I Live With Different Versions of Myself Due to Bipolar Disorder

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I have three versions of myself.

Two of them follow me around, chained to my ankles. I drag one and then the other. I can’t release them.

One version is shadows, a billowy wisp. Desiccated skin and scraggly hair. She cries agonizing moans and constantly whispers torment in my ear. She is misery and likes to tell me how we’d be better off alone. Better off dead. But she is so weak that I’m sure one strong breeze will come along and blow her away. But she never really does go. She is resilient in her misery, that one. She is always there, chained to my ankle.

The other version of me is maddening chaos. She is vile and destructive and delights in tearing my life apart. She torments me with visions of the most brilliant parts of myself, all bathed in glory, and then entices me to say, “Yes, yes, yes,” until I can’t say yes any longer. She laughs and tells me I can do anything I want, then tries to chase me until I can’t run any more. She chases me until I stumble and fall.

I live with bipolar disorder and those are my two versions.

The third version — the one dragging the other two — is me. Step after step. Lift, drag, drop. Next.

But sometimes that motion becomes too exhausting, too cumbersome. I have to keep dragging them, these two other versions of me. I have no choice. I can’t release them, so I have to keep moving or one will take hold, and I will be the one dragged along. Lift, drag, drop.

I’ve learned to keep that rhythm in my life, to keep those two other versions of me behind me, while I do the dragging. I’ve learned how to try and rest while still moving, without letting them get ahead of me. I’ve learned routine. I’ve learned self-care. I’ve built my own army of tools, psychiatrists, doctors, psychotherapists. I’ve padded my support system with loved ones, family, friends, even strangers. I’ve added to my constant, ceaseless march with open dialogue, communication, acceptance. I have my own bunker for when the full blast detonates.

I’ve removed my own stigma. I refuse to feel shame. I refuse to feel guilt.

But simply because I refuse doesn’t mean it doesn’t sneak in — that shame or that guilt. And then one of those two versions of myself gets close enough and starts whispering in my ear, and I stumble. Just a little. And that one single stumble terrifies me.

I’ve been doing this for more years than I’ve been alive. And I’m tired.

But what if I don’t have to drag these weights behind me alone? What if I don’t have to constantly keep ahead of myself? What if I don’t have to constantly fight the two versions of myself that threaten to tear my life apart?

What if anyone fighting with bipolar disorder doesn’t have to fight alone? What if these some five hundred words I write help to break those chains — for me or for someone else?

The chains are the stigma. The burden is the silence. The struggle is unnecessary.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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When Your Family Has to Wonder 'What Will Daddy Be Like Today?'

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My wife and children live with my bipolar disorder. I live with the label, the condition and the stigma. Mostly, I live with my “selves.”

None of us has it easy. “I wonder what Daddy will be like today?” is a thought they all have, our 11-year-old boy, Rainer, his 9-year-old brother, Leo, their 8-year-old sister, Stevie, and especially the beautiful, compassionate Amanda, who has known me since college. There’s no way for me to know exactly, but it’s surely a recurring thought for them. Maybe even eight days a week.

I try to imagine all the ways it sucks for them. I’m clear on most of the ways it’s not a picnic for me, but every once in awhile even I get surprised. For example, the regret of it not being easier like it was yesterday is its own challenge. Let’s see, there are the mornings I am in the kitchen while we’re making school lunches. Yet, I am not present because I am so sad. I ask what I can do to help, knowing what would actually be helpful is if I could figure it out myself, hating that just asking took all I had.

There are the evenings when I am in the room reading to the kids before bed, but I am not all there because I have three trains of thought in my head. I imagine it to be Herculean that I keep one of them on the kids. I tell the kids I’m sorry when I can’t answer one of their questions. I was only shunting the words through my mind to my mouth. I know they must think I wish I were anywhere but with them. They are probably right. They can’t possibly know the reason I wish I were anywhere else is it kills me to let them down.

There are the times I visit my parents, and they have to guess which me has arrived on the doorstep. There’s silent and sullen Kevin, the chatty, optimistic and expansive one, or the robot trying to play a role which his programming says is expected of him. I imagine the first is frustrating. The second is scary, and the third is painful in its clear dishonesty and evasiveness.

There are the weekends, when life should be a celebration. Yet, it takes every ounce of my squeezed soul to get out of bed, and it shows. There are the weeknights, when it is well past my bedtime and I can’t put my book down, but I finally get in bed, toss and turn for a few hours and get back up at 4:00 a.m.

There is the media, which says you’re not quite doing it right if you’re not happy most of the time. Like I needed another layer of guilt. There are the (alleged) reflections of me in the television and movie characters, who are “bipolar.” I don’t feel like they represent my version of mental illness well, and they certainly don’t help diminish many myths. Why do they all have to be either wide-eyed prophets, geniuses, psychopaths or pessimists on the order of Marvin from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”?

Someday, maybe the message in the ether will ring more true for me and my young family. More like this: You are doing it well if you are honest and you continue to do your best to live with your angels and demons. You are doing it well if you always respect it is hard for you, yourself and your family and friends. too.

Someday, maybe the feeling around me when I announce I’m back in the hospital with a glitchy head will be more like #f*ckmentalillness! Here’s a wise-color bracelet with an empathetic slogan for your wrist. Here’s a cheering section. Here, look at the paper today: Washington (Ottawa, Canberra…) is all over it.

Or, and I really would settle for this, they could just stop saying, “Why don’t you try harder?” Nobody ever said that to me when I got cancer the second time. I want to hear we are doing enough if we turn up, day after day, and carry the burden of life on earth with dignity.

Image via Thinkstock.

This post originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

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The Late-Night Hours of Darkness With Bipolar Disorder

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The day is winding down. I’m thankful to have made it through my required work hours and successfully come through the dinner hour. But as the evening drags on, the bipolar disorder I live with starts to let a mountain of worries take hold in my mind.

One of the first things I stress about is finding the energy to continue building a relationship with my spouse. I do my best to have meaningful conversations with my husband at the end of the day, but often I’m so worn out that the words don’t come.  I want so badly to connect with him, to show interest in his day and to share with him the triumphs and struggles of my own. But many times I just sit in front of the television, unable to focus on his needs or let him into my world. I often wonder what he’s thinking and if he’s angry that my mind and body are absent from the life we are living in that moment. But so often the anxiety about tomorrow begins to creep in, and it starts to consume my every thought and ounce of energy. Over and over I ask myself how I’m going to get through the next day.

Am I prepared for work? Will my clients be kind and ready to work hard, or am I going to have to find the strength to handle that difficult woman yet again? Is my day going to be so busy that I’m going to be overwhelmed and feel out of control, or is it going to be so slow that I’m upsettingly bored? Are my body’s aches and pains going to allow me to teach all of the exercise classes I’ve committed to?

These are the questions that plague my mind. As the sun begins to set and the sky darkens, my anxiety shifts from the worries of what tomorrow might bring to a fear of what the night will hold. It is impossible for me to escape the memory of the evening I unknowingly triggered my first manic episode. I was having so much fun eating cookie dough and talking about boys that I never stopped to consider I was actually inviting the bipolar to make an ugly appearance. Sleep has proven to be absolutely crucial for the management of my illness, and every night I worry if I will be able to get off the wheel that goes around and around and allow my body to rest.  The anxieties that pile up over the evening hours strike me with fear and have made it so I cannot fall asleep without a sleep aid. I have tried so many different medications; it seems that each works for a while, but eventually the effects wear off. A recent medication brought nightmares filled with horror and I woke up in terror time and time again.

Many nights I lay in bed and my brain fills with thoughts I cannot escape. I lie awake for hours, knowing my worries of falling asleep are keeping me awake, but I’m powerless to stop them from invading. How do I end this never ending cycle?  I’ve come so far on this journey, and I’m grateful for the progress I have made. But I can’t seem to shake the anxiety of the night. This burden weighs heavy on my heart during the hours of darkness, and I wonder if the sense of foreboding will ever subside. Sometimes it seems that I’m so frozen with fear that I can’t find the energy to seek comfort in my husband and to ask the Lord for peace. I pray that someday soon I have the strength to stop giving anxiety such a foothold, and find the peace I so desperately need.

Image via Thinkstock.

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The Symptom of Bipolar Disorder We Don't Talk About

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According to Sexual Health Matters, hypersexuality is found among an estimated 25 to 80 percent of all bipolar patients experiencing mania. That’s not trivial or an insignificant number. There are approximately 5.7 million adult Americans, or about 2.6 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older, who live with bipolar disorder.

With that statistic, we can presume millions of people likely live with it. This symptom can be one of the most destructive and devastating. Yet, many people don’t realize they have it or that it has a name. While the symptoms of bipolar disorder are highly characterized, there seems to be little discussion on this particular topic. Why is that?

With Suzy Favor Hamilton’s latest book ”Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running from Madness” out in bookstores across the country, there has been an increased amount of discussion regarding bipolar mania. More specifically, its focus on the symptom of hypersexuality.

She writes in her book, “Being bipolar means being insatiable. The high of the mania is never high enough. There is always a desire, a need, to push the high to the next level, in the same way a drug addict constantly requires more and stronger drugs. For a person with bipolar disorder, risky behavior can be the best drug of all.”

Robert Weiss, Founding Director of The Sexual Recovery Institute, Los Angeles and Director of Sexual Disorders Services at The Ranch Treatment Center explained in a piece on PsychCentral, “Sexual addiction or hypersexuality is defined as a dysfunctional preoccupation with sexual fantasy, often in combination with the obsessive pursuit of casual or non-intimate sex: pornography, compulsive masturbation, romantic intensity and objectified partner sex for a period of at least six months.”

Hypersexuality is, from my personal experience, an overwhelming compulsion and addiction to sex and sexual content. When I’m hypersexual, I get intense cravings for sex. It’s similar to the sort of “butterflies in your stomach” feeling when you fall in love. It’s an intense high that gives me a massive boost in self-confidence. The temptation to act out is so strong I can practically feel it on my skin and taste it on my tongue. The worst part about hypersexuality is I’m never satisfied. I have to actively resist what my body is essentially trying to do on autopilot. If I’m not careful, then I’ll do something I’ll regret.

As a writer for them, I encourage you to look at bpHope Magazine for more insightful information on the topic. They are a fantastic resource when it comes to articles and expert advice on what the symptoms look like, as well as professional opinions from leading experts in bipolar disorder. With being happily married to a wonderful husband, this kind of symptom tends to get me in serious trouble. Last year, I had a terribly bad manic episode that lasted several months.

During that time, I lost complete control of myself and acted out sexually. The worst part was nothing was ever enough. I needed more and more. Nothing would satiate me. It took over my entire brain and wouldn’t let go until the mania finally died. Despite the fact that I fought fervently against my overwhelming urges, I still was constantly unable to stop myself from falling into temptation.

Now that the clouds have parted and the dust has settled, I can think clearly and work around the triggers that caused me to lose control. My husband and I educated ourselves thoroughly on hypersexuality and he has now forgiven me for my actions. Whereas I was and am still responsible for all actions I take, I understand now that my behavior was a symptom of an illness, a common symptom of bipolar mania. Armed with this information, he, my best friends and my healthcare professionals have all agreed on a strategic prevention plan to help minimize my triggers and prevent any future mistakes.

Although I do feel guilty every day for what I did, I no longer feel ashamed of myself. What happened was a terrible mistake but I’ve learned considerable information from it. With knowledge comes power, and I’m trying every single day to bring that power back into my own hands. Hopefully, I’ll regain it fully one day.

Don’t be ashamed of your actions. Learn from them and grow. If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of hypersexuality, or any other symptoms of mania, then please contact your doctor.

Image via Thinkstock.

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

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What Does Mental Health ‘Recovery’ Actually Mean?

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Recovery. It’s a word used a lot in the mental health world. Ask anyone — psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, family and consumers — sustained recovery from an episode of mental illness is what we all strive for.

However, what does “recovery” look like? No person’s recovery is going to be the same; therefore, no recovery goal is going to be the same. I have bipolar disorder, and unfortunately, I am in the group of people who don’t respond that well to medication. Medication can stop the great peaks of manic elation and decrease the time spent in the most despairing depths of depression, but for me, it is not a miracle cure, and I still get residual symptoms.

In an ideal world, everyone would love for my recovery to mean the cessation of all manic and depressive symptoms — for me to be constantly euthymic (stable) — but we don’t live in an ideal world. For that to happen, I would have to be on a lot more medication with higher doses. I’ve been down that road before, and for me, the side effects don’t allow for much quality of life.

Instead, my recovery goal isn’t to banish the symptoms completely, but to live with the ones medication can’t get rid of. In all honesty, if I did have the option to banish all of my symptoms, I’m not sure I would take it. I’ve lived for so long with ups and downs that I’m used to that way of life. For a long time, what I thought was my “normal” self was actually my hypomanic self. It’s confronting when the person you thought you were turns out to be an unwell version of you.

New approaches to recovery in mental health are person-centered, which is about what the individual person wants for their recovery. Previously it was thought that if someone with mental illness was completely symptom-free, they were in recovery. Now it is recognized that this isn’t necessarily the case. As I said previously, if I were to live a life free of symptoms, I would have to be over-medicated, miss out on the social life of a 25-year old and have a decreased capacity to work and study.

I bet I’m not alone in this scenario. What’s the point of being symptom-free if you have no quality of life? Is it any wonder some people aren’t always concordant with treatment?

Instead, a happy medium has to be reached so we can live to our full potential. For this to happen, there has to be a dialogue between you and your treating professionals as well as the loved ones involved in your care. Let your health professionals know what you want for your recovery and explain this to your loved ones so they know what to accept as part of your recovery. Having everyone on the same page can increase compliance, support and ultimately happiness.

I recently had that conversation with my family. What I want from my treatment is little peaks and troughs. Since the age of 14, I have lived with cycles of depression, so “mild” depression for me is manageable. When I am hypomanic, I function better than normal. Before I was diagnosed, I would instinctively fit my life around my mood cycles — accomplishing as much as I could when I had high energy levels to compensate and prepare for the times of low energy. This is who I am. I am a person who is all-or-nothing. I am someone who lives life fast-paced and with passion, but I am also someone who experiences great apathy or melancholy. I am not a person who sits constantly at baseline. I don’t want to get off my “roller coaster” completely, I just want to switch to a less extreme and more controllable one so I can still enjoy life and feel like myself.

Obviously this scares my family. They’re scared of the elevation turning into full-blown mania where I lose insight and become psychotic. They’re scared of the severe depressions that last for months and that can potentially kill me. However, they also want the best for me and for me to be happy. After a lengthy discussion and re-evaluating the early warning signs that indicate things are getting out of hand, we agreed on what I want from my recovery.

Having clear expectations of what you want from your recovery and letting everyone know these expectations means you can all work towards your goal together. I think the most important thing about recovery is recovering your quality of life. It’s your recovery, and as long as you are happy, functioning and safe, that’s all that matters.

Editor’s note: This is based on one person’s experiences and should not be taken as medical advice. Consult a doctor or medical professional for any questions or concerns you have.

Image via Thinkstock Images

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My Strategy for Riding the Waves of Bipolar Disorder

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At the beach as a kid, I practiced bodysurfing. One of my uncles taught me the basics: watch, wait and hurl. I probably never got it quite right, but I had fun trying. If I picked just the right moment to launch myself into the forward motion of a breaking wave, I could ride the momentum all the way to the shore.

After a while, though, all that pounding water would inevitably wear me out. Sometimes the waves slammed me straight into the sand, and I would emerge scraped and bloodied. Sometimes the salt water poured into my mouth, my lungs, and my belly. Sometimes I forgot to watch my back and a wave would catch me unaware, catapulting me into violent, unexpected somersaults. All of this probably contributed to my adult preference for lakes.

In that battered, exhausted state, when my youthful stubbornness prevented me from simply getting out of the water, I developed another strategy. Rather than leaping again into the oncoming waves, or uselessly attempting to resist their onslaught, I learned to duck.

Going under takes you to an alien world. It sounds, feels, and looks different under there. But it turns out (or at least, it seemed to me, unscientifically, at the time) that the force of a wave plays out mainly on the surface. A few feet down, your hair will swirl, but your body will not be slammed. I wrapped my arms around my knees and allowed myself to spin aimlessly underwater. For a few seconds, I felt hidden, safe from the insistent tossing just above my head.

Life feels a little bit like trying to hang out several yards from shore on a day when the surf’s up. Sometimes you ride the waves with exhilarated abandon, everything that comes your way moving you purposefully forward. Sometimes, you look out wearily toward the horizon and see nothing but cruel, chaotic body-slammers that promise to shatter you.

My recent diagnosis of bipolar disorder makes me feel like I’m bobbing in a choppy sea. Bipolar messes with your mind, changes your sense of self, and makes people look at you funny. It makes you say and do things you don’t want to say and do. It can go away for a while, but experts assure that it never goes away for good, and it may only get worse. The side effects of the medications you must consume can be as horrifying as the disease itself. Sometimes when I contemplate a lifetime with this illness, it terrifies me. It feels like I’m facing an endless series of tsunami-force waves that will pound and pound and pound, until there’s nothing left of me.

And so, I’ve returned in my mind to that childhood strategy of going under. I don’t want to just ride the bipolar wave. I can’t resist it, either. But I can duck. Going under has become for me a metaphor for that old-fashioned concept of submission. It means choosing an attitude of trust and surrender. It means saying, OK I see what you’ve got coming for me. I don’t like it, I can’t change it, and I will trust you anyway. I will duck under the waves and hide myself in the certainty that nothing can toss me from the ocean of your love.

“Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.” – Psalm 42:7

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