10 Things I Want My Family to Understand About Me as Someone With Bipolar Disorder

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I made a list similar to this one shortly after my first hospitalization in 1999. My family was anxious to help me along in my recovery, but they had no idea what would help and what would not. After several years of learning about my bipolar disorder and discovering what works and what doesn’t, I developed this list.

I hope this piece will encourage readers to open up to their loved ones about their illnesses. I hope this will encourage those with similar illnesses not to be afraid to admit that they have limitations and need help from time to time.

The last item on the list I stress above all others. I want my loved ones to know I am thankful for their love and support, and I am the same old me they know and love. Having bipolar disorder has not changed that.

1. Trying to “fix me” will not work. I have a team of care providers (psychiatrist, therapist, case worker) who will help me. I appreciate your concern and I am grateful to have people who care around me, but you aren’t my doctors or therapists.

2. I have good days and bad days, just like you. My good days can fall anywhere between “pretty good” and “joyous”; the bad days can range from sort of blah to crushingly depressing. This happens to everyone; however, the good days are too good and the bad days are too bad in my case. When I’m set in those extremes, it’s hard for me to function at all.

3. It is OK to call me out on my bad behavior. This illness often clouds my judgment when it comes to my behavior. There are times when I’m so irritable I want to bite the heads of everyone I encounter. There are also times when my mind is so unfocused, my daily responsibilities are neglected. It’s OK for you to point these things out to me. Don’t feel like you have to walk on eggshells.

4. My mood shifts have absolutely nothing to do with you. If suddenly I become sad, or angry, or confused, don’t take it personally, and please don’t try to cheer me up. You did nothing to cause it. It’s just my unbalanced brain’s skewed reaction to any stimulus.

5. Some days I may really need your help. As I stated previously, this illness clouds my judgment sometimes. Sometimes I will forget to take my medication. Sometimes I really have a hard time controlling my impulses.

6. Just because I take medication and go to therapy does not mean I will be “cured” someday. The best I can hope for is remission (which means mental and emotional stability) for a period of time. Most likely I will need treatment for my condition for the rest of my life.

7. This condition affects me in different ways. I am emotional unstable at times. The disease also clouds my thinking and inhibits my concentration to the point that tasks others might take for granted (reading a book, watching a movie, training for a new job, etc.) are next to impossible sometimes (see #2.). I try my best, but sometimes I fall short. That’s OK.

8. This condition makes life planning challenging for me, to say the least. During the bad times it’s all I can do to survive from one day to the next; I don’t know what will be going on with me a week from now, much less 10 years from now. Again, I just live day to day and do the best I can. I set goals for myself; sometimes I get there, sometimes I don’t. That’s OK.

9. I am a good, loving person. I am not violent. I don’t want to hurt anyone, physically or emotionally, and I do my best to avoid it. I am able to have healthy, loving relationships and enjoy life. I have a lot to contribute to the world.

10. (Most importantly) I love you. I am not making this list because I believe you to be ignorant or cold-hearted. I know you love me and care about me, but are at a loss sometimes when it comes to knowing how to deal with me. You are an important part of my life and my recovery. I am grateful for your support.

Image via Thinkstock Images

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My Bipolar Disorder Is Like a Funhouse

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When I was diagnosed at 18, my bipolar disorder became the main attraction of my life. It became the funhouse at the carnival, with bright colors and loud music that is impossible to ignore. I am now 24, and am stuck inside the funhouse. The medication and therapy haven’t been enough to open the door and let me out. So I keep walking in circles inside the funhouse, going in and out of every room over and over.

And the first place I always end up is the hall of mirrors.

The funhouse mirrors are oddly shaped and show a distorted image of whatever is seen inside them. When I look into the mirrors, I don’t see what I thought I looked like. Depending on my mood, I see myself differently, and in an unrealistic way. When I’m depressed, the mirrors make me look fat, ugly and worthless. When I experience hypomania, the mirrors inflate my self-esteem and give me a fake sort of confidence that makes me change my appearance and my attitude. With my distorted self-image in tow, I move onto the next room and the next unpleasant part of my bipolar disorder.

The funhouse has a slide that is two stories tall, with twists and turns and a ball pit at the bottom. During a hypomanic episode, I’m at the top of the slide, excited and enthusiastic about the fun I’m about to have. It’s short lived, and sooner than I think, I am on the way down, plummeting into depression. I land in the ball pit, which is hard to wade through, like my emotions when I’m depressed. I trip and fall continuously, until I reach the edge of the pit, where I slowly pull myself out onto the cold floor, and start to feel normal again. From the slide, I move onto the slow spinning disk, where my moods and emotions turn around and around.

The spinning disk does its job, it spins me around in a continuous circle of emotion until I’m dizzy and fall down. While on the disk, I constantly lose my balance, and my bipolar disorder does the same. My moods are never even, and I am constantly either up or down, until I ultimately fall on my face. Balance is not something I know much about, I just know my bipolar disorder is dizzying, and the spinning makes me sick to my stomach.

My bipolar disorder is like a funhouse, and I’m stuck inside. I haven’t figured out a way to get out or a way to deal with being inside. I don’t want to, but I feel like I just need to accept where my bipolar disorder has me. I know there is a way out of this carnival attraction, but I am too tired to find it. So, I’ll stay in the funhouse, until the day I have enough energy to get out of the funhouse and go on with my life.

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What My Bipolar Disorder Feels Like

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The world I live in is grey. It’s filled with grey buildings and streets. The water is grey, the clouds are too, and the people no longer wear the smiles that were there before. There is instead deep anguish, anxiety, depression, sleepless nights spent in a lackluster life. Or maybe that’s just what I see.

Sometimes I see the world in a golden haze. The laughter so heartfelt, I can practically see glitter falling from the moments. The memories fade like an old reel video: just the black and white of stark reality. Those moments are contagious, leading one to another until all of a sudden the movie stops, and I rewind it to have the same conversations, the same memories playing in my head for days at a time. I don’t sleep, and honestly I don’t miss it. I continue to watch, the video speeds up, my consciousness with it, rushing through my life through the rear-view mirror.

The thing is, I know I’m watching it but not living in it. I notice a scratch in the picture, like a reminder that I’m telling a lie. I make lists, plan to fix it. I go buy the supplies and realize I’ve bought only half my list and an entire collection of things I’ll never use. So I go back out, collecting more trinkets and a couple more items from my list until I’ve spent most of my hard earned money on useless objects. I begin to agonize over the money I lost. The stress and anxiety eat at me until I cannot watch the mended tape of my life. So I try to make a new video.

That one starts out promising, but it’s exactly like the first — a lie, and I watch my attempts. I can take a moment from the stress of living life and recall with perfect clarity times when my life was simple and made sense.

Until I can’t.

One day I wake up slowly, one night I can’t fall asleep. But not like before. This time I’m so tired I lie in bed for hours, praying for sleep. The sun comes up, but it’s accusing me of being in bed for days. I start to listen to the same sad songs about life being a lie, about the future that never comes. I’ve been making up the entire experience. There was never a film or a projector. I wasn’t living in the movies of my life, I was living in the recesses of my own mind, where there is no one but me, no matter how many people it seemed like there were.

So I tell someone.

They start out saying they will be there for me, and I’ve heard it before. But I hope the feeling in the pit of my stomach is wrong. I tell them I’m no longer sure where reality begins and my imagination ends. And for a while, they hold me protectively, as though I might shatter at the slightest change. I begin to feel at ease and I know the past is the past and I picked the wrong person to trust in last time. This time will be different.

Until it isn’t.

The person who said they’d always be there for me lied in the way that hurts me most. And that lie causes me to withdraw into my  mind again. I try to protect myself with walls I had torn down. Eventually the relationship withers and dies, and I blame myself. If only I didn’t need so much help. If only I weren’t so unlovable.

Then comes the darkness.

As I begin to accept I mean nothing, that my life is more trouble to live than others can accept, I do the one thing I can to protect what little self I have left: I run back into my mind, into the world I created. I feel at home in the bright blue skies, the crystal-like oceans and the deep green of the trees. The parts of my mind I had shunned come back out to greet me, as though they knew I wasn’t trying to hurt them, I was trying to live in the grey world. The more I talk to these parts, I realize the only person who could possibly love me is myself, these little parts of my mind that welcome me without judgment each time I return.

The world I live in is beautiful. It’s filled with beautiful scenes of color-filled things, and there are people there who love me. The sky is blue, the water is too and there are songs which fill my heart to the brim with life and love and awe. There is no hatred, only the slightest whisper of the pain I vaguely remember.

But I feel guilty.

After all, I did run out on them, push them away and hurt their feelings, my feelings. These little parts of me that have always been with me, whispering in my ear that I can succeed, that I can be loved. These parts that whispered louder than those who wanted to tear me down. But I give into the solemn blackness that calls to me ever so softly. I am worthless. I am nothing. I could never fit in, everyone will lie to me, hurt me. And it’s all my fault. I start to slip down the spiral, deeper than before, into the deepest parts of the blackness inside me. So dark, I think I might never find the light again. Nor would I deserve the chance to.

And then I find a single speck of glitter.

I vaguely remember the parties in the sun, the laughter and wonder. What if I have it wrong? What if I just didn’t know what I do now? I could take this little piece of glitter and make a better me, a new and improved me. And all I have to do is fight for it. So I claw my way back into the sun, awaiting my day of recognition. And there I sit, filming the next reel, watching my life pass me by.

The world I live in is grey, but the other one is brightly colored. In the first there are people I cannot trust, but will always try to. In the second, there are fragments of myself I want everyone else to see, keeping me company as I repair the damage from each and every grey heartbreak. They wrap me in a cocoon, internalizing the good and the bad. But I can never seem to find the line that separates them. I never know which one I live in or when I will go back to one or the other. What I do know is each time I enter the world of color, it’s a little harder to leave, to find the speck of glitter. And each time I leave the world of grey, I want to come back less and less.

For me, there is only the pain of grey and the hope of color.

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

Image via Thinkstock.

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Why Mornings Are Hard When I'm Hypomanic

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Yawning, stretching and throwing back my comforter are the three ways I prepare myself to get out of bed when I’m stable. Those things are easy to do, and my mornings are calm, pleasant and productive. When I’m hypomanic, getting out of bed is a different experience, and my mornings are hard.

Hypomania is part of my bipolar disorder, and it comes and goes in waves. These waves aren’t calm though. They crash into me and knock me over. When I don’t pay attention to the warning signs of a hypomanic episode and ignore the onset of its symptoms, I’m vulnerable and unprepared for when hypomania hits me.

Hypomania is a mild form of mania that makes me intermittently irritable, hyper, impulsive and unable to sleep. It takes away my calm demeanor and replaces it with excessive energy and misplaced motivation. When I’m hypomanic, I acknowledge my symptoms, but sometimes forget to manage them properly. Neglecting to manage my symptoms makes my days difficult to get through and makes my morning especially hard.

During a hypomanic episode, I don’t get out of bed in a calm way, ready to start the day. Instead, I leap out of bed, leave it unmade and race around as fast as the thoughts in my head. From the moment I wake up, my heart is pounding, my thoughts are racing and I can’t think straight.

As soon as my feet hit the bedroom floor, I mentally make a list of everything I have to accomplish. As I do this, I become quickly overwhelmed and irritable because even though I’ll start all the tasks on my list, I know I won’t finish them. I know I’ll be too easily distracted and unable to focus because of my hypomania.

Sometimes, there is no waking up because at times when I’m hypomanic, I can’t sleep. When this happens, I start my day feeling irritable because I’m tired. When there is no waking up because I’ve been up all night, my thoughts are scattered and confusing, which contributes to my irritability.

When I do sleep, I wake up hyper and overzealous about the day. I immediately make goals for the next five years that aren’t realistic or attainable. I start obsessively cleaning my house, but don’t complete any chore I start. I decide to go out to shop and spend money I don’t have.

Mornings are hard when I’m experiencing hypomania because mornings lead to the rest of the day. I get out of bed feeling irritable due to lack of sleep or racing thoughts and that irritability follows me all day. Mornings are a gateway to hypomanic behaviors that leave me broke, disappointed in myself and angry.

Hypomania makes my mornings difficult because it prevents me from being mindful, appreciating each moment of a calmness and serenity. Mornings are difficult when I haven’t slept. Climbing out of bed irritable is not a good way to start the day.

Hypomania makes it impossible to have a pleasant morning, which leads to an even more unpleasant day. Mornings are a new beginning, but when I’m hypomanic, mornings are the start of a fast paced, unpleasant and complicated day. Mornings are not my favorite when I’m hypomanic. If I could fast forward through them during an episode, then I would.

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Why I Use Prayer to Cope With Bipolar Depression

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I’ve learned a variety of coping skills throughout my time spent in therapy, but the one that works best for me is one I learned as a small child in Sunday school.

When I’m hit with bipolar depression, the first thing I do is shut down. I lock myself in my room and cocoon myself in the blankets on my bed in complete isolation.

I know isolating myself isn’t healthy. I know when I experience bipolar depression, holding in my thoughts and emotions makes it worse. But even though I know my silence is unhealthy, I can’t bring myself to open up to those close to me – even my therapist.

Talking through bipolar depression is helpful and therapeutic for many people, but I can’t do it. So instead, I pray.

Praying helps me cope with bipolar depression for many different reasons. It’s my favorite coping mechanism because it’s easy, it’s comforting and it’s private.

Talking about my negative thoughts and unpleasant emotions is hard for me, but praying about them is easy. I simply close my eyes and mentally let go of everything that is bothering me. When I pray, I don’t have to explain how I’m feeling to someone who doesn’t understand my bipolar disorder. When I pray, I just talk to God, and I’d like to think He gets it and doesn’t need an explanation.

Prayer brings me comfort because I know when I pray, God is listening and really hearing me. It’s comforting to know my struggling is important to Him when it may not be to anyone else. I feel comforted when I pray and consoled when I’m at my saddest and weakest point.

One of the reasons I can’t open up to my friends and family is because I’m afraid they won’t keep our conversation to themselves. I’m also afraid to be criticized for how I’m feeling. But with prayer, I know the conversation is private, so I feel safe enough to share my darkest thoughts and feelings. I know when I pray, there will be no criticism or gossip. Praying is private; it’s a safe way to rid myself of my innermost negativity.

During a depressive episode, I am full of negativity and sadness. I know not to bottle those things up because of what they might turn into, but I have a hard time uncorking that bottle.

I know I need to work on communicating with others about my bipolar depression, and I am actively trying. But in the meantime, and until I’m ready to talk, I will pray. I will pray about my bipolar depression and everything it brings because it helps me – more than than any other coping skill I’ve learned so far.

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10 Ways I Soften the Blow of a Depressive Episode Before It Hits

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Because I have bipolar disorder, I also have bouts of depression. I have help for my depression in the form of medication, therapy and a variety of coping skills, which all make it easier to deal when depression hits. However, as depression winds itself up, almost ready to strike, I’ve learned to do these 10 things to lessen the blow.

1. Put on makeup.

When I’m depressed, I have lower confidence and don’t like myself as much. I put on makeup because it boosts my confidence and makes me feel better about myself.

2. Treat myself.

Sometimes I paint my nails, make s’mores in the microwave or buy something for myself I want but don’t really need. These small and seemingly unimportant things are actually really important at the start of a depressive episode because doing something special for myself reminds me I am special, especially when I’m not really feeling that way.

3. Pin positive messages.

Pinterest is my favorite place to go when I start to feel down. I usually search for “uplifting quotes” or “encouraging Bible verses” and find a plethora of messages and phrases that remind me to be kind to myself.

4. Enjoy the weather.

Whether it’s sunny, cloudy, raining or storming, I try to find the benefits of each type of weather. At the start of another “down,” I like to step outside for a few minutes or take a walk solely to focus on the weather around me. I try to remain mindful by watching the breeze, listening to the birds in the trees, by standing barefoot in the grass and concentrating on how it feels between my toes.

5. Clean my room.

During a depressive episode, I turn into a slob and feel even more like a slob when my space is a mess. I clean my room when I feel depression coming on so I don’t feel so sluggish, and so I don’t feel like my space is small and suffocating. I believe a clean room leaves room for a clear mind, which is what I need before depression hits.

6. Play with my cats.

My cats are silly and get excited over things as simple as a string or jingly ball. Playing with them lightens my heart and makes me laugh when my heart begins to feel heavy and when I know I won’t feel like laughing. The little things they go crazy over give me a slight feeling of joy when I’m depressed. Even that slight feeling is enough to help me combat the beginning of a depressive episode.

7. Eat breakfast.

Depression sucks the energy from my body and my mind. When I feel depression creeping in, I eat a better breakfast so I have a good amount of energy to start the day with. Eating a good breakfast makes me feel like I’m fueling up for the day, and I am prepared for anything my depression could throw at me.

8. Call my grandma.

My grandma’s stories of years past always make me laugh. I call her when I’m starting to feel depressed so she can lift my spirits, even if she doesn’t mean to. Calling a friend or loved one reminds me I’m not alone, and encourages me not to isolate myself as depression hits. I may not tell my grandma what I’m thinking or feeling, but whatever she says to me distracts me from my depressed thoughts and uplifts my mood.

9. Bake something.

Baking is a tasty, time consuming distraction and is something I enjoy, which is why I choose to do it when I start to feel depressed. Doing things I enjoy doesn’t really happen when I’m in the midst of a depressive episode, which is why I often bake before my depression gets too bad. It’s a reminder that even though I’m depressed, I do still enjoy things.

10. Watch “The Best of Will Ferrell on SNL.”

I’ll do this when my only goal is to cheer myself up through uncontrollable laughter. Watching comedy takes my mind off of my impending depression and rids my mind of negative thoughts. Laughter is said to be the best medicine, and when I’m watching Will Ferrell, that sentiment is definitely true.

What works for me may not work for everyone, but I encourage anyone who suffers from bipolar depression to find what works to keep their depression at bay. Soften the blow of a depressive episode by combating it with a joyful distraction, and by doing what is necessary to eliminate negativity from your mood. Find your list of 10 things, and do them before your depression turns into a full blown depressive episode.

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