Gabe Howard - Bipolar Disorder Advocate

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Talking bipolar disorder with speaker and writer Gabe Howard.

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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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Thinkstock photo by MarinaZg

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Every Morning, I Roll the Dice of Bipolar Disorder

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Like so many others with misunderstood illnesses, I like to try to put things into a relatable perspective. It’s difficult to explain exactly what bipolar disorder feels like to someone who doesn’t have it or someone who has never been around someone with it. There are many different ways to get the point across, but I’ve found that explaining the swings by using dice is fairly effective.

Every morning when I wake up, I feel like I roll a D20. There are seven numbers it could land on to throw me into a manic state, seven to push me into a depressed state and six relatively mellow moods. Those middle of the road moods may lean more one way than the other, but at least they’re relatively manageable.

Now, I have rapid cycling, which complicates things. During times when I’m unstable and cycle a few times a day, I have to keep rolling sanity checks. Sometimes, the swing is extremely severe and noticeable, while other times the die seems to glitch and combine a high and a low. Those are the worst.

The multiple moods and constant swinging are why it’s difficult for me to answer when someone asks if I’m feeling better after a low day. In that moment, I may be, but that could be because I just rolled a 20 and am bouncing off the walls. Ask me again in a few hours and we’ll see.

Is it exhausting to have to keep rolling? You bet your butt it is, but that’s OK. My bipolar disorder is my superpower. It makes me, me. I’m grateful for it.

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When Living With a Mental Illness Is Too Expensive

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All we ever talk about is our mental illnesses, but we hardly ever mention the amount of money and resources that make taking our medications possible.

As a person with bipolar disorder, major depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it costs a whole lot of money for the treatment. And the more treatment we receive, the more we come dependent on the medications to make ourselves well. It’s a vicious cycle of never-ending problems.

With my mental illnesses comes guilt — guilt over the fact that I cannot do anything for anybody, guilt over the fact that I’m unemployed and cannot provide, guilt over the fact that no matter how much I try to be “cheerful” or “normal” for everyone around me, I fail miserably.

And the guilt becomes worse when you know your illness is not cheap.

I don’t feel like I’m getting better. I feel like a social experiment for every doctor I ever went to or go to. “Let’s try with this pill and see if that works.” So they prescribe medications the way you put money into a slot machine at a casino. And we all know the process isn’t cheap. My medicines cost money I don’t have. It’s all payed for by my husband. I feel like I’m a deadweight to everyone who’s taking care of me.

Once again, all of this is in my mind. My husband would never approve of me thinking like this. But I am still my own person in my head, and my head won’t stop thinking about all the ways I’m letting people down. I can’t work at an office for the life of me. I have already written about how it becomes impossible for me to work on a daily basis, thanks to my mental illnesses. So I just wallow in guilt for days.

Mental illnesses are expensive to have. There are people I know who don’t go to see a psychiatrist because it’s too costly to do so. But I really admire people who have any kind of mental illness and thrive at work. Sometimes I even feel that unholy pang of jealousy because I feel so incompetent.

I’ve been given unwanted advice from undesirable sources too: “Just start doing some work and it will be fine.” “You’re just not doing it because you’re lazy.” “Depression isn’t really a big deal. You can just do what you like and it’s going to get better.”

Isn’t it surprising that even after hearing this I’m still not cured of my mental illnesses?

Having any kind of mental illness is expensive, even though we don’t like talking about it. We don’t like to be weak. I stay hopeful for the day when I will feel completely healed, but I don’t look forward to the amount of money it’s going to cost for me to get there.

Let’s hope somewhere in the near future there will better medical coverage for mental health because I’m tired of feeling like a burden. I think every one of us gets tired at some point.

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What I Say and What I Mean as Someone With Bipolar Disorder

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When you have bipolar disorder, so many judgments are made about you both intentionally and unintentionally. Many people don’t even mean to do it, and they don’t mean it to upset you. Yet, it’s hard to separate the illness from the person.

Regardless of my illness, I am a happy, impulsive, generally outgoing and optimistic person. I’m immature. (I never learned to “adult.”) I’m ditzy, and I love trying new things and taking on risks. Other times, I am sad, moody and irrational, and I just want to hide away, (Newsflash: I have PMS and bad days just like everyone else). Occasionally, I get angry, or I can just be an ass.

Yet, it is difficult to be myself when everything gets attributed to my illness. Sometimes, I find it so hard to be understood. As someone with bipolar disorder, here’s what I say and what I mean:

1. When I say I’m happy, it is usually because I am happy.

2. When I say I’m sad, fed up, angry or annoyed it’s usually exactly that.

3. When I say I see something good in you, it’s because I do.

4. When I say you mean the world to me, I love you or I care about you, I really do.

5. When I ask for your help, I genuinely need it. I like to cope alone as much as possible.

6. When I say you hurt me, it’s because I feel hurt, but it doesn’t mean I can’t just forgive and move on.

7. When I say I can trust ýou, I believe I can and you can trust me too.

8. When I say I’m fine and I’m clearly not, I hope you will recognize the difference.

9. When I am unwell, I say and do things I don’t mean, and I hope you can forgive me.

10. Just talk to me! Talk to each other. Don’t assume. We all get it wrong. Just do your best, and we can probably all understand each other better.

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Things About Bipolar Disorder Nobody Talks About

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People with bipolar disorder in the International Bipolar Disorder community share things people don’t often say about bipolar disorder.

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