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The Cognitive Difficulties of Bipolar Disorder

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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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Thinkstock photo by m-imagephotography

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7 Things I Wish People Understood About My Bipolar Type 1

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I have bipolar disorder type 1. I wish those in my life knew a few things about my life.

1) I am not a threat: Whenever someone finds out I have bipolar disorder, they give me a look of insecurity and fear. They treat me differently, and I can see and feel them judging me with everything I do.

2) I have no control over my symptoms: When you get mad at me for my mood swings, outbursts, or ups and downs, it doesn’t change anything. I am not making an excuse, I’m explaining a fact.

3) I am not lucky to be home all day by myself: I do not like being alone, I did not choose to be unable to work. So your ignorant comments about how great it must be, how lucky I am, they only hurt me.

4) Stop telling me it’s all in my head: I suppose it is because it’s a mental illness, not a thing I chose.

5) Bipolar depression is more than being “sad.” I feel impending doom all of the time. I want to die. I isolate myself. I hate myself. I can’t do responsibilities like bathing, doing housework, going out with a friend, etc. All become kind of impossible for me to do. I feel nothing or everything all at once. I cannot make it go away. I cannot “fix” it.

6) All of the positive thinking in the world will not make my illness go away.

7) Guilt: I feel it every day, all day. I constantly feel like I am not good enough because I do not work, because I have this illness, because I can’t do “normal” things that everyone else can do. But I fight, every day, all day.

This is an illness, not a choice.

There are more, but I hope this helps.

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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The Invisible Tattoos of Bipolar

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Today I found myself hopeless, depressed and just staring at this permanent marker.

I kept imagining what I would look like with all the words I have been called over the years written all over me… Would there even be enough skin?

I may not have the wounds on me for everyone to see, but I feel like they are visible to the world and they are more than visible to me.

I want more than anything to rid myself of these heavy scars, but they always seem to be there staring me in the face when I look in the mirror.

How do I rid myself of painful thoughts that threaten to tear me apart? I want to stop living in what seems like an endless circle. I want to take my life back and smash this mirror that has a hold on me, but in a way the mirror has become my twisted friend. Why do I embrace the guilt when it feels so cold?

I don’t want to be familiar with pain. I don’t want to face it another day. These invisible tattoos are weighing me down, and I must be rid of them.

Someone once told me we are never given a burden we cannot handle, but sometimes I wonder if there was some mistake. People have told me I am strong. The truth is I feel weak in almost every way.

Bipolar is not something I chose. It was just something that happened to me, and now I live with it every day.

The tattoos will never define me. I know who I am. Bipolar is a part of me, but it will never define me. That is the one battle I refuse to lose.

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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To the First Responder Who Gave Me Hope When I Was Suicidal

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I’ll never forget the night I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Life had become too hard to handle. My great grandma had just passed away, my dating life was hard, abuse plagued my life at home and school. I was struggling with a paralyzed stomach but was being told it was all in my head. I was slowly losing my hold on reality. Slowly slipping away.

There were nights I would hide under my blankets, trying to escape the noises or the shadows of people present but not real. First it was hypomania, then psychosis that took over my life, my first semester of college. I couldn’t handle it any longer. So I wanted it to end. I planned my suicide and in that moment opened up the portal for judgments like, “You’re so selfish” and “You’re a coward.”

There was one guy that night who talked with me like I mattered. He cared. His actions spoke volumes to me that night and helped me through the darkest time in my life. So here is a letter I wrote, to the man who changed my life for the better. As a reminder that there are first responders who are not judgmental or uncaring, and who genuinely care about the lives of those they serve.

Dear Officer,

I’ll never forget the night I was home alone, crying and working up to ending my life. You and your partner knocked on my door. You asked to come in and then proceeded to ask if I could tell you what was wrong. I had stopped crying, but that question, the very idea of trying to put into words my distress broke me down even more. Suddenly, my rule of not crying in front of people became obsolete. What did it matter anymore? I was breaking down and couldn’t go on any longer.

You had me sit down on the couch while your partner stepped outside to talk with dispatch. You talked with me like I was another human being worthy of love. You talked to me with love and respect. Thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for giving me hope that life isn’t always going to be this dark, scary and hard. Your words let me know someone heard me that night and cared enough about me to remind me of my worth. You told me about your family history with mental illness, and in that moment, whether you knew it or not, you reminded me I’m not so broken that others won’t or can’t love me.

You reminded me there is life after this. There is life after contemplating suicide. There is life after my planned suicide. It’s not always going to be easy. In fact, some days and nights are going to be so hard I may hate myself for reaching out for help. Then your voice, your message comes to mind, and I know someone cares. Someone will miss me. You only saw my darkest storms within. You saw nothing really of the happy woman I am.

You should know it’s because of you and your kindness, your love, that I found my hope. You could have come in and repeated what others were saying. You could have blamed me for these thoughts and feelings and done the same thing, accused me of one thing or another as if I had complete control over my thoughts. Instead, you reminded me it’s not my fault — it’s a real illness, it’s mental illness, and there is no shame in living with it.

Because of you I have gone on to meet new friends and have new life experiences. I won’t say my life is easier since you gave me hope again, but I believe it’s worth it. After my diagnosis of bipolar disorder, I moved home and struggled with finding a doctor who could help me. I finally ended up in an outpatient program at the psychiatric hospital. I learned things about myself I didn’t know before.

There have been days and nights I have felt like I am so broken, dirty and unlovable. I didn’t understand how someone — anyone — could love me again. My mind felt broken. It was as if I was trying to look at myself, view my life, through a broken, cracked window with cobwebs on it.

Still I find myself thinking of you. Your demeanor. It was 10 at night, and you took the time to talk to me like nothing else mattered. The very idea that someone out there cares gave me hope, that maybe someone else cares, too. My family and friends care. The ones I met after that night care. I have gone on to write, and to somehow change lives. All I could see was darkness. No spark of light.

Thank you for that night. Thank you for the night you walked into my life and showed me nothing but love and respect. Thank you for showing me that someone does care, that there is hope for my life, and life is worth living. Thank you for taking my hand and helping me up. Thank you for doing your job the best way you could. I know it couldn’t have been easy for you, sharing your story or opening up about your family history. I know this because I, too, have a family history. This history is part of the reason I felt so horrible, why I hated my life, but maybe there was something to this that I didn’t understand yet. I have now lived both sides. I’m still living it. I’m learning that mental illness does not make any one of us worthless or unlovable. However broken we may feel does not determine our worthiness of being loved.

One last thing: I want you to know that I am enjoying life again. I’m fighting hard for the life I have, but I’m stable. I finally found a great therapist and a great psychiatrist. As it turns out, I’m allergic to the antipsychotics I tried, and antidepressants make me suicidal, but lithium is amazing. You talked with me like you had nothing better to do, and now here I am… My physical health hasn’t been the greatest, but I want to fight for my life because you showed me my life matters.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

One grateful young woman

Image via Thinkstock.

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

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Gabe Howard - Bipolar Disorder Advocate

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Talking bipolar disorder with speaker and writer Gabe Howard.

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.

 

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Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, I'm Hiding My Bipolar Disorder From Them All

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Unlike Snow White (or any other fairy tale), I am not surrounded by adorable forest creatures or beautiful flowers and trees. When I wake up I take an extra minute or two after my alarm goes off to determine if I actually want to go to work that day or if I even want to work ever again. Once I guilt myself into believing I’d be a horrible person for making my husband be the only one who works for this lifestyle we have. I take three medications among a handful of vitamins and wash it all down with a mug of green tea. I do my best to look decent for work and head off for what I know will be a long day. The minute I leave my car to walk into that building, I plant a big, fake smile on my face. I don’t want anyone to see that I only slept for three hours last night. I don’t want anyone to see that, for some reason, I have cried the entire drive to work. I don’t want anyone to know I cannot control anything my mind is doing.

As someone who manages a group of individuals, I believe I have mastered the art of deception. People ask me how my weekend was, how my morning’s going, etc. No one seems to be uncomfortable by me; in fact, people seem to want to spend more time with me, which instantly makes me nervous.

People don’t see my heart race when I have to go into a meeting. People don’t see my anxiety when I go to a coworker’s celebration. They don’t see my scraps of a lunch because I can’t be bothered to eat, and people don’t notice I can barely focus on my tasks. My eyelids weigh a thousand pounds, my mind is anywhere but work, and I am counting the hours until I can go home and nap.

Home, my safe haven. I muster up energy to eat something, anything to make my husband happy and allow me to get back to binge-watching TV or napping. An hour before bed I take my five nightly medications and a cup of melatonin tea, and as I drift off to sleep, I hope I don’t wake up in the middle of the night and begin the vicious cycle of insomnia.

I have bipolar II disorder, which means my moods can inexplicably change as often as someone might change their socks. I experience bouts of depression, anxiety, and mania, and they come upon me unexpectedly. Like unknowingly taking a bite of a poison apple, I have no idea which mood is coming, how long it will last, or how bad it will be. It is like Snow White living with the seven dwarves.

Not many people ask me what it’s like; it is just assumed what I feel are temporary emotions that will subside once I “calm down.” It’s been well over a year and a half now since I have been diagnosed and there is still stigma, misconception, and refusal to believe what I go through to continue to live a life uninterrupted. It has become such a hassle to deal with other people that I have learned to mask my health challenges to avoid having to answer any questions or deal with any type of ridicule. My medication helps me maintain a level of stability that helps me hold a job, go to graduate school, and live day to day without being in constant fear. However, when depression or anxiety sets in, I realize I seemed to have lost a sense of control over my mind, myself. It makes my  “bad days” even
worse, and trying to explain that feeling to others creates the most awkward silence I have ever experienced.

There are a few who have become part of my support group but as for those who play the minor roles in my life or those who know my diagnosis but don’t want to ask how I am doing, I have learned to put on a show for them. I have learned that appearances mean everything for certain people, and for them, I look and act “normal” but really, I am a Snow White who has lost all seven of her dwarves and can’t find her way to the light in the darkness of the forest.

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