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13 Songs That Make Life With Bipolar Disorder a Little Less Scary

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I live with bipolar disorder, which means my life is all over the place. However, one of the great places of refuge I have is music. When my anxiety rises, I turn to music. When I start to feel manic, I turn to music. When I’m depressed, I immerse myself in music. Not only do I listen to music, but I play music. The creativity and immersion in the musical world gives my mind enough release that I am able to function and focus on something else other than the pain, the anxiety and the euphoria I feel.

Now, to be totally honest, not all of these songs function the same way or have the same effect all of the time. There are some I can always turn to, but when I’m depressed, certain songs just don’t speak to me. Similarly, when I’m anxious, I can’t listen to other songs. My mental state does dictate certain things to me and that’s OK. The following are songs I consistently come back to as sources of hope, inspiration, commiseration or a combination of them all. So, without further ado, here are 13 songs that make my life a little less scary.

1. “Beyond the Gray Sky” by 311
311 is a band that has been with me since they first landed on everyone’s radar with their song, “Down.” My best friend and I used to hang out at his pool and listen to their “Blue” album. It was a summertime event. So, 311 has good memories for me. Then, they came out with “Beyond the Gray Sky” after I had been (mis)diagnosed with depression. The song is really about a lot of things, but the middle verse talks about finding anything you can to stay alive, to stay beyond the gray sky. For me, in the midst of my deepest depression, it is a clarion call to hold onto whatever is there to keep my grip on reality and not let myself slip into the suicidal ideation that is so dominant at those times.

2. “For Me This Is Heaven” by Jimmy Eat World
Jimmy Eat World is a band I have loved since high school. Their album “Clarity” still gets regular play on my iPod. My favorite song from that album is “For Me This Is Heaven.” This song is important to me because it is my wife and I’s song. In fact, she had some lyrics from the chorus engraved on my wedding ring . (“Can you still feel the butterflies?”) It’s become a song, for me, about being in love and allowing that love to be something that carries me on from day to day.

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3. “Friday I’m in Love” by The Cure
The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love” is just a fun song that I love. I remember watching the music video when I was younger and just loving it. This song opened me up to The Cure. Their music continues to inspire me because it struggles so much with themes that are prevalent in my life, like acceptance, isolation and feeling through where you belong.

4. “Over The Walls” by Earphorik
Earphorik is an up-and-coming prog/funk/jam band from Fort Wayne, Indiana that I have had the opportunity to get to know a little bit. They don’t have a music video. So the link above is to their entire album. Lately, their song, “Over the Walls” has been a real source of good vibes for me. I’ve written before on my love and feeling of belonging in the jam band community. Earphorik continues to give me a sense of belonging as I can get lost in the music. The lyrics speak of an attempt to reconcile and fix a broken relationship, something I often need help with after a bipolar episode.

5. “Tweezer” by Phish
“Tweezer” functions in no way for me other than that it is Phish’s “signature” jam song and I love Phish. It is a song that just brings a smile to my face. Since it is a “jam” song, it can take many twists and turns, going into dark territory or staying with a fresh, light atmosphere. In all, it’s just a song that gives me a good feeling.

6. “Prince Caspian” by Phish
“Prince Caspian” is one of Phish’s more interesting songs. It’s a little more low-key, and they do not often “jam” on it. Yet, it is a crowd favorite. I often feel like Prince Caspian, though, as I just float upon the waves and return to the demons in my cave (as Phish interprets the story). It’s a song that can often function as the yin to Tweezer’s yang, although the two are not really played together (except here). In all, “Prince Caspian” is a song that offers the kind of vibes necessary to express my feelings while also offering a way out when I am depressed.

7. “Hajimemashite” by Umphrey’s McGee
“Hajimemashite” is another song in the jam band world that is not a happy-go-lucky tune. In all honesty, I’ve been following Umphrey’s McGee since about their beginning in South Bend, Indiana, and this song is one that has always stuck out to me. I don’t know what it is, but it speaks to me. It speaks to me, especially as a song that gets what it is to deal with problems that come from having a mental illness. (Their original drummer had an undiagnosed mental illness at the time this song was written, and I wonder how much that played a part in their thought process). The singer, Brendan, really brings out the lyrics, “It’s all right was all I heard. It will blow away, away.” This is often what I’m told. Yet, Brendan and the music behind his voice know this is not true and that he’s been lied to.

8. “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie
“Under Pressure” is the first bass line I ever learned. (It’s the sample used in Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby.”) It’s also a song about being under pressure. It talks about being kicked when you are down and not being able to get back up. The song ends by saying, “This is our last dance.” It’s not a “happy” song, but it reminds me of the brilliance of both Queen and David Bowie, along with their ability to put their finger on the pulse of a feeling. It’s not a feeling of depression or anxiety, but of a world crushing in on you.

9. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” by U2
U2 is always an uplifting band to me. Even when they are pointing out the injustices of the world, they do so in a way that points to the possibility of good in the world. This song is one of my favorite U2 songs. It shows the struggle of life while the music makes us want to be better, to strive for more than just being mired in the world that we find ourselves in.

10. “Dear Prudence” by The Beatles

This version of “Dear Prudence” is from the movie “Across the Universe” because I could not seem to find an acceptable version of the song. I love this song. I mean, love. It’s positive, and it’s a beautiful Beatles song. It asks us to set aside the problems we face, look into the big beautiful sky and just embrace our world. It asks us to open our eyes and see, see the world that we have before us with all of its good, its bad, its flaws and its grace.

11. “Mr. Wilmington” by Lucky Boys Confusion

“Mr. Wilmington” is by the Chicago pop-punk band Lucky Boys Confusion. This song is tough for me. It’s a guy telling the father of a suicide victim that it’s not fair and he’s sorry. We hear the story of a son that got into drugs, couldn’t get clean and eventually takes his own life. It’s a sobering song that almost makes me cry every time I hear it. However, it’s also a reminder the pain I feel is real and others have experienced it. It reminds me that I need not give into it. I can’t make my parents Mr. Wilmington.

12. “Scenario” by A Tribe Called Quest
I love A Tribe Called Quest and “Scenario” is probably my favorite song by them. It’s just a song that gets my juices going. Their use of jazz, rap and other beats just make me feel good, as does the way that Q Tip, Phife Dawg and Busta Rhymes let loose on the song. It’s just a good song that makes me feel good. Sometimes, we just need those in our lives.

13. “Scarlet Begonias” by The Grateful Dead
The last song I am going to talk of is The Grateful Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias.” I think this is one of the deeper songs that Robert Hunter penned for the Dead. The lyrics don’t get me as much as the music and the way that the band explores the song. There are untold numbers of the song out there, all doing something different. This makes the song a great one for me because it always contains an element of the unexpected. In my opinion, it is also one of the most beautiful songs the Dead has. So I love listening to it because the jam is always interesting and spontaneous, and it also explores the beautiful themes already present therein. Again, it’s a song that just makes me feel good, and I often need those.

So, that’s it. That’s my list of 13 songs that make life a little less scary. I’d be interested in hearing what songs you find making your life a little less scary.

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What It's Like Being a Professional Poker Player With Bipolar Disorder

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Having bipolar disorder presents a myriad of challenges for anyone, regardless of their career path. There is no line of work in which stressful situations are entirely avoidable. Sometimes, you have to try to “look normal” (whatever that means) on days when it feels like the ground is falling out from underneath your feet. However, being a professional poker player with bipolar disorder, who spent months every year on the road, presented a unique set of challenges because I couldn’t always take my support system on the road or to the airport with me.

Even world-class players who are relatively mentally healthy sometimes buckle under the pressure built into the lifestyle of gambling for a living. Poker was my primary source of income for six years. In that time, I experienced both incredible triumphs and crushing disappointments as I walked the tightrope with my sanity (and sometimes my life) hanging in the balance.

When I was 25, I went to Las Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker for the first time, and I was beyond thrilled. It’s a dream come true for even a casual player, and as I packed my suitcase, I fantasized I’d be featured on ESPN holding my winner’s bracelet aloft and grinning for the cameras as I was surrounded by dozens of friends.

There was just one problem: I knew nobody in Las Vegas. What if something happened? What if everything went terribly wrong? Who could I talk to if I needed a friendly ear and a hug? But I wasn’t about to let anything stop me from what I knew would be the experience of a lifetime, including these concerns. I felt a slight surge of hypomania as I boarded my flight, since that was the moment it all finally felt real.

The Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino was a veritable beehive of activity. I found myself rubbing elbows not only with the professional players I’d always admired but with actors, models and athletes. The hypomania which made a cameo on the plane began to snowball. When I took my seat for the tournament and started to play, I could feel my heart beating out of my chest and did my utmost to calm myself down.

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“Just relax and play like you do at home,” I repeated in my head, but it was easier said than done. The combination of my mania and nerves got the better of me and caused me to play recklessly. Unsurprisingly, I lost. I was not accustomed to losing.

It would have been so easy for me to spiral downward into depression after a huge letdown like that. Every day of every tournament each year at the World Series of Poker, I’m sure someone leaves the casino in tears, but that day it wasn’t me. Although I felt wired and alone when I first arrived and incredibly disappointed I wouldn’t be bringing a championship title and buckets of money back home to my friends, family and newfound adoring fan base, I remembered the coping skills I’d worked so hard to hone with my therapist back on the east coast.

The first thing I did was pick up the phone. I called my friends and my boyfriend and talked honestly about how I was reacting to the loss. Every single one of them proved to be an amazing sounding board. Although they were thousands of miles away, I felt like all of them were right there with me. They encouraged me to be kind to myself. Go to a nice restaurant, see a show and maybe get a massage (but really, always, always, always get a massage.) I went to the pool with a book. I rented a Mustang and drove through the desert to the Grand Canyon.

A woman in the copilot seat of a plane.
Look! That’s me in the copilot seat of the tiny plane we used to take the aerial tour.

Only about two days later, I was feeling totally symptom-free, and I was able to play poker again. I ended up doing well. I was overjoyed at having fended off what could have been a potentially disastrous episode. Although I have a new career I couldn’t love more, I remember my first trip to Las Vegas with an incredible sense of pride. On any given day, beating bipolar disorder is so much more satisfying that beating a card game.

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The Slow Creep of Mania and Depression

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My husband pointed out to me last night that my mood right now is the worst it’s been in a while, and he was concerned. I was shocked. I didn’t notice it had gotten that bad.

Also, yesterday, my doctor asked me if I would go to the hospital. This shocked me, too. I said no, not until my disability and everything was sorted out. I had no idea it was that bad.

It’s the creeping.

The creeping. The slow rise in mood or the slow descent into misery. I never notice it when it creeps. I can notice it in hindsight but never until someone tells me. The creep into mania is gradual. Sleep is usually the first to go, the increasingly high moods rising to euphoria. Starting new hobbies and giving them up just as fast. Creeping mania is heightened anxiety, reckless spending and the constant need to move around.

Creeping depression. Slow, creeping depression is the gradual increase and sometimes decrease in sleep, the desire to sleep just so I can forget I’m alive for a while. It’s heightened anxiety. Everything becomes overwhelming. I withdraw from things and people. It’s the needing to do something but not wanting to do anything at all. Then, there’s the passive (sometimes not so passive) suicidal thoughts.

The creeping doesn’t happen all at once, which is why I don’t notice it. Other people do though, like my husband, my doctor and my caseworker. I didn’t know how bad it was until I was told. On the other hand though, if the flip happens quickly I can notice it usually straight away.

Just last week my mood went from depressed to manic in an instant. I was slow and sad but then all of a sudden I was up. I was so up. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t sit down. My mind was racing, and I felt like running, like running for miles. Then, I went to my room and cried. I cried violently because that’s the only way to do it when you’re manic.

So noticing episodes and mood switches can me be hard to do by myself. I need that extra support, someone to notice it for me. My husband does a good job of this. For instance, when I enrolled in Technical and Further Education (TAFE), he told me I was manic. I argued that I wasn’t. A month later, I dropped out of the course and finally admitted I did it because I was manic and didn’t think it through.

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This was not a solitary occurrence either. I do many silly things when I’m manic, like arguing with the Red Cross nurse because they wouldn’t let me donate blood for good reasons: a) I was on too much medication, b) If they took my blood, then it could alter my blood levels and cause a switch in mood.

We all need that bit of extra support, whether we admit it or not. My moods are so erratic. I don’t know whether I’m up or down some days. Sometimes, I just need someone there to hold my hand through all of the bullsh*t. My husband’s gotten pretty good at it by now.

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This post originally appeared on Always Unstable.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

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Why I'm Not Ashamed to Write About My Bipolar Disorder

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I recently met a young woman who had been hospitalized and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She talked to me about how she felt she had lost who she used to be and just wanted to feel “normal” again. I assured her she would one day feel like herself again.

Through my recovery, I have regained a sense of control over my life. At the time of diagnosis, I felt stripped of identity and labeled as someone who was sick. I felt I was to be avoided. I know how it feels to not feel normal and to have forgotten what “me” feels like.

Having a mental illness does not define who I am. I am not ashamed that my brain chemicals one day decided to go out of whack. I did not choose this disease, just as others do not choose to have any other illness.

Often, people with mental illness are stereotyped as unstable, dangerous and troubled. It is hard to understand what mental illness is really like if you have not experienced it or cared for someone who has. Look around you. Your doctor, teacher, pilot, actor, best friend, they could all be living with mental illness, and you may never know.

I work full time. I study at a university. I am married and have some great friendships. I was lucky enough to have had an idyllic childhood. I have loving, capable parents, and I grew up surrounded by my siblings creating happy memories. I have to believe my mental illness is purely physiological. My manic and depressive moods are caused by my brain. If I don’t believe and accept this, then I will spend my life asking like “Why?” or “What did I do?” or “What happened to me to make me broken?”

The biases we can have toward people with mental illness without even realizing it, perpetuate this sense of shame when a person is first diagnosed. I challenge you to think of what first comes to mind when you hear the words “bipolar disorder.” I write about my mental illness to hopefully reframe that picture.

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How Treatment for Bipolar Disorder Helped Me Stop Hating Myself

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It’s taken me an awfully long time to stop hating myself. I hated myself for everything: my vices, my bad judgment, hurtful words, my life. I hated everything about it.

Anxiety can root from shame, and as my anxiety continually rose, I couldn’t decide what exactly I was so ashamed about.

It wasn’t until a year after I had been diagnosed with mental illness that I figured it out. I was ashamed of something I could never control: my mind.

The urges, dark thoughts, racing thoughts, regrets. All of these things began to disappear one by one the day I started treatment.

When something bad happened recently, I kept waiting for all the feelings of self-destruction to arise, for me to start hating myself, and all that comes with depression. But it never did and here’s why:

1. I had recognized I was sick two years ago, and I did something about it. Mental illness is all too common, and so many people are too prideful to seek answers from a professional. I was totally embarrassed about going to the psych unit, but I did it because I was too afraid to tell anyone what I was going through. Now I take so much pride in the fact that I was strong enough to go through the journey completely by myself!

2. I persevered. Yes, rumors I heard about myself broke my heart. They broke my family’s heart. I broke down so many times in tears, met with so many therapists, cried to all of my friends, and kept wondering why I had to keep living. But what I did was let the bad days come, standing just as fearlessly as the good and telling myself, “I have a purpose, I have a purpose.”

3. I broke my silence. I told people my story, in the most raw way. I shared what I was going through with my family and friends. I was open about what I was dealing with instead of caring around the weight of secrecy. Without caring what people thought, I was able to let go of my shame.

4. I stopped hating myself and started to realize my purpose. I’ve shared by journey with bipolar disorder with several people, I’ve written about it, and have exposed something that shocks most – I’m a pretty “normal” person. People who have never known a person with such diagnosis often paint a picture of fear in their minds of what people with mental illness are like. I’m just an average girl, in her mid 20s, holding down a job and trying to be charitable within my community. I have loads of friends who love me and parents who are proud. There’s nothing to be scared of. And maybe that is my life purpose: to fight this stigma of mental illness, trying my best to be a role model and advocate for people who just want to be seen as normal.

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Recently, I got together with a high school friend who had just been declared cancer-free after being diagnosed with stage four cancer. We sat on her couch after years of not seeing each other and talked.

While cancer and bipolar disorder are two completely different things, we both had reached a mutual conclusion: life is so unbelievably short and unpredictable. Why struggle in complete silence?

So although I am a few days late, this is my letter to those of you struggling in silence or in the open, in honor of National Mental Health Day. No matter who you are and no matter where you come from, just know your voice deserves to be heard. Keep going, even if it means talking about something that most people avoid talking about.

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 ER Staff, From the Patient Who's Causing a Scene

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Dear Hospital Emergency Ward Staff,

When you see me in a manic high, wrestled in here by my father; or as you watch my mother, sitting with me in the waiting area, holding my hand while I ramble gibberish to an invisible friend, please remember this: I may be “crazy” but I can hear. I may be mad but I can see. I may be insane but I’m still smart.

I can see you rolling your eyes when my behavior is bizarre. I can hear you when you shout to the security guard to “catch the crazy woman” as I fly to find some scissors. I know you’re referring to me when you look at me but whisper to your colleague, then purse your lips and shake your head.

I don’t want to be running around the emergency ward in florid psychosis looking for God. I don’t want to be strapped to a gurney needing sedatives to calm the fire in my brain while I scream for the Mother Ship to beam me up.

Maybe it’s because you’re burned out, under-resourced, over-taxed, understaffed and over-stressed. But I am a human being before I’m a “frequent flyer,” the “nut case who must be on drugs,” that patient who can wait because “she’s non-compliant.”

I understand that I’m hard to understand and hard to manage. I know your job is trying; that you do your best; that you do care. But please don’t forget that just like you, I have a heart. A heart that hurts when someone judges me for something that isn’t in my control; when someone doesn’t see that really I’m doing everything I can to get well even though it doesn’t look that way.

Because I also feel when you, the paramedic who wheels me through the hospital doors, stream such soft compassion from your eyes and gently nod goodbye to me. I sense when you, the nurse whose name I do not know, rests your hand on my shoulder with such respect that dignity rises from my feet.

So please remember, even when I’m laughing like a drunken hyena, and my father paces the green linoleum while my mother strangles her panicked hands, and all three of us wait for the attending doctor, I am aware of the kind light in your face as you tell us (including me) that you wish there was more you could do but hopefully it shouldn’t be much longer. No matter how crazy I may be, I am aware. And when your heart remembers that, my heart does too.

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This post originally appeared on Psychology Today. To book Victoria as a speaker, please visit www.victoriamaxwell.com

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