woman standing in a filed of tall grass with the sun behind her

Many people are aware of the mood swings that can be characteristic of bipolar disorder, but few may be aware of the many other symptoms that can come with it. With bipolar I disorder, there often come psychotic features: hallucinations, delusions, dissociation, etc. Here are seven features of bipolar disorder I deal with that you may not know about:

1. I never know what I can do in a day.

I have trouble making plans. Most days are fairly calm for me and I can act “normal,” but days that see a manic or depressive episode can be very unpredictable. Mania can cause me to be so excitable and euphoric that I become too busy to want to do anything truly productive. When I was still in school, these days would see homework go undone, chores remain incomplete; I was too active with other “more important” things, like rearranging the furniture or starting new sewing projects — which are yet to be finished. Days of depression held almost no activity other than a shower and periodic uses of the toilet. I wouldn’t even eat. All of these very spontaneous episodes, along with my symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic pain, ultimately ended my education altogether. Luckily, most of my days now are relatively normal, and I can make some short-term plans sometimes.

2. It can be difficult to find people who really care.

I don’t think people dismiss me simply because of an inherent callousness; it’s likely more of a misunderstanding, or complete lack of understanding. People often carelessly use the term “bipolar” in everyday language as a joke. A former boyfriend once asked right in front of me if I had been “bipolar” with him yet, as a gauge for the seriousness of our relationship. Little did he know, I was being truly bipolar with him in that very moment — I was amid a depression at that point, only made worse by that comment. Bipolar disorder doesn’t just come and go with one’s feelings and desires for the moment, or even the whole day. But misunderstanding the sometimes very severe disorder can lead people to dismiss it as nothing but the joke it is so commonly stated as. In my experience, only people who know someone with the disorder or who have it themselves actually understand how real it is when people say they struggle with it. Luckily, I am that person some people know with the disorder, and they are understanding enough to love me anyway.

3. Sometimes I hear things that are not real.

I frequently ask my husband if he hears “those whispers” or “that baby” crying in another room. He never does, of course. They do exist, though — if only to me. I once locked myself in the bathroom and called my husband to come home from work because I was certain people broke into our apartment and were rattling the bathroom door trying to get inside to get me. It may seem absurd to others who don’t experience anything like this, but to me, it is truly frightening. After the incident, I know the voices would not be able to hurt me in any way, but in the midst of it, I’m not so sure I believe it. Luckily, the hallucinations don’t always last very long, and I stay safe.

4. I can’t go out in public without my husband.

This doesn’t mean I just can’t go out alone. I have to be with my husband in particular. He’s the only one who knows how to deal with me when I dissociate and completely forget who I am. I don’t remember these periods, and I don’t even know I’ve had one until he asks me if I know my name yet and quizzes me on random facts: his name and who he is, my brother’s name, “Who is this a picture of?” etc. Luckily, he has figured out a way to handle me in those moments and loves me when I “come back.”

5. I feel like a “burden” to those around me.

As I mentioned, I can’t go anywhere without my husband nearby. If I want to go to the fabric store, he has to come with me, so I try not to take too long because I know he doesn’t like to be there. If I need new jeans — as I recently did after I had a baby — he has to take me to get them, and I get ill-fitting ones because I don’t want to take up too much of his time. Also, because of my illnesses, I can’t have a normal job, so I rely completely on my husband’s income for anything I need or want. Luckily, he’s a nice guy and will take care of me in any way I need.

medical ID bracelet

6. I have to wear a medical ID bracelet.

Like one with “diabetes” or “epilepsy” engraved on it, I wear a bracelet to let paramedics know of the disorders I have and a note to see my phone where more information can fit. The bracelet is jingly and ugly, but I can’t go anywhere without it. I can’t use a cute wallpaper of my baby because my lock screen consists of emergency information, like which medications I take. If I’m ever in an emergency situation, first responders will need to know which I take so they don’t give me something that could react badly with what is already in my system. I didn’t have it on the multiple occasions I actually did meet the paramedics. Luckily, I have one now and a phone with a screen big enough for all the information it needs to tell someone in an emergency.

7. I feel all alone.

I’ve heard many times that “you’re not alone,” because 5.7 million other people also have this mental illness, but the truth is I have met not a single one of them. I do have wonderful people in my life who love and support me, but they don’t truly know everything that I deal with. I feel I am alone. This post will hopefully help others get a small idea of what bipolar disorder is like, and maybe other people with the disorder will feel a little less alone.

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Yesterday, I woke up just like any other day. I made my coffee, took my medications and went on a walk with my dog. Nothing out of the ordinary.

I spent an hour outside drinking my coffee and smoking my cigarettes, because the night before I had gotten maybe two hours of sleep. My insomnia has been bad lately.

I wanted to put on a full face of makeup, but I ended up procrastinating and only putting on a minimal amount. I looked like I had done nothing. I didn’t even spend time picking out an outfit; I just grabbed something warm and black that would go well with my leather jacket.

I had an appointment with my psychiatrist at 10:20. I got there at 10 a.m. and sat in my car to finish my coffee and smoke one last cigarette. I was nervous. I was going to ask her for help getting my medical card. I knew this was going to be an important appointment. There was so much that needed fixing.

However, I didn’t know just how important and life-changing this appointment would be. I somehow got the courage to ask her, “Am I bipolar?” The answer was shocking.

“I’m giving you the diagnosis of bipolar II disorder.”

At first, I felt relief. My dad and my best friend had accused me of overthinking, creating something that was not there. I was happy to know this wasn’t all just made up fiction in my mind. But then, the fear set in. I’m bipolar.

Logically, I know nothing has changed. But at the same time, I feel as though my whole life has been turned upside-down. My psychiatrist knew for at least a month, and she didn’t tell me. She also didn’t give me much information other than it starts with depression and progresses. She raised the dosage of my new antipsychotic and sent me on my way.

I was in a fog leaving the appointment. I had to run errands, and even then I felt detached from the world. I felt as though I had just been diagnosed with a lifelong illness. Oh wait, I had been. When I got home, I began searching online for what this meant. Is this going to be like the movies? Am I going to get even more paranoid? What’s going to happen to me?

I didn’t have time to do too much reading as my friend had come over to hang out with me. He has the same issues as I do. He was actually able to help me realize that I do, in fact, have hypomanic episodes. He helped me realize this is something I’ve dealt with for a while.

Now, this morning, I sit here wondering. It’s heavy on my mind. I know I have an anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, ADD and PTSD. Now, I’m wondering if maybe I’d been misdiagnosed. What does all of this mean now that I’m bipolar?

I was beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, my depression and anxiety weren’t from a chemical imbalance. They were results of the trauma I had experienced. But now I no longer believe this is the case.

I feel lost; I don’t know where to begin. It all makes so much sense now, but at the same time, it’s all new. It’s scary and unfamiliar territory I’ve entered into. I feel alone. I feel like I now understand why I’ve been mistreated and misunderstood. It’s even given me an excuse to accept all the abuse I’ve been through.

While I learn how to accept this, I will also learn how to fight it. I want to have a job again. I want to be stable again. I’m determined to get back to that point. I hope there is still hope for me.

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I sometimes try to pretend I am still thin when I look in the mirror. But who am I kidding? I weigh more now than I ever thought would be acceptable to my athletic self. But the kicker is, the only part of me that is unhealthy is my brain, and my body pays the price to keep my mind working correctly.

I’ve complained and cried and clenched my fists in frustration as I try to combat the weight gain, the fatigue and the endless sleeping. Those are my three biggest quarrels. Aside from that, there are headaches and dry mouth — and I mean ridiculously dry; I wake up in the morning with my tongue essentially adhered to the roof of my parched mouth. There’s also the shaking hands, the sensitive digestive system and oily skin. I could keep going and pick out more little things that could be attributed to my psychiatric medications — and most fairly accurately. Over the years, I’ve begun to resent my medications and their side effects.

Psychiatric medications suck.

The side effects suck.

There is no way around that.

However, as I’ve given more thought to the struggles that can come along with bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses, I’ve come to appreciate one particularly important fact about my health and my medications…

At least something works.

I’ve seen others struggle with the torments of bipolar disorder — in my psychologist’s office, in my psychiatrist’s waiting room, on the streets of Seattle, in stories on The Mighty — desperately trying to find a remedy for the pain they’re in. And I remember my own struggle. I remember clinging to life by my bloody fingertips. I remember screaming into the darkness, begging for it to somehow end. I remember the raging manic highs and the desperation of the depressive void. I remember wanting to stop existing so many godforsaken times. I remember tasting hell, and then I am humbled.

I’m not where I was before my first bipolar episode. My brain isn’t quite as sharp, my body is definitely not as fit, and I have to drink lots more water (which isn’t a bad thing). I sleep for literally half the day and stay on a rigid schedule to make sure my sleeping, eating and exercise are perfectly monitored. I can’t stay up late, work out for hours, or handwrite without making some scribbles.

But you know what?

At least something works for me.

I know with mental illness such as bipolar disorder your mental state can change so much you can sometimes forget where you are and what you have. I know it can get frustrating gaining weight to stay stable, losing some cognitive function, and anything else you personally experience in order to have the healthiest mind possible. I know it can be so hard to see anything positive in the struggle. The glass often seems to be cracked when you are learning to cope with mental illness. It is hard taking medications. The side effects are hard. It seems like just one more thing that is hard to live with having a mental illness. And I know it is hard to preach the “be thankful” card when one is struggling to find the balance with medications. But, if you can, try.

I can’t speak for you or your struggles with medication. I can only speak for myself. But even in the midst of my own medications’ side effects storm, I am thankful.

I’m thankful I’ve found something that works for me. And I hope you will, too.

Image via Thinkstock.

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I felt my smile today. My cheeks widened. My eyes sparkled. A confident giggle just emerged. A sarcastic, witty statement fell off my tongue. My body was loose. I chose “provocative” clothing for the evening. A skip in my step turned into a slight twist and sashay of hips. I wanted attention. Craved it.

My previous slow wonderment was a blistering set of somewhat inappropriate questions. Firing off without my recollection. At first they were at home, a big enough space to house them all. But when we moved to the car, my husband felt like he was under attack. He gave me that look… care, concern and annoyance all rolled into one. With a loud sigh he said the three words that signal something might be awry: are you OK? The underlying tone of urgency. Of, why now. Of, now I have to stay alert, floated in one ear and out the other.

I fired inquiries as to why he was ruining my vibe. It’s a good day. Nope, it’s an awesome day. Here I am, finally, completely available to you and you can’t handle it? It’s my gift to you. In return I receive an urgent follow up set of words: are you moving fast? Fast! Schmast! My energy is fluid. Pulsing through my mind, body and spirit. I tilt my head and become a little flirty. Suggest if he is a good boy he just might get an out of this world invitation to bliss. These are not my words. But they are delivered in such a way all questions ceased. Like a dripping candle, I was sizzling his skin with my heat.

I strutted around in my cowboy boots and overly tight shirt. Certain every man in the restaurant, and later the bar, took notice. I sipped on water as if it was the finest vodka made in all of the land. I was careful to touch my husband’s face, long hair and hands. But only for a moment. A tease. I don’t remember feeling my body until he caressed me. I think I was floating above. Alternating between sensual presence and depersonalization. An awkward shift was taking place.

I motioned him to the dance floor. Stomping my boots to feel the ground was just what I needed. He draped his arms across my shoulders and was pressing into me from behind. Once again I could feel him. Our juices flowing. Our need for each other growing. A sharp, and I mean sharp, laser pierced my mind. A lightning bolt of desire infiltrated me. But, not just for my husband. My eyes darted around the room looking for another man.

Wait a minute.

Please stop this madness. This is most certainly not me, not my line of thinking. I break free and dance with wild abandon. Maybe if another comes to me it’s not the same thing. No initiation on my part. Trouble is, we were watching a solo acoustic singer songwriter. My husbands hands held me still. Perhaps reminding me wrong place, wrong time. I couldn’t stop moving. He hugged me and asked if I needed some air. I needed to be set free! This fierce drive was nothing I’ve ever felt before. I was alive. Awake. Fuck wonderment. This was decadent curiosity. This was out of bounds and enticing. Modest caution out the window.

My wise husband misses no signs. This was not his self-effacing red haired freckled faced shy wife standing next to him. He held me close, but didn’t smother me. At first I resisted. He whispered he loved me over and over. We made our way back to the car unscathed. My body electric. The moon and the stars, warm dog days of summer nights ignited my insides. Typically my particular cocktail of meds ushers me to bed around 9:30. I was up well past 2 a.m. Brilliance encapsulating me. The race of ideas with no context or goal ricocheted around the room. They skidded along my blank page but left only an indiscernible mess. I reached into the cavernous black hole of my medication shelf and pulled out the bottle “for emergencies.” It wasn’t critical mass, but maybe on the cusp. This newfound me felt risky. Exhilarating. But still risky. I washed them down with some shame, guilt and unsung empowerment. It’s for the best I told myself.

Late morning here I sit. Trying to piece it all together. I missed the signs. I just thought, for the first time in a long time, I was out in the world. Being seen. Being heard. In my body. And I was, for all the wrong reasons. It wasn’t me embracing myself. I was succumbing, unknowingly, to symptoms. I think there might be a difference.

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Since the onset of bipolar disorder, I have used music as a form of auditory medicine for my mind. A healthy, yet powerful way to self-medicate.

These self-inflicted sounds are friends that sometimes validate my mind-state. The visuals’ pace elevates with overlapping imagery, one annihilating the next. Music matches my mood, aggressive and full of rage. Nobody relates, but the melodic mash of moans and guttural tones finds a way to validate my thought-scape. I am at ease.

Other days I fear my mood will leap off a cliff, pushed by a song or a riff. I turn my back on the sounds that once soothed due to fear of an afflictive fall.

Tears then weigh my face. This time to a nostalgic place. With stained skin I listen again. The colorful sounds lift me to a higher state. A smile forms, my frown is gone. If but for a moment I am calm. 

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Anxiety and paranoia have troubled me for as long as I can remember. This fuels feelings of inadequacy and little, if any, confidence. With my recent bipolar disorder diagnosis I have, fortunately, come to terms with it. However, having my first full time job in two years provides a strange dichotomy. The dichotomy lies in relief of employment after two years of almost none, to now anxious about where this will lead me and what the future holds.

A major characteristic of my anxiety stems from my prior days as a professional musician. I was constantly put on display and instilled with always having to push myself. Ironically this drive to push myself happened to be fear-based. I’m always striving to do better but am always looking over my shoulder terrified of what others think. On top of the constant worry about how I performed I felt like my parents were living vicariously through me. This way of living and being perceived accounted for much anxiety and paranoia. Essentially the anxiety makes me feel empty and without purpose, to compound the fact that always looking over my shoulder “proves” I’m being judged and not good enough.

Friends and family find this hard to understand. It’s a vicious cycle of explaining myself but feeling worried about what they think of me. I still get the perception that I’m on display.

Pendulum swings are a major description of how my anxiety/paranoia manifests itself. Basically the pendulum swing is analogous to second-guessing myself. I strive to be something but am afraid of failure because I already feel I’m on my second strike in terms of career endeavors. I don’t want to strikeout, I don’t want to reinforce my own inadequacies, so I ponder, which furthers the anxiety. It gets to the point on occasion where all I do is work and sleep. I don’t think about aspirations and perceptions. I honestly cannot express feelings of anxiety/paranoia because being labeled as a morose and fearful purpose will only perpetuate the above feelings.

Sarcasm, wit, humor and coming up with jokes are what I put out there for people to see of me. I strive in being an enigma to others, hiding my feelings about them and more importantly myself. But you see the vicious cycle? The pendulum swings? I worry people can see through all of this thus figuring me out.

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Thinkstock image by stevanovicigor

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