2017 new year gold number in gold room

It’s the end of the year, and what does that mean? It means it’s time to start thinking of New Year’s resolutions.

My resolutions tend to stay the same every year. None of that “I want to lose 30 pounds by bikini season” crap or “I’m going to run a full marathon by the end of winter” phooey. Good for everyone else who makes those promises to themselves, but it’s not my scene. Though, it could be because I don’t run unless a zombie is chasing me.

No, my resolutions are a little more serious and have far more lasting consequences if I don’t see them through. You see, I have bipolar disorder, and I have to think carefully on my resolutions each year.

Take my first resolution for example.

1. Stay medication compliant all the time.

This is way harder than you’d think. I’m on 10 different medications, two of them cause weight gain and with another I have to go in and get my blood checked frequently. I get so sick of taking five pills in the morning and five at night, plus 15 more over the course of the day.

When you have a hard time swallowing pills, 25 of them gets to be a bit much, and this is every day. I don’t get weekends off, holidays or sick days. Yet, I do it. I’ve had so many epic fails when I’ve decreased dosages without my doctor’s knowledge or just straight up quit meds without my provider’s blessing. I’ve learned the hard way, again, again and again, about messing with my meds without my doctor knowing about. So, medication compliance, that’s resolution number one.

2. Put myself first, always.

Many people think self-care is selfish, but it’s the most important thing you can do to help keep yourself stable. I have to take time every single day to make sure my needs are being met. I love to color, crochet or be able to take a long enough shower to have time to shave my legs. (With four kids, this is harder than you’d think.) Self-care also includes reaching out to friends or family if you need to talk.

There’s an age old analogy that I share, about airplanes. If the oxygen masks come down, then whose do you put on first? Yours or your child’s? You put on yours first of course! If you pass out, then you’re of no use whatsoever to that child. This is an excellent analogy to life. You can’t properly care for others if you don’t care for yourself first.

3. Be resolute in my decision to see my doctors and therapists regularly.

I hate seeing my doctor every month. He’s out-of-network, which makes it pricey to see him every month. We’ve tried pushing my visits out to every two months, and I decompensate every time. So, I go see him.

I also have to stay regular with my individual therapist because I start to go downhill when I begin skipping appointments with her too. Then, there’s marriage counseling. We see him pro re nata (PRN), but I have to be honest with my husband about how I’m doing. So if my individual counseling isn’t being effective on its own, then my husband and I can go in as a team to our counselor and get extra coping skills from him.

I have to say, keeping these resolutions is not as easy as you’d think. There are months that I don’t want to pick my meds up from the pharmacy because of how much they cost, which would put me out of compliance with them. Putting myself first isn’t always easy. I have a history of low self-esteem, and learning to care for me has been a challenge. Honestly, I get sick of all the doctor and therapy visits I have each month. I get tired of going in and seeing them so frequently. I feel like they’re probably sick of seeing me so much or something.

Yet, I keep those promises because I have to. My good health is one of the most precious things I have, and stability is worth the price of feeling like I inconvenience people. (I also recognize that this is probably a negative thought distortion, and I probably don’t really burden people.) So if you live with bipolar disorder and haven’t figured out what resolutions you want to make for 2017, maybe my list will be a springboard for you to jump off of and find some ideas that fit your situation too!

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Dear Happy,

Last night, I was at a low. I’d had a pretty decent day, but towards the end I just couldn’t do anything anymore. I ended up laying on my sofa for two hours. Heating up and then eating a frozen pizza was a challenge in and of itself. I was getting miserable.

I felt the loneliness setting in, and it made me angry that I was alone. I live alone while struggling with finding the right medication for my bipolar ll disorder. For me, it’s the scariest time to be alone: when you can’t even trust yourself because you don’t know if it’s your thoughts or the medication.

However, you wanted me to be happy. And you saw I was struggling. I had told you all I wanted was some tacos, because they make me happy when I am sad. You offered to get some with me. You worked from 6 a.m. until somewhere around 6 p.m. Yet you still wanted to get tacos with me.

We sat there, and I laughed as you were amazed by the restaurant’s decorations. We listened in on a conversation behind you, about how random it was. Then, the conversation took a turn. And so did my night.

She started talking about how she attempted suicide at age 12. Then, she said it: “I have bipolar.” In my mind, I screamed.

Last night was supposed to take me out of my mind, get me thinking of anything — just anything other than my mental health issues. But it was there; it had followed me. Maybe it should have made me feel less alone in the struggle, but I just wanted out of that restaurant. I instantly lost my appetite and wanted to run away and hide. You kept me smiling.

You agreed to get coffee with me afterwards, something to cheer me up again. We sat and talked. Not once did either of us mention my depression or anxiety. Bipolar didn’t come up in conversation. I felt normal with you; I didn’t have issues. We laughed and we talked and we enjoyed each other’s company.

If it weren’t for you, I would have gone to bed at 5:30 p.m. I would have wanted to cry myself to sleep, but been unable to show emotion. I would have tossed and turned all night. I would have thought about self-harm, thought about how I would choose to leave this world should I ever hit that point.

Instead, I went to bed and cuddled up with your jacket I “borrowed” from you. I thought of you every time I opened my eyes. We texted for hours after our date. You let me know it’s possible you’ve caught feelings for me. I let you know that I had, too. I smiled. My heart beat. I was alive and feeling. I went to sleep for the first time in I don’t know how long with a genuine smile on my face. All because you made me a priority.

Thank you. Thank you for caring. Thank you for making me laugh. Thank you for saving me from the hell that is nothingness. While I know I’ve got more days like that ahead which I may have to face alone, I know I’ve got someone by my side through it all. I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Love,

The Girl Still Wearing Your Jacket

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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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Bipolar disorder?” I gasped, gazing at the paper my psychiatrist pushed toward me. “What do you mean?”

“That you might want to consider it.”

“I’m not bipolar!” I insisted. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“I’m only saying you might want to consider it, Shalimar, that’s all. I need to prescribe you a different medicine. The one you’re taking right now won’t work for you.”

“No! I don’t want to take another medicine. I want to stay on what I am on right now.”

She gave me an annoyed glance, and peered at her computer.

“Fine.”

No matter how I looked at her, I could only see her grinning smugly at me, taunting me with that kind of diagnosis. I’m not…bipolar! I’m just, well, depressed. Just depressed, like I’ve been all these years. I can’t be bipolar. That’s…well, that’s crazy!

I’m not crazy…

Am I?

As soon as I left the office, I vowed not to return again to that woman, the woman who wrongly diagnosed me. And so, I went to my car, and sat down and cried because I was alone, bipolar and hopeless.

Yet despite my vow, I returned to my psychiatrist and took the medicine I had chosen for myself. However, as I returned to her, I came to resent her. She didn’t exactly have a bedside manner, speaking to me in a blunt and annoying matter of fact tone. She wasn’t the boss of me! I wasn’t going to do what a stranger prescribed me.

So I became non-compliant. That is, I skipped doses and eventually stopped taking the medicine.

It was through my choices that I came to experience the first mixed episode of my life. A mixed episode, a characteristic of Bipolar I, was a combination of depressed and manic moods. The time period this lasted — for about a good year–was one of the worst times in my life.

An episode of bipolar disorder is hard to describe. Heck, any kind of mental illness –bipolar or not, is difficult to describe.

My first discrete mixed episode occurred during the summer before my junior year of undergraduate school. Almost without warning, my moods began to shift, darting between hostile and depressed. I suffered from delusions, believing I was possessed by the devil. And still, on other days, I believed I was a holy savior sent to save all humanity. Still, I believed I was evil, and sought to purify myself through intense prayer and confession.

While these are the most prominent (and startling) examples of tricks my illness played on me, it was the little things, the difficulty leaving the dorm, the inability to concentrate and the feeling of isolation that really kept the illness going. It seemed like it would never run out of steam until one boring September day, when it abruptly ended.

After going through all this, I finally, finally began to think, “OK, maybe something is up.” The first thought, naturally, was my psychiatrist’s idea that I was bipolar. For a while, I began thinking of myself that way, really truly believing that I was bipolar. Yet my thoughts shifted from day to day. One day, I believed I was bipolar, the next I rejected the diagnosis. So I had kind of a flip-flop attitude.

So after not seeing my psychiatrist for several months, I came up with the idea to confront her and demand she tell me why she thought I was bipolar.

As I entered the office, I felt tense and nervous, tangling my hands together and sitting with crossed legs. Finally, my wait ended and I entered her office, taking a seat across from her.

“So….what makes you think I’m bipolar?”

Frustrated with my doubt of her diagnosis, she answered briskly.

“Because you are! You behave like it, think like it, act like it. You are bipolar.”

As she dug into a deeper explanation of why I was so obviously bipolar, I listened, and thought more.

Maybe…I was? It would make sense, given all the grief I’d just experienced.

Maybe.

So I got decided to accept my diagnosis and get better.

I agreed with my psychiatrist. I took my medication. I took care of myself.

But I was still sick. My brain gave me a constant reminder that something was fundamentally wrong with me. I was a flawed person, forever to sit in the shadow of my disorder. Still, I had better days and would doubt my own illness. Sometimes I imagined I was just the victim of a giant prank and that I would wake up one day to find out I was normal. So I spent hours on the computer, googling my symptoms, hoping to find this.

Yet I eventually concluded I was “abnormal.” I then agreed to read a therapy-based book my psychiatrist recommended. At first, I doubted the power of the lengthy 700 page book. But I pressed on, hanging onto a shred of hope that I recover from abnormality. And the therapy worked, much to my own surprise. I began to improve. The negative thoughts plagued my mind began to disappear.

It was then, only then, that I began to realize there might be more to me than my illness. Yet I still clung to this with a vice grip. However, one night, I had a realization; a realization that over-identifying with my mental illness might be unhealthy. Although good, the thought was like a punch to the stomach. Curled up in my bed sheets, I began to cry, not only because the identity pulled me back, but because I realized I could be more.

Immediately, I phoned my boyfriend, telling him about my fear that I couldn’t become something more. As we continued to discuss, he gently suggested I consider all the other identities I had besides being sick. We brainstormed and I came up with these: a woman, a Catholic, a lover, an artist, a friend, a flower. As I slowly thought of myself in those terms, I felt a light began to bloom inside me. I was suddenly larger, more than I had ever been. I wasn’t just larger, I realized, I was free.

To this day, I remind myself of my identities and how I am more than I think. I do things that make me happy: I take my meds, dress in nice clothes, take care of myself, spend time with my boyfriend and write, most importantly. The sum of these things put me on the path toward healing. Yet, I believe healing is a process, and not a goal. Although I struggle some days, I remind myself that I am still healing from my own thoughts and my own illness. Thus, I believe I am better than what I was, and I find this to be true. Always.

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When you hear the word bipolar or the phrase manic depression, are you like most people and automatically visualize two extremes? While this one of the characteristics, some people, like myself, struggle with an additional state, the dreaded mixed state. For me, this is the most difficult to deal with. I think it is also probably the most difficult for others to comprehend because everything about it is contradictory.

How is it to feel two completely opposite emotions/sensations at the same time? It often happens during times of major stress or, interestingly enough, during change of seasons. What makes it so frustrating is that it seems as though every fiber of my being is violently being pulled in opposite directions, and the rope I’m holding onto is quickly fraying and about to snap. Times like these, I so desperately wish one side would pull me over the edge because at least then the tug-of-war would be over.

Recently, I experienced this torture (yes, make no mistake, it is torture), in my mind and body. It is often misunderstood or overlooked. Yet, it needs to be taken seriously since it can often lead to destructive behaviors and, in my experience, is the worst part to deal with. My hope is for you to continue to understand what a person with this diagnosis goes through by describing my experiences. Hopefully, it will assure those who struggle that there truly is someone else who gets it.

Imagine: There is total chaos going on in my brain, and it is the only thing I can focus on. Inside, I feel desperate, but I’m numb. Fear is overwhelming, but part of me is content. I am fidgety, but my body is paralyzed. Agitation saturates every cell within me, but my outer shell is containing it.

I feel inspired by a note from a friend, but I’m convinced I’m useless. I am ready to explode, but it remains contained although bubbling just below the surface. I want to care about something, but everything pisses me off. I ask for help, but when I get it, I feel resentful. I feel stable, but I am choking.

I want more than anything to be dead, but I desperately want to live. I want to bury myself in my bed, but being still is bound to be maddening. I want to scream, but I can’t utter a sound. I want to go into a frenzy of cursing even though I know how completely inappropriate it is, but it’s on the tip of my tongue and shouting obscenities seems so necessary.

I feel something boiling up inside me as I sit on my porch swing, swaying back and forth trying to write. The pen moving across the paper is soothing so I keep going even though I don’t know what I’m saying. I look at the paper and want to tear it to shreds. I know if I was among people, I’d be rambling and my words would fly out of my mouth. Yet, thankfully I am surrounded by silence and say nothing. I sympathize with those who engage in self-harm and wonder if it would help.

The cycle is physical, emotional and psychological and everything clashes into deafening noise triggering the desire to get it out of my body. The intensity of the battle can become unbearable, and with it is the certainly that physical pain, however it is inflicted, will release some of the pressure that is built up inside like a volcano within my bloodstream poised to erupt. My entire body feels as if it’s being ripped to shreds despite all of my efforts to keep it intact.

All of these feelings fire rapidly becoming intertwined. Over the years, I’ve learned how to cope with this so I attempt to summon a strategy that will work. Running to release the tension would be wonderful, but the thought of moving makes me cringe. Praying is absolutely necessary, but quickly, the thought seems absurd. Listening to music would soothe me but that would require effort that I’m not willing to give. Going for a walk in the woods would relax my mind, but it reduces me to tears because I don’t want to put on my shoes.

I run through this list in my mind. It irritates me because I know any and all of those things will help, but I can’t convince myself to take the first step. For what seems like eternity, yet in reality only a blink of the eye, I close my eyes and hope to disappear. The desperation is threatening to take over, but as long as I keep swinging, I’m OK. Eventually, I realize I can’t sit there forever, and if I continue to give in, I will truly lose control. The only thing I am willing to try is a prayer since it will not require movement. All I can bring myself to say is, “God, make it go away.”

Eventually, I am forced to get up. Moving around seems to help. I wonder if God has stepped in. I know I have to force myself to use my coping mechanisms because I do not want disaster to come. I once again ask God to motivate me to keep moving. The battle in my mind and body continues, but it becomes more bearable and some of the negative emotions begin to fade.

Often this state disappears as quickly as it came. Other times it can linger for hours. When I am fortunate enough to fall asleep, the sensations are gone by the time I wake up. If I remember, I pray for just that, sleep.

The word I hate most during this time is “just,” even though I sincerely know others have the best intentions. Yet, this is why I’m writing this. I wish it was as easy as “just.” You know how to cope just do what you need to do. Just pray and God will help you. Just think positive and focus on all you have to be thankful for. Trust me, I just want to do anything other than what I am currently doing. Intellectually, I know what’s necessary, but there is a disconnect that I still struggle to explain, but it’s not for lack of trying.

So please understand, if you are someone who has ever felt this way, I get it! I hate it too. I know how scary it is. You are not alone. Ever. It will pass.

As friends, family, acquaintances, coworkers and fellow human beings, we need to understand people need help, empathy, patience and love no matter how difficult it may be. Our minds and bodies are amazingly complicated. There is so much we need to research and discover when it comes to mental health. Yet, as we learn, we need to create a safe environment where it’s OK to share our scary thoughts and experiences that often are inexplicable because only then will we open the door to understanding.

Be the person to facilitate change. Be the one who shows compassion and reaches out to those who struggle. Be assured when you do, you truly are making a difference!

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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When I tell people I have bipolar disorder, some people say they “understand my experience.” This is fine if they have also been affected by mental illness. However, I can’t help but feel slightly skeptical when people tell me they understand when they haven’t been touched by mental illness. Unless you have been personally affected by it, you don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness when I travel to all the pharmacies in my region so I don’t have to face the embarrassment of going to the same one every weekend because I have at least six prescriptions to fill. Despite these efforts, all the pharmacists still know my name, my meds and my doses. The same can be said for my local pathology clinic where all the nurses know my name, my meds and my blood tests because being on medication that can potentially be toxic requires frequent pathology.

You don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness when I get to the end of winter utterly relieved that I have gotten through my seasonal depression alive. You don’t know mental illness when that same relief is coupled with dismay and despair at having to increase my medications because I’m at risk of summer mania. Yet, these medications make me feel so lethargic, apathetic and flat, question what the point is because it feels similar to depression. I wonder which is worse because they sure as hell don’t feel good either way.

You don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness when I haven’t felt normally tired since I was 18, before things really went down hill. You don’t know mental illness when the thing I miss most is waking up refreshed because my medications make me feel groggy. You don’t know mental illness when the evening is the worst part of the day because the grogginess begins to lift, and I get a glimpse of what life is like without a foggy head. Yet, cruelly it’s also the same time of day when I have to take the medications that cause the foggy head.

You don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness when my friends suggest a holiday away, even a night away, and I have an internal battle between wanting to go and be a normal 26-year-old and feeling utterly terrified of going. I know that even a slight disruption to my sleep routine can make me manic. You don’t know mental illness when I hear of my friends’ big weekend, and I feel bitterly jealous. If I were to do the same, then I’d probably end up in the hospital manic.

You don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness when a friend or family member says, “You seem quite high lately,” when I think I have been going well. Those simple words makes my blood run cold and feel like a punch in the guts. Worse still is when strangers tell me to “smile” when I’m depressed, and I’m just congratulating myself for getting out of the house and keeping myself alive. You don’t know mental illness when I constantly feel like I am being examined as if I’m in a petri dish, and this makes me constantly assess my own actions and words until I feel like an alien in my own skin.

You don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness when the side effects of medications that impact other areas of my health have already begun. You don’t know mental illness when I work hard every day to stay physically fit, but I already have high cholesterol and an underactive thyroid. So at 26, I need to manage health conditions a 26-year-old shouldn’t have to manage, even though to the unknowing person I appear to be in pretty good shape.

You don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness when I still have recurring nightmares about the hallucinations I had when I was psychotically depressed more than two years ago. Some nights, I dread going to sleep. You don’t know mental illness when I sleep on my mother’s bedroom floor when I’m suicidal so I feel safe because I know I won’t hurt myself through the night.

You don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness when people lower their expectations of you purely for having a medical condition. You don’t know mental illness when it takes the things you love like travel, work, friends and partners. You don’t know mental illness when it takes away the one thing you felt sure about, the one thing you could rely on, the one thing you could trust, yourself.

You don’t know mental illness, and you’re lucky.

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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Being a parent and having a bipolar disorder diagnosis is hard. Before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, my world revolved around parenting. As a stay-at-home mom, that was my job. I would have to say I was a really good parent at that time. My son was my pride and joy. He always came first, and I enjoyed spending as much time with him as possible. But after some traumatic events in 2007, I was reduced to fighting an illness I didn’t know much about. The year and a half during which I was clueless about what was going on in my brain was the time I can say I wasn’t that great of a parent.

I remember a time back in 2007 when I was in a mixed state (although I didn’t know what it was at the time), and the nervous energy and depression were waging a war in my mind and body. I couldn’t stop those forces. It felt like I was a bomb about to go off, but I was hanging at that heightened millisecond right before an explosion and never exploding. I had my son with me, and I didn’t know what to do. I called his dad to come pick him up, because I knew he needed to be away from me. At that time, I felt it was crucial to do something to end that constant tension of the mixed state. I put my son in his room and put one of his favorite videos on. I went in the other room, locked the door, and proceeded to bash my head into a wall. That helped relieve some of the tension. As soon as his dad picked him up, I went to the hospital for what seemed like the 100th time to see if they could help me figure out what was wrong. Later on, case workers came by to visit to find out what happened. They told me I was a good mom to still think of my son despite what I was going through. I felt like a horrible mom, because I felt I couldn’t take care of him like a mom should.

Once I was finally diagnosed and on medication, I found it much easier to be a mom. I felt like I had a second chance, and the bond between my son and I grew into what it was before my illness kicked in. The year after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I graduated from college with my bachelor’s degree in education. Juggling parenting and work was difficult, but we somehow managed.

Things started to go south again in 2011, as the medication I was taking for my illness was beginning to destroy my body. I was starting to have horrible health issues: excessive weight gain, thyroid problems, constant colds and flus, easily broken bones. After trying many different medications that didn’t seem to work very well (either caused too much mania or too much depression), I turned to naturopathic medication.

Unfortunately, the naturopathic medication did not work for me. I relapsed, and it was awful. I spent about two months away from my son trying to recover from my relapse; I knew I couldn’t even take care of myself, so I certainly wouldn’t be able to take care of him. His dad was understanding and took care of him on the days that were normally mine. During those two months, I still visited him at his dad’s house and watched him play sports, but I knew I couldn’t take care of him like he deserved until I was stable. Once I was stable, I was able to take him home with me. That was one of the best days of my life.

Since 2012, I have had no issues with my disorder interfering with my ability to be a great parent. I believe the key to being a great parent is to make sure you’re healthy first. Make sure you take your medication regularly and as prescribed, get plenty of sleep, eat healthy and try to exercise. When you’re healthy, your relationships can be healthy. My son and I have a great relationship. We talk, listen, laugh, cry and spend so much time together. Making many memories together is one of the most important parts of parenting for me, because life can change so quickly.

As for the stigma around bipolar disorder and parenting, I feel it is unnecessary. Mothers and fathers diagnosed with bipolar disorder can still be great parents. What some people don’t understand is that bipolar disorder is a medical illness like any other, and it requires medication to treat the symptoms of the illness. If treated, we can be wonderful parents. I am living proof of that.

Editor’s note: Any medical information included is based on a personal experience. For questions or concerns regarding health, please consult a doctor or medical professional.

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A version of this post originally appeared on the International Bipolar Foundation.

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