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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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What People Get Wrong About Mania

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People often have this misconception that mania is fun, that it is exciting, exhilarating and exceptionally productive. In reality, full blown mania is exhausting, excruciating and exceptionally chaotic. Hypomania, on the other hand, can be fun for me. So, for those of you who don’t quite understand the difference, please let me lay out for you what hypomania and mania look like to me.

Hypomania can be a precursor to mania. When I am starting to get hypomanic, I do feel good. My thoughts speed up, I’m productive and I have lots of great ideas. I can stay up late and wake up early. I enjoy planning things and executing those plans.

I make a bunch of dates to hang out with friends and get a little more daring in my daily life. I make rash and sometimes bad decisions, but they are based on reality in some way and not entirely out there in left field. I can cruise through books, write for hours and create beautiful pieces of art without having any symptoms of “writer’s or artist’s block.”

Hypomania seems like a good thing, right? Life just seems better, more efficient and more enjoyable. I am creative, alive and happy.

However, there is a catch. Hypomania is unstable. It can quickly turn into a deep depression, or, for me, it typically turns into mania or mixed mania. When I become manic, there are no more good ideas. They are out of control. My ideas come so fast that before I can act on one, I switch to another and another and another.

It gets to the point where sometimes I sit on the couch with my head clenched in my hands begging my brain to stop. Then, I get impulsive. I act without thinking about any thoughts for long. I don’t think. I just react to my mind. I get out of control and irrational.

In my last severe manic episode (thank God it was years ago), I slept with a few strangers a week. I tried drugs. I drank too much, sped too fast and bought too many things I didn’t need. I made terrible decisions, and I hurt people emotionally.

The entire time I’m manic, I know what is coming later. I can’t stop my mind from derailing. I am out of control. Yet, there comes a place in mania where you reach a turning point. Yet, there isn’t a “hypo-depression.” You don’t slowly fall out of mania and gently come back down. You crash, and you crash hard. Once the mania is through with me, it hurtles me into a deep depression. That is the other dark side of the coin.

Neither one is anything you would want to have. Both mania and depression are awful in their own right. I have often found people glorifying the manic side of bipolar disorder, as if somehow it is the opposite of depression, as if everything is great, fantastic and fun.

It isn’t. Mania is full blown chaos and catastrophe. I wish more people understood this part of bipolar disorder. When I say I’m manic or I’ve experienced mania, it doesn’t mean I’ve been on a joyride. I haven’t been to the epitome of happiness. No, far from it. Mania can be destructive and terrible.

Mania is not fun.

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The Darker Side of Hypomania

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The “ups” of bipolar disorder are typically referred to as hypomania or mania. Mania can be so severe it requires hospitalization or involves hallucinations and/or delusions. A diagnosis of bipolar I means a person has had at least one fully manic episode. In bipolar II, one only experiences hypomania, not mania. I have type II, which means my “highs” of bipolar disorder involve hypomanic episodes. I don’t speak for everyone with the disorder, but here’s what this is like for me:

There seems to be a misconception that hypomania is a very positive thing, and in some ways it can be. I’m happier when I’m in a hypomanic episode. I feel like I’m walking on air, like nothing could ever go wrong. I feel productive, and I want to accomplish everything ever in one sitting. I feel really good.

But there’s another, darker side to hypomania. That’s the intense, anxious energy I feel throughout my body. The jumping from task to task, never really being able to focus on or complete any one project. It’s being filled with lots of great ideas, but accomplishing nothing.

It’s drinking a cup of coffee and then feeling like I could run a marathon with the blood pumping through my veins. Couple this with intense anxiety, and imagine trying to sit still during a class to learn.

It’s the fear of waiting for a crash to come, knowing the high won’t last forever. Knowing a depressive episode is waiting right around the corner.

It’s being emotion-charged 24/7. It’s crying during a church service because you just feel too much all the time.

It’s the constant need to be around people. It’s talking up a storm, not letting anyone get a word in edgewise. It’s tripping over your words because your brain is thinking too fast for you to speak.

While hypomania or mania may seem like joyous highs, there are a lot of challenges that come with them, too. Everyone’s experience is different, but no one chooses to have a mental illness. Mania is just one more thing I have to learn to live with.

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