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What I'm Doing to Protect My Mental Health as an Anxiety-Ridden Bipolar Activist

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“My desire to be informed is in conflict with my need to stay sane.”

I’ve seen this as a meme, and it’s funny — but there’s a measure of biting truth in it for me and others with mental illness. Especially those who deal with grandiosity, or feelings and beliefs of “larger than life,” “most awesome at ____” or my fall back, “I’m going to change the world!” Sometimes this is a good thing, sometimes not so much.

In word and deed, it is my responsibility to support my fellow humans. In doing so though, it’s imperative I not lose my mind along the way. There is a unique struggle for those dealing with manic thoughts (see above examples) and need to contain their little activist hearts a bit more than usual these days.

I can get all twisted up in the imagery and words that come across my screen. Obsess on the latest article or terrible thing that’s happening. I can see in my mind’s eye the visuals, real or imagined, of the atrocities taking place. I mostly just try to push them out or imagine flowers or some such bullshit that I learned a dozen plus years ago.

Of course, at the same time as all that goes on, I want to be informed. The problem with that is then I become aware of things. Sometimes really horrific things. Once I’m aware of things I have to do something about them, otherwise I am complicit in the outcome. It’s sort of like the “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” books, but for anxiety-ridden bipolar activists.

So, going back to staying informed while maintaining “sanity.” I’m choosing one thing to do. Just one. For me and many others, with and without mental illness, the idea of being silent in the face of the potential for devastating tyranny is unthinkable. However, it doesn’t need to be insurmountable if handled with care.

Just choose one thing. Start from there.

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The 'Hard' Exterior of a Man With Bipolar Disorder

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For many, and for me as a man, pride can get in the way when it comes to opening up about my struggles with mental illness. When you are supposed to be strong, and silent, and successful in the societal sense, you shouldn’t project any kind of weakness.

But fear is also at work too. How much can I say, and how much will I allow myself to ask for? People will surely think I am sick, that I am damaged, that I cannot contribute as a productive and healthy member of society. “He’s bipolar, he’s this, he’s that, he’s not maybe right for us.”

And how do I go about saying it? Of letting it out slowly and honestly, so I am truer to myself? How much support will I allow myself to receive from people, in a true sense, a modest sense?

It has taken a long time to be able to admit to myself, a seemingly well-put together person, that I could possibly be afraid of speaking to people or be afraid my words won’t ring true, that I’m faking it, that I might sound ridiculous, or that, well, you know, I’m acting like I’m confident, but inside I am shy. I’m from a successful family; I couldn’t possibly be insecure or afraid of certain situations that others may quite possibly glide easily through.

It takes incremental steps to forgive myself. Because the shame of living in your own inner darkness, when you are trying to project to the world that you are a well-put together human, is an utterly exhausting exercise.

“He couldn’t possibly be insecure or have low self-confidence. He has a job and a wife, and he did well in college, and, well, he looks OK.”

So, it comes down to being honest with myself. OK, shrink down the demons, put them in a manageable perspective. OK, so I couldn’t get the talk right because I was nervous and shaky and a little inadequate with my feelings today. Well, it was maybe good enough. I showed up and did it at least 50 percent well. And if I have to call in sick, I have to call in sick. And admit to myself that, “Hey, you don’t have it today. Maybe you’ll have it tomorrow. And that’s OK.” It’s OK to be off your game, to admit that, “Well, I just don’t think I can do it today.” And this honesty, this nudging of the pride, has been a step in facing a horrible illness but knowing I did my best with what I had that day.

Out of shame and pain and difficult moments of depression when you think everything is as bland as bland can be, when your deepest thoughts are broken, when you feel you can’t go on longer, that hope has left you forever, wonderful richness can arise, over time. But, as I go there, I have to use language that complements the real me and doesn’t exaggerate the demons I have. Accept I have issues, be open in a way that doesn’t compromise myself, and in that I mean building things up in my head, often projecting them in an inauthentic way, that don’t reflect the true person I am.

So, being hard on myself is ingrained. It is part of who I am. It helps me in many ways to “succeed” in a conventional sense, but it does not serve. It is not serving the person I am and the person I strive to be. For, I am not a hard person. I am a person who is extremely hard on himself. I was just acting like a confident, stable, successful, strong and silent man because that was the way I thought the world wanted me to present myself. And when the insides are in conflict with your true nature, depression and anger and sadness mount. A man like me has bottled these things up for so long, living in a shroud of fear and insecurity.

But I want to be softer. I am softer now because I have learned how to let out my inner feelings in a more sustainable, cautious and natural way. I am less afraid to reveal my feelings, and to do this you have to trust yourself. Then you can trust others who can provide support and compassion. I use softer language now, tell the hard pride to just go rest for a while, I don’t need you to overwhelm me today. It’s OK to be soft and open and honest, to show weakness, to let down your guard in your way, to do it in a way that works for you — even for a man others might look at and say, “Wow, he’s so strong and confident.” While inside the story is different. And it is OK to tell yourself too. And to tell others in the language of your choosing. “I’m trying my best with what I’ve got. And that is enough. I am enough…”

I will play with you and tussle with you gently, pride and shame, but I will not let you engulf me anymore.

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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My Life as an Activist With Bipolar Disorder

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Activism isn’t easy. It takes dedication, drive, effort, energy and more work than you can imagine. You dedicate yourself to a cause you believe in, putting your entire self, sometimes even more than you think you have inside of yourself, into it. You are the face of your cause, you are in the trenches, you plan and stage protests, you can put yourself in danger for the sake of what you believe in, you raise your voice for your cause, and sometimes you raise your voice for those who wish to but can’t raise their voices with you. 
Recently I took part in a political demonstration in which I was forcefully removed by police officers, held in handcuffs for hours, and detained in a holding cell for even longer. During this entire action, I felt no fear or stress. I remained calm and proud the entire time (even while detained) and had no trouble keeping my composure throughout the entire ordeal.

In the end, we were released with no charges. I felt empowered, invigorated, excited and proud for the stand that my movement made that day.

These feelings lasted for the remainder of the day.

I woke up the next day feeling incredibly, utterly low. I didn’t want to get out of bed, I didn’t want to speak, I didn’t want to move.

However, my fellow activist who had accompanied me to New York warmly encouraged me to rise, to get ready for the day, to prepare ourselves to go to the courthouse to respond to the summons we had received the previous day at our protest. She even went down the street to the nearest Starbucks and brought us each back a coffee. She knows I have bipolar disorder, but I don’t think she fully understands, as many people don’t, the entire scope of what I go through.

I was drained, I was depressed, and more than anything I was irritable. The events of the previous day, as proud and happy as I was about them, had taken the effect I had feared they would. It had triggered me into a lull, which remains as I write this four days later.

I do not regret what I did, I do not regret being a part of an activist group that fights for equality for women, minorities and oppressed people everywhere.

The point of this, I suppose, is to explain that despite all the happiness I have the ability to feel, more than anything I can feel there is no point at all. My high days are exquisite, and I feel I can accomplish anything. I make plans for elaborate trips across the world despite having $30 in the bank. I convince myself I am a gift to the world, that I am important, essential for the earth to keep spinning.

My low days consist of immobility, irritation, crushing sadness, paranoia and hopelessness. Medication helps the mania a bit, but I’ve yet to find any medication cocktail that takes the unbearable sadness away.

Despite all of this, there is a part of me, a spark, a tiny fire inside that keeps me going. I know my bad days will end, I know my good days are fleeting, I’m beginning to understand and recognize my mania as the years pass after my diagnosis of bipolar 1. I know I am important, but I also know I’m no more important than any other living person in this world.

I know these things to be fact, but at times it’s just hard to remember.

In finding my voice in activism, I found a cause, I found drive, I found purpose. I cannot stop fighting for what I believe in, which mirrors the battle I fight inside myself every day. We all matter, we are all deserving of love, and we must remember this, even on our bad days. We must never give up the fight.

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Why I Stay in My House All Day as Someone With Bipolar Disorder

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Maybe you would call me an introvert.

I stay in the house for weeks at a time, never sticking my nose out into the fresh air. I wear pajamas all day, most days. My husband does the grocery shopping, picks up my prescriptions and does most of the other errands.

I go out when I have a doctor’s appointment or when Dan entices me out with the promise of a restaurant meal.

I don’t consider myself an introvert.

I do consider myself a social person.

Why then, do I stay indoors?

First, because my bipolar disorder and anxiety makes me sensitive to noise and crowds. I can handle being in small groups of people or audiences, but hundreds milling around — like at the mall — make me panicky. And forget places that are both noisy and people-y, like Chuck E. Cheese or other family-intensive restaurants.

Second, I like to be social, but on my own terms. That largely means Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, various online bipolar support groups, IM, email, Skype and the good old-fashioned telephone. For example, in the years I’ve been on Facebook, I’ve connected more deeply with old friends and coworkers, reconnected with old schoolmates and Girl Scout troop members, gained new relationships with friends of friends and discovered things I never knew about my acquaintances. I keep up with birthdays, look at baby, travel and pet pictures and cheer on accomplishments, as I would in person. (Except for the hugs. Virtual hugs are just not the same. But my husband picks up the slack there.)

Most of all, I stay inside because I can. My husband enables me in this, like when he does the grocery shopping. We tried splitting the shopping, but even with the little runabout scooter with a basket (I have mobility issues), I was overwhelmed and exhausted after shopping in half the store.

I’m able to work — at least some — and the work I do is conducive to telecommuting. I can sit in front of my keyboard and monitor in my pajamas and still be a useful, productive member of society. I have clients and interact with them in the aforementioned ways. I haven’t had an assignment involving leaving the house in years — not even to do research. I used to have to visit libraries occasionally and while they’re not known for being noisy and people-y, Google and the internet put virtually any information I need right on my screen or hard drive.

Admittedly, getting out into the fresh air would be good for me. We live in a nice secluded area good for walking and there are any number of parks nearby, if I want variety. I know going out and getting at least a small amount of exercise would be good for my bipolar depression, but I haven’t been able to force myself to do it yet. Going outside to walk involves getting out of my jammies into real clothes and possibly taking a shower, either before I leave or when I get back. And many of you know what a challenge showers are for people with depression, bipolar or otherwise.

But again, this is a symptom of my bipolar disorder and the immobility it causes, rather than introversion. I’m not afraid of meeting people while out walking or even having conversations with them. Usually “hi” is all that’s needed in these situations and I have the ability to make small amounts of small talk appropriate to the occasion. (“Sure is windy today.” “Are those shoes comfortable?”) Since I seem to be riding a hypomanic swing these days, perhaps I’ll be able to get out and walk occasionally. I know my husband would heartily endorse the idea and most likely go with me to offer me encouragement.

Bottom line? I can go out amongst people if I want to. I just usually don’t want to.

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What My Co-Workers Did When My Son Was Diagnosed With Bipolar Disorder

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Our “new normal” began the year my 10-year-old son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And, it was hardly “normal” at all.

Life at home was a whirlwind of long days and longer nights, helping calm our son’s manic states: dinners out and far too much money spent, my husband and I tag teaming, trying to console him and keep a semblance of routine in the house for him and his little brother. Restaurants often served as the only diversion that could provide a little peace in the evening, and no one had a spare minute to cook.

Bedtime was often spent convincing our son to go for a ride in the car; it was the only way to soothe him so he could fall asleep. Otherwise, he would continue cycling, which meant pacing and muttering or lying in his bed staring at the ceiling because his brain was stuck on something and he couldn’t force it to be “unstuck.”

It was a constant cycle: trying medication after medication, with side effect after side effect. We even put him into a partial hospitalization program for awhile. Both my husband and I frequently missed work days when our son’s regular school would call abruptly and ask us to pick him up because he was assessed as suicidal or he was sobbing because he was so depressed at school.

Our hearts were breaking in a million pieces while our son wondered what was happening to him — to his brain. “There can’t be a god. Because if there was a god up there, I wouldn’t feel like this. No god would ever do this to someone,” he would say. Or, “My head is so mixed up. I hate my brain.”

After a typical evening, we would all finally drift into an exhausted sleep. I would wake again at midnight, sobbing for an hour because I couldn’t believe this was happening to my sweet, sensitive, beautiful 10-year-old son. My husband comforted me with whispers during the night of, “We’ll get through this. He’ll be OK. I know he’ll be OK.”

I’m a special education teacher, and sometimes during the school day, I would cry in the bathroom for a few minutes and then quickly wipe my tears to put on a happy face for my students. A few kept asking, “Why are you gone so much?” so I finally had to let their parents and the school administration know we were having “family struggles” at home.

The holidays crept up on me that year, and in no way did I feel ready for them or have my usual enthusiasm. The only gifts I had time to find were for the few people who had spent endless hours with my son when he couldn’t make it through his classes. So, I was completely taken by surprise one morning just before winter break, to find an envelope lying on my desk with my name written on it. I tore it open, and a card was inside.

The message simply read, “We pitched in so you could buy something nice for your family this holiday season.” There was a crisp $100 bill inside.

Although there were no names on the card, I knew immediately it was from my friends (and colleagues) in the special education department. My heart was warmed by their kindness. I couldn’t believe they had put this together right under my nose and I didn’t even notice! I almost cried, but my smile was too wide.

At that moment, I could envision winter break as a peaceful island in the midst of our chaotic lives. I was grateful people cared that much.

I thanked them profusely.

“We know times have been hard. Just treat yourself,” they said.

I knew exactly what to do with this gift.

I planned an after-holidays overnight for our family at a water park, about an hour from home. It would help with the certain-to-be-devastating letdown following the excitement of Christmas.

I knew it would be a good time for a getaway. Time to forget about the reality of life. Time to take some real family time. The kids would be distracted with the water park and dining out. We could all float around in the water, relax, and forget about our troubles for a while.

That is almost exactly what happened. But of course, life is not a fairy tale, and there were bumps in the road on the trip, literally and figuratively.

I panicked whenever my oldest son would leave our sight. We stayed up too late, and our oldest woke at the crack of dawn, looking to us for entertainment. And he still had moments when he wanted to be alone, or I’d catch him with a sad, faraway look on his face.

But I mostly remember the good parts: the boys’ smiles and the feel of the wave pool, their faces as they shot down the water slides and were soaked by the spray; dinner and soda pop and family time, and watching movies in the room together. We roamed around and looked at ice sculptures and went on a real carriage ride with horses. We drank steamy hot chocolate after coming in from the cold. Barbecue was our comfort food, and it never tasted better.

I heard a noise I hadn’t heard in a while. It was the boys playing, shrieking, squirting each other, the sound of my oldest son’s laughter. It was a loud, uncontrolled laugh, a genuine “I can’t stop” chortle. That is my favorite sound in the world.

Although it was only two days and one night, it felt longer. For a time, my husband and I weren’t stressed out with everyday life, running around trying to make everyone happy. Our son was able to leave his troubles behind, and his head felt better, for a while. He played with his brother. I was able to take pleasure in each small moment because there was finally a string of small moments to take pleasure in.

I will always remember the generosity of my friends at work and the reason we were able to create those memories. We would never have planned that getaway, or even thought about it, if it weren’t for that gift.

Editor’s note: This story has been published with permission from the author’s son.

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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Why I'm Pledging to Be 'Real' About My Struggles With Bipolar Disorder

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I like to say I’m in recovery from my bipolar disorder. I’m stable, I have a job, I take care of my family and I’m able to function somewhat successfully in society.

I’ve probably been on this glorious plateau for about two years now.

What does recovery look like? It looks like you or me, to be honest. It looks like an average Joe going to work each day. It looks like your typical mum cooking dinner for her kids. It also looks like doctor visits every month and lots of pills. It looks like long hours on the couch with a therapist.

In the midst of this recovery, I’ve been a writer, and have blogged my journey to where I am now. However, I haven’t always been honest in my writings, which is out of alignment with my core values. I believe in being authentic, and telling the real story, no matter how ugly I think it is.

I’ve been a mental health advocate for several years now, and I know people look up to me for how much I’ve overcome. And since I know this, sometimes it’s been difficult to ask for help when I’ve started to decompensate. I don’t want to look like a failure, or no longer seem like a role model.

When I’ve gone the solo route, and kept quiet about my internal struggles, shit got real, super fast. There have been times over the last five years when I’ve quit my meds cold turkey, and well, I’m sure you can guess what happened. I ended up in the hospital after a suicide attempt. There have been times when I’ve felt the darkness, which is similar to the Nothing, take over me and take away everything good I’ve ever known.

And the worst part about these struggles? I didn’t share them. I kept quiet about them, like it was something to be ashamed of. I honestly felt like a failure because I had slid backwards. There’s no logical reason for that, relapse is always a possibility with bipolar disorder.

I never shared my struggles while I was in the midst of them. I only would share once I’d recovered and was stable. I feel like this is a huge disservice to others.

I should’ve shared my struggles as they were happening. That is what an authentic person would do. People need to see the dips of mental illness just as much as they need to see the highs.

I feel I can give hope to others if I’m struggling myself, yet I continue to reach out and help others.

I’d like to make a pledge. A pledge to be more real in my writings, and more real of how I’m actually doing. It’s not fair to the people who look up to me to only see the best I have to offer. They need to see that I’m human, with fallibility, and I can fall as well.

I think it’s just as important for people to see me struggle because then they get to see me rise as I regain control of my internal demons, and take control once again.

Who will join me in pledging to be a more genuine person in regards to your mental illness? Who will be more candid about their struggles, and more open about their demons?

Now, I’m not recommending you blast your story all over the internet (unless you want to of course), because you should only share your story with the people who’ve earned the right to hear it. What I’m saying is be more open with these people. Be more open in general.

You might be surprised at the connections you make with this new level of authenticity.

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.

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