from the words we don’t say and the words we refuse to hear. Perhaps we assume we are wrong to feel how we feel. Perhaps we fear no one will hear us if we do speak about it. Or perhaps we are afraid of what we will hear after we share our struggle – or maybe that we might hear nothing at all — silence, confirming the dread of isolation. But remaining quiet in your struggle will undoubtedly leave you feeling alone.

Even though it is hard, it helps to share you struggle. Say something. Say something and be heard. You are not alone. The world is not as cruel of a place as it seems. You never know who needs to hear your story to get through their own.

As I have begun to heal, I have also begun to share my story, and I cannot emphasize enough how healing it is.

If there is one thing I could say to people with invisible illnesses, it is this:

To those of you that want the courage to set yourself free, I dare you to speak.

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

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


I was living in Nepal and had just turned 19 when I had my first manic episode. It wouldn’t be for another five years, when I was 24 and admitted to a psychiatric hospital, that I was diagnosed with bipolar and finally understood what happened half way around the world years earlier.

What I know now about the “right to refuse” medication and the psychiatric medical process puts my mind at ease, but at the time it was a terrifying whirlwind with the panic of a “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” nightmare. The scariest part of the hospital was the time between being in triage and being sent behind the locked door to the ward on the eighth floor. That was when the terror of Nurse Ratchet and forced ECT took hold of me. Once I was on the ward, I wasn’t free, but I was fine. Nurse Ratchett was nowhere to be found, nor any straitjackets. In fact, the nurses often let me into the fully padded “time-out” rooms to meditate.

Once I was discharged, stable and slowly weaned off some of the stronger anti-psychotics, I began to feel my body again. I had to make a choice. I made two actually.

Choice 1: I made a choice to be healthy. Choice 2: I was going to get off the meds as fast as possible. They were not “pure” and I thought to myself, “I’m a yogi, I’m pure.

Getting healthy immediately after being in a psych hospital looked like sleeping — a lot of sleeping. There were daily visits to an outpatient clinic, and biweekly visits with a psycho-pharmacologist, but mostly sleeping and definitely no yoga. I gained about 45 pounds but I don’t really know how because with all my sleeping (14 to 16 hours a day as a result of the medication and the crash) I don’t remember eating much. I got through it though.

After 18 months under the watchful eye of psycho-pharmacologists, therapists, parents and blood tests, I switched to about 20 B vitamin supplements a day. The theory, untested scientifically, was that bipolar is the result of a vitamin B deficiency. (It is one of many alternatives I have explored over my 10-year period.)

I knew the seasons that made me antsy, the cities that made me feel edgy. I guarded my sleep like a dragon with its treasure. During the “extra-sensitive” times, I would walk around the city, subways and streets with my headphones on at all times. After three months of  “extra sensitive” time, no matter how hard I willed these supplements to work — they weren’t. I could feel my mind racing and my sleep dwindling.

I had to make another choice — one I didn’t want to make. Taking prescription medication was not easy. I had a hard time putting anything but natural products on or in my body. I wasn’t always like this, in high school I was taking other “supplements” but my partying days long behind me. I traded in ecstasy for the ecstatic chant.

I liken bipolar disorder to an addiction — you have a genetic vulnerability and can be in recovery for years but the potential of a relapse may always exist. As time passes the anxiety of a relapse lessens, but the potential is always present. Often times people stop taking their medicine when they feel better for just that reason — because they feel better.

But this isn’t an option, the medicine isn’t a cure — it’s just a stabilizer.

The idea I was facing “life without parole” with Lithium didn’t make me feel healthy. In fact it made me feel sick. But I chose to take the medication.

I came to understand Lithium is an element, one you can find on the periodic table. It comes from the Earth. One time, when I was driving across the country, I stopped at these hot springs in Colorado that are famous for their healing waters. Their secret healing property — lithium is in the water.

Every choice has an effect. There are side effects to my choice. What makes it hardest to practice yoga is the vertigo. It’s a scary feeling making twists, inversions and even simple backbends feel impossible. Sometimes I don’t want to face myself in comparison to what I was able to do only a few years ago. That’s when it is time to take a pause, a breath and feel what the moment is — vulnerable and present. Brene Brown states in her book “Daring Greatly,” “Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame it begins to wither.” That’s another side effect, learning to confront shame fearlessly.

The lessons I have learned from yoga, like the form of my practice and my health, is that they look nothing like I thought they would. They are both a dialogue. When I began my yoga practice I had a very clear idea of what a “yoga practice” looked like. It involved a mat, a teacher, a studio and $20 per class fee. 15 years later my practice resembles more of what I saw in Nepal than what I ever saw in New York. My practice looks like meditation, lots of it, gentle poses often in my home and lots of prayer. I look back now when I thought I had full moving joints. I had total “choice” but really I didn’t even begin to know what that was until I actually had to choose.

A version of this piece was published on Elephant Journal.

Bipolar disorder certainly compares to the ups and downs of elevators and roller coasters, but, for me, it’s more than that. It is dizzying and feels like the constant round and round of a revolving door. As a kid, I would spin around and around in the grass, staring up at the sun until I was too dizzy and would fall to the ground, sprawled out on my back while the world was still spinning around me. As an adult with bipolar disorder, I do the same thing but in my head, and without a choice.

I spin around in my mind until I’m nauseous and can’t see. Then, I fall on my back, just to be yanked off my feet to spin again. If it were my choice, then I would stop the salad spinner in my brain and be able to think clearly. The bipolar disorder that plagues me takes away my ability to choose whether or not I want to be up or down, spinning or still. If it were my choice, I would stop the scratched and broken record from spinning on the old record player. I would stop the awful sound it’s emitting, but again, it’s not my choice. So I spin, and I get dizzy.

My thoughts and emotions, good and bad, constantly race and whirl inside my head. My moods are more than up and down. They are moving around as quickly as a globe spun by a child. It’s like I am in a hotel and am simultaneously in the revolving door and the elevator. Up and down, round and round, dizzy and exhausted and out of control.

Being bipolar makes my life so, so difficult. The relentless movement of my thoughts and emotions is unbearable at times. I feel constantly unsteady, like my stance in life is unstable. Whether I’m going up and down, around or back and forth, I never stop moving. At the end of a single day, my mind has been in so many directions, I begin to lose track. I would do anything for my mind to be still, calm and slow.

Being bipolar is dizzying. It makes me feel confused about what I’m feeling and unsteady on my feet. It has its ups and downs, but most people don’t realize bipolar disorder also has its rounds and rounds. Bipolar disorder is an unending, ever spinning ferris wheel, spinning me around as I’m trapped in the car, watching everyone below walk in a straight line. I want to be one of those people, but I can’t be. Instead, I’m spinning, whirling and dizzy.

Okay, it’s happening again: the “high” of your bipolar disorder. Don’t worry, you’ve trained yourself for this. You know the early warning signs, and, well, here they are again. You’re becoming irritable and impatient. You’re feeling a little too good, and have too much energy. The to-do list you’re making is little too unrealistic. But don’t freak out, you’ve been through this before. Remember the last manic episode? When it was over, you promised yourself you would catch the next one early and not let it disrupt your life. I’m just going to remind you of what that promise was, so you can get into gear and manage your mania this time.

Your mania is still mild right now, which means you caught it in time. Awesome, good job! The first thing that always gets you is being too quick about things. Slow down. You’re starting to talk too fast and interrupt others. You don’t want to be rude, or displease your friends. So slow it down, think before you speak and you’ll get ahead of this thing.

Quit arguing now. You’re picking fights because you’re manic, not because someone actually hurt your feelings or disagreed with you that strongly. Don’t argue with people, because you won’t win, and you’ll just hurt their feelings with your mean words and jerk attitude. Trust me, the aftermath of a manic fight with you is not pleasant, and you really hate hurting people’s feelings.

You haven’t been irresponsible yet, but you know the urge is coming. Be responsible with your money. You know it’s probably time to give your mom your credit cards and extra cash. Be responsible with your time. I know you want to spend the day shopping online, but without any credit cards to use, why waste your time? Don’t obsess over online shopping. Instead, spend your time cleaning out your closet. Be responsible with your body. Don’t forget how you feel the day after a manic induced one night stand. Be respectful of your hard earned money, your precious time and your private body.

Take some time to yourself until this episode is over. I know you’ll get the urge to go out and have drinks with friends, but don’t forget the impact that alcohol has on you when you’re manic. With your quick speech and lack of mental filter right now, it’s best just to stay in and have some “me” time. You’ll avoid embarrassing and potentially offensive situations, and keep yourself from making any questionable decisions about who to hang out with while you’re out and about.

You’ve totally got this. With this letter as a reminder, and your previously-set safety plan, you’ve got this. Just remember that if stuff gets too weird, or your racing thoughts start to scare you, call your doctor right away. I know mania is scary sometimes, but you can chase the mania monsters under your bed by taking your medication as prescribed, and following your safety plan. You can definitely get to the mania before it gets to you this time; your previous manic episodes have been great practice. Now put that practice into place, and take control.

You are not your mania. On a regular day, you are cheerful, talkative and fun; mania simply amplifies each of those, but as you know, it’s usually not for the better. Take control of who you are, and send those mania monsters back to the closet where they came from. Shut the door, and walk away with an even mood, able to manage your mania.

I often wonder how long my moods will last. I spend a lot of time thinking about how I will deal with any changes and always have a heightened awareness of my current mood. As you can imagine, this is draining. I never know who I’m waking up to, which is frustrating at best.

I would give almost anything to be “normal.” I do have extended periods where I am stable, but most of the time I swing between symptoms, something hard for both myself and those around me. In fact, I often have more than one symptom at a time. I can most frequently be found between hypomanic (which, for me, exhibits itself as general happiness combined with agitation and irritation, along with desires to start unrealistic projects) and depression (which shows as a desire to do less than nothing and crawl back into bed). But how long does each mood last? It really does just depend on the day.

I read somewhere when you have bipolar you never know if you’re waking up as Tigger or Eeyore. This is certainly true for me. I can go to bed bouncy and happy, full of ideas on how to make the world a better place and plans for everything I’m going to do the next day. Then, I still wake up feeling like the world around me is gray and sad, internalizing that feeling and holding it far too close for comfort. I can then swing into happiness and productivity, while at the same time feeling overwhelmed and doubting my abilities to keep details straight. Fortunately, even in the midst of all of that I manage well, as it’s something I’ve gotten used to over time.

There are also times too though, where I am in the same general mood for days on end and am able to deal with the much smaller waves of mood changes. But they are just that, waves. Some days they come crashing down around me, while others I can sail atop them. It just depends on how capable I am of using my skills. When I’m depressed, they often aren’t available to me. So I tend to isolate to keep others from having to deal with me during those times (not unlike people with regular depression I suppose).

My bipolar disorder seems to have worsened as the years have passed though. I am increasingly aware of how little time there can be between my moods. It can be hard to navigate the waters. Even with therapy, medication and my care circle, sometimes there just isn’t enough support or sufficient skills to stay on top of it to see the waves coming. I’m caught off guard. Other times, which happens much more frequently as I gain new insights, I am able to catch my mood shift before it happens, prepare myself with behavioral changes and give those around me a heads up.

I try to improve my ability in this area every day. It’s an important one. Why? Because my family and I deserve to have more Tigger than Eeyore. This is why I work so hard to manage my bipolar disorder. I hope, as time goes on, I will learn to be more bouncy and happy than sad and withdrawn. I suppose it just comes down to how well I learn to sail on the sea of symptoms, yes?

I hope you have lots of happy Tigger energy in your day today.

This post originally appeared on This Bipolar Life.

Lead photo source: Tigger

Many parts of my bipolar disorder are apparent to my friends and family because they show externally. My mood swings are obvious and my triggers are easy to spot, but there are heavier parts about living with bipolar disorder that are invisible, even to those closest to me.

1. I hate myself most of the time.

The woman I am when I’m stable is the woman I love the most. When I’m depressed or hypomanic (which is most of the time), I turn into someone I hate. This means I have little respect for myself, disregard my needs and have no self-compassion most of the time. No one sees this because I don’t talk about it and pretend to love myself, no matter how I really feel.

2. I don’t want to push anyone away.

Sometimes I’m mean or cold to those closest to me. I don’t intend to be this way, but it’s hard to control my negative emotions. I don’t want to push people away, but my actions do so anyway and this makes it hard to pull those people back.

3. At times, everything seems daunting.

During a depressive episode, I’m more than depressed. I’m anxious and easily overwhelmed by life and everyday tasks. Even little things like cleaning the litter box or getting dressed seem like too much, so I avoid them during a depressive episode.

4. It’s hard to love.

I feel a lot of emotions, sometimes all at once. Anger, bliss, disgust and happiness can all affect my mood at the same time, and that leaves little room to love. I’m so focused on the negatives of my life with bipolar disorder that it’s difficult to love others – and myself. It’s easier to let negativity consume me than to work on loving myself and others. Easier, but damaging.

5. The side effects of my medication really bother me.

If I want to try and maintain stability, I have to take my medication every day. But the side effects of tremors, excessive sweating and restless limbs are unbearable when I sleep. They are hard to deal with and still bother me immensely, even after having them for so long.

6. Needing help continuously hurts my pride.

Therapy, medication, mood tracking – it all helps me stay stable. But it also feels like each of those things strips me of my independence and my pride. I’d like to manage my bipolar disorder on my own, to prove my strength, but I can’t. I need help, and even though I know that’s OK, it still hurts my pride.

7. My mood swings are painful.

My mood swings are obvious because everything about me changes. Apart from my mood, my speech, appearance, appetite and priorities all change. What others can’t see is how much those changes hurt me. Both coming down from hypomania and falling into a depressed state feel like I’m plummeting down ten stories onto concrete. I can feel physically sore and sick during a mood swing, but letting on about it would worry those around me, so I keep the pain to myself.

8. Hypomania isn’t fun.

Some people close to me have noted that when I’m hypomanic, I’m more energetic, more motivated and more fun. All of that is true, but what they don’t know is when I experience hypomania, I feel completely powerless and out of control as to what I say and do. Sure, it’s nice to have more energy and be more fun, but hypomania is not fun because I don’t get to choose.

9. I worry about how I treat others.

My near-constant irritability makes me anxious about what I say and how I treat others. I don’t want to be irritable, but my bipolar disorder makes me that way. I don’t want to treat others poorly, but I feel like I can’t control my words or actions when bipolar disorder makes me irritable. I worry because I don’t ever want to hurt anyone, but I know that unintentionally, I will anyway.

10. I worry about how I treat myself.

During a depressive episode, I neglect myself and my basic needs. During a hypomanic episode, I become careless with my body and lose respect for myself. I worry about how I treat myself when I’m not stable. Most of the time I feel like I don’t care about myself, and that affects my level of self-care. I want to love myself and treat myself in the way I deserve, but most of the time I just don’t care.

Living with bipolar disorder isn’t easy. The symptoms, medication side effects and physical pain I feel all interrupt my daily routine and make my life generally unpleasant. Many aspects of my life with bipolar disorder are not only unpleasant, but invisible to those around me. Even though I’m in pain nearly all the time, my disorder is only partially visible and understood. I’m hoping that disclosing these ten things will make my life with bipolar disorder a little bit easier.

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