Young woman beside Christmas lights

Since I was diagnosed with bipolar 1 with psychotic features, you have been asking me a bunch of questions. So, I would like to tell you five things about my condition during this holiday season:

1. I am not “crazy,” and I am not “just doing this” to get attention.

The auditory hallucinations I’m experiencing are because of my condition. I am not making all of this up. Please, stop calling me names and stop asking me if I am “losing it.” I am not.

2. My mood swings are not like your typical mood swings.

Please, stop comparing yourself to me. This is not because it’s “that-time-of-the-month.”

3. My episodes are not by choice.

I am dealing with manic depression. I am not just sad. I am not lazy. I am having trouble getting up in the morning.

4. I am not a killjoy.

I’m sorry if I can’t keep up with the holiday feeling. I’m sorry I barely get out of bed and talk to you. I wanted to, but my body won’t let me. I am too empty to function. I am sorry, too, if you are having troubles keeping up with my mood change. I am sorry if you are confused. I am, too.

5. I want your support and understanding.

I want your love, and I want your respect. I want you to be here for me while I am trying to recover. I want you to understand and accept my condition.

I love you, guys. I need your support and love more than ever. I cannot handle your frowns, frustrations and disappointments. Please, bear with me. Be with me. One more thing, please stop comparing your struggles with me, and please, stop calling me weak. I am trying to survive every day. I am fighting for my life every single day.

Happy holidays.

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I hate the holidays – not in a Scrooge kind of way but in an everyone’s-increased-happiness-is-rubbing-bipolar-disorder-in-my-face-extra-hard kind of way. To make matters worse, my birthday is literally on Christmas Day, so I’m supposed to be the absolutely most excited of anyone else. In reality, it’s just a reminder of all the parties I won’t be having.

I’m not sad. It’s more like Christmas decorations go up, and I can feel my emptiness intensifying or being spotlighted or something. I know emotional repression/depression/dissociation has rendered me incapable of experiencing so-called Christmas spirit, and then there’s the – surprise – guilt that comes with being unable to feel what I know I should. But I always play the part because god forbid my mental illnesses get accused of bringing other people down during the most wonderful time of the year. Plus, I always think there might finally be enough lights, garland, and ugly sweaters in the world to temporarily inflate my empty husk into something that resembles a person. Not to mention that manic Allie loves all the stuff, but I have unfortunately come to terms with still being in a depressive episode for the foreseeable future.

I can’t possibly be alone in this. Whether the holidays are imbued with a greater spiritual significance for people or not, there’s always a vague emptiness that accompanies a sea of unwrapped presents. A feeling of “OK, what next? Wait. That’s all?” For me, it’s like eating a great meal really fast. I don’t even remember what it tasted like. I just know I’m miserable now.

Sure, there’s family and all that jazz, but the immense pressure put on making the holidays a time for intense bonding and a setting aside of differences takes me out of the present moment enough to forget I’m supposed to be enjoying myself.

The first Christmas I spent with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) (my other mental illness) really threw me for a loop because, while surrounded by my entire family, I had this persistent and intrusive thought that one of us wouldn’t be around for the next Christmas. Did this come to fruition? Obviously not, but there’s something about the combined newness of my birthday, Christmas, and New Years that really sends my anxiety into overdrive. Like the possibilities for terrible things to happen has just been rewound and set back into motion. Relentless pessimism, anyone?

Plus, the whole idea of a “fresh start” just reiterates to me how out of control I am, and with people throwing the word “resolution” around like it’s nothing, my inability to choose my mood/state of mind is constantly being brought back to the forefront of my everyday life. Since I’m in my last year of college, this year’s “fresh start” is particularly loaded. Four or five Christmases ago, I was a gifted kid with a lot of promise. Now, I’m behind my peers in every sense of the word and lack all motivation to regain my footing.

Trust me. I’ve done the whole “fresh start” thing before. Every time I feel even the slightest reprieve from my depression, I attempt to get my life together. When I finally have a plan in place, depression or hypomania can completely and utterly destroy it. So why bother trying to fight the wrecking ball of my moods and anxiety? There are so many things I want to and know I can do, but I am always caught off guard and suddenly at the mercy of my mind at the worst possible moments. But that’s a little bit of a digression.

I’ve definitely been trying to channel my holiday-induced hyperawareness of my mental illnesses into humor or irony in the past few weeks, but the reality is completely absent of humor. I unironically live with this every day, and neither I nor anyone else with a mental illness wants pity because of that. Just know that for all the Christmas-spirit-killing my honesty does, it pales in comparison to fighting tooth-and-nail just to exist and inhabit a reality that vaguely looks like normalcy from the outside. I’m tired of feeling selfish for not being able to push my mental illnesses to the side during moments of objective happiness.

The holidays – no matter which ones people celebrate – carry such a profound sense of “another year down, X amount of years left” for those of us with mental illnesses (and I have a birthday in there, to boot), and guess what? That is depressing, so it makes sense that no one wants to hear that during the holidays or any other time, for that matter.

Yesterday, my school held its ceremonial lighting of campus, and all I could think about was how detached I felt from everyone and everything around me. All the people laughing, hugging, and singing forced me to step back and reckon with my inability to genuinely partake in those things.

But this isn’t a sob story. I think it’s important to remember that people don’t magically get better just because the season is supposed to be magical. If I were scared to be vocal about my mental illnesses or otherwise having to struggle in silence, I would want my lack of holiday spirit validated, so that’s what this post is for more than anything else. It’s OK to not be OK even when everyone expects circumstances to suddenly lift people’s spirits.

I can acknowledge that my current depressive episode, anxiety, and OCD aren’t going anywhere. I can also congratulate myself for making it another year even though I don’t particularly look forward to the year ahead, but that sentiment, of course, is operating under the assumption that I won’t feel any differently in the near future. But I’m taking steps toward getting better. So maybe that should be the resolution of people with mental illness: remembering how far we’ve come and remembering that our state of mind doesn’t have to be permanent, but it’s totally fine if we aren’t progressing as fast as we had hoped. Truth be told, progress is simply making it to see another holiday season.

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Thinkstock photo by CentralITAlliance

Stigma is a [email protected]#r-letter word. (I know there are actually six, but bear with me: as a metaphor connecting stigma to the various four-letter swear words commonly used in English, it works.)

I am speaking of the stigma that still surrounds mental illness and the lack of empathy and understanding that follows – and that’s at best. At worst, blatant discrimination is the result. Stigma is inappropriate, unnecessary and offensive. Truly a four-letter word.

I came to this realization through the unique experience of being diagnosed with both a major physical illness (a heart defect leading to open-heart surgery) and a mental illness (bipolar disorder). It was in comparing the two experiences, both personally and professionally, that I realized the destructive power of stigma, which is very prevalent with respect to mental illness but sometimes nonexistent with other more known illnesses.

The reality was that years after fixing one major organ with open-heart surgery, it appeared another, this time my brain, wasn’t working properly. Despite the similarities of the illnesses – in both cases, a major organ had a biological failure that created dramatic symptoms – there was nothing similar about the two experiences.

First, there was the challenge of self-stigma, which was so strong that for nearly two years I refused treatment and actually tried to find my way back to health through the sheer force of will and determination (as though that was a viable option).

Stigma reared its ugly head in a second, external way. This time it came in the form of confusion, discomfort, judgment and at times outright discrimination in the minds of those around me. This happened regularly and not only with those in my professional life but also those in my social life and family. It was jarring to realize all of the support, unconditional love and empathy that came my way when my heart wasn’t working was nowhere to be seen now that my brain was failing.

After finally letting go of stigma, I began to treat my illness properly – as a medical illness that required my attention, research and, ultimately, treatment. This approach lead to a successful return to full health within six months and, for the vast majority of the days since June, 2005, I have been living well with bipolar disorder.

Once I fully “owned” my illness, I realized I had the opportunity to help others by sharing my experience. Very few people have faced both a physical and mental illness, recovered, are willing to speak about it, and are effective public speakers. My degree in Theatre and Speech Communication, along with my interest in public speaking, provided the final ingredient.

So, in 2006, I started talking.

My message was, and still is, very clear: stigma continues to exist regarding mental illness because of fear and a lack of understanding. It may often be innocent, but it doesn’t belong, and education is the first step toward eradicating it. We should never again speak of mental illness in any other terms than what it is – an illness.

If you know someone with a mental illness (and statistics say you probably do) or if you have one yourself, be a part of the effort to clean up our act.

Stigma is a [email protected]#r-letter word. Let’s get rid of it.

Follow this journey on Empower Professional Services.

Thinkstock image by Victor Tongdee

Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

I have bipolar disorder. I’ve had it since early adolescence, though I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 19-years-old.

Throughout the years, I have dealt with soul-crushing depressions, euphoric manias that made me feel like I could do anything and dysphoric manias that reminded me why bipolar disorder isn’t the greatest gift the universe has given me.

In the past four years, I have gained a fair amount of weight, mostly from medication side effects. And as much as I pride myself on being a body-positive feminist, seeing my rounded face and arms makes me feel, shall we say, uncomfortable.

You see, up until I started taking antipsychotics, I had been thin my whole life. I didn’t always believe I was thin, but that was only because my idea of the ideal body type was rather unrealistic and unhealthy.

By the time I accepted my body for how it was, I was a freshman in college. A depressed college freshman. I couldn’t find the energy and cognitive stamina to study adequately for my classes, which affected my grades. I wasted seven hours of my time online every day. By contrast, I studied for maybe 30 minutes daily. I had a difficult time making friends, so I ate almost all my meals alone. And let me tell you, loneliness by itself can make you miserable, even if you are not clinically depressed.

The most severe symptom I experienced was a pervasive sense of worthlessness. I hated myself. I thought I was stupid, lazy and awkward. I had no friends because I wasn’t good enough for friends. My life was in shambles because I wasn’t strong and worthy enough to put it back together. I had fallen off the wagon, lost my place in life as someone who deserved to be here.

Honestly, the only thing I liked about myself at 19 was my figure.

I was diagnosed in April of 2011, towards the tail end of my sophomore year. I started medication in August, and quickly figured out not every pill works for every person. My depression my sophomore year was the worst I had ever had. For the first time in my life, I started seriously fantasizing about taking my life.

I tried three combinations of medications by August of 2012. One was marginally effective, but I was experiencing side effects, so my doctor and I decided to try for something better.

In early August of 2012, my doctor started me on a new medication. I had no expectation the medication would work, but within a few weeks my life and mood had changed so drastically I forgot I even had a mood disorder. I got closer to the few friends I had and I reached out to make new ones. I enjoyed my classes more, though I still hadn’t recovered my dedication. Best of all, I felt alive again, after feeling undead for years.

I was having such a good time I didn’t even notice the weight gain until November. I got on my parents’ scale while home on break and saw I had gained weight. Honestly, I didn’t even care. I was just so happy to be free.

But the pounds kept coming and coming. Antipsychotics have a strong track record for causing weight gain in patients and my medication is one of the worst ones. My pants got tighter. When my weight climbed again, I decided I wanted my old body back.

A little under a year after starting the new medication, I convinced my doctor to switch me to a different drug. In the summer of 2013 we switched my medication. When I developed severe nausea and vomiting on it, we tried a different one. That one caused my obsessive anxiety to spike through the roof. I was constantly on edge about situations that were unlikely happen, wondering how I would survive if I ever become homeless or if I would go to hell when I died.

By the end of the summer, I was back on my original medication. We knew it worked well, with the weight gain being the only side effect.

By December 2013, the medication lost its effectiveness. I began ultra-rapid cycling, being up and down several times a week. I crashed into violent suicidality every two to three weeks. We increased my medication and then further increased a few weeks later.

By the fall of 2014, I had had enough. The medication wasn’t working and I hated my body. I had gone up a few dress sizes and had gained more weight than I ever wanted. In October of 2014, everything fell apart and I had my first and only psychiatric hospitalization. While in the hospital, I was told I was hypertensive and prediabetic. This medication had to go.

I tried different combinations of medications. In the next year and a half, I graduated from a masters program, got a job I loved, lost that job, began dating the love of my life and started medical school. But one thing I didn’t lose was the weight. In fact, I am now significantly heavier than I was before I started antipsychotics.

I may be bigger, but I also am happier, healthier and more content with my life than I have ever been before.

Four years ago, I was skinny and the only thing I liked about myself was my weight. Now I am chubby and virtually the only thing I don’t like about my life is my size.

I am learning to accept my new body. It is still the same miraculous biological machine it was when it was lighter. And while I still hope to lose the weight someday, I believe my happiness makes me more beautiful than my thinness ever did.

My flabby stomach and lack of a thigh gap tell a story about my life. They are the result of a strong woman getting help for her mental health problem, deciding she didn’t want to be miserable anymore. I am proud I survived the storm. I am proud I was brave enough to seek treatment.

Our bodies are beautiful, regardless of their sizes. Always be proud of who you are and where you’ve been. You deserve to be alive and happy – I can confidently say it is worth it.

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

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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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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