photo of Demi Lovato

Demi Lovato doesn’t shy away from the spotlight when it comes to mental illness. In an interview with People magazine, Lovato, who lives with bipolar disorder, spoke candidly about undergoing treatment for eating disorders, addiction and self-harm in 2011.

“Whenever I was in treatment and I had the urge to do something that was harmful to myself, whether it was self-harming or was just something that wasn’t good for me, my treatment team told me to distract myself,” the 24-year-old singer said.

Lovato, who will be five years sober in March 2017, said every day is a work in progress, crediting her family, friends and treatment team for helping her maintain her recovery. “They’re there for me at any moment of the day and will be there to support me throughout my recovery,” she told People. “That relationship is ongoing — it’s not something where you see a therapist once or you see your psychiatrist once, it’s something you maintain to make sure that you want to live with mental illness. You have to take care of yourself.”

Lovato is well known for her commitment to mental health issues, speaking up about her own experiences and the importance of addressing mental health stigma. In September, she became the co-owner of CAST Centers, the same mental health and wellness rehabilitation facility that treated her back in 2011.

“If you know someone or if you’re dealing with it yourself, just know that it is possible to live well,” Lovato said. “I’m living proof of that.”

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I remember the first time I saw the look of terror in my husband’s eyes and I didn’t understand why. I was acting normally, wasn’t I? It was perfectly “normal” that I was upset over him eating all of the leftovers I wanted to eat for dinner, right? It’s OK that I sat at the kitchen counter waiting for him to get home so I could ask as soon as possible why he ate both of the burgers, even though I thought he knew one of them was for me — right? Didn’t he know all I could think about as I was driving home from a frustrating class was that burger? That I was literally obsessing over it? I was asking him this in a calm way, wasn’t I?

That was the first time my then-boyfriend, now husband, witnessed one of my hypomanic agitated outbursts. It is also the first one I can remember having in front of anyone. It was also not the last.

I wish I could say I’ve always been able to recognize the different symptoms of when I’m in a hypomanic or mixed bipolar cycle. I can always recognize the depressions. Those are easy. But the hypomanic or mixed symptoms, they are harder for me to personally recognize until after they happen.

For me, one of those symptoms is agitation. It tends to happen more when I’m in a mixed state and I’m moving from one cycle to the next (either from depression into hypomania or vice versa). I often don’t realize I’m agitated until after an outburst that’s similar to a child’s temper tantrum.

I remember one time a few years ago I woke up on the “wrong side of bed.” I was just in a frustrated, unhappy mood for no apparent reason, and everything was bothering me. I was home alone that day and was trying my hardest to concentrate on searching for a new job. Then a friend called. I answered the phone, because I thought it would be a five-minute conversation. But it turned into a 30-minute conversation about absolutely nothing. In my mind, it was pointless and a complete waste of my time.

When I got off the phone, I was extremely upset that I was interrupted. My whole body was tense and my legs were getting the weird restless feeling they get when I’m frustrated. I went to stand up, but the office chair I was sitting on wouldn’t budge on the carpet, which made me more agitated. Angrily, I pushed the chair back, stood up, and with superhuman strength, I threw the chair across the room. Not satisfied, I started throwing other things around the room until I eventually stopped when I saw the mess I created.

I was incredibly embarrassed and ashamed, not only of breaking one of the wheels on the chair, but also over having a huge tantrum over something that really wasn’t a big deal.

I feel I’m lucky my agitated outbursts don’t happen too often (maybe one or two times a year), but I don’t like that I have them and want them to stop completely. So lately I’ve been trying harder to recognize when they are happening in the hope I can be better at calming myself down.

In order for me to recognize the agitated symptom, I need to know what my triggers are. I have come to the realization that my agitation is triggered more when I’m interrupted while I’m focused on a task or doing something I’m enjoying, when things aren’t organized or clean and I’m obsessed over organizing or cleaning them, or when I’ve been obsessed over something and I don’t like the outcome.

A few months ago, I finally recognized the interruption trigger before it got too out of hand.

One Saturday morning, while I was in the middle of reading a great book, my husband interrupted me by repeating a story to me that he just heard on a podcast. Usually, we tell each other things we find interesting as soon as they happen, and it’s no big deal because we love learning what interests each other.

This time was different for me. Not only was I a little perturbed that I had to stop reading in order to listen to him, but I became full-on agitated when I felt like the story he was telling me dragged on (in reality, it probably lasted a minute). I unkindly interrupted him to ask him to stop telling the story or get to the point, and I became very grumpy and standoffish. I then tried to continue reading my book but couldn’t concentrate, which made me more frustrated and angry.

We had already planned to go for a walk that day, and my husband asked if I wanted to go right then, sensing I needed some sort of release. At first I said no, because I had too much to do around the house and going for a walk would take up too much of my time. Yet when I tried to start cleaning, it hit me. I wasn’t really angry with my husband; I was in an unnecessary agitated state and needed to calm myself down. Maybe we should go for that walk. So we did. And it helped me tremendously.

That day was a small milestone for me. I am proud of myself that I recognized the symptom of being agitated and figured out a solution to stop it before it became an emotional outburst.

All in all, I know I can’t stop triggers from happening. Life happens, and life isn’t perfect. But now that I’m learning to recognize when a trigger is happening and find reasonable solutions, I feel like I’m one step closer to getting off of my bipolar rollercoaster.

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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.

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 or text “START” to 741-741.

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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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