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What You Can’t See About Living With Bipolar Disorder

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There are so many things people don’t see about living with bipolar disorder.

No one sees the anguish of knowing you’re cycling and feeling helpless to stop it. No one sees the crushing weight of the depression. No one sees the drug-like euphoria of mania.

People don’t see you curled up in a ball on the edge of your bed as you hold your pill bottle in your hand, trying to convince yourself not to take them because you just can’t take life anymore.

People don’t see the shame spiral you fall into when you wake up from the mania haze and see the path of destruction you’ve left behind.

People don’t see how deeply sorry you are and how you’d give anything to not be like this.

No one sees the difficulty of having to explain you really are sick, even though you look totally healthy. Or the shame that can come along with looking totally fine, yet being broken into a million little pieces on the inside.

People don’t see the internal struggle, the often daily internal struggle of living with this. Sometimes it feels like things will never be right. When you’re feeling great, you have to worry if it’s mania, or if it’s not mania, you’re worried about how long it’ll last. Then when you’re depressed, you have to try and hold on to the hope that there will be brighter days ahead, even though your head is messing with you and screaming that there will never be a light at the end of this tunnel.

No one sees the tears because you get tired of sharing them. No one sees the haunting sadness because you don’t want to scare people away.

People see the beautiful smile, and hear the, “I’m fine,” and leave it at that.

On the other hand, people don’t see the compassion, the sheer empathy, and the love people with bipolar disorder have for humanity.

We struggle, so we are more in tune with others’ pain and want to alleviate it.

People don’t see the absolute genius in our brains, usually because we’re too disorganized to bring it to fruition, or too scared of failure, or for any other number of reasons.

People don’t see enough stories of hope in bipolar disorder. They hear the horror stories, the untreated souls who are struggling and think that’s all that’s there.

There is hope. Medications aren’t fun, but they can bring you peace and relief from the dark roller coaster ride. Therapy can help you understand yourself better and give you practical skills to use when you’re struggling. Maybe what people need to see is how hard people with mental illness work to improve themselves.

It’s a long uphill battle sometimes, but it certainly doesn’t have to be a death sentence. And people can’t see that without help.

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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The Guilt That Comes With Bipolar Disorder

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“Just try and be happy.”

“It’s all in your head. Just focus on the positives.”

“What do you have to be sad about?”

If you live with any mental illness, then you have likely heard these statements before. Although the person saying them is just trying to be positive, you know as well as I do they do not always bring positive emotions.

I feel guilty every day I struggle with bipolar disorder. There are some days when I am on top of the world. I feel like I can do any and everything. On those days, I like to get out. I enjoy being around people and socializing. I want the company of those I love.

Unfortunately, those days have always been limited for me. My “highs” come in spurts, while my “lows” tend to linger longer than I would like. I push through them long enough to be at work and talk to the people I have to talk to. However, once I punch out at 5 p.m., I shut off.

Most days I go home and lay in bed watching whatever show I’m binge watching at the time. Some days, I sit on my porch thinking of all the projects I’ve left unfinished, all the plans I’ve canceled because I couldn’t leave my bed, all of the things I’ve done or said that have hurt the people I’m closest to. Then, I think of all of the times I didn’t see my family and friends because avoiding them is easier than having to answer a millions questions.

“Why are your eyes so dark?”

“You look so thin. Have you been eating?”

“When is the last time you slept?”

“Have you been feeling well?”

Even though the questions stem from genuine concern, no answer I give will ever be the right one. Then comes the guilt. I can lie and tell them I have been fine, I have a headache or I just tossed and turned all night. When in actuality, I haven’t eaten or slept in days. I have been crying for hours over absolutely nothing. I feel like my world is falling apart around me.

But which is worse? Protecting them from the truth or making them worry about me to the point that they lose sleep and my mental health consumes their every thought? Either way is a losing battle.

I did not choose my mental disorder. It chose me. It crept in and overtook my every thought. It has left me feeling lonely and in the dark. It has beaten me down while whispering in my ear how unworthy I am. How there is no light at the end of this dark and unmerciful tunnel.

I have never felt alone though. Even at my loneliest, I know there is an army of support standing beside and behind me ready to catch me and hold my hand as I walk this path. No matter how comforting that may be, I still feel so guilty. I feel guilty that these people I love and who love me, have to see me at my lowest.

I feel guilty for the sleepless nights and constant fear I may one day completely lose myself. I feel guilty for the burden I feel I am. I feel guilty that the ones I love have never considered me that burden. I feel guilty I do not spend more time with my family. I feel guilty looking them in the eyes and lying to them. I feel guilty telling them I am falling apart, spiraling out of control. I feel guilty I have this wonderful life, so full of love, and I am still so sad sometimes, most of the time. I feel guilty I have to force a smile that should come so naturally.

When I am at my “high,” I feel great. This also makes me feel guilty because I have made so many worry about me when I was enduring my “low.” My mind is at a constant battle with itself. Some days are better than others, but that voice is always there. It may be quieter on good days, but I can always hear it, whispering in my ear, reminding me that it is never far away.

So even when I’m happy, even when I am as high as the clouds, that guilty voice is always close. Sometimes, when I look in the mirror, I can even see her, looking back at me with those dark eyes, waiting for me in the deepest and darkest corners of my mind.

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How a Nurse's Distorted View of Mental Illness Helped Me Accept My Own

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We had made it out of ICU. My father was approaching his third day post open heart surgery, and they had transferred him to a “regular” room. Not only was this relief in that he was on his way to recovery, but the couch in this room was somewhat larger for me, and the interruptions from the treatment team came less frequently through the night. I was happy.

Up until this point my father had had little interaction with the medical staff being that he was constantly sleeping and on a breathing machine for most of his time in the ICU. Now feeling much better and able to take his medicine via pill form, my father was able to engage with the nurses and doctors in his usual jovial manner.

The first nurse on shift to take care of my dad came bouncing in with a grin ear to ear. She picked up his chart and looked over it once and twice making sure to not miss any important information. “How are we feeling, Mr. Molberg?” she said in a cadence with a hint of former cheerleader. My father smiled and made a joke about not being able to escape with all the monitors attached to different parts of his body.

“Let’s see here, you need this medication for blood pressure, and we need you to continue taking this one for pain, OK?… Also, it seems you take Wellbutrin from your primary care doctor.” She squinted her eyes and curled her mouth while she formed her next sentence. “Wow. You are on an incredibly high dosage. Are you trying to
quit smoking or something?”

I immediately glanced at my father and saw him try and find the words. “I have bipolar disorder” suffocated him and cracked at his teeth like a mouth full of rocks. I wanted to jump in and save him from harm but instead stood there with my mouth gaping open as she shrugged her shoulders and bounced out of the hospital room.

My dad didn’t seem to care too much, but I began to apologize for her profusely. Where was this coming from, and why wasn’t I able to defend or even explain my father’s illness? The shame burned deep within my chest, and I never thought this inconsiderate and poorly trained medical professional would be the one teaching me a lesson in self-acceptance and learning how to talk about one’s own mental illness.

One year after my father’s heart surgery he died by suicide. I lost a piece of myself, and I began to deteriorate. I was fortunate enough to know I needed to seek help with my grief and what had begun to be a daily struggle with depression and anxiety.

Standing in line at the pharmacy with my brand new anti-depressant prescription, I began to hear the innocently judging and misinformed voice of my father’s nurse. I knew I needed to own my mental illness and find the correct language to discuss it in safe spaces with others. I knew I wanted to educate others on the damages of shaming those of us that struggle with mental illnesses.

I am grateful for the distorted view of that nurse because maybe she created a space for me to begin to accept my own mental illness. She gave me a glimpse into the misunderstandings of individuals who do not have any experiences with mental health and stigma that injures the community and allowed for my own compassion to grow. While I lost my father and every single day is a struggle, while even sometimes my slow and gentle breath hurts to my core, this woman’s misunderstanding gave me a greater understanding and gentleness with myself.

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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Mentally Ill Lives Matter, Too

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Another human being with a mental illness lost their life in a senseless way. The reason I use the word “human” is because that’s what Michelle Shirley was, a human. Instead she was gunned down like a wild bear who infiltrated a residential community. Why are we here, yet again?

Michelle Shirley, an educated young woman of color, was spotted driving erratically down a southern California street when police began to chase the vehicle. After everything played out and her daughter had been killed, her mother, Debra Shirley, said something eye opening about how police should and could have dealt with the situation: “I really feel like police are not equipped to deal with mental illness in the field. Shoot the tires or disable the car.” Makes me wonder, why didn’t they shoot the tires?

Michelle Shirley is one of a number of victims who have been shot and killed by active duty trained police officers. I thought the objective was to deescalate situations, not kill the person dead on the spot. She didn’t have a gun, it appeared no one was present in the car with her. So what was going through the mind of the police officer who fired the shots? The same question is asked about Dontre Hamilton.

“Mental illness needs to be talked about more. Awareness needs to be spread and the illness needs to be destigmatized.” That’s what everyone says when a person with a mental illness is killed at the hands of police. But what are the chiefs, aldermen and community leaders putting into action so that the cycle of ignorance will not continue to perpetuate itself? We are tired of seeing senseless killings of those affected by mental illness. I said “we” because I am affected by mental illness first hand; I live with severe depression and bipolar type 2. I am more so depressed more than I am manic. I only reach hypomania, which is right up under full blown mania.

Why not seek to provide education and the integration of public safety with the mental illness community? Because (sarcastically speaking) in a minute I’ll be starting a movement called “Mentally ill lives matter.” Why not? Black lives matter, now Blue lives matter (police). Well mentally ill lives matter just as much as any other demographic. As an In Our Own Voice public speaker for NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), when needed, I go around to schools, police academies as well as police stations, churches and other businesses to inform the public of who we are. I seek to get my story out, share knowledge and give first hand experience of how I’m affected by mental illness. Changing people’s perception of mental illness and those it affects is personal for me, rewarding, as well as a piece to the puzzle I can add to help end stigma.

This young, educated woman of color, who was trying to beat the odds, was gunned down. There could have been a different outcome instead of resolving the issue with bullets, as if she was a wild animal. Yes, she was out of control, in danger because of her actions, but she by no means deserved to die. Collectively, on a global scale as well as communal, we need to do better. I feel for this young lady, for many different reasons. But to conclude, the number one reason is that it could’ve easily been me.

#Sayhername #MichelleShirley #endthestigma

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The Truth About Mania

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I think many people relate to depression. Many people have fallen into the dark pit of despair and managed to climb out of it. I don’t think, however, people really have a grasp of what mania is like.

Mania is incredible. Yet, it is destructive. Mania is the highest high of your life. Yet, it’s also a cliff, and you just jumped off into the abyss.

People think mania is just happiness, giddiness and euphoria. While those emotions can happen at the beginning, it doesn’t stay that way. Mania also includes psychosis, grandiosity and delusions. The less commonly noticed symptoms include less need for sleep, rapid speech, inflated self-esteem, poor concentration, racing thoughts, risky behaviors and excessive energy.

I’ve struggled with mania, and I’ve done incredible things while manic. I have created amazing things. Yet, while in the throes of mania, I’ve destroyed relationships.

You become another person while manic. You feel like you can control the world and you’re going to accomplish great things. You become delusional, and you can’t see reason anymore.

You might feel like creating an online business and spend your life savings buying things for it. You might decide you need a brand new wardrobe for the new you. You might decide your partner isn’t enough sexually, and go on the prowl for a new one. You might just become promiscuous when you’re usually not.

The worst thing about mania is the hypomanic phase, when you truly are amazing. When you can still listen to reason, when you feel on top of the world and you have brilliant ideas. This phase usually doesn’t last long, and before you know it, you’re into full blown mania.

Then, there’s the crash. It usually feels like you’ve literally hit a brick wall going 100 mph. You might wake up in the psych ward. You might wake up on the streets. You might not wake up at all. Yet, it’s there, and there’s usually the deep depression that follows, where you’re in a shame spiral because of all the incredible things you did while manic.

I remember the last manic episode I had. I was convinced I was going to start a jewelry making business and sell my wares to my friends. I bought necklaces, lockets and trinkets with money I really didn’t have. I was obsessed. I was crazed. I was fixated on this one thing.

I felt amazing. I was in control, until I wasn’t. I couldn’t tend to my kids because I’d flown into psychosis and wanted to kill myself because I wasn’t a size six anymore. I was barely holding onto reality, and it was terrifying. I finally went to my doctor sobbing that I needed help, and I was admitted to the hospital.

I know a lot of my friends with bipolar miss the mania and struggle with medication compliance because of that. I miss the hypomania, but not enough to risk full blown mania. It’s fun for awhile, but it becomes horrific very quickly.

Mania is an uncontrolled beast that resides inside every person with bipolar disorder, and it is something that will never be tamed, at least, not without proper medication and therapy.

So although there is some “fun” that comes with mania, it’s doesn’t stay grins and giggles, which is an excellent reason to try and keep it tamed. Even when it’s hard because you miss the euphoria, you have to remember it’s not just that. There’s also usually a side of remorse and embarrassment included with 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. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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Finding Where I Fit Within the Language of Diagnosis

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Last summer I curled my hot body between the cool dark aisles of the university library basement.

I wanted to lie so that my thighs didn’t touch together, so that my arms didn’t have to rest on the other parts of my body. I wanted to find a way to position the thing of me so that I no longer felt my thingness at all. Could I float just above the ground, could I exist without the feeling of hot touch on my prickling skin? I was crying, but it wasn’t like feeling sad — it was itchy. I wanted to climb out of myself. I couldn’t stop moving — I pulled a white button from my long skirt. I pulled all the thread from the skirt’s hem and I wrapped it around my finger. I watched until my finger turned purple and numb. I was afraid someone might dig me up from this place, afraid I might not be able to slither back into my normal way of being. I was meticulous about performing my sanity. It was important I kept these experiences private. I thought my experience might make me sick. I didn’t want to be sick — didn’t want other people to reinforce the narrative of sickness on my body; my mind. I wondered if my experiences were allowed to happen without being called anything at all.

My partner found me down in the bowels of the library — he who I’d made complicit in my silence. He became the only person who felt safe to be around when I was struggling. Often, I’d stay at Uni until one in the morning before catching the tram to his hot, damp apartment, unannounced. Sometimes I’d sleep all day while he worked at his desk with his shirt off, sweat dripping down his back. I found it hard to be alone, but there was nowhere else to be, so I clung to the space around his body. We were irreconcilably different in our beliefs, our interests — but I pushed for us to stay with one another because I wanted the closeness. He held my hand through the dizziness and I unfurled from the basement of the library. We hobbled up the stairs. It was almost 40 degrees outside. The air felt like it was searing the insides of my lungs. We spoke of getting better and the narrative of sickness and how it might be time to do something about it.

I hadn’t slept for two days. I wrote, wrote, wrote, deliriously, in bed with my laptop on my knees. I drank instant coffee. I walked all the way into the city at four in the morning to watch the sun rising over the river. The work I produced during those overexposed days earned me first class honors marks in half my subjects. I failed the other two. My academic transcript is like some weird reflection of the way I live in quiet extremes. I’m most creative when I’m scratchy inside my body, not sleeping or sitting still. It’s also a time when my control slips, so I might speak too fast for too long to somebody I’m close to. So I might begin to feel afraid. Other times, I am hollow — this is easier to control. It’s as though everything that defines me has been sucked from my body, like marrow from bone. This is the place the scars on my arms and legs come from — scars that make me angry and embarrassed now, because I don’t know who it was that made them. I don’t know how to explain. When I am burrowed in cottony emptiness, it’s easy to stay hidden. I know how to act from this place. Some days I’m like an exposed nerve being scraped against a rough carpet. I can’t breathe.

I told it all to my psychiatrist — I tapped my foot too fast on the carpetty floor and cried and cried. I said I was sorry and I laughed at my crying. I wriggled and my body stank like sweat. He said I had bipolar — said this was hypomania — said I should be taking medication. Valium and lithium. Later, I thought this was funny. It seemed like a cliché.

The valium only worked if I took too much — and then I just slept and slept and missed the way I used to dream, vividly.

Sometimes I’m still angry at the way the lithium takes away the kind of creativity that tears you to shreds, hurts, bleeds. Mostly, I am relieved I can find peace inside my own body. That my writing isn’t always something frightening — that my work no longer emerges from nowhere in big, angry, bursts that leave me grainy eyed and unable to find sleep. Sometimes I see lithium portrayed as a prison — a kind of impermeable barrier between a person and their creative mind. For me, it provides the kind of creativity that doesn’t hurt — something that carries on for months. Sometimes I might skip my medication for a week, let mania creep into my periphery, write from this place. I’m afraid I’ll forget what it feels like. What it feels like scares me, the kind of exhilaration that might come the moment before you fall off a tall building. I’m scared because I’m talking too fast to someone, spending money on things I don’t want, moving, moving, moving. Someone said once that it’s like you’re on cocaine or something. I can’t stop. So I take my medication, or maybe it’s just taking my control back.

Later, I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, but it’s easier to understand it as a way of explaining behavior I learned in childhood. It allows my trauma a place in my present life — recognizes that neglect or violence against the body doesn’t occur in a vacuum, so that now, when I feel like my sense of self dissolves every night while I am sleeping, and when I find my emotions dictate most of my choices, and when I’m so terrified of being alone, I might trace this way of being back, back, back. I might reconfigure old circuits built from trauma.

Often I find myself resorting to diagnosis words — to tell people the words is easier than explaining the thing of them. But I still wish the things I might experience were allowed to happen without being called anything. I wish I was not placed on a narrative of sickness. I have never found the words for what it really felt like — what it really feels like. It doesn’t feel like the way my diagnosis words feel when you say them. It doesn’t feel like I fit into my diagnosis words all the time. Sometimes I am well, and just a person. Mostly, I am just a person. I don’t know if I’m still sick when I am well. I don’t know if other people are OK with me existing as two things at once. Can I be myself when I am OK, and is it OK to still feel sick sometimes? And if I feel sick do I become my sickness? Can I maintain my selfhood, even when I’m sitting inside my cupboard with my arms wrapped around my legs, rocking back and forth. I don’t want to damage the version of me I like most.

I’m sure some people are confused by the way I never shared my experiences until the diagnosis words could explain them. I have kept the thing behind my diagnosis close to me. Sometimes I feel as though the shame lies not so much in the diagnosis words, but in the thing of them. In what they really mean.

They mean; it bleeds and tears and screams and is so full of memories wrapping tendrils around the fragile necks of your dreams that even when you are sleeping, at three in the fucking morning, you cannot breathe.

They mean; I’m sorry I wish you could just inhabit my body for a moment, feel what it feels like, because I don’t have the words for this, because I don’t think it’s my responsibility to make you understand

They mean; I’m just myself. I don’t want to talk about it.

Editor’s note: This piece is based on an individual’s experience and shouldn’t be taken as medical advice. Please consult your doctor before going on or off medication.

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