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3 Things I Want to Hear as a Person With Bipolar Disorder

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Recently I shared an article on Facebook about what not to say to a person with bipolar disorder. A friend commented and asked, “Well, what can you say?”

Different people want to hear different things, and you should ask your loved ones what is OK to say. By asking them, it shows you care about them. That’s a great first step.

If someone were to ask me, I’d say…

1. “I don’t understand why you feel this way, but I respect that your feelings are real.”

I don’t expect anyone to understand what’s going on in my head. Sometimes I don’t understand. But please know what I’m feeling is real.

2. “I’m worried about your behavior.”

It is definitely OK for you to tell me I’m exhibiting concerning signs of an oncoming episode. Sometimes others notice it before I do, and bringing it to my attention can help me manage it.

3. “How can I learn more about bipolar disorder?”

I would be so happy to have someone ask me this. It’s important and sometimes vital that the people around me know about my disorder. Let me show you the good, the bad, and the ugly. It shows you care a lot to want to know more.

Or you know, just talk to me like you would any other friend. That’d be cool, too.

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When People Ask ‘Why Do You Stay?’ About My Husband Who Has Bipolar Disorder

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“I don’t mean to hurt you.”

I immediately began to feel immune to the sting of those words as soon as they fell from his lips. I knew these were the words my husband would eventually say to me after he came down from a manic state.

“I can’t control this.”

I’ve heard this so many times before. I’ve held out hope that he’d stick to his medication so many times in the past. I, admittedly, was tired. Although, I knew much of this was beyond his control because of my profession in working with students who have suffered significant trauma, I often lashed out at him for his reckless and impulsive behavior.

No matter how many times the counselor explained without medication and therapy, this would be my life, I still enabled it. I allowed him to have the option of not following through with his mental health treatment plan. It often wasn’t “worth the fight.” I had become a part of the problem.

Our families do not understand why I have stayed in a relationship with someone who has bipolar disorder, severe anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, they often wonder if it’s some kind of “con,” “act” or “excuse” to engage in irresponsible behavior. More often than not, I can not explain it myself. I’ve come to realize love is not enough, but there are four major reasons I have not left my husband.

1. I love him.

It may sound cliche, but it’s the truth. During moments of normalcy, our life is great. We love each other deeply and it hurts to think of our marriage ending because of the residual effects of his bipolar disorder.

2. There’s our children.

He’s a great dad when he’s following his treatment plan. He loves my children with such intensity and commitment.

3. He’s ill.

If he had cancer, would I think of leaving? Absolutely not. Is this any different?

4. He’s my best friend.

We have been friends for nearly 20 years. We’ve watched each other grow up.

I don’t know whether or not we’ll make it. I certainly hope we do. My hope is he will recommit himself to treatment so he can be a more fully engaged spouse, friend and father.
I do hope that day comes soon.
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The Swings of Bipolar Disorder

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“I’m in a swing.”

This is how I describe ascending into mania or falling into depression – a swing. Today, it is an upswing. I’m gradually rising to what I know will be a peak. It feels exhilarating, as I seem to leave my body on the ground behind me. My ideas are flowing, and boy are they good ideas. I want to reconnect with my previously frayed friendships, I want to write novels, travel the world, study every subject, and start 10 craft projects. I can conquer Rome overnight, seeing as how I’m not sleeping. But, today is actually when I need to be careful – when I need to stop the rush of everything. I need to jump off this ride before I get too high on the swing. The higher I let myself go into mania and suspend above reality for a time, the greater the crash will be when I come down from the high. The gravity of depression that follows an upswing will accelerate me down faster if I don’t jump off now.

It’s difficult because I know when I jump off the swing, there will still be a small crash, as I shoot off onto the ground. But it is so much better than getting to the top and falling off. I have to remind myself of that. I have to look past the euphoria. I have to see the catastrophe that follows. I have to. If I don’t, the depression that follows will be just as great as the mania, just in the opposite direction.

I have learned to watch for the swings – both up and down. They are my red flags. When I feel my mind begin to fall or rise, I have learned to second guess myself. I question my ideas as they speed up, and on the flipside I question my thoughts as they turn bleak. Is depression making the world look dark? Is the ascension into mania turning bad ideas into good ones?

At first, this method of watching for triggers seems exhausting. It seems overbearing to have to ask yourself over and over again if you are looking at something with a level head, or if a swing is affecting how you see the world. Above all, it takes humility to question the validity of your own thoughts, and that is something not everyone is willing to do – even when they don’t have bipolar disorder.

But as time has gone on, and I have been able to recognize the swings earlier; their aftermath is much less profound, thus the recovery is easier. My psychiatrist says the less swings (episodes) I have, the less I will have in the future.

Jumping off the swing is tricky in itself, but it is doable. In my experience, to slow the bipolar high in its tracks, I need to practice calming methods for my brain. I try to sleep more, avoid caffeine, stay in a routine, sit still, practicing deep breathing, and talk about it with others – to name a few. All of this helps release me from the upswing I know will lead to disaster.

I have learned a manic swing – as good as it feels in the beginning – only leads to epic destruction in the end. If you can try to catch it early, if you can hop off the high before it reaches its peak, eventually you’ll stay on level ground most of the time. There will always be stressors and life factors that trigger the upswings or downswings, but sensing them before they pick up speed is a key component to addressing the episode, getting through it, and practicing skills that will help deal with the swings in the future.

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The Angel and Devil of My Bipolar Disorder

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Let me give you a metaphor to ponder. I like to refer to my bipolar disorder as having an angel on one shoulder and having a demon on the other — just like you see in movies where someone is trying to make a big decision. Except, I’m not usually making decisions, I’m just having a battle inside my head. A battle that leaves me more exhausted than when I do a rigorous full body workout, which I try to do at least a couple of times a week.

Now, the angel is whispering nice things to me like, “Everything is OK. The demon is lying to you. Don’t listen to it. You’ll get passed this, etc.”

On the other shoulder, that awful demon is screaming mean things. It can be any variation of things, but always there is name calling.

I’d like to give you a scenario to help you understand a little better. Here’s a little back story for you. I’m a medical assistant and I work with two other nurses, taking turns with rooming and assisting with patients in a rotational order. Most days are OK because there are three of us, but today we only had two. Today in particular the other nurse saw probably five patients more than me. You may not understand what this means, and that’s OK. You’ll see where I’m getting at a little later on.

I imagine if my angel and demon were having a conversation or argument with each other and I could actually hear their voices, it would sound like this.

I look at the schedule and notice the other nurse has seen more patients than me. A war then forms inside my head. The demon starts it off with, “You’re so incompetent, you’re not even quick enough to keep up with the other nurse.” My angel tries to chime in and replies with, “That’s not true, you can’t help how the flow of patients is laid out, you’re doing a lot in the room with the doctor, the other nurse is in and out with hers.” The demon rebuttals with, “Oh she notices and she’s annoyed that you aren’t seeing as many as her. She’s not gonna like you after this, tisk tisk.”

Meanwhile I’m struggling to tell myself not to let another war begin, that I’m better than this and that’s what my medication is for. The angel sides with me and says, “You’re damn right you’re better than this, she doesn’t even notice that you’ve seen less than her. She knows how the flow goes and she doesn’t seem upset at all.” With that boost of positivity comes the evil voice slamming that comment away with a swift, “Even if she isn’t upset about it, the managers will notice when they look at the schedule. They’ll think you’re not good enough and they’ll have a talk with you!”

By this point, I’m expressively flustered, and no one else knows the reason why. Everything appears fine to them, but they have no idea what’s happening in my head, and in my brain.

A few weeks ago I received my annual review and was given a dollar raise for being “A+ awesome” (their words, not mine) but was also told the only thing I needed to work on was trying to control expressing my emotions of being frustrated or flustered. Even though this is extremely difficult for me, I agree to try. I really do try, but it’s not easy for me all the time.

Now the angel reassures me, “If you were incompetent, they wouldn’t have given you a dollar raise. They even mentioned in the review that they don’t usually do that. What does that tell you? You’re doing great!” This time I listen to her… this time I refuse to lose! I decide right then to tell myself I can’t let this ruin my day, everything is OK, and no one cares if I didn’t see as many as she did. Tomorrow is another day, be strong and
positive!

We won this time, which is a victory because the demon wins most of the time. But here’s the thing… I’m working on me. I am learning techniques and strategies to be stable, and with that and medications, I am getting better and better every day. I hope this gives other people who struggle with this battle, courage to stand up for yourself or against yourself, and find ways to work through it all. It’s so hard — so, so hard — and this is only one of the many struggles. But I know you can do it too! I believe in you.

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Explaining the Physical Scars of a Mixed Bipolar Episode

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If you could see me right now you might assume I got drunk and ended up in a fight. Or perhaps I am a victim of domestic violence. I suppose you might consider that I’m extremely clumsy. It might not occur to you I was lost in a mixed episode of bipolar disorder and that’s how I landed in the emergency room. I have a very purple and very puffy black eye and stitches to go with it. I think I look hideous. I’m full of shame. I am reminded of what “out of control” feels like each time I step in front of the mirror. 

It’s been going on for a week and gaining intensity as the days passed. The roller coaster is actually off its tracks. 

A disconnection from my body and mind was starting to take form and I didn’t quite know it. Only when my coworker looked me dead in the eye and asked if the fanatic could please come back did I start to see. But, it didn’t really stick. My thoughts were far too fast and frenzied for his statement to truly matter. I had things to accomplish. Work to be done. I then became the most driven worker my agency has seen in the span of two hours. I was solving problems in the hands of executives. Having arrived at 7:15, my boss sent me home at 5.  

What was unseen that day was my tremendous trips to the bathroom hiding a rush of tears, or on the verge of a panic attack. Have you ever tried to muffle yourself during a panic attack? It’s just as distressing as what’s actually happening. After my brief intermittent meltdown I would return to my office with a joke or thick sarcasm to prove I was OK. On my way home, I was determined my day was not done. I now had errands to run. 

I made it to the parking lot. Turned off the car. Gathered my purse. An implosion occurred. I burst into sobs best saved for the shower. All the days emotions hit me and I felt so out of control. If I let go of the steering wheel I might fly about the car. I managed to pick up my phone, which I never do. I was terrified. I called three people. Three! No one answered. I sank. I didn’t know what to do. My husband finally called and he talked me home. I made the decision I was nowhere fit for work the next day. I left a long rambling message for my boss. 

Next morning, I woke up at 3:30 a.m. I went to my fitness bootcamp at 5 a.m. I came home and tried to go back to sleep and rest. I was far too antsy. Far too uncomfortable. Far too manic. I decided to go trail running. I had a plan to slow myself down and not focus on beating my usual five mile loop time. It started out that way, but quickly got out of control. I have not told anyone this next part. As I was descending down a hill and gaining momentum, I started jumping off things. I ran up the side of the hill, off the trail, to jump across the trail. At some point I heard the sound played when Wonder Woman began to run or do something heroic. I came back to the trail and took off as fast as I could, making my stride as if I was flying. I could feel the wind on my face like I was a bullet train. I was quick, nimble, powerful. All in my mind. Meanwhile my body literally could not keep up. Down I went. Hard. Very hard. Hit my head. Turns out it was my eye lid. Blood was dripping as I lay across the trail. Confused. Not like dazed, but rather questioning how I could have been stopped.

I picked myself up. No concept of how hurt I might be. I had to walk back up the hill I just flew down. I pulled a lady aside and showed her my head. I asked her if I should go to the ER. She said, “Yes, definitely.” I walked another half mile to my car not entirely sure what happened. 

I was restless and pacing at the ER. Scared. Alone. Cried into my hands several times. Not because I was hurt physically. Just unsure how I can continue to live like this. Or if I even want to. They patched me up “good as new” and sent me home. Instead of going home, I went to coffee with my dear friend. I cried some more. I don’t remember much of our talk other than I let some things out. Kept some things in.

Tomorrow I go to work with a helluva shiner on my right eye. You see typically when I have bipolar symptoms I simply disappear for a few days. I return when I am ready. But the scars from those episodes are on the inside. This time, I am returning with scars on the outside. I am worried about gossip, rumors… whatever else spreads like wildfire at an office. Very few people know I’m bipolar. I almost feel like I am faced with being open or face ugliness of office culture. I’m ready for neither, but I also don’t know which is worse. 

I plan to wear a hat. I plan to keep my head down. I plan to keep to myself. As I write these words I am sad. Bipolar is a part of me like it or not. Just as I will always be a recovering alcoholic. Maybe it’s time to set myself free from my own self stigma. I am still the same hard worker whether I’m black, blue or bipolar. It may no longer be a heroic effort, but it’s always an honest one.

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When I Need You to Hear What I Cannot Say

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I could reach out.

But really, what would I say?

I’m sinking.

But you already know that as you see me knee deep in chaos.

I’m crashing.

But you already know that as you see my scars.

I’m hurting.

But you already know that as you see me wipe away the tears

I’m drowning.

But you already know that as you see I can’t breathe.

I’m ashamed.

But you already know this as I harbor secrets about myself.

I’m scared.

But you already know that as you hold my shaken body.

I’m beaten.

But you already know that as I’ve lost my voice

I’m lost.

But you already know that as you see me spin in circles.

I’m tired.

But you already know that as you see me lifeless on the couch.

I’m broken.

But you already know that as you see me struggle to stand.

I’m alone.

But you already know that as you see me withdraw into nothingness.

I’m hopeless.

You don’t know this as I can’t seem to fully let you in.

I’m trying.

Oh how I’m trying to lean on you in these moments.

I’m trying.

Oh how I’m trying to fight the demons of bipolar depression.

I’m trying.

Oh how I’m trying to say… please help me

Please tell me you can hear me.

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