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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.

“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.

Image via Thinkstock.

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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.

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.

Image via Thinkstock.

This post originally appeared on Always Unstable.

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. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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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.

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.

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

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5 Traits I've Found in a Loving Partner as a Person With a Mental Illness

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You know they are out there. Those people who aren’t going to be helpful to you when you’re dealing with your mental illness. They do exist, and you need to be mindful of that.

I have dated a few men prior to marrying my now husband, and I learned over time different things I needed for my bipolar disorder in order to have the best, most supportive relationship possible. I didn’t even know I needed some of these things before I got married, but I think they truly help me combat my bipolar disorder. I wanted to share a few traits I think are important for your significant other to have in order to help you the most with your mental illness. They are good traits for anyone to have, as well, and they go both ways. Yet, I think it is helpful for people with mental illnesses to find a significant other with some or all of these traits.

1. They should have an ability to listen.  

This is a big one. If you are with a partner who doesn’t listen to you or try to understand what you are going through, it’s not a great sign. When I found my now husband, he would listen to what I had to say about how I was feeling. Now, no one is perfect, and many people want to be able to “fix” things. It took some time for my husband to realize he couldn’t necessarily “fix” me, and he had to be OK with simply helping me. Yet, after some couples’ counseling (while dating and married) and lots of long talks, we came to a mutual understanding that he didn’t always have to offer solutions. He could just listen and love me. This is important because oftentimes it helps to just be heard, even if there isn’t a solution.

2. They should have patience.

Having patience is critical, and I think this is the trait that is absolutely necessary in the person you are dating. They should be patient at all times: on the days when it isn’t getting better, when it’s getting worse, when you can’t get out of bed or when you’ve started 10 million projects over night. You need a partner who is patient enough to see you need help getting out of your mindset of mania or depression and that it might not happen quickly. You need someone who is willing to walk beside you, no matter how long it takes.

3. They need a willingness to learn and accept.

If your partner is willing to learn about your condition and if they are hungry for information on how to help and understand you, then this is fantastic. If they are open-minded toward what you are going through, then it will make it that much easier for them to help you in the long run. Your partner needs to accept you just as you are, good days and bad. If your partner stays with you only in hopes that you will eventually be “cured,” then this is not someone you want to be with. You may never fully come out of the episodes. You need to be with someone who guides you through them, instead of waiting for them to end. It is important that the person you are with not only wants to learn more about your illness as a whole, but also how to best help you battle it. Every person living with a mental illness has different ways that help them cope and heal. You should be with someone who can help you find it and learn about you along the way.

4. They should be honest.

This may seem obvious, but I find honesty (with a touch of being gentle) to be one of the most helpful things my husband brings to the table. He is able to gently question me when I’m in a bad place. He will tell me in a nice way (and we’ve worked on this) when he thinks I am starting to go into mania and that I’m taking on too much. At the same time, it is a delicate balancing act with the “listening” part. You can’t always think rationally. So sometimes honesty isn’t taken well. I do still think it is important that your partner doesn’t always cater to all of your ideas during mania or depression. Sometimes, that only fuels the fire. It is helpful to have my husband ask me directly, “Have you taken your medicine?” and things like that.

5. They should have love and devotion.                       

“I’m not leaving, no matter how hard it gets.” This is something you save for the person you decide to spend the rest of your life with. Yet, it is a trait you want to identify long before you get to the altar. Everyone says this, “through thick and thin,” but for people with mental illnesses, the thick can be much thicker and the thin can be much thinner than for other people. Having someone by your side, who will never leave you no matter how bad the days get, is a source of strength and stability as you fight through the hard days. It is challenging enough to battle your own brain without having to wonder if your partner will love you through it or if they will bail. My husband always tells me all the good days are worth getting through the days when I am not myself. He is my anchor. I owe him much of my recovery.

Dating or being in a relationship is challenging, even without a mental illness involved. Unfortunately, you may have to go through a few bad dates and relationships before you find someone worth sticking with. Once you find them, you’ll know. These traits are things to look for initially (although you can work on them once you’re in the relationship if the person is willing to learn). I’ve found them essential to keeping my marriage working while dealing with mental illness.

To all those battling a mental illness, I wish you love and happiness. Don’t settle for someone who isn’t willing to learn, understand and listen. Stay with someone who is willing to stick by you. Above all, find someone who loves and cherishes you exactly the way you are, mental illness and all.

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5 Traits I've Found in a Loving Partner as a Person With Mental Illness
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