close up of sheet music

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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I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in high school. I was 17 years old. I had already been diagnosed with anxiety and depression about six years prior to this newest diagnosis. All I was thinking about was the medication and the therapy and blood work. It never occurred to me that in less than five years, I was going to have a positive pregnancy test and have a baby.

In 2008, my son (I’ll refer to him by his nickname, Monkey) was born. I had a normal pregnancy and birth. Monkey had some gastric issues. That resulted in him being put on hypoallergenic formula. He also had a severe adverse reaction to vaccines, which at 7 months old led to him spending five days in the PICU (pediatric intensive care unit). I kept telling myself the mood swings were just from the stress of my child having to face medical challenges.

At about a year old, my ex-husband and I noticed Monkey didn’t like noise. He didn’t like disruption in his schedule. He didn’t like crowds and needed to be swaddled at over a year old. We got him evaluated, and he was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder. I thought it was my fault. I blamed myself day in and day out, and this worsened my psychiatric struggles.

In 2011, my daughter was born (we can call her Buggy). At 2 months old, she was admitted to the hospital overnight to be evaluated for surgery for pyloric stenosis. Luckily, it wasn’t needed, but I was then diagnosed with severe postpartum depression. It kept getting worse, and after my daughter’s first birthday, I was court-ordered into a psychiatric facility. I was put on medications because I was manic and my anxiety was so severe that my life was on a downward spiral.

That following school year, the Department of Children and Families (DCF) was called on me because the school claimed I sent Monkey to school in pajamas. It was an outfit he had worn a dozen times with no incident — an outfit he actually picked out that day. They came to the house I was living in with my kids and demanded I take every single medicine I was prescribed — despite the fact that they made me lethargic and my med management doctors were not listening to my concerns. After a while, they saw my meds were making me lethargic and said because I was “choosing” to take those meds, Monkey and Buggy had to go live with their dad.

In the paperwork from the DCF, they cited their reasoning for the custody transfer as my “severe and extensive psychiatric history.” No one told me if the DCF felt like it, they could use my psychiatric history against me. Or that while my meds might help me function, they could (simultaneously) hinder my ability to parent effectively if the doctors are constantly playing with what medications I take and their dosage.

My kids getting taken from my custody tore me apart. I felt like my world was caving in around me. As of right now, the current custody situation works for our family. My ex-husband and I get along pretty well, and we are able to do what we feel is best for Monkey and Buggy. In the future, however, I may petition for primary custody back. But until then, my ex-husband, my current husband and I all work together so we are all involved in every aspect of the kids’ lives.

It can be genuinely tough being a mommy and a psych patient. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. My kids know acceptance. My kids know compassion. My son, at 8 years old, knows how to handle someone having a panic attack. They are more empathetic than many adults I know. While it sucks not having my babies full time, I know they truly treasure what time I do spend with them. They soak up the cuddling and watching ASL videos and swimming with me.

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It is hard to be diagnosed with mental disorders when people around you do not regard mental health as a critical issue. In my experience, there are commonly two types of people you meet when you discuss your mental illness.

First are the doubters. Everything for them is always black and white: either you’re just making it up or you’re utterly dangerous. When they find out you’re depressed, they’ll simply think you’re being dramatic. When you tell them you have a personality disorder, they’ll immediately dismiss it as coming up with an excuse for your naturally bad behavior. When they see you have fits of aggression due to an episode, they’ll say you’re a threat and single you out.

Unfortunately for me, even some of my friends and family think this way. I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, with traits of borderline personality disorder. In other words, I was experiencing utter emotional instability. I have noticed the signs from years back but only mustered up the courage to seek professional help roughly two months ago. At present, I am regularly taking medications and undergoing psychotherapy.

To say the least, I am not ashamed of talking about it. Not really. But it does feel wrong that, when I learned about the diagnosis and told people I thought should know and who would understand, I have received more doubt than support. The past month felt more like a struggle with people who had the wrong idea about mental disorders, than it was a struggle with my illness.

I kept getting comments such as “it’s all in your head,” “mood swings are normal,” “everyone goes through the same thing,” “you’re just creating your own drama.” God knows how many times I had to restrain myself from just completely bursting out — and self-control is obviously not my strongest suit. Sometimes it feels as if there’s an entirely different entity pushing the buttons and controlling what I feel and don’t feel, what I think and how I react.

“Normal” people don’t frequently think of killing themselves even when they live a relatively comfortable life and have beautiful people with them. They don’t get sad and cry in a crowd full of strangers for no reason at all. They don’t physically hurt themselves in hopes of minimizing the emotional pain. They don’t feel the kind of emptiness people with mental illness constantly have to deal with. This isn’t being overdramatic. This is being sick..

The second type of people are sadly the harder ones to find. These are those who just sincerely sympathize or empathize with people like me, either because they are facing the same dilemmas or they just understand – or try to, at the very least.

I have a personal support group comprised of two close friends, both struggling with their own mental disorders. Usually, when one of us begins to feel uneasy or depressed, the others listen and are just there. We don’t exactly have the answers to each other’s problems, but we do our best to listen. Listening, having someone, knowing you’re not alone even when you feel really empty – it makes a lot of difference.

I sincerely wish everyone would try to be as understanding, and even though that might still be a far-fetched dream, raising awareness, and in my own way, writing about it, should be a helpful first step.

To everyone who knows someone going through something similar: just listen and be there for them. Try to be a little more patient even if you don’t understand where they’re coming from. This is a battle against a disorder, not against your friends. Help them win it.

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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I was diagnosed with bipolar II a month shy of turning 23. I’m now well into my 37th year. I have lived with this disease for the majority of my adult life, and I realize I don’t know what it means to be what society says is “normal.”

What is “normal?”  When I was 13 in 1992, I remember one of my religious school confirmation teachers asking the class that question, and no one had an answer, not even my teacher.

She asked us this to get us to think. To think beyond the typical thoughts of being in eighth grade as we continue to transition into adulthood. To realize what we read in our teen magazines or what we watched on television wasn’t the whole spectrum of life. She wanted us to understand not one single person is “normal.” I’ve thought about that ever since.

One day in March of 2002, I woke up not feeling what I thought was normal. It was the last day of spring break of my senior year in college, and I realized I had been depressed for many days (after months of being on a manic high). Although I didn’t feel sad, I felt angry, and I knew something wasn’t right. I was throwing things around my apartment (mostly pillows so I didn’t break anything). I was blaming everything about me on the world, and I sat down crying in the shower for no real reason.

Something wasn’t normal. It was after this breakdown that I was diagnosed with my mental illness, and I’ve lived on this roller coaster ever since.

Up until recently, I thought I had only had one manic episode leading up to the depression before my breakdown. I thought I really must only struggle with depression because I never felt a manic high like the one I had the winter before the breakdown. Besides, this must be the reason I have only been on an antidepressant, and I haven’t been on a mood stabilizer in more than a decade.

I realized I was wrong. There were a lot of bouts of hypomania I thought were my normal self, and I never talked about those with my psychiatrist (which is a whole other blog post in itself.)

But what is normal for me?

As I currently feel myself slowly going into a depression (as I typically do right before Thanksgiving), I feel like I recently got to see a bit of normalcy. For a month, I felt like a happy person, without the hypomania symptoms. When I felt a little down, it lasted maybe a few minutes or an hour, and it was without my regular depression symptoms.

I felt positive and good about myself without the grandiose thoughts I’ve had so frequently before. I could go shopping without thinking I needed everything I saw and spending hundreds or thousands of dollars at a time. My thoughts weren’t racing too much that I felt like my head was going to explode, and I could easily fall asleep without watching a rerun on television to distract me. In fact, I was sleeping a full eight hours without waking up, and I could easily wake up without being groggy or cranky.

I could even walk outside without my sunglasses on cloudy days because it didn’t seem like it was still “bright” outside. All the other symptoms of hypomania and depression didn’t seem to be there for once in years. Is that how “normal people” who do not have a diagnosed mental illness feel?

I think normal for me over the past 14 and a half years has been cycling from a depression (whether light or deep) to hypomania to depression then back to hypomania and back to depression. This is the first time in a long time I think I had a month of just being in the middle, and it felt great!

Is there such a thing as “normal?”

I don’t think so. I think normal is what you make of it. I realize normal for me has been cycling through my bipolar symptoms, and I understand that now. However, I’ve decided I want to feel the way I did this past month for a long period of time. I want a new “normal” for me.

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Dear Husband,

I know what you go through. I know how you must feel. Even though I’m not in your shoes, I can guess how difficult it must be to live with a wife who has a cluster of mental illnesses.

You haven’t signed up for this. Not today, not seven years back when we met. But you have not sighed once while I was busy making everything about me. You haven’t once told me you’re tired of my myriad of problems. 

I have lacked in decision making, being independent, being self-sufficient, being a good girlfriend, a good fiancé and now a good wife. I have also let you down emotionally because my brain undergoes so many changes in a short span of time. You didn’t want to live a life with bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety and PTSD, but in a way you are living with it.

My mood changes from depression to mania to depression again, for which I have made some of the worst mistakes of my life. Things I do and then regret doing. And it involves you in every way. 

But you never complained, not once.

You have been by my side when I have curled up and cried without reason. You have been with me when I have been so agitated and irritated, I made unreasonable demands of you. You have calmed me down when I was choking and couldn’t breathe during a panic attack. You have held my shaky hands every time something triggered my PTSD.

So, in a way, you’re living a life with mental illnesses even though I’m its host. And you are living with it still without a single day of impatient disapproval. You have never missed a doctor’s appointment, even though you didn’t have to be there. You have got me medicines and kept a schedule of it because I’m so bad at it. 

Is it too lame to call you my knight in shining armor? Well, even if it is, that’s who you are for me.

I want to thank you, for being who you are and who you have been through the years. Without you, I would’ve withered, stranded on some lost island of hopelessness. Without you I wouldn’t be who I am today — relatively less negative, looking forward to life, an overall decent human being standing on both feet. Without your constant push I wouldn’t have had the courage to start hoping for good. But mostly, without you, I wouldn’t have been able to accept myself with my diseases and come out to the world. 

I know things are going to be the same tomorrow. I know I will make everything about me. I know you will go on living with my illnesses. I know I will forget to tell you how thankful I am, or how much I love you. I know things will be back to what it was.

But even if I forget to mention it, what you must know is this: I love you for the person you are, for the person I have seen you become, for becoming my strength, accepting me and treating me like a normal person. 

But mostly, I love you for just being there even when I’m at my darkest, and turning the lights on.

Thank you. 

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