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What Having 'High-Functioning Bipolar Disorder' Means for Me (and What It Doesn't)

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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.

Image via Thinkstock.

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Inside the Mind of a 27-Year-Old With Bipolar 2

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You are coasting along a straight path, then you struggle to get up that hill. The pain is almost a high. In a moment you have no energy, another too much. You feel like you are about to break, but you don’t stop, you know you have to keep running…

There are nights that turn into dawn in what seems like an instant. From reorganizing my closet to writing in my journal for hours, there are moments your mind is running so fast it is almost painful. You close your eyes, but your eyelids jolt, begging you to open.

So what do I do… 

Learning to harness my thoughts hours before sleep and avoiding stimulation. It works. It fails. A few solid nights of sleep is better than none.

Never content.

If God had bipolar, He would not have created the Earth in seven days. He would still be in the creative process. The day I graduated from the college, all I could think was “You can do better! You have to do more, Hannah!” Nothing is ever good enough, and relaxing while patting yourself on the back is nearly impossible. Being content in my mind is one step from slipping off the balance beam.

So what do I do… 

I breathe more often, and I breathe deeper. I have added exercise of mind and body like yoga.

Emotions run deep.

I hear a song and feel the pain inside the singer’s voice. I smell a flower and can feel its growth. I am sensitive to other people’s pain and hurt, to the point it keeps me up for nights. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night crying so hard I cannot breathe. I laugh as hard as I cry, I hurt as hard as I love.

So what do I do… 

I turn my pain into art by writing, drawing and creating to express these emotions.  Exercise gives me a healthy release.

Treading Water.

Every day my eyes open, and I have to tell myself to do everything I can to keep my head above water. I am one slip from falling to the bottom on a daily basis. Some days are harder than others, but I refuse to drown.

So what do I do… 

I keep moving forward. I keep active. I do not talk about my “struggle” often. I volunteer to help others outside of myself.

The lows are beyond explanation.

You are screaming at the top of your lungs but no one can hear you. It is not a headache, it is a cloud in your head that makes it almost impossible to see. You have no energy to speak. You are empty. You are numb. The light at the end of the tunnel seems so far.

So what do I do… 

Again, I turn these moments into some form of art. I set a goal for myself every day, and hold myself to it. I remind myself that tomorrow is a brand new day.

a self-portrait of the author with the words: Broken Mirror

The picture above is a picture from my journal days before I was hospitalized in 2010.  I have never shared it with anyone until now. Sending love to all my mental health warriors. You are bold. You are brave. You are brilliant. 

Follow this journey on Halfway 2 Hannah

This piece was published as a collaboration with The Mental Illness Happy Hour.

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21 Gifts People With Bipolar Disorder Really Want for the Holidays

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With the holidays comes the expectation of joy, which can be hard for people who live with mental illnesses like bipolar disorder. To find out what people living with bipolar disorder really want for the holidays, we asked people in our community to share what’s on their “secret” wish list this year.

Here’s what they had to say:

1. “To not feel like the black sheep. It’s hard when you want to be happy and participate, but the holidays tend to be more stressful than enjoyable.” — Lizzy H.

2. “A therapy dog. Studies have recently shown that given the effect of pets on those with mental illness they should not be seen as secondary sources of support, but primary. If I could have a dog that would offer comfort and love, take away a fraction of my loneliness and give me a sense of worth by caring for something, I feel like I could get my head out of the place where it always is. Or the most luxurious bedding so at least when I do need to retreat from life, I can have the most comfortable place to do it!” — Kaitlin C.

3. “To find a medication that works for me without either triggering my eating disorder with weight gain or completely wiping me out so I can’t function and get through the day. I just want to be able to stay in my safe middle ground without compromising my ability to live.” — Nate H.

4. “One day to feel ‘normal.’ No mood swings, no suicidal thoughts, no lashing out at friends and family…That’s all I want for Christmas.” — Wendy W.

5. “I want a moment of peace, away from the exhaustion.” — Diana J.

6. “To be able to have a break with racing thoughts and to break free from the roller coaster ride of the mood swings brought on by social gatherings. I want to be able to enjoy the time with my friends and family, not fight the war within to isolate myself.” — Tara N.

7. “Calm… I constantly create chaos where there should be joy. I haven’t been able to stop the volcano inside me for almost two weeks. The meds are barely taking off the edge. No one understands how hard it is to just function, let alone Christmas shop, bake cookies, attend holiday functions and not scream that it’s all just too much. I need quiet and calm within myself so that I can enjoy my family.” — Tanya D.

8. “To be able to relax and not hide because I have inner demons telling me ‘they would be better off without me.’ To feel comfortable in my body. To not cry myself to sleep every single night. To not look at my life and realize I’m wasting it away with this every single day… I miss spending time with my family and my friends…I just want peace of mind, and self peace. I want my life back.” — Marika K.

9. “Something I’d love is for people to genuinely understand and respect the boundaries I set for myself around alcohol and sleep because these are two of my most important factors in successfully keeping episodes at bay in conjunction with my medication.” — Stephie B.

10. “I would like to enjoy the time with my family rather than feel swallowed in chaos and ready to snap the chains and find the nearest exit. I would like to not feel like an outcast. I would like for people not to tip toe around me like I’m so fragile the slightest of words will break me. I would like to minimize the stress of smiling for the cameras. I would like to feel appreciated for my efforts for finding the strength to get dressed and go celebrate with loved ones.” — Kimberly T.

11. “To have a friend come over and help me with all of the chores and tasks that have piled up because of my recent depressive episode. To simply watch movies together, bake or even just sit in silence. To feel less physically and emotionally alone.” — Meghan G.

12. “Space from the family when I need it. If I’m getting overwhelmed, I need to get away. It’s not that I don’t want to spend time with you, I just don’t want to hurt you (emotionally or physically) and I’m afraid of what you’ll think of me.” — Renee M.

13. “For people to stop saying, ‘You don’t seem bipolar,’  or ‘Calm down.’ None of this is my choice. I didn’t choose to this like I choose my clothes in my morning. I want understanding on both good days and bad.” — Virgie B.

14. “To not have to hide in the bathroom, because my emotions feel inappropriate for the happy time. I want to live in the moment, not in fear.” — Jocy C.

15. “A time machine so I can go back in time and tell my psychiatrist the right med combo that actually works for me instead of wasting two years of my life teetering on the edge of everything.” — Carrie L.

16. “Because of the stigma and culture, I want my mom accept me as who I am, accept the fact I have mental illness, accept that I feel lost so many years. I believe Christmas is all about magic, if my mom just once asks me about my mental health.” — Han N.

17. “I want people to understand that if I have to cancel at the last minute, it’s not because I don’t want to see them, it’s because I’m sick and can’t go out. I don’t want to have to lie and say I’m throwing up, but saying the truth is an acceptable reason.” — Ren K.

18. “For people not to assume that me being cheery over the holidays is a sign I’m becoming manic.” — Brooke-Marie T.

19. “I’d like the people who say ‘let me know if I can help’ to check in on me. So many people say ‘I’m here for you,’ but I feel alone.” — Katie P.

20. “Better access to mental health resources, especially for the uninsured and those with no to low income.” — Clea B.

21. “Pictures of my kids and grandkids a reminder of why I keep going. Keep pushing forward. Those are my accomplishments.” — Lisa K.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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The Only Living Boy in New York

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Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741

“Half of the time we’re gone but we don’t know where, and we don’t know where.” — “The Only Living Boy in New York,” Simon and Garfunkel

Story goes that Andy Edison killed himself early one April morning in ’78, just shy of my father’s 14th birthday.

Dad wrote that he remembered Edison for his heavy gin breath, unfocused eyes and penchant for leaving the TV on 24/7. He had a house overrun by plants, an unexploded shell left over from his days fighting in World War I and a wife who was dead. So my grandmother pitied him.

Once every few days, Dad or his sister would make the walk, weaving under the trees separating the houses, to drop off some leftovers, books, whatever his mother left on the table for that “poor old man.” On Christmas, they’d sit across the table from their surly neighbor, embodying that acutely awkward feeling you get when you’re confronted with another person’s sustained pain. (You’re sure there’s something you’re supposed to do or say, but you can’t ever seem to tap into the right script or choreography.)

Despite the dazed almost-expressions shared in those visits, he was obviously grateful for it all. Sometimes you just need to know that someone, anyone still cares.

Before Edison went, he gave my grandmother a little over $2,000. It was a check she didn’t want to cash, but three months owed-rent, several part-time jobs cleaning houses and a husband who fancied himself a vagabond intellectual left her little room for pride.

The check cleared just hours before he pulled the trigger. And even though she wasn’t the one to clean the warped halo of blood off the walls, the story left a strange taste in his mouth. Dad called the money “a finders fee,” which is funny until you remember that it isn’t.

Dad wrote that he’d thought about Edison a lot since then, especially after he got arrested and after he was diagnosed, when he picked up the bottle and put it down again every couple of years and when he finally knew what it took for a man to get there.

* * *

The day before the story hit the papers, we made the drive to Riverdale where my older sister was a freshman in college. The September air hadn’t started to take on the bite of fall but, the way I remember it, it should’ve been winter. We picked her up at her dorm, heading toward Broadway without really knowing what we were looking for.

“You might hear some talk in the next few days,” he took a pause and the engine hummed underneath it. “But I’d rather you hear it from me.”

He left his former job earlier that summer and we were just finding out why. He said a lot in that hour, but he never could get to the part I wanted to hear: that this was a big misunderstanding.

“I’ve always been crazy. When I’m good, I’m good, you know? But, when I’m not…” he started. “It’s not that I don’t know right from wrong; it’s that I just don’t care.”

Again, a pause and humming. I thought of the road trips where he’d drive too fast and charm his way out of traffic tickets; the late summer days where he couldn’t bear to watch the leaves change (or get out of bed); how he turned periods of break-neck energy and enthusiasm into walls and pillars overnight; how he picked fights and apologized within minutes but never seemed to care whether he’d hurt someone.

The bipolar disorder made a lot of sense. Although the way he explained it was purposely simplistic and self-deprecating enough to engineer the least panicked reactions from the three of us.

My older sister held her hands in her lap, fist making crescent-shaped marks in her palm as she listened. I flicked my fingers over the child locks on the backseat doors. Up down, up down, up down.

* * *

An old picture of the author as a child and her father He used to run track. He still holds records at North Salem High School and a plaque sits at an awkward angle just to the left of the attendance office at the school. I remember he showed me it once. It’s there among a mass of other haphazardly-placed awards from the kids who grew up and had families and the ones who didn’t.

Some days I try to picture him running: A face without frown lines, muscles relaxing with legs that seem longer and less pained as his feet hit the pavement. Maybe there was something rhythmic and peaceful about the practice back then. I can’t really see it, to be honest.

Dad was a sprinter. It suits him when I really think about it: that rush of energy and adrenaline. There’s no need for economy in step or effort; use it while it’s here. Recover later, if you can. No shame in burning out, as long as you’re ready by your next race.

That always made sense: On good days, there were good races and he hurt like hell after. But, he’d always prefer to ice a win.

* * *

A few months after the arrest, Dad started to work odd jobs at construction sites in the city. He was trying to bring some money in by relying on favors from the old friends who’d still pick up the phone.

He always caught the last train home, getting off at Valhalla or White Plains, somewhere with cheaper parking.

He’d spend his nights tapping away at empty word docs with that posture that’s so intimately familiar to me now, writing up the chapters and stories of his life  —  I know these were words that he absolutely never meant for me to find. I love them anyway.

He was trying reclaim that bit of himself: He wanted to remember what it was like to be the young boy who walked New York City streets with father on their way to work, to be the heartsick teenager who was one half of “the longest running mutual crush, lubricated by coffee.” He was looking for what it felt like before he “embraced the crazy.”

He still doesn’t know I read those words or that I squirreled them away, keeping them close for all these years to reread on nights when the house gets too quiet. It’s like some private reminder that there’s something  —  other than our eyes and our tempers  —  that the two of us still share.

“I’m too mean to die,” he wrote, quoting a line his grandfather liked to use, “at least when I’m manic. I hope I’m too sad to die when I’m not.”

The worst nights, he wrote, he’d watch streetlights make shadows over the train tracks, the weight of everything tugging at his bones. He wondered what that final step would feel like (I’m thinking that maybe it weighed as much as that 8-inch by two-inch shell.) But, make no mistake, I hated this part of the story.

“You know, Valhalla is the only place in the state where the dead outnumber the living.” I heard that at my great grandpa’s funeral. I guess it stuck.

A few months later, after he finally stopped taking the goddamn train every day, he’d managed to find another way to slowly, slowly rebuild. Every day since I’ve been thankful for that.

 * * *

I don’t know if my dad is ever going to pick up his story again, if he’ll ever try to look at it with new eyes. I haven’t managed to fully make sense of the last six years myself.

But I’ve gotten good at telling the story in a way that makes everyone seem a bit nobler, a bit smarter and a bit nicer than we really were. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to unpack the ways our family has been touched, broken and rebuilt, but I’ve gotten used to explaining the parts of our lives that are still inching back on track.

“I got a win today,” he still says when finally, finally something goes right. Coming in after a long day, breath heavy with his beloved bulldog at his heels. “We got a win.”

There’s a part of the story that I don’t get to tell all that often, about what comes after the fall, after the pain, when the world finally starts to look normal again.

It’s not quite a happy ending or some kind of temporary calm. It’s the part of the story I’m not all that good at telling just yet, but it’s the promise that the next page is coming.

This post originally appeared on Medium.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Images courtesy of Katherine Speller

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What It's Like to Have the Other Type of Bipolar Disorder

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I have bipolar II disorder. This is my story.

First, some background. Bipolar disorder used to be called manic-depressive illness, and many people still know and refer to it that way. The term “bipolar” reflects the concept that there are two extremes to the continuum of mood disorders, and some people swing dramatically from one to the other. According to this definition, clinical depression by itself is “unipolar,” occupying only one end of the spectrum.

Depression is to sadness as a broken leg is to a splinter. Depression sucks the life from a person, mutes all emotions except misery, denies any possibility of joy or even contentment and makes life seem meaningless or impossible. This is hell.

Mania is to ordinary happiness as diving off a cliff is to diving off a diving board. Mania brings exhilaration, ambition, confidence, abandon and invincibility, with no brakes. It is hell on wheels.

Oscillating between the two extremes, that’s bipolar disorder, type 1. It is a serious illness. Left untreated, it can cause destruction of families, careers and more. It can lead to psychosis or suicide. The treatments for it are no picnic either. A severe case of bipolar disorder often requires hospitalization. If the symptoms can be controlled with medication, then the patients must have frequent blood tests to assure that the drug is present in the right quantity.

When I was (incorrectly) diagnosed with unipolar depression, I used to wish that I were bipolar, on the theory that at least then I could accomplish something. Boy, was I wrong about that. Plans made in mania never come to fruition. They are started, rethought, abandoned, exchanged for something grander and ultimately fizzle out when the mania wears off.

My diagnosis actually made some sense at the time, as I never experienced anything like the manic highs. All I got were depressive lows. This leads us at last to bipolar II disorder. The mood swings are not as extreme, the lows less debilitating and the highs less overwhelming. The person with bipolar II stays closer to a baseline of normal mood, but still experiences swings back and forth.

Technically, the mini-lows are called dysthymia and the mini-highs are called hypomania. In my case, the lows were just as low as in unipolar depression, but I never got the mini-jags of buoyancy that accompany hypomania. Instead, these feelings, came out sideways, as anxiety. My brain was still racing with little control, but in a different direction. Instead of elation and purpose, I was beset by in worries, fears and catastrophizing.

One of the difficulties with treating bipolar disorder (of either type) is trying to find a medication or a combination of medications that will level out the person’s moods. Usually this requires more than one drug, and finding the right mix or cocktail of chemicals usually requires more than one drug. It takes a great deal of trial and error. In the meantime, the mood swings continue.

At this point, my bipolar II is fairly well-controlled on medication. I still have spells of depression. Now, they last at most a week and sometimes just a day or two. Untreated, they could last months or years. I still have anxiety too. However, I have the medication I take for that so I don’t feel like I’m about to jump out of my own skin.

Most of the time, I’m fairly high-functioning. I can write, work and earn a living. I have a great marriage and a number of friends, including some who are closer than family to me. I have never been hospitalized, nor have I had electroshock (though that was a near thing). Before I got my proper diagnosis and treatment, I would have not believed this to be possible. My goal in life was simply to stay out of a psychiatric hospital as long as I could or at least until I qualified for Social Security Disability.

I’m sharing these experiences with you today because I believe mental disorders should not be hidden or viewed with shame and horror as they have been in the past and sometimes the present.

It’s undeniable that there is a stigma associated with having mental illness. Going public with it entails a risk. I’ve seen the fixed “smile and back away slowly” reaction. I’ve seen sudden turnarounds in my work performance evaluations, but I’ve also seen the, “Me too!” response.

There is strength in numbers. As more of us who live with psychiatric conditions talk about it and share our stories, the more we build understanding. Perhaps, we also encourage those who are “roller-coastering” to seek treatment.

So that’s the nuts and bolts of it: Bipolar II disorder is a mental illness. I have it and live with it every day. I do not go around threatening the safety of other people or my own. I take medication for it. I know I will likely have to for the rest of my life, and I’m OK with that. I hope that eventually the rest of the world will be, too.

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.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Image via Thinkstock.

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Why I Wear My Bipolar Like a Badge of Honor

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I’m allowing my bipolar to be a badge of honor.

I know at this moment you are going, “‘Crazy’ lady say what?”

But the truth is I am the strongest person I know. Bipolar is horrible, but I fought back and became stronger. This horrible, painful disease made me fight. I fight to fall asleep every night when insomnia hits. I fight to wake up to go to work when my body is frail and wasted from not going enough rest. I fight to smile and control all emotions so no one will see my anger, my anxiety, my overwhelming joy or whatever bipolar threw my way that day. I fight the fatigue that drains my body throughout the day.

I fight not go near or become dependent on shopping, alcohol, food, drugs or whatever I think I need to ease my pain at the end of the day. I fight to be productive even when I feel like I’m more tired than everyone. Because I never compare myself to them. As I lay my head back on my pillow, I fight the urge not to think about tomorrow.

So yes, bipolar is a badge of pride. I am a fighter, and no one can take that away from me.

I’m a child sculpted out of mania, rage, tears and joy. I’m a child formed out of bipolar. When I was tired, bipolar taught me to keep going. When I had 50 emotions, bipolar taught me self-control. I worked harder than the day before because I never knew when I was going to feel OK again. Through the pain, I became the strongest person I know.

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