Cropped shot of half of a woman's face

Sometimes, sharing is difficult, and sometimes, I may share for the wrong reasons.

What do I mean by that?

The wrong reason is when I want desperately, too desperately, to be believed. Yet, I realize it’s not my job to convince anyone that I am sick. It’s not my job to justify or prove that my bipolar disorder, especially at this moment in time, is unbearable. It’s not my job to prove the only reason I can get up in the morning is thanks to a cocktail of medication that allows me these seemingly false but necessary moments of strength.

When able, I must participate in life. Participating in life is part of my treatment. I celebrate that. I need that. I get tired sometimes of having to, or feeling like I must, look or sound a certain way to earn the “green light” of being believed or being sick enough. I am tired of thinking I must give off visual cues so that people feel comfortable with believing I am sick enough.

By whose standards, I wonder?

The moments I can laugh with my family or joke with my friends I hold onto because the next moment may find me plunging into darkness. Such is the unpredictability of a bipolar depressive episode. If you see me smiling or hear me chattering away, then recognize I am simply managing my symptoms in a less grueling way in that moment. Be happy for me if you can.

I am sick now. Right now, I am not able to “power through” or “fight off” this episode. A healthy diet and a good dose of exercise will not make me well. They may help, but they won’t fix it. Lighting scented candles and meditating are also helpful, but not the answer. Sadly, my illness is in charge, and I can manage in whatever way I need to.

No one chooses mental illness. It is not the “new black” or “on trend.” Yet, neither is it something to apologize for. There is no shame in this illness. My bipolar disorder won’t look like anyone else’s. It presents differently in everyone. For me, sadness is only a tiny sliver. It is so much more, and sometimes, it stops me in my tracks. Times like right now.

It is in these times I must draw on my own words when I am advocating for mental illness. It is not just for me. It is also for anyone else who feels that they don’t have a voice. There is no shame. Stigma has no power here.

This post originally appeared on Positive Angst.

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The holidays always tend to sneak up quietly. School starts, and the pools close. I go to buy a frame for my daughter’s second grade class picture, and suddenly, there are pumpkins in stores. I bite my lip, trying to remember how long until Halloween. Time seems to fly, and Daylight Savings Time ends. The days get darker earlier and earlier. Leaves change color and begin wafting to the ground. I feel a sense of dread prickling inside me at this point, right in the pit of my stomach. I try to mentally brace myself for the deluge of activity and change and commitment that comes this time of year. If I don’t tread carefully at this point, I can quickly feel like a strain on my family. My bipolar disorder has a penchant for worsening right around this time.

The holidays have always been bittersweet. Excitement fills the air as radio stations begin playing festive music, stores put out their best decorations and huge sale signs. Families gather to eat, drink and be merry. Boots and scarves and pumpkin spiced-everything pop up everywhere. You hear the words “cozy,” “warm,” and “bright.” I leaf through my battered dollar store pocket planner which is covered in notes, checking to see the date of my next psychiatric appointment. I breathe in relief when I see I had already scheduled one several months ago, right as the holidays approach. I give myself a mental pat on the back. I anticipated it this time.

While people are buying turkeys and presents and drinking hot chocolate, I am checking my medicine cabinet to make sure I have all of my emergency medication for a bipolar mood episode. Emergency meds for a manic phase? Getting low — write that in my planner to talk to my doctor about. Emergency meds for a depressive episode? Check. I want to avoid the Christmases past where I was unprepared for my bipolar mood episodes.

One year, I was hospitalized for a severe depressive episode right after Christmas. I remember being in the psych ward and seeing a few sparse Christmas decorations behind the clear plastic shatter-proof plexiglass where the nurse receptionist sat. The glaring fluorescent lights and the cheery Santa figure on her desk were incongruous with the shouting coming from down the hall or the sobbing woman in a hospital gown sitting in a corner. Other years, I have experienced mixed episodes, where I had lots of energy and ideas but also suicidal ideation. Those were dangerous times. Yet other years, I have been manic, going on outrageous spending sprees and impulsively cutting off all my hair at home or trying to dye it bizarre colors. I once thought I was psychic and spent $100 on a website so people could contact me. When I was asked how I was going to find clients, I shrugged, and claimed that “if it was meant to be, it was meant to be.” That is how the holidays have gone for so many years prior to my diagnosis of bipolar type 1. The stress of the holidays has sent me toppling over, vicariously bringing my family down with me.

Now, with medication, my family’s support and good medical care, I do battle to keep my brain from short-circuiting amidst the egg nog, pumpkin pie and mall Santas.

It can be hard. Text messages begin lighting up my phone, asking if my husband and I will be attending family functions for Christmas. Holiday cards arrive in the mailbox with pictures of friends and family, posed perfectly in a studio, smiling brightly. My Facebook feed is filled with images of happy people gathering around big tables. The next few days, I try not to let the increasing frenzy of group text messages bother me. I chafe under the expectations of dozens of people. If we went to every family and friend event, we’d be gone most of December: dinner at Aunt so-and-so’s this night, services at this church that night, gift exchange at this friend’s house, pot luck at that cousin’s house. This, all surrounded by people I don’t know very well.

My goal is to simply get through the holiday season without a hospitalization. I want my daughter to remember opening presents on Christmas morning with me and my husband there, smiling and laughing at her excitement. I want my husband to enjoy being home with us, relaxing and watching holiday movies. I don’t want my mental illness to mar those precious memories for any of us. I’ve found the best way for me to do those things is to take a very un-traditional approach to the holidays:

Making no plans whatsoever.

In a season synonymous with plans and expectations and commitments, I make none. I have found this to be such a freeing experience, and it has helped me better manage my moods during the holidays. I am certain a few people may feel slighted, or annoyed that we didn’t attend an event. But you know what? The world hasn’t ended.

Leaving behind the burdens of what others expect me to be during the holidays has helped me feel better during this festive season. I no longer worry as much about hospitalization. I am not under the crushing weight of stress trying to look and be the perfect family member. The sight of falling leaves announcing the beginning of the holiday season no longer holds as much anxiety for me. Self-care is the theme nowadays. In fact, instead of viewing the autumn and winter as the holiday season, I think of it as a self-care season. I spend more time in the gym as the days get darker earlier. I try to spend as much time in the winter sun as I can. I keep my diet and my sleep schedule consistent. I continue to take my medications and meet with my doctor. After all, bipolar disorder is a lifelong condition, and managing my disorder the best I can is my responsibility. I can’t be the best for others if I am not well myself. I focus on keeping myself well and healthy, and that in and of itself creates more enjoyment of this season for me and my family.

I hope you and yours enjoy this festive time, and remember to take time to care for yourself this holiday season.

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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For as long as I can remember, I would have these periods of complete sadness. I would hear my friends and family say, “Everyone has a bad day,” “Why don’t you go outside. You will feel so much better,” or my personal favorite, “Stop sulking and get over it!” The “get over it” wasn’t yelled at me, but it might as well have been.

“Elizabeth is being overdramatic. Get over it!”

“Why are you still in bed? You’re having a bad day? Get over it!”

I could go on and on with the different examples of how people perceived my “bad days.” I know some meant well, or others may have thought I was seeking attention, but that’s just been one of the painful realities I’ve dealt with since being diagnosed with bipolar II disorder.

I always put on the “Pollyanna Sunshine” face when the depression would consume me, because I didn’t want to hear “Get over it.” However, something changed my thinking. Last year, April 2015, I admitted myself after what would have been my third attempt. While there, I was surrounded by other people who were dealing with issues similar to mine.

During my first night in the behavioral health unit, I cried for two hours in my dark room. One of the nurses came in to check on me. When I couldn’t really put into words how I was feeling, she didn’t say “Get over it” — she sat there and listened to everything that poured out of me without any judgment. My time there showed me I didn’t have to put on the “Pollyanna Sunshine” routine — I could actually feel, ask for help and stand up for myself.

This came in handy after starting a new job with co-workers from one of my previous positions. They knew I had bipolar disorder, but they didn’t understand the manic and depressive episodes I would go through.

One particular week after a month of dealing with a depressive episode, I sent an email to one of my co-workers, who was the manager of the help desk I worked at. I told her I’d had a bad weekend and wouldn’t be able to make it in. Now, you might think that, knowing about my disorder, they would be sympathetic towards me. That didn’t happen initially.

I received the dreaded response pretty much saying, “Everyone has a bad day, and you shouldn’t use that as an excuse not to come to work.” To me, it was pretty much the long way of saying “Get over it.” At that point, I did something I had never done. I pushed back regarding their response.

I went into detail about my reality. I explained that when I am having a “bad day,” it could be something I have been dealing with for weeks, and then I finally couldn’t function. That the thought of even having to get out of bed to brush my teeth, take a shower, or fix myself something to eat causes me physical and emotional pain. That it feels like I’ve been “hit by a bus” and am in a constant state of mind fog. That it was something I couldn’t “just get over.”

I was ready for the “being overdramatic” response, but instead I got a response that pretty much brought me to tears. They stated they never knew that’s what I went through when having “a bad day.” That they always felt people who said they were “depressed” were being “dramatic.” They actually apologized and told me to take the time I needed to get better.

Now, I know it was only one person who I helped understand what I and others with a mental illness may go through. However, I had changed one person’s perspective, and I know they would now think before telling someone to “Get over it.”

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Money management hasn’t always been my strong suit. In fact, I have spent a scary amount of money on the most frivolous thing. At one time my habit was spending countless amounts of money on iTunes for every song I thought I ever wanted. It has transitioned to one thing after another over the years, but I never really understood why I couldn’t kick the habit like all the other adults in my life could. I felt immature and careless. I wanted to be better about my money but couldn’t ever seem to find a way.

Fast forward to my early 20s and I received my first diagnosis of bipolar disorder, to which I was promptly placed in a medication study at Vanderbilt University, but that’s a story for another day. Part of my starting therapy was discussion and exploration. Through a lot of talk and debate over what I thought was wrong, my therapist was finally able to help me see that the core of my spending habits were part of my manic episodes.

When I got really manic and felt all the feelings associated with one of those episodes, I felt invincible and like I could make no wrong decision. I always found a way to justify, in my mind, that the money I was spending was going to help me in some way or another. I got good at convincing myself that if I bought that album it would somehow save me money down the line and I wouldn’t want another album for a while. If I bought that pair of jeans from that ridiculously expensive boutique in Green Hills I would never need another pair of jeans again. The list goes on and on.

The holidays can be one of the most difficult times when you have spending issues associated with your bipolar disorder — the feeling of invincibility coupled with advertisements telling you that you need absolutely all of the things at super low costs and need to also buy everything else for all your family members for the holidays. It’s like a purposeful setup for failure this time of year.

The most sobering part of my continued work in therapy is that I was so good at convincing myself I could spend money endlessly and not have any consequences, but I couldn’t convince myself of the safe and healthy alternative: to not spend. I have gotten myself into some major trouble with money over the years and sometimes still do if I’m not paying attention. But through therapy, I have learned better ways to see the precursors to my manic episodes and can attempt to adjust accordingly.

I have set up accounts that I don’t have access to in the most basic circumstances like shopping. I have a partner who I try and let know every time I feel like my episode is about to change and who tries to help manage my money. I have also done away with bank account debit cards that allow me to spend more than I actually have (no overdrafts by extension of money). Look at all the little things you can do when you are in between your episodes. One of the worst things I did was try and plan during a depressive state. My credit is still reeling from the ridiculous amounts of debt I have stacked up in my manic phases, but slowly I am getting back on track with better awareness of my changing states.

Follow this journey on Free From Secrets.

Thinkstock photo by alex kich

So, yeah, I have bipolar disorder. To be exact, I have bipolar 2, which means I am on the depression side of the mood pendulum more often than the hypomanic side. I don’t get manic.

This can mean buying gifts for me, especially for Christmas, can be a real bear. It’s no fun. I’m sorry to the people who feel the need to. In fact, I often tell them not to because when the impulse strikes, I’ll just get what I want when I want.

Now, buying presents for me is difficult because, well, I’m all over the place. The act of going to someone’s house and the expectations of Christmas weigh on me tremendously. I feel the need to please people and make them happy, even when I’m miserable.

I try to do this when people get me presents. I act like I love them even when I do not. Even if I do love them, the gifts are often associated with the anxiety, pressure and subsequent depression I feel when in the throes of Christmas. Thus, when you buy me that shirt, put it in a box and give it to me, know all the emotions I am struggling with just to maintain throughout the day are there, and I’ll probably never wear that shirt again.

But you want to get me a gift that speaks to our relationship and the fact that you “know” me. Let me give you some tips on picking out that gift.

1. Show you know me and care about me.

Too often people’s gifts are a reflection of them instead of the one the gift is being given to. I do not give all my friends “Grateful Dead” CDs, and I do not expect to get “Journey” from you. (Just so anyone knows, a gift of anything related to “Journey” is a declaration that our friendship is over.)

2. Understand where I go and do not go.

Having bipolar disorder means I have a host of triggers. I avoid places, and I avoid them like the plague because they trigger emotions or anxiety. They do not give me the “feels.” So, buying me gift cards to places where they throw food at you is not my idea of a gift. It’s an exercise in hand-eye coordination. If I wanted to do that, then I’d play baseball with my son.

3. Keep me in mind when you buy a gift for my child or spouse.

This goes along with the previous point. If you buy my children $300 worth of gift cards to Chuck E. Cheese, I most likely will not be able to take them there. It stresses me out and causes all sorts of thoughts to go through my head that end up with me hurt.

4. Understand what helps me.

Managing my bipolar is often a 24-hour job. Little mess ups here and there can lead to big consequences later. When you’re thinking about a gift for me, think about getting me things that are helpful or can be helpful to me in managing my illness. Find out what I do to keep my illness under control and be thoughtful enough to contribute there.

5. Take my gift I give to you.

One of the biggest things for me is that I do not give gifts just to give them. They mean something. I take a lot of time, effort and thought to pick out gifts, and they reflect my understanding of who you are. To reject them or to be ambivalent about them is a rejection of me and how well I know you. It hurts my feelings.

6. Take the pressure out of the holidays.

This is perhaps the greatest gift you can give me for Christmas. I do not mean to sound preachy, but the holidays have never been about presents or about the pressure for the perfect meal. The more pressure you put on it, the more I cannot handle it. You exclude me off the bat because it’s too much for me. I can’t be part of it because it makes me feel depressed, terrible and awful. The greatest gift is to simply be simple and give up the pretense.

Those are the starting guidelines for buying gifts for me, the person with bipolar disorder. The people in my life find me somewhat impossible to buy for. Reading this list, I get their predicament. Yet, know if you buy a gift with these in mind, then maybe the person with bipolar disorder in your life will get a better gift and will be a little happier. At least, if my family is reading this, I will.

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I was asked to come in for an unscheduled or emergency session. The walk to the doc’s office took 10 extra minutes thanks to the drowsiness of my Seroquel increase. I sat across from him as always and began to explain to him the symptoms I have been experiencing. The doc explains that my psychosis is mainly in the form of hallucinations. He asks me if I have distorted thoughts or ideas, if I have been having delusions of grandeur or if I feel that people are talking about me behind my back. There are those moments when I’m paranoid others are talking about me or discussing my weight, but most of what has been happening has been hallucinations.

The doc sits and watches me for a moment and says, “You seem quite well to me.” I ask him what he means. “Most people with your symptoms are very obviously ill, but not you. You have a very good hold of your bipolar disorder, don’t you? I wouldn’t have picked you to have any of these symptoms unless you told me,” he says.

I think about it for a moment and start to think, “Does he not believe me?!” I explain to him how I don’t feel I have the capacity to let go completely: I have a job, a husband, a life. I need to keep it together. I tell the doc how I’ve learned over the years to present myself well to avoid people noticing there’s anything wrong. This has proven to be very important for my work life.

The doc tells me I don’t need to go to the hospital as yet, but he points out that if I were to go to the emergency department of a public hospital, they would most likely not take me in based on the fact that I look like I’m perfectly in control. I would have to get the nurses to call him so he can explain how unwell I am. It would be best for me to go into a private psychiatric hospital. “It would be much easier if you were in hospital though, because then we can increase your dose enough to get you better,” he says. We have to go slow with the increase of Seroquel and lithium because I’m still working. I need to still be able to work.

I have what some might call “high-functioning bipolar disorder.” It does not mean I don’t struggle. It does not mean my bipolar disorder doesn’t affect my life, and it certainly doesn’t mean my bipolar disorder is not serious. I’m only really high-functioning during the day, to get me through work. I put on a facade. Even when I am manic or hypomanic, I have to pretend I can focus and get work done. I am always acting “normal” and in control. It is incredibly tiring and taxing on me. I don’t like to go out anymore; I don’t like parties. Socializing takes a lot out of me, because I need to seem like I am OK. If I stop acting, if I let go even just a little bit, then I will fall down the rabbit hole so fast I won’t be able to get out.

It’s not always easy being high-functioning. Sometimes I get overlooked because I am not visibly struggling. Sometimes I feel like people don’t take my disorder as seriously. I act like I am OK to keep going. Acting like I am OK keeps my rational side active. My rational side keeps me in touch with reality and away from a world of hallucinations and delusions.

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Follow this journey on Manic Memoir.

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