sketch of man's head

“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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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

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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

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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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

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Growing up in Philadelphia, I realized early on that police sirens were a mainstay of city living. Though I must say, it’s quite surreal when the sirens are for you.

In the back of the police car, I was met with a hard plastic bench that was about as comfortable as a toilet seat. The officers dropped me off at the crisis center a few blocks away. As I got out of the vehicle, the thought of running into the middle of traffic crossed my mind. Almost psychically, one officer yelled, “Go inside!” I did as he told and spent several hours at the facility wondering what the hell just happened.

Vanessa Hazzard (Photo credit: J.J. Tiziou)

People at the crisis center were loud, mad and animated. Two women were yelling at the nurse because it was ridiculously cold and they needed a pair of socks. Another man kept singing the theme song to “Sanford and Son.” That was the first chuckle I had in what seemed like forever.

When I did manage to sleep for a little, it was on a hard plastic bench, not unlike the one in the police vehicle. Fourteen hours later, they found a bed for me at Belmont.

I live with bipolar disorder. When I separated from my then husband in 2012, my symptoms were amplified. That led to my son and I moving back to my mom’s house. The dissolving of my marriage and family led to PTSD. Along with extreme bouts of mania and depression, living with both disorders was a dangerous combination of paranoia, hallucinations, dissociation and insomnia. After a severe psychotic episode, I was taken away to receive psychiatric treatment at an inpatient facility.

I had mixed feelings about being hospitalized. My previous experience, several years prior, was memorable for all the wrong reasons. I was largely ignored by the staff, and the psychiatrist and therapist I was assigned to were very condescending. And worst of all, the food sucked.

On the other hand, I needed help. I needed it badly. The outpatient care I was receiving prior to being admitted to Belmont wasn’t enough to keep me stabilized.

Along with the symptoms of bipolar disorder and PTSD, I felt incredibly hypocritical. I’ve been employed in the health and wellness industry since I was 20 years old. Throughout the years, I’ve been a group fitness instructor, massage therapist, community herbalist and workshop facilitator. These roles were more than just jobs to me. They were my way of staying healthy physically and mentally while helping others do the same. Ironically, in the midst of this psychotic episode, none of these avenues helped me when I needed it the most. I felt defective, fraudulent even, and questioned my worth as a wellness professional. If I couldn’t help myself, how could I possibly help anyone else?

Needless to say, when they announced at the morning meeting that yoga was on the schedule for later that day, I was less than enthused. I dreaded the thought of practicing yoga after all of my failed attempts over the past few months. Although it wasn’t mandatory that I attend, it was highly encouraged if I wanted to receive other privileges. So I just sucked it up and joined the class.

The instructor went around the room and asked us to introduce ourselves and to state if we had practiced yoga before. When my turn came around, I begrudgingly said I had been practicing off and on for a few years and that I’m a yoga teacher. Her demeanor went from neutral to as if she had just met a peer. At the time, her expression made me nervous because I didn’t want to have any expectations of being “good at yoga” placed upon me. But upon further reflection, the fact that she could see herself in me, a bipolar single mom in a psychiatric hospital, was quite beautiful and affirming.

When the practice began, I did my best to release any criticisms or judgments I placed upon myself. I just followed the instructions being offered without being concerned with how pretty it looked. It was a simple class with simple movements and breathing. It was a far cry from the classes I was used to, which were hot and vigorous with lots of very specific anatomical cues. This stripped-down class was easily one of the most powerful classes I’d ever taken.

For months, I was so determined to heal my mind and body with a self-led yoga practice, but my ego had a vice grip on my good intentions, so each attempt was more fruitless and frustrating than the last. This time was different. My ego was listening to a voice outside of my head for once that allowed me to be gentle with myself. For those 45 minutes, I had control of my feral mind.

The following week, the instructor returned and I was eager to be led. We used the wall for some balancing poses. One of the other patients was having trouble with a pose. The instructor asked me if I wanted to help him with it. I was nervous, but I walked him through it anyway. Those few cues I offered allowed him to safely enter and exit the half moon pose. He was ecstatic, and so was I! I’m pretty sure I was smiling throughout that entire day, and it wasn’t from the five different medications they had me on.

When I left Belmont after my 10 days of treatment, I had a renewed acceptance of myself. I’ve come to realize that riding the highs and lows of bipolar disorder means taking the scenic route to well-being. I’m optimistic that my yoga practice will sustain me on that journey.

A version of this post originally appeared on Blavity.

Photo credit: J.J. Tiziou

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