The Cognitive Difficulties of Bipolar Disorder


What if you woke up tomorrow and for the life of you couldn’t figure out how to measure ingredients to make breakfast for your family? What if on the way to work you experienced a full blown panic attack because you suddenly couldn’t remember where you were going? What if you found yourself staring blankly at your checkbook unable to grasp the concept of writing a check, a task you’ve completed effortlessly a million times before? Would you feel desperate and afraid? Would you obsessively wonder why your brain is constantly backfiring, causing routine tasks to become nearly impossible? These situations are just a few examples of what I’ve been dealing with lately.

Unfortunately I’ve dealt with cognitive difficulties such as an inability to string thoughts together coherently or process and organize information ever since my doctor and I began what has been nearly a decade-long search for the right medication cocktail. But lately I’ve sensed these issues are more than just a result of a med change, especially since they seem to be lingering longer than usual. Something odd and scary seems to be happening in my head, making it difficult to function, especially at work. Whether due to med changes, aging, years of being a lab rat for countless psychiatric drugs, lack of sleep, excessive sleep, the cloud of depression or detachment of hypomania — who knows? Most likely the answer is all of the above, but regardless of the cause I’m learning it is a common component of bipolar that I’m just beginning to learn about.

Several months ago I started to notice I couldn’t keep up with certain tasks. I couldn’t sleep because I was under a tremendous amount of stress, and little by little I noticed I was struggling to keep my moods stable. Processing, organizing and keeping track of data became much more difficult. Presenting information to my students or to peers took a tremendous amount of effort. Participating in professional conversations triggered panic attacks because I feared that whatever came out of my mouth would be nonsense. Imagine standing in front of a room full of children when your thoughts suddenly freeze and no matter how frantically you search the next thought remains out of reach. Feelings of uselessness and embarrassment quickly settle in as your audience stares at you wondering why you’ve stopped talking. Hopefully you eventually recover, but every day the fear of it happening again haunts you.

What makes it more frustrating is that one day I might be totally productive, able to complete all of the tasks in front of me (including data and planning) seemingly effortlessly. Everything makes sense and not another soul — including myself — would ever sense there was something “wrong” with me. However, the following day I may not be able to add fractions or comprehend a fourth grade reading passage. More often than not though the second scenario has become my reality.

Over the years I have become quite good at coping with these issues and have been able to function successfully in most situations. I’ve learned when to ask for help and when to keep my mouth shut. I know when it’s necessary to allow myself extra time to complete tasks or take time to be alone to gather my thoughts and recharge my batteries. However, in the last few months it has become increasingly difficult to manage these symptoms successfully to the point I’ve had to take time off from work.

I’ve had to remind myself that despite these setbacks there are still things I am really good at and it’s OK to have to put other things on the back burner for now. I’ve had to work really hard to keep from resenting what is happening or feeling robbed by this illness. I’ve felt sorry for myself and wanted to throw in the towel completely instead of searching for the silver lining. After all, this has thrown a huge wrench in my plans for the future and I’ve struggled to understand where this will lead me and why it is happening.

But recently a friend compared life to a story that is full of plot twists, which has really helped change my perspective. Maybe the strengths I have been discovering will turn me toward bigger and better opportunities where I’ll be able to help people in a different capacity or perhaps I will wake up tomorrow morning with a clear mind able to pick up where I left off without ever having to change my path. Either way I am learning that no situation is hopeless. Never in a million years did I think I’d actually go through with writing and sharing my struggles with the world. But in the midst of dealing with these cognitive issues I have learned to channel my energy elsewhere and it has opened unexpected doors. When I focus on that and keep moving forward in faith, I see this current plot twist taking me down a path full of unknowns, but I’m also witnessing the good resulting from my willingness to take risks.

Whenever I’m on the brink of succumbing to the belief that things will never get better, without fail something totally unexpected happens to remind me that God is really looking out for me and using me to help others, just in a different capacity than I envisioned. Isn’t the most memorable part of any story when the main character is confronted with something completely unexpected but she digs deep to endure all of the twists and turns, ups and downs, roadblocks and surprise detours? The author knows exactly where she will end up along with everything it will take for her to get there. She just needs to keep moving forward.

Yes, I’m having difficulties managing and dealing with these symptoms, but if my past is any indication, the road ahead is sure to make me stronger. Maybe this current set of circumstances will make me more compassionate to others. Maybe being honest will help someone else who is struggling. Maybe writing about these symptoms will encourage someone else or enable others to understand what it feels like to have to deal with these difficulties.

So as difficult as it is to deal with these cognitive difficulties now, I have to remind myself that it really will all work out as it is supposed to even if it looks completely different from what I envisioned a year ago. I’ll go to bed tonight not knowing what tomorrow will bring, but I will continue to remind myself that’s OK because the author of my life knows and that is enough to give me peace and carry me through another day.

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