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When I Decided It Was Time to Tell My Significant Other About My Bipolar Disorder

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I have bipolar disorder. Like some people with bipolar disorder, I was misdiagnosed at a young age as having attention deficit disorder (ADD) and improperly medicated. I was 6 years old when my parents started me on medication for it. This was 1985.

It wasn’t until I was much older that a diagnosis of bipolar disorder was brought up. It fit. I knew then my symptoms, behaviors and actions were a result of my bipolar disorder and not ADD.

People don’t like talking about bipolar disorder. Most people don’t understand it either, as I have learned. They tend to think of bipolar disorder as something that is unmanageable and that affects every moment of your life, your decisions, your actions and behaviors. I’ve learned (for myself) that my disorder only affects those things when I am in the midst of an episode. I am a normal, functioning, loving and caring human being when my disorder is under control and I’m not symptomatic.

I have had few depressive episodes. Most of my issues seem to stem from manic episodes or hypomanic episodes. From taking risks while driving, extreme need for sexual intimacy, drug use and inability to sleep.

Recently, I came into a new relationship with a wonderful man. There had been some talk about previous women in his life and their struggles with mental health issues. It made me nervous my bipolar disorder was something that could kill off a budding relationship.

Why would this man want yet another woman with a mental health diagnosis? Would he run away? Would I be judged? Would he think I was “crazy?” Most of all, did or could he understand what exactly bipolar disorder was and how it affects those who live with it?

After several weeks of our relationship, I decided it was best to tell him. If my diagnosis was something he could not accept, then I needed to move on and so did he. Opening yourself up to such raw emotions is extremely difficult. I remember thinking, “This will be it. It will all end here. My diagnosis will ruin a relationship with a man I’ve begun to fall in love with.”

In the spirit of fairness, I told him. Surprisingly, he listened. He didn’t judge, run, laugh, and most of all, he didn’t think I was “crazy.” He asked questions, and I tried to explain my version of bipolar disorder to him the best I could. We are both still learning about each other. There are still days where I have to remind myself to speak up if something doesn’t feel right. I have to remind myself to be open and honest about how I feel so he can help me through any issue should it arise.

The hardest part of living with bipolar disorder is the fact that when you do something, be it positive or negative, people want to blame your diagnosis for it. If I don’t get enough sleep, then I must be manic. If I cry because I’m sad, then I must be depressed. I never want anyone who I care for deeply to “blame” my actions on my diagnosis. I can and do have “normal” feelings, emotions and behaviors.

It has now been four months since we have been together, and I have had one episode of mania. He has been extremely understanding of my diagnosis. I’m still trying to make sure he understands what bipolar disorder is, how it works, how it can affect me and how to help me through an episode.

To be accepted fully by someone is such a wonderful feeling. Throughout my life my mental health issues seem to get in the way of relationships. I know these things can be frustrating for people without a mental illness. I know it isn’t easy, but I am deserving of unconditional love and support no matter what my diagnosis is.

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

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“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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A Thank You Note to My Bipolar Disorder

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Dear bipolar disorder,

At first I was stubborn and did not want to admit we had a relationship. However, over time you grew on me, showing your true colors at every turn. The extreme shifts in mood became a way of life, resulting in extreme pain and struggling. Because of you, everyone who surrounded me felt like they were walking on eggshells, unsure of my triggers.

You made me feel so good, confident and filled with energy. You told me any actions I took would have no consequences. You filled my mind with delusions of grandeur and lured me into believing I could actually fly. Yet, while flying so high, you filled me with agitation and unexplainable anger that was taken out on my fiancé or through self-harm. Then, you would break down my confidence and taunt me. You told me I was worthless and no one would ever love me. I cried multiple times a day and felt so numb inside. Ultimately, I resorted to self-harm, a habit I cannot seem to break. You made me truly believe I was better off dead, so I tried to die by suicide multiple times.

This was our cycle for four years before a proper diagnosis was made and treatment had begun. This felt like being on a roller coaster I could not get off mixed with an abusive relationship. However, I am thankful I got to have this relationship with you because you have taught me so much about myself and my family. I felt so frustrated to be diagnosed with the rarest form of bipolar, but without it, I wouldn’t have learned my grandfather had bipolar I as well. You have taught me I am a strong person who is worthy of life and love. You have shown me despite all my pain and suffering, life is truly worth living and I am lucky to have someone to share it with. You have helped me to find my purpose and given me a way to reach out and help others. I understand living with you is a lifetime commitment and I’m ready to make that commitment. You just need to promise me you will continue to teach me and help me through this healing process.

Signed,

The one you’re stuck with forever

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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Why I Felt Alienated at the Women's March as a Woman With Bipolar

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On January 21, 2017, along with millions of people in America and worldwide, I marched in support of women’s rights and against the agenda of the new presidential administration. I saw cute signs and pink knitted hats aplenty. I marched with a group of women my own age. We chanted. We carried signs. We filled the streets of our planned route to overflowing.

I found the experience profoundly alienating. Here is why.

I have a disability known as bipolar type I.

I am one of the lucky ones. I can take a pill every day and keep symptoms at bay. I can “pass” for normal. I can hold down a job. I can date. I can meet new people and form superficial friendships.

When I went to pick up my prescription the other day, the woman told me how impressed she was I knew the name of my medication. What does that tell you about people’s perceptions of people like me?

Nothing good.

About two months ago a guy who runs an online journal asked me for an article about stigma and why I don’t like it as a label. I tried to write one, but I actually couldn’t. Partly because I had a lot of other things going on in my life. Mostly because I was just too angry.

Here’s the way I see it.

The root word of stigma is stigmata, a bleeding mark or wound that is impossible to hide.

With prejudice and discrimination, the moral fault lies in the person who is prejudiced.

They are the bigot, the racist, the sexist and the homophobe.

With stigma, something is still wrong with you  —  the victim. The person who is signing a “Stop Stigma” pledge, or wearing a “Stigma Stops Here” at a National Alliance on Mental Illness fundraiser is showing what a kind and gracious person they are to look past your “flaws.” They are doing something above and beyond what is expected and necessary.

I believe the image of the person with a mental illness this brings to mind is somebody who needs proper care and treatment from family members or the state. Somebody not capable of looking after themselves and who certainly should not reproduce.

These images do not match, in the slightest, the brilliance, heroism and achievements of Kay Redfield Jamison, Sylvia Plath, Patty Duke, Ted Turner, Lord Byron, John Nash or Winston Churchill. It does not match the lives and achievements of the people I know with diagnoses personally. It does not measure their ability to recover and bounce back.

We’re here. We’re crazy brilliant. Crazy in love. Passionate, visionary or you know… just our everyday selves. We are accountants and poets. We are parents. We are black, we are white and we are queer.

Stigma is discrimination. Pure and simple. Why do we need another word?

Or if we’re stuck with this word, stigma, why is “stigmatizer” not in our vocabulary? Why does it seem people consider it one iota less bad to hate a person with mental illness than to hate another marginalized group?

We’re here, but you would never know it. Because we are invisible.

And our invisibility puts us in danger.

We are at risk for loss of health coverage because we live with mental illnesses. We are 16 times more likely to be killed by the police. Yet our problems are seen as primarily medical or personal, not political.

I am not here to compare injustices. I am not here to deny that I have access to certain categories of privilege due to my skin color and education. This isn’t something well-meaning allies can fix for us. You can kindly treat us as human beings and stop to check your privileges and assumptions, yes. But change has to come from somewhere else. Basically enough other people who have been dealt this shitty impossible magical hand-decorated game winning card in life need to decide that they are actually still human too, and worthy of respect and dignity.

Injustice is difficult to impossible to attack without community. And community in our case has major obstacles for building. It is too easy to hide. Too risky if you don’t. I of all people should know. But we’ve got to start somewhere.

The women I marched with didn’t know I was bipolar. Nor was I about to tell them. That label has cost me too many close relationships in my life. Not the illness, the label. Most people don’t get that distinction.

I wonder if anyone from my support group would have been willing to march. Maybe I should have asked them.

Maybe next time, if there is a next time, I will.

A version of this piece originally appeared on Medium. Follow Rose on Twitter @rosecheval.

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When You Miss the Early Signs of Mental Illness

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As parents we can get busy — busy with life, with carpools and jobs. We get busy with helping with homework and figuring out what’s for dinner. 

Maybe that’s why when my daughter started withdrawing the summer before eighth grade, I was too busy to be really concerned. When she wanted to stay in her room on a beautiful day, I dragged her with me to the pool. As she got quieter and quieter, I was still busy juggling life with her two active siblings.

Suddenly all that came to a roaring stop. I was at school bingo with her brother and sister when I received a call from her best friend’s mom. Everything stopped when this woman told me her daughter admitted to her that my child was having suicidal thoughts. The child I had left home alone for the evening was having what? I ran out of the school leaving my children with another mother and prayed desperately during the five minutes it took me to get home. I can’t even remember what I promised God I would do if I could just find her home safe. I do know I would have promised anything. So I burst through the door, found her OK and sat her down to talk. How could I have been so blind? Not only was my child so depressed that she wanted to die but she had been self-harming for months. My beautiful daughter had cuts on her arms and legs. How had I missed this? 

This happened on a Friday night and by Tuesday, my child, my first born, was admitted into the hospital. I have always thought I was good in a crisis, but nothing prepared me for the paralyzing feelings of fear and helplessness that sometimes made breathing impossible. 

We got a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. This was based on her symptoms and the fact that there was a family history of bipolar. Now here comes the meds. Those little pills that can bring a whole suitcase full of side effects. We would wait to see what worked and in a year we tried at least six different kinds. The drowsiness, weight gain, stomachaches and hallucinations she went through were all in our quest to find what worked. Each time I went to the pharmacy, I prayed that this time it would help. Our home also became a place where sharp objects were locked up and you couldn’t even get a Tylenol without a key. 

Between the end of eighth grade to middle of freshman year, she was hospitalized four times. We finally realized we needed to do something more drastic and we sent her to a residential program for a month. We had to stop this endless cycle of in and out of hospitals. We finally found a medication that helped and she began to see a physiatrist and therapist regularly. We also had to fight with her school to get her accommodations that would help her be more successful. 

Everyday I was still looking for signs, afraid of missing something. I became something of a robot. I still did the carpools, homework and laundry, but I had pushed my emotions down so far I began to fear what would happen if I let go for a second. How could I break down when she needed me? To this day, there are fears and emotions I haven’t truly dealt with, but are still in the vault I locked inside myself. The whole family was affected by this. Once when I had to take her for an appointment and I had a friend pick up my other kids after school, my kids were instantly panicked their sister was back in the hospital. My husband, an incredibly strong man, struggled with the helplessness of not being able to chase away the demons that were threatening to take our child away from us. 

Fast forward two years and here we are. My daughter surprised us with a granddaughter her junior year and while it was a difficult pregnancy and the postpartum depression was crushing, she made it through. My granddaughter is the most beautiful baby and while we are blessed to have her, she is also blessed with a wonderful mother. Now she’s about to graduate this year, my daughter who may be the bravest and strongest person I know. (Although she would probably argue this). She plans to attend college and hopes to one day help teens who are going through what she went through. 

What would I say to other parents? I guess it would be to slow down and look around you. We can get so busy in the maintenance of our lives that we stop noticing things. Even kids who are hiding things from you are also sending you signs that they are in trouble. 

We were so lucky we had family and friends to help. Just knowing my friends were there at a moment’s notice was life saving. When our insurance wouldn’t pay for a residential program, my in-laws paid the bill without hesitation. Every night I prayed for her to get better and for God to give me the strength to help her. 

There is no cure, no magic pill, no words that can keep her from ever falling into depression again. I can only hope that we have given her the tools to fight through it and the knowledge that we are always there for her. 

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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Beautifully Bipolar

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I am the voices inside your head. The screams of inadequacies no one seems to remember and the whispers of all the things you can be doing right now because you can do everything. I am the persistent need to sleep with the uncontrollable drive to be awake. I am the nervous twitch, the rubbing of hands. Maybe I’ll play with your hair or dart your eyes around, making everyone in the room uncomfortable.

I am the reason you don’t shower for a week while furiously cleaning the house. Next week, let’s shower four times a day but never do the dishes or take out the trash. I am the fist through the wall and the torrent of tears. Deep and profound sadness mixed with furious anger pulsing through your very soul but without purpose or cause.

I am the impulse purchase, the drug and alcohol binge, the one night stand. I come without warning, and I strike for no reason.

I am the painting, the poem, the spark of creativity. I am the emotional sensitivity and understanding. I am the dizzying highs, the terrifying lows and the appreciation for the middle ground. I am the random hug or brief moment of eye contact. The breakthrough moment where everything seems perfect. I am the fortress of the savant. I excel at the unexpected, and I surprise you all the time.

You curse and question my existence. You ask, “Why do I live with this? Why can’t I cure this?” There’s a part of you that doesn’t want me to leave. I am normal, to you. Why can’t people see that? You’ve tried to “cure” me but in reality you want to use me, control me, and that’s OK.

I tell you you’re not “crazy” while telling you you’re completely “insane.” I cloud your vision and open up your senses. I am a river of perpetual confusion and brief clarity.

I am bipolar disorder. I’m a bitch, but I’m beautiful too.

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