How I'm Thriving With Bipolar Disorder

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“You need to lower your expectations for your life.”

By the time I first heard this, I had already graduated from law school, passed the bar exam, earned a master’s in public health and published my first book. I was 29 years old.

The woman encouraging me to expect less of myself was an outtake counselor charged with helping patients reintegrate into society. In my case, I had just spent roughly a week as an inpatient in a locked psychiatric unit where I had been diagnosed with the most severe form of bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression.

The counselor was not a psychiatrist or a psychologist or a licensed clinical social worker. Her office wall boasted a certificate that resembled something you’d encounter at a nail salon. I knew she wasn’t qualified to make any such assessment, and even if she were, I knew better than to believe her. I was raised to expect more of myself, even and especially when the world – whether because of my gender, nationality, skin color or any other such nonsense – expected less of me. Bipolar disorder fell squarely into the “any other such nonsense” category as yet another baseless reason people might think less of me. So my response to the suggestion I lower my expectations was firm and immediate: “Girl, raise yours!”

Since then, I have published a memoir about my experiences with bipolar illness and become an outspoken advocate for the rights of those living with psychiatric conditions. Along the way, I’ve met many others who share my diagnosis – some disabled by it, others not. Invariably, the key distinction between these two camps is acceptance.

While psychiatric disorders account for some of the leading causes of disability worldwide, with depression now topping the list, these conditions are not nearly as inherently disabling as the scorn and stigma surrounding them.

I know this from personal experience, but even more, I know it from the experiences of all the desperate mothers who have ever broken into tears while handing me a book to sign. They show up at every event, without fail, and their stories are all different, but also the same: grown children who will not accept their diagnoses, whose lives and families are being torn apart as a result, who fail to receive the treatment they need – not because they are stupid or stubborn, but because they fear the very real stigma that accompanies a label like bipolar.

Wednesday, March 30 marks World Bipolar Day, an initiative started in 2014 and aimed at challenging this stigma by changing global perceptions about what it means to have bipolar disorder. Spearheaded by the Asian Network of Bipolar Disorder, the International Bipolar Foundation and the International Society of Bipolar Disorders, World Bipolar Day falls on the birthday of Vincent van Gogh, who scholars suspect struggled with the illness.

While I tend to cringe at the concept of a day for everything (I’m looking at you, National Frozen Food Day), not to mention the idea of reliable posthumous psychiatric diagnosis, I understand the impulse here. People don’t like to talk about mental illness. For God’s sake, we still call it “mental illness,” as though the brain weren’t a fundamental part of the physical body. Given the prevalence of this colossal oversight, not to mention a grossly underfunded mental health system that relies heavily on condescension, coercion and incarceration, it’s hard not to support any day that might bring more attention to brain disorders.

But we need to do more than draw attention to the issue. We need to transform the way we view “mental illness,” not merely as a kind of clinical disorder, but also as an alternative – not necessarily inferior – way of thinking and being. I’m not saying these disorders aren’t serious or don’t require treatment. They are, and they do. Those of us living with bipolar disorder, for example, face a much higher risk for suicide than the general population.

Still, whatever the specific diagnosis, there remains something extraordinary – and yes, valuable – about a mind that works differently. For all the problems that may accompany a condition like bipolar disorder – and I assure you, there are many – there is also an upside. Just as we can experience certain extremes of mood and thought that others do not, we can also see certain solutions where others cannot.

My solution to dealing with the stigma surrounding bipolar disorder, for example, has come from the application of a hard-won skill earned from experience as a perpetual minority: an acute aptitude for adaptation. As an Iranian-American Muslim feminist living in the American South, stigma and prejudice are not new to me. I know from experience they are often the misplaced and unfounded result of others’ deep-seated insecurities, so I refuse to let them dictate how I live my life. More than any medication, it has been this mentality that has allowed me to thrive with bipolar disorder.

Having a psychiatric condition means you have an illness that requires treatment, nothing more. It doesn’t mean you are incapable or ought to lower your expectations for your life. Rather, it means you are uniquely capable and ought to raise the world’s expectations of you.

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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What It Really Means to Be Managing My Recovery From Bipolar Disorder

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“How are you?” you ask.

I provide the customary, “I’m all right.”

But I’m not all right.

I want to tell you I’m tired. I’m exhausted.

There is no cure. There is no respite.

There is management. There is recovery.

Bipolar Disorder requires a lifetime of recovery and management, and I am a recovery newborn. I have yet to learn how to crawl – much less roll from my back onto my stomach for recovery “tummy time.”

Even with management, the “highs” and “lows” still exist. I still fall into the depths of depression. I still take the hypomanic rocket sled that shoots me into the sky and above the clouds. Then, just as quickly, the sled falls and plunges into the ground.

Management may not prevent the highs and lows and transitional swings, but it can minimize the aches, pains and bruises of the “bipolar wild ride.” And still, there are moments of calm equilibrium.

Management is the mechanism used to achieve the goal of continued recovery. Sustained management is difficult. It’s tiring. It’s tiring to keep the quiet storm inside from manifesting and smothering progress. That’s why it’s called management. I’m managing my recovery.

Recovery is exhausting. It’s a struggle to stay focused throughout the day, to stay on track everyday. Especially when the beasts of bipolar ascend from their deep caves in an attempt to snatch the helm and run recovery’s ship ashore. It requires a white-knuckle grip to hold on as the beasts jump upon my back and latch onto my limbs, attempting to push me into hibernation.

There is a longing to pull the sheets over my head, to sleep, to drown out the world, to shield myself from the dark storms raging in my mind, to hide from the howling creatures lusting to draw and quarter me from within.

I am exhausted.

I am bruised.

I want nothing more than to succumb to hibernation’s inviting call.

Yet, I manage to find the strength to push myself out of bed. I try to be present throughout the day. I put on my smile when I really don’t want to. I socialize because I have to. I pull the management tools from my recovery backpack but my hands are clumsy and I question whether I have the energy required to effectively use them.

I want to tell you I am struggling.

I am fighting.

And I keep moving forward.

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What 'I'm Tired' Can Mean When You Have Bipolar Disorder

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Yesterday I fell asleep in a bathroom stall. One moment I was trying to hide from colleagues, the next, I was waking up from a 30-minute slumber. I was tired, and this made me scared.

The last time I fell asleep in a bathroom stall was just over two years ago. It was a rough year, full of crying and self-doubt. The bathroom became my safe haven; in the
bathroom I could hide from my boss and find some sort of piece in the office. That day I had walked in intending to spend a few minutes to regain my composure and then go back to my desk. An hour later I was picking myself up from the floor. I had fallen asleep: my body’s first warning that I was “tired.”

What soon followed were days of fighting to go to work. The moment I stepped out of the shower, my body was ready to go back to bed. It was as though my mind and body fell out
of sync. My mind was racing, painting pictures of death and depression. My body was slow and calculating, as though preserving energy for a fight to come. With seemingly no warning, I found myself in the midst of a major depression. My fatigue: a sign an episode was fast approaching.

Even with this knowledge at hand, I still find it difficult to express the idea of an approaching episode. I still say “I’m tired” or “I need to sleep early today,” instead of
saying I’m afraid. I’m afraid I am fast approaching the drop in the roller coaster called bipolar II disorder. I’m afraid my voice will become trapped behind the walls my mind builds. I’m afraid this time I might give up fighting and let the illness win.

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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10 Things I Want to Clear Up About Living With Bipolar Disorder

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Just like many mental illnesses, bipolar disorder is largely misunderstood. Here is a list of the common misconceptions I have noticed since being diagnosed:

1. It’s not just changing your mind on a topic.

I hear it all the time. “I’m so bipolar right now! I can’t make up my mind.” That’s not what it means to be bipolar. Bipolar disorder is having uncontrollable shifts in moods, going from manic or hypomanic to depressed, or a mix of the two. It’s not a choice. It’s a real illness.

2. You can’t just “get over it.”

It’s not something a person chooses. Bipolar disorder is an illness. You wouldn’t tell a person with another condition to just “get over it.” That’s just not how it works.

3. We don’t have control over our moods.

Sometimes we know when it might happen if we know some of our triggers, but we don’t always know. It causes us to act differently, sometimes even irrationally. If I had control over my moods, then I certainly would not choose depression every few weeks.

4. Hypomania is not better than depression.

Sure, I can get a lot done when hypomania hits and I feel like I have all the energy in the world. I also get reckless, putting myself in danger or even my family by spending excessive amounts of money. Besides that, bipolar disorder works in cycles, so we always know after the mania hits, the depression will come soon after.

5. Taking medicine doesn’t make it all go away.

Taking medication absolutely helps, if you’re lucky enough to find the right cocktail of drugs. Psychiatric medication does not cure the illness. It simply curbs the symptoms.

6. We’re not being lazy.

Part of my treatment involves not working more than 25 hours per week. It has greatly reduced my stress and helped me gain some control over my life. If I could work a 40-hour work week, then I would, but I need to take care of myself first and foremost.

7. It’s not an excuse.

Sometimes I can’t go to work because I just don’t feel up to facing society, let alone being in my own skin. I’m not being lazy. I’m just trying to survive.

8. Having bipolar does not mean you’re artistic.

I wouldn’t say it’s cool to be diagnosed bipolar, but I also would not say that there’s anything wrong with it. It just is. Mental illness does not discriminate, and it doesn’t happen in just those who artistic.

9. I’m still capable of being rational.

One of my biggest fears coming out about my disorder was that people would not take me seriously. It has happened though, where I get upset and someone says, “You’re just having an episode.” No, I am having human emotions. My whole life is not about my illness.

10. It doesn’t mean we don’t love you.

I can be hard to get along with. Sometimes, I feel like I’m right and everyone else is wrong. Sometimes, I just can’t stand talking and I snap on anyone who speaks to me or even looks at me the wrong way. I don’t mean to be a pain. I still love you, even when my illness takes control over me. Those are the days I need my loved ones the most, and it means everything when I realize they’ve all been there for me through my ups and downs.

Related: Mental Health on The Mighty Podcast

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Despite My Bipolar Disorder, I'm Not Afraid of Becoming a Parent

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I live with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. And I am not afraid to become a parent one day. Here’s why.

I have heard time and time again that deciding to have children while living with a mental illness is hard and irresponsible — that it just should not happen. While I definitely respect people’s own choices about deciding to have children (or not), I personally believe my illness and the experiences I have gone through will make me a better parent instead of the opposite.

I have seen my own parents raise five children. I have four younger siblings. While neither of them have never been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, watching their strength, no matter what life would throw at them, gave me faith I can overcome almost anything in life. Both of my parents have given me great tools to walk my own path in life. It wasn’t perfect, and it still isn’t. But I know in my heart they did the best they could with what they had. And I accept the good and the bad they have given me as a legacy.

It is true I have not always felt this way. But I do not see why I should refrain myself from having the same dreams and aspirations as anyone else just because I live with a diagnosis. I refuse to not even consider trying. I refuse to see myself as doomed.

My disorder does not define me. I am not bipolar, I live with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. And I have clear memories of the child and the teenager I once was — a person I’d give a big hug today because she was such in distress. I made a promise to myself to always remember that kid. Because I recall feeling even more hopeless whenever an adult would dismiss my feelings simply because I was not 40 years old. I made a promise to always remember so I cannot forget where I came from and the path I have taken over the last few years.

Now that I am managing my illness, I keep in mind that I must never take my mental health for granted. I have learned to know myself and recognize the red flags, my red flags. I know my strengths, my ability to ask for help and more importantly what makes me more vulnerable. I know who I am. It has been a long process, and it is never-ending. But I have never felt more solid, calm, loved and happier than I do now. In the past few years, I have taken the time to do anything I wanted to do. I have decided I did not want to live my life for anyone else but me.

If life gives me the blessing of having a kid one day, I hope if I embody everything I have just explained to you, I can be a great example and a great mother. That my disorder will make me more sensitive, alert and actually more capable. From the bottom of my heart, that’s what I want to believe.

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A Day in the Life of a College Student With Bipolar Disorder

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Alarm goes off. It’s hard to get up, the effects of my mood-stabilizing medications causing me to feel more drowsy than the average college student – after nine hours of sleep.

I have plenty of friends who sleep only a few hours a night and skip breakfast. I can’t afford these things. I make myself a bowl of oatmeal and peanut butter, knowing if I don’t start off with a balanced breakfast, I’m more likely to restrict or binge later, the lingering habits of my past eating disorder still threatening to ruin my day if I’m not careful.

Next, I go to class. I struggle to focus, the professor’s words often in one ear and out the other. If I’m stressed, intrusive thought obsessions and mental compulsions distract me during the seminar, causing me to be in another world of my own. One filled with anxiety.

Other days, I’ll be launched into the past, where I ruminate on prior events and feelings, almost as if they were a part of my present. I might even dissociate out of the room, the obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) making learning a lot harder.

Not to mention there are my emotions — if I’m feeling hypomanic, I bounce in my sit and my thoughts race. I struggle to sit. If I’m feeling depressed, negative thoughts bombard my psyche as well as physical exhaustion. Occasionally, all is calm in my mind. But most of the time, there’s some sort of distraction that takes me far away from the classroom internally.

After class, I know it’s time to do some homework, but I can’t bring myself to focus, not when my mind has worn me out. I want to just draw in my notepad, using markers to take my stress away. So usually, that’s what I do for a little bit.

I later grab a meal with friends, the socialization always a mood booster for an extrovert like me. Eating is sometimes a struggle though with my eating disordered past. I struggle with under-eating and sometimes even over-eating since entering recovery from anorexia. It’s easy to end up on the other end of the spectrum, but I try my best to focus on enjoying time with my friends rather than the food.

I give homework another shot, pushing my obsessive thoughts away. I’m successful for a little bit, but if my energy is high because of my bipolar disorder, I must take frequent breaks to focus.

Next, I see my therapist for the second time this week. We have a good session, but I leave feeling overwhelmed by my own thoughts and emotions, yet at the same time I feel relieved to have gotten away from campus and worked through certain issues. She gives me coping skills to get through the next trigger or intense wave of emotion.

Since it’s Friday night and I’m 21, my friends would like to go out to a bar. This is where my night goes one of three ways: 1) I don’t drink and I have a good time with only mild mood shifts. 2) I drink (a lot) and I have a great and manic time. 3) I drink (a lot) and become super depressed and regret everything. Tonight I choose the first option, initially annoyed I can’t drink like everyone else because of my bipolar and addictive personality, but relieved by the ending of my night, knowing how things have gone in the past. I have fun with friends, I get to be out in the city (I go to school in Washington, D.C.) and I take my medications before I go to bed. I wake up the next day, hangover free.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our 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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