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What 'Bipolar Obsessiveness' Is Like for Me

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I went to a Natalie Diaz poetry reading yesterday, and it was — apart from being amazing — the only good thing that has evoked an emotional response from me in months. I mostly cry when someone catches me doing something mildly terrible, like checking my email in class or when I have to reckon with the mountain of work that causes me extreme existential distress, while simultaneously requiring completion in order to keep me on a trajectory towards a future I am preemptively resenting. Objectively stressful tasks like job applications and finals cause me exactly 0 percent of my anxiety, or if they do contribute to my anxiety, it’s in an indirect way. It’s the obsessive tangents that manage to work me up and derail me.

And let’s just say Natalie Diaz’s poetic advice was of little help.

She said, and I quote, to “lean into your obsessions.” Thanks for the very Sheryl Sandberg-esque tip, but I’m already constantly looking over the event horizon of my obsessive void into the concentrated mass of unimportant tangents that actively threaten to stretch me into nothingness at any given moment. So “leaning in” sounds a lot like succumbing to my lack of control over the things that create an internal illusion of having control. Fun.

Yet I’ve found attempting to combat obsessions can basically be tantamount to giving in to them. Trying to pull a thought relevant to reality out of my brain without dredging up a scenario that will literally never come to fruition feels impossible. Obviously, the unreal scenarios are more appealing, and with manic grandiosity telling me anything is possible or depressive hopelessness telling me nothing in the real world matters anyway, whatever obsession my brain dug out of its recesses can fester endlessly.

For me, obsessions include but are not limited to poetry, eyebrow plucking, eating only 1,000 calories, other random beauty rituals, hand-washing, showering, texting some boy I met once and have now romanticized into the impossible, streamlining my closet, optimizing space in my room, drinking, how the world alternates between grayscale and Clarendon, and my oscillation between god-complex and self-loathing.

None of these things may seem that detrimental on their own, but combined and given the power to relentlessly derail any remotely productive train of thought I have, they’re the worst. My brain is one massive detour, but I’m unaware of this until I see other people’s brains leading them to some tangible destination. You know, like a job or grad school or whatever. And mine’s just over here like, “Count the number of ripples when a raindrop hits that puddle, and if it’s more than five, that’s a sign you should talk to the next guy you see,” or “Hear those song lyrics? Do exactly what they say.”

Obsession combined with either a surplus of energy or feverish lethargy can be disastrous. The former ensures the broken record can keep twitching well into the night, and the latter propels me into a state of obsessive inertia, because I’m too exhausted to try to move.

When either of those instances reaches its peak, what was once an impossible idea is no longer distinguishable from the possible. I’m not out of touch with reality per se, but it does become extremely difficult to know what’s an emotion/thought versus what’s a symptom. And suddenly I think, “Maybe I am one giant symptom. I am mental illness incarnate. This is a conspiracy. Maybe.”

I want to think my obsessions are as simple as me trying to cope with all those pent-up emotions that periodically get released in inopportune and seemingly minuscule instances, but that implies I have more control over them than I actually seem to. If I could just say, “OK, brain. Dissociate through obsession,” then maybe I would actually enjoy it, but it’s more like my brain is like, “Time to obsess over things that simultaneously represent your nameless emotions and allow you to project your emotions onto them so you can not deal with — but still be affected by — your emotions in a really roundabout way,” a.k.a. dissociation.

Even though obsession can feel overwhelming, unpacking the emotional baggage I carry with me everywhere — be it from mental illness or anything else — could be exponentially more overwhelming. My brain obviously has some passive awareness of this, because it does the obsessing with no oversight from me. Zero work is involved in making my brain work overtime at being unproductive. It’s its default setting apparently.

I don’t lean in to my obsessions. I fall into them headfirst and involuntarily.

Image via Thinkstock.

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How I Manage 'Those' Days With Bipolar Disorder

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Sometimes there are those days. I’ve taken my meds, gotten my eight hours of sleep, took the dogs for a walk, worked, stuck to my schedule and even thrown in a quiet mediation. Regardless, the rage and anxiety echoes like a sledgehammer through a plate glass window.

I talked to my psychiatrist and therapist about this, and anger management exercises were the suggestion. That just made me angrier. Why do I have these days? Whether I’m on the mania or depression side of the fence with my bipolar disorder, there is just no escaping days where my condition seems to want to exercise its control.

When I introduce myself, I say, “Hi, I’m Fred.” It’s never, “Hi, I’m Bipolar!” I’m not ashamed of my disease; it’s just like any other and requires maintenance. No stigma here.

So what do I do when these days happen? I may have found a simple solution: embrace it.

My disease isn’t going away. Period. I can manage it most days with all of the things I’ve mentioned above. There are however those days where fear, anger and/or anxiety are going to team up and try to make me backpedal. I simply won’t have that. I have equipped quite an arsenal, support team, group and mental health professionals if I need the extra teamwork to get me through. The real stigma is being too afraid to ask for help. So why not give it a hug? It is after all, part of me.

Part of not letting the stigma win is also knowing when to ask for help or just admitting, I’m having a rough day; those are going to happen. I know this sounds really simplistic, but if you think about it, I am the one in control of feeding the rage, fear or anxiety. By embracing it, I cut off its food supply. It’s not always easy, but something worth having seldom is. With a clear state of mind during these storms, the tentacles of these monsters retreat into the depths with more haste.

It is, after all, my life. Giving up is simply is not going to happen. If not for myself for those who love me and support me in the good times and bad.

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The Struggle to Keep the Side Effects of My Bipolar Medication Hidden

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Boring. Forgetful. Odd.

These are some of the labels I encounter daily due to the side effects of my medication for bipolar disorder. I don’t push back against those labels because I do my best to hide my bipolar disorder and the side effects of medications throughout the day. I hide it most from strangers and coworkers, and I do still try hard to hide it from my family and closest friends. It’s a tricky business.

Waking up in the morning is an ordeal when you have a mental illness like bipolar disorder, and the side effects of medications to treat it are difficult to hide. The anti-psychotics I take make me extremely groggy. I have a tendency to stumble through multiple alarms. I also have to go to bed early so I get enough rest to function the next day.

This starts people asking me, “Hey, I texted you last night at 9, but you didn’t respond.” When I tell them I go to bed around then, they look shocked. “You really go to bed that early? Wow, you’re an old person!” they joke. I give a crooked a smile and laugh along with them. It’s easier to take the teasing than explain that if I don’t go to bed early, the anti-psychotics will make me too tired to get up the next morning. People see me as a boring, anti-social person when in reality I am exactly the opposite.

Another side effect of my bipolar medications is grogginess that lasts into the workday, and it can affect my memory. I often forget conversations I’ve had or commitments I’ve made. I’ve learned to keep a cheap planner on me to help, but coworkers and bosses usually tease or sometimes criticize me for my perceived flightiness. I get strange looks from bosses and coworkers. I even had a boss tell me I was such a hard, focused worker that she found my forgetful spells quite odd. I shrugged and awkwardly laughed. I can tell by the way they treat me that they think I’m a bit odd.

I don’t attend work social functions or many social functions at all because I have learned most drinks contain alcohol, which I avoid due to the medications I take. I found that I get teased at bars or restaurants when I am the only one abstaining from drinking. I get asked if I’m super religious or teased about being a goody two-shoes. I love a great pina colada as much as the next girl, but alcohol is strictly a no-go with the medications I’m on.

I also have to watch my weight as my antipsychotics help pack on pounds. Eating out is something I try to avoid. If I’m in a group outing with people who don’t know about my bipolar disorder, I quickly am singled out as being the least fun of the group. “A salad and water?” they ask, shocked as they dig into gooey nachos. “You can’t not try this chocolate cake,” they tease. Continuously refusing quickly makes me an outcast, and the invitations to social functions cease.

It’s sometimes easier to be quickly judged and classified as quirky or dull than it is to try to explain what’s behind all of it. After all, I’m not going to change because of the labels. If I stopped taking my bipolar medications, well, that’s a whole different story that comes along with its own labels that are much, much harder to hide in a normal day. For now, I do the best I can to hide the side effects of the medications I must take for bipolar disorder.

We all do our best to maintain what we think is a meaningful and productive life. Everyone struggles with one thing or another day-to-day. My struggle just happens to be doing my best to hide the side effects of my bipolar medications during a normal day.

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The Amazing Side of Bipolar Disorder

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The fight to find peace and happiness can be an elusive battle in the bipolar II brain. However, I often times find myself battling the stigma of bipolar disorder. I choose to look at the positive side of bipolar instead of the negative side of bipolar. So let me give a quick background of myself, and then I will talk about the positive side of bipolar.

I come from a good family with great parents. Truly my parents’ marriage and love for each other is something I admire and want. I had some tough things happen to me in a private school that forever shaped who I was. I excelled at school and then went to university and did well there while I was racing skiing. This is when I really started to see my bipolar manifest in hindsight. Keep in mind I wasn’t diagnosed until 36. At the time I had no idea what it was, but I saw the highs and the lows. When I was high I was doing really well at everything, but when I was low, I wanted out of this life.

As the story goes, I turned to alcohol to numb the pain. That didn’t last long and I found myself willingly checking into rehab at the age of 27, and 12 years later I am still sober. Once I got out of rehab I felt like I had a new lease on life. I got married a few years later and had kids. In the meantime I was a VP of a large company and traveling and doing grad school. I felt I had a great life, but I struggled tremendously with my moods. I struggled to feel enough and battled the imposter living inside of me. My wife and I battled. We both were struggling.

I was finally diagnosed with bipolar II at 36. I went through a divorce and was struggling to find my way out of the darkness. Talk about not feeling enough. At the point I had taken a C level position with a large company and was trying to work through my medications. Thank God for a great psychiatrist. I battled hard and came out the other end even better. Again, none of that was possible without an amazing psychiatrist and the willingness to see her on an extremely consistent basis. She definitely saved my life and continues to be an important role in my life.

Three and half years later, I am thriving and doing well. I am thriving with my company. I love being a dad to my two boys and have a working relationship with my ex-wife. I met someone who is truly the greatest woman I know. She is kind and loves me for me. When I am low she sits there and tells me this will pass and that I am more than enough. She truly is my deepest friend and greatest confidant. She lets me love her well. She truly gets life, and I am so fortunate to belong to her.

So here is what I a believe is so good about bipolar:

  • Who else can have 50 thoughts in his head at once and somehow manage to recognize each one of those thoughts and discern which thoughts to listen to and which ones to discard?
  • Who can feel at the levels that we do? Not too many people can see life how we see it. No judgment values on others. We see the highs, and during those times the colors are brighter and more vivid. We see the lows and the darkness, too. However those highs and lows we can share with other people and somehow enhance their world.
  • We are more empathetic than most because of the darkness we face. We can be there for others in their dark moments because we know what it’s like to be alone in our dark moments. We wouldn’t wish those dark moments on our worst enemies.
  • Our brains work at lighting speed to disseminate information quickly — sometimes too quickly but I would rather have the quickness that not at all.
  • Our capacity to love someone else is huge because of our illness. We can love others extremely deeply and show them love that is not the norm.
  • We are super passionate people who can light up a room quickly and get others out of their dark places.
  • We can brainstorm ideas like nobody’s business because of our brains.

These are just a few of the things that bipolar brings to us and to the world. It sucks having the stigma of bipolar, but I for one don’t care anymore about what the world thinks of me. All of us who have bipolar are touched with something others do not have, and instead of diving into what the world thinks of us, I think we should all band together and realize we really do have the ability to have a positive impact on the world. I implore all of us to change our minds and to try and be grateful for our bipolar. Don’t get me wrong, I know bipolar may have wrecked our relationships, work lives and personal lives. It can be awful, and please don’t think I am Pollyanna. I know the darkness of this bipolar disorder, but I want to put a positive light on this illness and change the perception of who we are. We are all “touched by fire”(Kay Redfield Jamison), but that fire is what changes the world we live in. Let’s embrace each other and our illness. Let’s fight the good fight together and change the stigma of bipolar. I will leave you two quotes by Steve Jobs.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

“Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

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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Please Stop Telling Me I'm Not Sick

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Yes, my disorder is real, and I’m sick of you saying it’s not.

No pun intended. Because the reality is, I am sick. And that’s OK. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 17, and for years I told myself it was a misdiagnosis. Yes, I was seriously struggling with my mental health, but I blamed life and the obstacles it threw at me.

I was so used to hearing it from other people – “it’s all in your head” – and started to believe it myself. As if I would suddenly be “cured” if I just changed my outlook on the situation. As if my depressive episodes were nothing but a result of my attitude, and as if my reckless manic episodes were a result of my character. As if it was my fault all of this was happening.

But it just wasn’t working. I could no longer keep pretending everything was fine. Contrary to an unfortunate popular belief, no amount of healthy eating, exercise, water drinking, and extra sleep made a difference. It felt like a race, a constant struggle to keep what was on the inside from getting out, pushing the shame and the heaviness back underneath the surface.

Accepting my illness was a vital driver in my decision to get help. I am not cured. Bipolar is a lifelong illness. But with professional help, it is possible to learn to manage the disorder and even reduce its symptoms.

I don’t tell everyone I have bipolar disorder, but when I do share my illness with people I am often met with an, “Are you sure?” or “It’s probably not that,” as if because my illness is invisible it is imaginary. What’s troubling about these statements is that they generally come from a place of good intentions but feed off (and into) the stigma surrounding mental health. I’ve quickly learned this can affect my relationships, that there will be times I will be met with judgment. Being told to “Just be positive” or “stop being so negative” in response to sharing something so private is soul-crushing. It’s invalidating. By telling me I’m being negative, you’re implying my illness is a result of my attitude. That is not the case.

This false idea that mental illnesses are just be made up and thrown at us by doctors and that diagnoses are wrong perpetuates negative attitudes towards the medications and treatments that could help save our lives. These types of attitudes hold people back from getting help all of the time. I have had friends tell me with the best intentions that I shouldn’t take medication. I know it does not come from a place of malice but a place of ignorance. We aren’t taught to see mental illnesses the same as we would see the physical ones. I’ve had to kindly explain several times that my brain is sick the same way your lungs can get sick or your digestive system can get sick.

As someone with fairly strong political beliefs and as many of us who struggle with mental illness do, I often feel an onus to play the role of the educator. But educating can be exhausting. And the weight of owning my identity as a person with an illness can sometimes make me feel like I am making a martyr of myself. It is a difficult balance.

Although the stigma that surrounds mental health is getting better, much of bipolar disorder is still extremely misunderstood. There are still many, many misconceptions. Even though I’m not, I worry about being seen as a “crazy, erratic” woman – especially when it comes to dating. I regularly stumble upon jokes or posts that perpetuate the negative stereotypes – most recently, a meme that reads, “When your girlfriend tells you she’s bi and later you find out she meant bipolar” and am immediately reminded that some people may see me as unworthy of love or as too much to handle.

I will be the first to say I am a lot, and I wouldn’t change that for the world. But I will never be too much. Some days my illness feels like too much. But while it is a part of me, it does not define me. It has taken me years to accept and understand this. Yes, I am sick, and acknowledging I am sick is crucial to getting better. So, while your intentions might be good, please don’t try and take that away from me. I’m going to be just fine.

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Thinkstock photo by Ingram Publishing

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Life With Mental Illness as Captured Through My ‘Bipolar Lens’

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As someone who has struggled with mental health challenges for much of my life, I have been through many types of treatments. I have taken countless medications, and I have been through both group and individual therapies. I have been hospitalized, and I have done magnetic and even shock therapy.

There is value for some people in every kind of treatment, but for me, one of the most valuable tools has been photography. For me, photography is not only a form of self-expression but it is also a form of mindfulness. It helps me to be present in my body and in the current moment instead of lost in negative thoughts worrying about the past or the future. Photography helps me to be grounded in the now, and when you live with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses, it is easy to lose contact with the now.

The following photographic images are from a series I created using multiple exposures that were combined to more closely capture my complex moods and visually represent my various mental health disorders and challenges, which include depression,anxiety, addiction, panic disorder with agoraphobia, borderline personality disorder (BPD) and elements of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention deficit disorder (ADD). These photo composites represent darkness and light, despair and hope and the various peaks and valleys of living with mental illness as captured through my bipolar lens.

a double exposure image of a woman against a fence

a double exposure image of a sign that says, "Pick up poision."

a blurry image of people in motion

a double exposure image of a woman and lights on her face

a double exposure image of a side profile of a woman and green lights

an image of fingerprints

a double exposure of a doorway on a background of flowers

an abstract image of lights and a woman's face

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction and need help, you can call SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

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