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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.

Image via Thinkstock.

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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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How a Yoga Class Helped Me as a Person With Bipolar Disorder

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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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10 Lessons From 10 Years of Living With Bipolar Disorder

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I can hardly believe it’s been 10 years since I received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I wish I could go back and tell my terrified teenage self that though life would sometimes be a roller coaster of ups and downs, a bright future full of hope and joy would await me. It took a while to learn how to navigate this disorder, and the journey was filled with many twists and turns. In these past 10 years, I’ve experienced unimaginable pain, but I’ve also learned how to love myself unconditionally.

As I look back on the past decade, the following lessons have helped me cope and build a beautiful life. Read on for insight into my journey and to see if your unique experiences have taught you anything similar.

1. Make peace with my diagnosis.

I was not able to begin the recovery journey until I fully acknowledged that I was living with a mental illness.  As much as I tried, I quickly realized that choosing to ignore the reality of my situation would not make it go away. I had to learn how to be brave enough to accept that this was my life. From there, I was able to begin the hard work to make the best of it.

2. Adopt the “mind, body, spirit” mentality.

It became clear right away that if I didn’t get regular exercise and make healthy food choices, I would only serve to push myself into deeper depression. Now I see exercise as a wonderful stress reliever, and I love the energy I get from nutritious foods. In addition, I have found that I need to spend time nurturing my spirit. Praying, journaling and corporate worship center my mind and calm my soul, giving me the strength to face each day. These are things I have control over, so I make the conscious choice to take advantage of these tools.

3. Trust my mental health team.

At first, I didn’t want to admit I needed such a large mental health team; early on, they were strangers and I didn’t trust them. But as time passed, I saw that these professionals always had my best interests at heart and were there to help me. Their unbiased advice and wealth of knowledge has proven to be invaluable, and now I respect their opinion and rely on their guidance.

4. Know my triggers.

It took me years to be able to recognize what triggers my mania or depression. Now I have a good understanding of what activities or people will initiate an episode, and I make it a priority to steer clear. If these situations are unavoidable, I am extra diligent about monitoring my mood and taking the necessary steps to protect my stability.

5. Minimize idle time.

I have found that the more idle time I have, the more I begin to enter the world of depression or mania. Making a commitment to get out of the house and work, volunteer, exercise and spend time with family and friends is crucial for me. It’s not easy, but now I push myself not to fill my days with TV and Facebook, but with purposeful and meaningful activities that enrich my life.

6. Sleep is my best friend.

Staying up all night is what triggered my first serious manic episode. Since then, I have learned that my stability depends on getting enough sleep. I always make sure I don’t stay out too late and give myself ample time to rest.

7. Don’t dwell on the past.

If I allowed myself to dwell on each hospitalization, each poor decision I made during manic episodes or all the days spent sleeping during the throes of depression, I would lose all hope. I choose to focus on making the most of the present, and I believe in the promise of a bright future. I acknowledge that the past happened, but I don’t let it cloud the happiness of the here and now.

8. Cultivate community.

I couldn’t do this alone. I need people to come alongside me and walk with me on my path towards recovery. Often, it was hard to let people into my broken world, but I’m so grateful I learned how to allow friends and family to encourage, support and love me through the dark times, celebrate with me as I became stable and enjoy this life with me as I move forward.

9. Walk away from destructive relationships.

Above I mentioned how important it has been for me to have people by my side. But there have unfortunately been other individuals along the way who have perpetuated a mentality of stigma and shame. I learned that allowing these people in my life was not healthy and, when possible, to walk away from the relationship or at least limit contact. I now focus and invest only in the relationships that provide love and encouragement.

10. Always look for the joy in life.

Instead of focusing on all bipolar disorder has taken from me, now, to the best of my ability, I look for joy in all areas of my life. There are still dark days, but now I know there are always rays of sunshine to be found. No matter how small, I choose to focus on the blessings I have been given and the things that make me happy. This gives me so much hope and strength.

This list is not all-encompassing, but these main lessons are what have helped shape how I go about living life with a mental illness. The strategies listed here work in harmony to promote my stability and success. I know the next 10 years will present their own set of challenges, and the ways in which I handle bipolar disorder will continue to evolve. But I’m inspired to take these lessons and continue down the road of recovery and personal growth. I encourage you to take time to ponder what your mental illness has taught you. Reflect on the lessons you have learned throughout your journey, and use that knowledge to build your best possible future.

A version of this post originally appeared on the International Bipolar Foundation’s website.

Image via Thinkstock Images

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What We Need to Remember When Celebrities Struggle With Mental Health

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As a young adult living with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, I have experienced stigma very early on in my life. That is even before being formally diagnosed with the illness. Now that I have been stable and in recovery for more than half a decade, most people are surprised when they learn that I have struggled with my mental health. Each time, they are supportive and say they have enjoyed watching my TEDx talk. Or they express admiration for some of the community work I have done or for the awards I have received over the years. But truth to be told, things have not always been this way. And to be honest, I’ve come a long way.

As I learned that anyone can struggle with their mental health, I saw that this is no different for those who truly live with fame. And I was upset to realize that celebrities, more often than not, seem not to be seen as deserving of the same respect I’ve gotten whenever I disclosed my past health issues. And that profoundly bothers me.

We have all these conversations in the media and awareness campaigns about mental
health and mental illness. About how it’s important to be supportive and caring about one another. Yet, whenever a celebrity is visibly struggling, either by posting strange Facebook rants or by their behavior that seems erratic, then all of a sudden, that support doesn’t seem to be there anymore. The empathy goes straight out the door. People start using words like “freak,” “psychopath,” “crazy” and so on. And even worse, that public personality becomes a circus beast for the world to see and for the pleasure of the press.

Let me tell you one thing. Mental health and mental illness do not always look pretty. It’s not always flowers and butterflies. People aren’t always in a place of recovery. It’s incredibly hard to get to that place of recovery. It’s hard to maintain as well because relapses can always occur. You can never take recovery for granted. And, it’s even harder to get to that point when you’re being turned out into ridicule in front of the entire planet when you’re at your lowest. When you’re at your most vulnerable.

It sincerely bothers me. And I find this incredibly hypocritical. A lot of people seem to be supportive of people with mental illnesses only if they are conforming to the norm and walking between the margins or are “recovered.” If they get back to a place of pain and struggle, we, as a society, are quick to judge. We are quick to walk away when this is precisely what mental health and mental illness are all about: a spectrum with highs and lows. Mental health and mental illness is not just an abstract concept. It is very real and has real faces, stories and people to it.

In my case, I personally wonder every single day who, among the people who know about my diagnosis, will truly be there for me the day that I fall back again? It’s easy to be supportive when everything is in order. When it’ll be a mess, who will stick around?

So next time you see anyone — famous or not — who has a behavior that puts you off, think twice. Remember that this could be your mother, father, sister, brother, friend or co-worker. Remember that it could be you. Even if you’re not a social worker, avoid using harmful words. Refrain from condemning that person. Tell this person that you’ve noticed some changes in their behavior lately and that you are genuinely worried about them. Tell them that you trust them to find the solutions that are best for them. Refer them to a professional and offer to go with them. The bottom line is, be kind. To anyone. You never know what battles someone is fighting behind closed doors. Don’t make their burden even worse. And that applies to any human being on this earth.

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