Woman looking at a sunset and forest landscape

How do I explain what living with bipolar disorder feels like? I say, “It’s cyclical,” and you say, “So you have good days and bad.” Yes. Yes and no. I’ve tried to explain, searching for the right words, but I never quite hit the jackpot.

So let me try to explain in the best way I know how, as a writer.

Through metaphor.

I’d like to take you somewhere — an adventure if you will. No? Not an adventure. Maybe just a little walk. Yes, a nice stroll. Nothing too committal. Just a walk through a park, through the viridian sea of foliage, hearing the laughter of a child. Do you see that young couple? Kissing? Over there on the bench? I can feel the heat coming from their passion. My fingers tingle at the sensation. You and I walk along the cobblestones, hearing the gentle click of our shoes on the stone; glance at the cyclists as they ride by, chrome glinting in the watery sunlight.

It’s lovely. It’s calming. It feels… real. Normal. This is life, no? This is what life is about?

But it’s such a short moment. I need it to be longer, draw it out.

The clipped-ness of it overwhelms me. I smell the cinnamon scent of chestnuts being roasted and I grasp for that scent. Desperately, my senses drink it in and I can almost taste it… almost. It’s infuriating how much I need to taste it. Urgently. Do you feel it?

Do you smell the scent of the roses, the leaves, freshly mown grass, hear the cicadas in the summer afternoon, lazy, piercing? Doesn’t it throw you back to your childhood? Aren’t you young again? Why can’t you feel it? The morning dew burnt off by the sun as she streaks across the sky in all her naked glory. She really is tantalizing, isn’t she? I think I might catch her.

The energy is unbounded, exhilarating, profound. Don’t you see? Doesn’t it mean something to you? All of this glory we call Earth, we call home? The crusted bark of the trees, stories older than you or me. The children dodging their helicopter parents. Swoosh, zoom, duck. That one, over there, the young mother in the dress so lilac I can’t think straight, talking into her mobile phone as she gestures to her young offspring.

I need to chase it. I need to capture it. Capture its meaning.

It’s almost too much. It is too much. My eyes rapidly take it all in, the images, the scents, the sounds, all get processed in my higher cortices, the moment overwhelms me. Back and forth, focus, attention, process, storage. Repeat. Over and over and over. It rushes through me. Faster, faster, no wait it’s too fast too fast too fast! Stop, I can’t keep up, it’s too green, the children are too loud, the scent is nauseating! I can’t keep up with myself.

The rain falls.

The storm barrels in, the clouds, lethargic, monstrous, ugly, incapable of doing anything but raining the shit storm of the century. It’s horrible. It’s all horrible. Each drop squeezed out in anticipation of contact with my miserable skin. My flayed being. I can’t. It hurts too much. The rain torments me, the thunder laughs at me, the hairs on my arm stand straight at attention. Like little soldiers ready to march to their death.

Like the little white pills, lined up in a row. Little soldiers with their little mission to end the littleness of myself. Down the chute they go. One by one they go marching, marching, marching. Slicing away at the agony. Like raindrops, they go down.

It’s dark. All is dark. Not even dark — void of darkness. Void of anything. A black hole and I teeter on the event horizon. Can you reach for me? Do you see me here, grasping, my fingernails ripped off, bloody stubs clawing at something to keep me from plummeting? Please, please, please….

I can’t remember the color green anymore. I can’t remember the taste of food. I can’t remember the feeling of feeling. The only thing I hear is the gurgling sound of me getting sucked down the drain. Down the drain with the rain.

Do you see me? Can you see me?

No, maybe you can’t.

The rain stops… eventually. The yellow sun breaks through, anxious, filled with trepidation. Even she doesn’t want to expose what’s happened here. But I still see her, distant and foggy, behind the breaking clouds.

I can’t follow her though, I can’t follow her too far. Or she will be too bright. And I will fall again.

Do you see?

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Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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I have bipolar II. It seems like it can make it hard for people to like me, especially in moments when I don’t like myself. I have lost so many friends throughout my life. I have very few constants. I find people seem to have more trouble “dealing” with me because of my bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder can cloud my vision. It makes me question myself, and it makes me so insecure. People who don’t have bipolar might think it’s just mood swings, but it is so much more. It’s definitely mood swings, but they are not just happy or sad. They are happy, angry, numb, furious, sad, depressed, suicidal, anxious and jealous. The list goes on and on.

My point is, it can be challenging to love me. I am only speaking for myself, but I find there are three things that show me people do love me, even when I feel like they don’t:

1. They are patient.

Patience is a virtue not everyone has, but I think people who care will make sure they have it. When I say patience, I mean a lot. I know someone cares when I have said something I don’t mean and they don’t walk away. They don’t get up and say, “She’s not worth it.” They don’t leave. I know someone cares when they sit there and listen to me talk, without getting frustrated with me. The people who are close to me know when I get in a bad place, I say things on a whim and get myself in trouble a lot. Then, I start panicking, thinking I’ve ruined a friendship. But they always tell me, “It’s OK. I’m not going to not be your friend because you were in a bad mood.” Patience is necessary.

2. They reassure me.

When I’m in a low mood, I think horrible things about myself. I tell myself I’m not pretty and that I’m worthless and stupid. It’s hard to explain because I know I’m not any of those things but when my mind is bogged down and I’m not thinking logically, I do believe those thoughts.

This is when I need someone to grab my hand and pull me out of this hole I’ve found myself in. It’s so easy to reassure someone of how great they are. It can just be a nice text. It doesn’t have to be a present or anything extravagant — a note, a text or just a smile and a hug. I need someone to tell me that everything will be OK. This also comes in when I am questioning any kind of relationship. I need those people to reassure me we are still OK, especially if I feel that I’ve messed up.

3. They give me their time.

I am a person who loves to spend time with other people. It is so important I do because it can lift a bad mood almost instantly. If someone is willing to carve time out of their day to spend time with me, then I’m on the road to being happy. I need people to want to spend time with me. I know I can be a pain and I can be a downer, but when people are willing to put time aside, I feel loved. We don’t have to go out to a restaurant or a club. We can sit in sweats and a t-shirt and watch movies at someone’s house. I don’t require much. I feel like most people are that way. To me and others, time, no matter how it is spent, is a huge sign that people care.

Patience, reassurance and time. These are the three things that show me someone truly cares about me. That’s all I’m looking for, as someone with a bipolar disorder. I am not hard to love.


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.

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