Living With Bipolar Disorder: The 3 Parts of Being 'OK'

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Any day I can get out of bed and make more than a single phone call, I am doing great. I have lived through intense highs and deep lows that together were a personal hell. Such is my experience of bipolar disorder. I lived through it, I live with it and I grow from it. Mettle has been tested and I am f*cking titanium. How come I, like an alchemist, transform this potential fatal poison into an elixir that makes me stronger? I believe it can be broken down into three parts.

For a while, after being in the psych hospital, I was in denial about my illness. I was released under the promise of enrolling in mandatory outpatient care three times a week and under the supervision of a psycho-pharmacologist. There was a moment after being in the hospital that I knew I had to choose. I was sitting in the muted brown and rust colored room of my doctor. I was staring at the acrylic painting of the New Mexico desert with a cactus in bloom. It was there I knew I had to make a choice.

That’s the first part: choice.

I decided to do whatever I had to do to be healthy in mind, body and spirit.

I didn’t chose a brain disorder but I could chose my life, my habits, my nutrition, to take control of my medication and doctors. I chose it all. Whatever I needed to do to be healthy I was going to do it . This also required a new understanding of health, but I didn’t know that at the time.

The second piece to being “OK” has two parts. It’s luck and support. I am lucky to have an amazing support system — and to afford it. I have family, friends and doctors whom I trust and who work with me. If I tell them some medication needs adjusting, they respond. If they see some indicator in my behavior that raises a flag for them, we discuss it. There are no forced medication or treatments.

If I didn’t have them, all the choices in the world would do nothing. I mean that. If you don’t have doctors you can trust, find new ones. It can be work and it is frustrating, but this is your one and only life and your health.

Some things over these years have really sucked. I am angry I had to go to the hospital, angry I am “sick” and that there’s stigma about my brain, heartbroken about all the time wasted on doctors and blood tests and getting medications correct. There is deep grief about the course I felt my life was going to take, but instead I got the “life interrupted” version.

I wish I could say I have found the golden key to make it all better.

What I can offer you is my honesty and experience and willingness to share the journey. This helps. It’s hasn’t always been pretty or easy but I can offer to you with my whole heart and a deep wish that it will be useful to you and your loved ones. I know what it feels like to have your freedom taken away. To wake up when they tell you to wakeup. To swallow what they tell you to swallow. To stare out of one little window for hours. To feel as though you are declared less than human. To be declared incompetent, crazy.

I also know what it is to fight for your life. However small it may seem. I know what it is to be a survivor — to find strength in the darkest days when the best thing you can hope for is to make it out of your bed long enough to go to the bathroom and maybe to the kitchen. I know what it is to feel like there is something inside you that has something to offer this world and that it worth fighting for, that you are worth fighting for. And I finally know what it is to own my own power and be what could only be described as resilient.

And when I truly allow myself to feel the grief, shame and the anger and let the tears come, one thing is always there beneath it all. In the still and silence of myself, there is grace.

This is the third piece. Grace is beyond luck, and more encompassing than support and choice. Even with the best of friends and family and doctors, there are things I have to face alone in my mind and heart no one will ever know. No matter how transparent I am, some things are sacred and private and mine alone. I have learned a kind of surrender and acceptance, and it’s what I move towards every day .

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Real People, Real Stories: Life With Bipolar Disorder E-Book

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Real People, Real Stories: Life With Bipolar Disorder is a collection of 10 powerful stories from people in our Mighty community who live with bipolar disorder.

Click below to download the e-book:

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The book contains the following stories:

I’m an Olympian, Former Escort and Now – a Mental Health Advocate by Suzy Favor Hamilton

To Myself, the Day I Was Diagnosed: Bipolar Is Not the End, but the Beginning by Madelyn Heslet

The Words That Changed My Outlook on Living With Bipolar Disorder by Emily Stainton

‘Functional’ Is a 24/7 Job When You Live With Bipolar Disorder by Steve Imperato

The Secret Truths of a Bipolar Girl by Danielle Hark

The Blur of Bipolar Disorder by Fraser Speaks

Dear Future Boyfriend, From a Girl With Bipolar Disorder by Shelby Manoukian

10 Things I Wish My Loved Ones Knew About Living With Bipolar Disorder by Nichole Howson

Why My Kids Know Mommy Has Bipolar Disorder by Jennifer Marshall

Psychosis Isn’t Shameful, It’s a Symptom by Charlie Kaplan

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The Scary Statistic About Bipolar Disorder That Needs to Be Addressed

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I have done some research about my illness. I learned that 1 in 5 people die by suicide. Those are scary statistics when you think about it. It means I have a pretty good chance of not watching my children grow up. I could miss out on the first day of school, proms, graduation, weddings and even meeting my grandchildren.

A person with my illness has an average lifespan decreased by 9.2 years. 9.2 years. This means there would be almost a decade or more of time, I would end up missing out on. 9.2 years. It makes my heart ache just thinking about it. I would potentially miss nine years or more with my loving husband.

The hardest part of it all is there is no cure. There is no “getting better.” There is only remission maintained by diet, exercise, outpatient therapy and medications. This is if I have the insurance to cover all my medications, regular blood tests required by some medications and doctor visits.

Then, there are the side effects of some of the life-sustaining medications: loss of fine motor skills, liver damage and weight gain to name a few. These are the sacrifices made to keep me alive, if I can afford it. Sometimes, I don’t have the money and I have to go at it alone. I have to take each episode as it comes, praying I have enough strength to make it to the next.

Some days, I grow weary of the struggle. I get tired of fighting and I just want to let fate decide. I look into my children’s face and believe they  deserve better than an always sick mom. Then, I think about going to the hospital for treatment, just to stay long enough to get myself in a good place. But who would take care of my children?

It’s hard to get people to watch my kids. Sure, people may feel sorry for me, but not enough to reach out a helping hand.

If I end up falling into the “1 out of 5” statistic, I will seen as a villain — not a hero. There most likely will be no ribbons worn in honor of me. No one will be there to light a luminary at a walk in support of my illness. There won’t be t-shirts, no fundraisers, no memorials or 5Ks. No one will talk about the fight I put up. They will only focus on the part where I “gave up.”

The stigma of my death will carry on to my children. For, if my children chose to share how I died, they will probably not be met with sympathy — but pity. My death will forever lower my worth as a mother. It is a shame because my children will know how hard I fought. However, they will be frowned upon if they choose to honor me. They will have to defend the legitimacy of my illness.

However, there is a silver lining in all of this. Though it may be potentially deadly, it is not terminal. Matter of fact, death from this illness is 100 percent preventable. With research, awareness and proper treatment, no one will ever have to die from this illness.

I have bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder affects approximately 5.7 million adult Americans, or about 2.6 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older every year. Bipolar disorder results in 9.2 years reduction in expected life span, and as many as 1 in 5 patients with bipolar disorder completes suicide. These are unavoidable truths that need to be addressed.

Truth is, I don’t want to be a statistic. Seeing my children have at least a 15 to 30 percent chance of being bipolar, I don’t want them to be one either. We need to stop treating mental illnesses so lightly. We need to start recognizing that they are potently deadly illnesses.

No matter how someone dies, their life mattered. We need to start recognizing this and start acting upon it. My fight deserves the same dignity and respect as any other. In this world, every life is precious.

Follow this journey on The Bipolar Mama.

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 

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To the People Who Question Why I Talk to My Daughters About My Bipolar Disorder

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This is a controversial topic. Some people say I am wrong for sharing details of my illness with my children. Some people see this as me “not protecting” them from my illness. Some say I should never have had children as a woman with bipolar disorder, which can be hereditary.

To all those people, I say read my story first. To them, I say get to know my children, get to know the kind, intelligent, beautiful girls I am privileged to be able to call my daughters. Read my reasons for telling them about my mental health issues. I strongly believe that the unknown is nearly always scarier than the known.

Yes, there are some really scary stories about mental health issues out there. Yet, having facts and some understanding can make it less frightening and therefore, more easy to process and deal with. Obviously, this needs to be at an age-appropriate level. When my children were younger, I told them sometimes my illness makes me feel like Tigger, very happy and full of energy for no reason. Other times, it makes mom sad and tired for no reason.

I told them these things happened to me and it wasn’t because of anything they did or didn’t do. There. That’s it. A simple explanation, which tries to make a bit of sense out of my illness. It also reassures them mom’s illness is not related to their behavior.

Now my girls are teenagers. They have a greater understanding. They ask questions and they do their own research. They meet the professionals involved in my care and they know it is the professionals’ job to help me. Having said that, yes, they do help me. They help in the house. They give me cuddles when I’m down. They help just by being themselves. We love each other unconditionally.

I am not saying it is always easy for them, for me or anyone else involved. Of course, I wish I could do more and do it consistently for them. I wish I could earn more money to take them on more holidays and days out. For them, I know it is difficult if I have to go into hospital or the crisis unit. They miss me, just as I miss them when this happens. However, they have a brilliant dad, who already does so much for them and steps up further when I am unwell. We have joint custody and are very close anyway, living a few doors from each other to limit disruption to the children.

Up until recently, they also had a wonderful grandma in my mom, who supported them practically and emotionally. Over the years, they have had good teachers who have also been there for them. I also have some amazing friends who do what they can to help both me and the children.

Regarding the point about some illnesses having a hereditary aspect, mental health issues are common. We’ve all heard the “1 in 4 people will be affected” statistic. We are all at risk. Of course, it would break my heart should either of my children become unwell in any way, physically or mentally. I would like to think because of my own experiences, I would be able to support them in every way possible, regardless of anything that could happen.

In many ways, they are equipped to deal with some adversity already. Due to my illness, my children have had to learn resilience, which is not a bad thing. I’ve also already noticed how nonjudgmental they are and how they are able to emphathize with others. Recently, I was told my eldest daughter sat with an older girl who was having a panic attack. My daughter had stayed with her and helped the girl manage her anxiety. My daughter made sure the girl was safe and able to return to class. This makes me proud.

I’ve noticed neither of my children are ashamed of me or my illness. It’s not a massive deal to them and the stigma isn’t being passed on through my children. They will both quite happily say, “Oh yeah, my mom has bipolar disorder. Do you have any questions?” This is exactly how I think it should be.

Finally, I’d like to say in no way are my daughters missing out. My older daughter is academic and achieves top grades at school, alongside a small group of very good friends. Aside from that, we send her to drama school on weekends, as she has a beautiful singing voice. She would like to work in musical theater because as she says, “It makes everyone feel something and be happy.” My younger daughter is a talented gymnast, cheerleader and artist. She is a beautiful little girl who does well at school and has a large circle of friends.

They both make me and their dad proud of them every day and everyone who meets them thinks they are bright, polite, lovely girls. They are all this, in spite of having a mum with bipolar disorder and other mental health issues. Most importantly, they are happy. We must be doing something right.

Don’t judge me for being a mom with mental health issues. Don’t tell me I’m doing it all wrong by telling my children about these issues. So far they are doing just fine, thanks.

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12 Things I'd Tell My Past Self About Going to College With Bipolar Disorder

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Navigating college can, well, be awesome. And for some it can suck. When you have bipolar disorder, it can be both simultaneously.

When I went to college, I had not yet been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In fact, I had not been diagnosed with anything, even though I should have (but that’s a rant for another day). However, as someone who now can look back at my college years and see both the mania and depression at work in different times, I think I have some helpful advice.

And, as a caveat, I also offer the following as someone with a Ph.D. in the humanities who has taught both online and in the traditional classroom. I have watched students with mental illness struggle and watched others with the same illness thrive. I have tried to help students and have let others refuse my help. But the following comes from being both a student who had bipolar and a professor with bipolar watching my students struggle.

So, here are the top 12 things I’d say to someone with bipolar (or, really, any mental illness) about attending college. (As a side note, I believe much of this applies to both traditional and online colleges, but I am focusing on more traditional campuses right now).

1. Find a counselor on campus. 

It can be particularly challenging to find is a good counselor in general. Trying to find a counselor or therapist in a foreign environment who can work within the confines of our budget is even more difficult. But there are a few things I recommend. First, see if your school has a counseling center and make sure, if they do, this is not an “academic counseling” center. Academic counselors are not therapists and may not be equipped to do the heavy-lifting a person with bipolar needs. Instead, find someone who specializes in mental health counseling at the counseling center.

If the counseling center does not have anyone specializing in such (which, while incredibly unfortunate, is somewhat common), go to the university health center. There is usually a number of nurses and a nurse practitioner, at least, there. They can point you to the right place for finding quality therapy. You can also email the professors in the counseling or psychology department on campus and see if they may have suggestions. Who knows? Maybe one will offer to see you?

2. Meditate.

One of the things I have found the most helpful in dealing with my bipolar is meditation, or what is commonly referred to as the practice of mindfulness. The idea is to simply be present in the moment you are in right then. And to try and take the presentness into the next parts of your day.

I practice meditation in the following way. First, I set my timer for about five minutes. I do this after I have woken up a little bit, had coffee, whatever. But, it’s before I start my day seriously, like going to class and the like. I spend the five minutes just being present, listening to what is going on, feeling the air, smelling in smells, and letting my thoughts wash over me. I don’t try to control them, just let them come and go. When the ringer goes off, I start my day. I feel better and it helps me stay present in the different moments of the day while also keep racing thoughts at bay. Lastly, if I need to do it one or two or even eight more times during the day, I can.

3. Find a support group.

It is imperative you find support on campus. You have to have people who know what you are going through and what it means to check up on you. This is what a support group does. It’s a place where you are valued and can be yourself and reveal your truest feelings.

The organization I run, Here/Hear, organizes peer-to-peer support groups on college campuses. Our groups use meditation/mindfulness, discussion, and engaged reflection to help each other live lives to the fullest. And if you do not have a group on campus, contact us and we’ll help get one set up. We do this because we know the power of groups to effect positive change and growth in people’s lives. We also know they are places you can land when the world is falling apart.

4. Figure out where to get your meds.

If you have been diagnosed bipolar, you are probably on meds. And you need those meds so you can survive. With that in mind, you need to find a place where you can easily get your medication. This matters if you have a car, where your insurance is accepted (if you have it), if you can do mail-order medications at the school, etc. And, figure out what you need to do when your medications inevitably run out. Having plans in place for all of this is important.

5. Exercise.

The one thing you can do to naturally boost your mood and maintain your mood is regular exercise. This does not have to be anything great or over-the-top (no need to train for an ultra marathon or becoming a professional body builder), but some exercise every day can help maintain a good mood. This is also a really important habit for you to get into for the rest of your life as it becomes even more imperative for your mood to exercise when you are older.

6. Have a bedtime and wake up time.

I know. This sucks. You are in college and staying up late and getting up late or just staying out all night are part of the allure. I get it. But I can tell you from personal experience, this is a bad idea. I made my worst mistakes in college when I deprived myself of sleep for days (when I was not manic). Staying on a schedule, at least a schedule where you sleep seven or eight hours a night, will help you maintain some steadiness in your life. It’s also important because studies have shown sleeplessness can lead to both mania and depression in the bipolar person: neither one is good or fun and both are quite dangerous. So, sorry, get some sleep.

7. Eat well… or as well as you can.

For as much as you pay for your dining plan as part of your room and board, you’d think colleges would offer much healthier and better alternatives, but they often don’t. So, you are going to be tempted beyond tempted to eat crap quite a bit of the time. And if you live off campus, that is going be a much bigger temptation because crappy food is often much cheaper. But you need to eat at least somewhat well and mindfully. And the reason is that processed, fried, canned foods can have an effect on your mood. They also are unhealthy and you probably are already dealing with enough medical issues so why tack on one more?

8. Find the right friends.

Now I sound like your high school guidance counselor. I apologize. But finding the right friends is really important. One of the biggest issues I had my first year or two of school was I had a group of friends  I thought I was supposed to be friends with – mostly because they were from the same hometown – who ultimately exacerbated my mental illness. It was not that they were bad people. They weren’t. Instead, they just did things that raised my anxiety, they encouraged my hypomanic episodes (who doesn’t want a friend who can break every social barrier in a quick second?), and they didn’t “get” my depression — or worse, they wanted me to wallow in my depression because it made them feel a little better.

I’d encourage finding friends who have similar interests, believe in similar things, and who don’t give you crap for going to bed at midnight every night and waking at 8 a.m. Even on Saturday.

9. Figure out what you can handle.

One of the most difficult things college can bring is an abundance of opportunity. That, as well as the perceived need to finish certain things in a certain amount of time (everyone nowadays thinks college will take four years when the average person spends almost five years there). The real issue for the person with bipolar disorder is you can only handle so much. When we start to push against that limit, bad things can happen. We may become manic and do all this work and more work and beyond and end up in some sort of psychotic state or we may become incredibly depressed because our brain shuts down and can’t handle it. Or both.

Find what you can handle and evaluate that every year. Your first year you might be able to handle a larger class load because the courses are simply meeting general education requirements and do not require the time that, say, an advanced biology class and lab require or calculus II does or an advanced writing seminar. The thing is, you know you and you need to figure out what you can handle. Doing so now will help tremendously as you go throughout your life.

10. Screw other people’s expectations.

If your parents think you should get all A’s while managing a maxed course load and doing band, and having bipolar disorder, well invite them to come down to campus and try. If your boyfriend thinks you should travel every weekend to come see him because you’ve got less to do than he does or whatever, tell him it is a two way street.

Here’s the thing. Only you know what it is like to live with your mental illness. I know at times I was the most productive person in the world because that’s how my hypomanic states worked. I was laser focused. Others’ hypomania makes them ADHD-like, so they can’t concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes. You have to have your own expectations and live up to those. Other people’s expectations are merely going to cause you stress and, if like me, anxiety. You can’t meet them. You can only do what you can do. Screw everyone else.

11. Avoid alcohol and drugs.

This is a tough one. On most college campuses, going out to Ladies Night Wednesday, Thirsty Thursday, Friday Night Bombs, Saturday Night Shots, and Sunday Morning Hangover Cures is part of the college experience. Going to other campus parties that have alcohol and drugs is also a major part of the “college experience.” But let me let you in on a little secret: you are probably already on a cocktail of mind-altering drugs and adding more to the mix is not safe. And it can also throw you off by messing with your other meds.

The other thing to remember about illicit drugs is they are never the same. One strand of marijuana is different than another, one batch of heroin or cocaine can be cut or made differently than the next, etc. And the way that drugs act with you and your brain can change so the first time you may have a great time but the second one may result in a terrible trip. You just never know how something may affect your brain.

12. Have fun.

My last piece of advice I’d tell myself is to have fun and don’t take college too seriously. You need to find friends who do what you think is important. Your grades are not the be-all end-all of life. Hanging out, seeing a concert, watching a movie, playing frisbee, or whatever else needs to be part of your college experience. If you don’t have fun, none of the above will matter anyway. Just make sure it is fun that lends itself to helping your mood.

Image via Thinkstock.

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5 Lies Mania Told Me (and 5 Things That Actually Happened)

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I was watching a documentary about the effects of crystal meth. One of the people with the addiction described how she (on a meth high) spent three days, non-stop, cleaning her entire house. When her high subsided, she realized she’d only spent a couple of hours cleaning a single smudge on a table. Sadly, this is the best way I can describe my mania. It can make me feel productive, and confident, and goddamn invincible. But when the episode is over, I’m left with nothing. Everything I thought I’d been achieving is bullshit. It’s frustrating. You spend so much time and energy on all these things and then what, have nothing to show for it? Nothing. It’s like running a marathon in one spot.

My mania lies to me. It convinces me to do nonsensical and potentially dangerous things without thinking about the consequences. Mania is like a drunk best friend…who’s trying to kill you.

I have type 2 bipolar and here are some of the lies my mania tells me:

1. Write your memoir. Write it. You’re writing it. You’ve written half of it already. Oh my god, you’ve written your memoir.

Truth: Wrote “nrovwndiefhui” in a Google doc.

Google doc called "my memoir" -- my content is gibberish

2. Don’t stop talking. If your friend talks, talk louder. He doesn’t mind. He loves being interrupted. Just keep talking.

Truth: He does mind and he doesn’t love it.

3. Read all the books.

Truth: Even if I did read them, I wouldn’t have remembered what they were about.

4. Accomplish all the goals from your five-year plan in one day. You can do it. It is very possible. 

Truth: Don’t even have a five-year plan.

5. If you fall asleep now, then you won’t be able to write your memoir and talk to your friend and read all your books and accomplish all your goals so do not fall so DO NOT FALL ASLEEP STAY AWAKE FOREVER. DO EVERYTHING. IT IS VERY POSSIBLE.

Truth: I stay awake, but don’t do anything.

This post originally appeared on Medium. You can follow Amanda Rosenberg on Twitter@AmandaRosenberg.

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