When Happiness Isn't a Choice in Life With Bipolar Disorder


“Happiness is a choice.”

“Wake up every day and choose to be happy.”

“Nothing will make you happy unless you decide to be happy.”

“Happy people do not have the best of everything. They make the best of everything.”

These optimistic messages are scattered everywhere. They are in the titles of self-help books, the bold headlines in magazines, trending on Pinterest and featured in your best friend’s Instagram bio. They may even echo off of the lips of your sweet grandmother as she gives you a batch of homemade cookies along with some words of wisdom from her many years of life experience.

These quotes state that happiness is a commodity. They say we alone are responsible for its presence in our lives and that it can be accessed at any point if we try hard enough to unlock it. The problem with these messages is not the happiness part in itself (because of course happiness is a good thing). However, the problem lies in the fact that they present happiness in a way that diminishes the struggles of a life that is not, as much as we all want it to be, always sunshine and rainbows.

For every person who gets out of bed early and greets the day with an open armed “hello,” there is another person who does not get out of bed at all. Instead, their mind is telling their body it is immobilized and that it is simply not possible for them to greet the day. I know, because I have been both of these people. I, however, always seemed to take it to the next level.

I have been the bubbly, goofy, annoyingly positive girl who talks-a-thousand-miles-per-minute-and-has-the-motivation-of-a thousand-women-and-is-not-tired-because-how-could-you-be-tired-in-a-life-that-is-this-inexplicably-awesome. These days were wonderful but exhausting, exciting yet terrifying and brought out the best and worse in me. Though I was fun and bubbly, I was also impulsive and incredibly irritable. I would get increasingly angry at any small thing I perceived to be hindering my happiness. I felt as though these feelings were justified when they largely were not. I was like a pot that was trying to boil over but couldn’t. It was at first awesome and then terribly annoying.

I tried to hide the fact that my brain wouldn’t stop, and I hid the negatives pretty well. I was the only one who knew the extent of the havoc this “happy” was wreaking on me. On these days, I couldn’t remember what it was like to be sad.

I have also been the other girl, the “broken” girl. The girl who doesn’t have much to say at all. The girl who gives a slight smile or sympathetic laugh to your attempts to cheer her up because she doesn’t have any sense of humor left. The girl who stays home “sick” because she cannot will herself to face a life that doesn’t seem to be worth living anyway.

I would lie in my bed motionless and pretend like I didn’t exist because it felt pointless to even try. It was a cross between feeling every unpleasant emotion all at once and at the same time not feeling anything at all. Trying to reach in to my core and find the hidden ocean of happiness that was allegedly hidden inside of me was like trying to quench my thirst with an empty water bottle. On these days, I couldn’t comprehend happiness or remember what it was like to be happy. I didn’t have any interest in being happy either.

The sad days came much more often than the happy ones, and when the happy ones did come, they were not without consequences. I couldn’t live life in the “in between,” so I would sleepwalk through the dark days semi-functioning until a jolt of dizzy euphoria would bring me back to the “bright” ones.

I don’t think many people could notice how dark the “dark” days truly were. Most of the time, I was good at hiding them. Sure, others noticed sometimes, but I looked like I had it under control. I hid my pain because I was bombarded with these messages that sadness wasn’t OK. I thought if I tried hard enough to hide it and push it down that my sad feelings would somehow go away and be replaced with happy ones.

This however, did not happen. This was, as it turned out, because my “sad” feelings were not just sad, and my “happy” feelings were not just happy. “Sad” was actually depression, and “happy” was actually hypomania.

So what does that mean exactly? Well, I actually am not in control of my emotions or my happiness. This means I have a legitimate yet invisible illness that I cannot just will away, and I will have to take medication for the rest of my life to maintain any form of contentment.

I have bipolar II disorder, and there is not anything that anyone can say to me to change this. There are no number of quotes or words of wisdom that can “fix” me, and even if I try to will it away with every fiber of my being, it will not happen.

I am not writing this to merely tell my story, but to raise awareness about mental illness and give a separate point of view. We all are worthy of happiness, but not all of us get it at the exact moment we want it. We all want to be happy in the underlying, content sort of way, but brains get sick sometimes, too.

Maybe instead of saying happiness is a choice, we can say kindness is a choice. Instead of shaming others into feeling as though they don’t have a right to cry, we could give them a reason to smile. We honestly and truly never know the battles another person is fighting, but we can make those battles a little less dark if we let in a little light.

We all have a light inside of us. Sure that light may fluctuate and that candle may get blown out, but shame will not make the flame come back. Instead of pointing fingers at those whose flame is gone, we can give them some of our own flame and both grow stronger.

Internal struggles are powerful, but I’ll be damned if love and kindness isn’t immensely stronger than them. We are so much more than our illnesses and current circumstances. I will end with my favorite quote, one that I believe is true for all people in all situations and at any point in time. The quote that proves to all of us that every feeling, no matter how good, bad or unbearable it is, will at some point go away: “This too shall pass,” and we will all be OK.

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