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Living with a mental illness can be challenging. Over the years, through all the ups and downs, I have learned to tune into myself and listen to what I need. I have found that I can manage my symptoms much better with careful planning and a deep sense of self-awareness. As I have learned my triggers, I have learned to create a lifestyle and environment that helps stabilize me. In addition, I have learned how to avoid and set boundaries for situations that cause chaos and wreak havoc in my life. I try to make it a point to ask myself these five questions at various points throughout my day to help keep me on track and protect myself from a breakdown.

1. What am I grateful for today?

I try to start every day in gratitude. I like to do this first thing in the morning before I even get out of bed. This is especially important during depressive episodes. It helps to balance my natural negativity and give me something to keep me grounded.

2. What do I need today?

Every day is different and I never know how I’m going to feel when I wake up. I have found it’s so important to reflect on what I need to do on any given day. Is it rest? Is it an adventure? Is it time to get work done? Time alone? A conversation with a friend? Time to create? This question is especially important as I go into the day so I can figure out my expectations for the day and communicate those to my loved ones.

3. If I can only get one thing done today, what is it?

I find I get depressed on days I feel I didn’t accomplish anything. So, I like to check in with myself and see what I want to get done on any given day. Maybe it’s just, “I want to take a shower today” or “I want to write a chapter for my book” or “I want to get a specific thing done for work.” If I don’t check in with myself and have that conversation, I am more likely to get disappointed with myself at the end of the day and feel like a failure or get depressed or anxious.

4. What can I take off my plate today, so I can get the most important thing done?

I have come to learn those busy days that are packed full of things to do do not work well for me. They tend to cause stress and irritability and that triggers episodes of anxiety, depression, anger, mania and the like. There is always something I can take out of the day but if I don’t stop, look at my schedule and see what I can move and shift, I will get caught in chaos, which is never good for me. I have learned to set boundaries and have learned to be OK with changing appointments around or saying no to something I know will end up causing problems for me later on.

5. Where can I find time for rest today?

I tend to forget to recharge and I let myself get burnt out, and a burnt out me is not a pretty sight. I have tried to make it a point to focus on self-care and find time and space for rest. I believe that healing comes in the quiet. If we don’t stop and let ourselves rest and replenish we can never really heal or flourish. Along with my illness, I juggle motherhood, marriage and a career. There are always a million excuses for why I can’t rest or don’t have time to stop, but for the sake of my health, I know I have to. Sometimes rest is just a cup of tea in the afternoon. Or maybe it’s a yoga class, dinner with a friend or a bath. On the good days, it’s an afternoon at my favorite tea shop, alone or sitting on a blanket in the park and writing. There are so many ways to find and create rest during the day but if I don’t stop and seek it, I won’t find it.

These questions can be helpful, regardless of what you are dealing with. They have especially come in handy for me as I have dealt with grief and loss, and they have given me a rhythm for my day. If you find yourself struggling through your days, stop and add these questions to your daily routine. They have consistently helped me to gain insight and stay ahead of emotional episodes and breakdowns. Hopefully, they too will help ground you and guide you through your life journey.

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Photo by Anthony Scarlati


The sun is shining. Outside my window, birds are singing. It’s a beautiful start to a beautifully new day.

I hate it.

My bed is soft, warm and comforting. Inside my room, my sanctuary, the curtains are drawn and the harshness of the sun’s brightness cannot overwhelm me. However, the day must begin.

I smile as I drop my son off at preschool. His teachers tell me what a joy he is to have. They do not see the exhaustion and dark circles hidden beneath my sunglasses caused by the overwhelming fatigue due to the mood stabilizer I take.

As I stand in line for coffee, I feel dizzy and lightheaded. Strangers mumble behind me. I’m paranoid their conversations regard me and my lack of coordination. I want to turn around and tell them it’s a side effect of my antidepressant. I want to ask if my paranoia is valid. I order my coffee and my voice cannot find the correct pronunciation for frappuccino, so I order tea instead. A memory that rivals a San Francisco fog, it’s yet another side effect of medication.

A fellow driver changes lanes with no signal and I honk my horn, angrily. Inside my neighborhood Target, I loudly correct the woman attempting to get in line in front of me. I’m downright belligerent when I go to return a shirt, expecting a confrontation. I want to say it’s not you, it’s me. I’m manic right now.

The store is hot. There are too many people too close to me. Voices blur like surround sound.  My chest hurts and I feel the familiar wave of an attack. I’m beyond humiliated. I’m in my car somehow. I cannot remember how I got there. Tears stream down my face as I cry into my steering wheel like it can somehow offer me comfort. As if depression were a blanket someone could wrap around me, it feels heavy and burdensome.

Please see me.

Please see me.

My days are a carousel of emotions. I’ve begun grandiose projects, maxed out a credit card and rearranged my living room in one day. The next day is spent huddled in a ball with a guilty sickness over my spending spree. I drive too fast, talk too loudly and smile as though the whole world were created as my personal playground. And I haven’t even hit Wednesday yet.

Everyone experiences bipolar disorder differently. Treatment will vary based on individual needs and medical advice.

Simply because our illness is invisible does not mean we are. 

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Being a mom has its share of challenges. All of us have our own unique set of struggles depending on our circumstances. Well, this bipolar mama has a set of struggles for sure as well as a lengthy list of insecurities and worries that could probably wind around the block.

Experiencing postpartum depression and anxiety was probably the first nasty battle fought in this war of mine. I was fortunate I didn’t become psychotic and didn’t have to be hospitalized. Debilitating fear, pacing the house with dread, struggling to get out of bed and suicidal thoughts. These things make being a new mother even more of a tumultuous ride than the sleepless nights, milk stains and leaky diapers.

Fast forward to hypomanic times. Dancing around the house chasing the kids, having a blast doing anything and everything they want because I didn’t have a care in the world. Follow it up with the crash when they can’t get me out of bed to read a book to them and want to know what I was crying about.

I struggled to explain in “kid friendly” terms.

I disappeared to a hospital for a week with no obvious signs of illness. It was far away so the kids couldn’t visit, but they could call. I sounded fine, so why couldn’t I just come home? I told my oldest my brain doesn’t work right so I needed some medicine to fix it. Once it was fixed, I would be home. He seemed to understand.

Then, the unthinkable. Dad and the kids find me unconscious and the ambulance hauls me away. Another week in the hospital. The kids just know I was sick and I was at the hospital (adults know it as the psychiatric hospital) and they got to visit my bare room a few times. I got out on my youngest child’s birthday.

Good old-fashioned “mommy guilt” ain’t got nothing on what I’ve got.

Being in recovery helps me work on the guilt and shame. Compassion towards the self is important for mommies in general, but this bipolar mommy needs it in spades. Mistakes and missteps in parenting are exacerbated by my illness and will be handled and my kids will be OK. I just need to tell myself to breathe and learn from it all.

Even on my darkest days, I know my kids are always watching. And if they have to have a mom who has bipolar, at least they can have a mom who teaches them the meaning of strength and resiliency. They have one tough mama.

Follow this journey here.

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Sometimes, my son experiences tremors or other side effects from his medications. These can be debilitating to the point where he needs to come home and rest. Then, I’ll often hear the comment, “Well, it’s hard to tell which medication caused it. He takes so many medications.”

This comment is not usually made with a sympathetic tone of voice. My husband dismisses it as “just an observation.”

But to my ears, and from the tone, it sounds judgmental. And of course, as one of his parents, I feel judged.

My son was diagnosed with a mood disorder at 9 and bipolar disorder at 10. He is now 17 years old.

We’ve been through dozens of medications. I say “we” because in our house, medication changes are a family effort. Everyone works together to help because it’s never easy.

He currently takes five different medicines for his illness. He takes a lower dose of each one than is generally prescribed because he cannot tolerate higher doses of any of them.

I know this sounds like a lot; and it is. But each of these pharmaceuticals has a role in balancing his mood and helping him live as normal a life as possible.

If we stopped giving him even one of these, he would be tearful and depressed all day, or his thoughts would be racing so fast that he couldn’t function. He definitely wouldn’t make it to school.

There was a distinct reason we added each one. My son was going through a great deal of crisis and pain. His brain was, as he says, “mixed up.”

Then, each time he had to decide which side effects he could put up with because all of these psychotropic drugs have a host of those. It’s a balancing act of side effects and benefits. If life is more tolerable for him, the medication is worthwhile.

He constantly needs adjustments as he grows and his body and brain change.

Some of the staggering side effects listed for these drugs include: vomiting, fast heartbeat, high blood pressure, trouble breathing, loss of memory, suicidal thoughts, tremor, hair loss, changes in vision, dizziness.

Other side effects are: liver dysfunction, changes in blood cells and platelets, confusion, coma. These are the ones I wake my son up in the middle of the night to check for, poking him to make sure he responds.

Everyone’s body reacts to these medicines in a different way, so what works wonders for one may throw another into a horrible cycle and make the current symptoms even worse.

Then, there are the results. The process is similar to playing Russian Roulette. For him, sometimes it goes this way: “There is no god because if there was, he wouldn’t let me feel like this. No god would ever do this to someone.” These are signals to stop that medication immediately and go back to square one. We know that one isn’t a keeper.

Or sometimes the new medication provides a much-needed adjustment. Wow, he’s not as depressed. He’s happy. He sang in the shower. He relaxed and took a bath. He did some homework.

Things we thought would never get better. The reason we took that big risk.

Then, the lift in my own mood occurs. That heavy load feels so much lighter. My husband and I can go out and leave him at home. He wants to go places with us. We sleep at night. Our house is a happy place to be.

Therefore, when someone comments that he takes so many medications….

Please don’t tell me something I already know. I’m not sure if you understand why he’s on all these medications. I know how hard it is for anyone who hasn’t experienced it to even comprehend.

You couldn’t know we tried half a dozen antipsychotics before we found the right one for him. That meant a trial of at least a couple weeks for each and a host of side effects to deal with before throwing in the towel.

You couldn’t even imagine the blood, sweat, and tears my son experienced with each medication change or his pain that led up to it. You couldn’t know how my husband and I agonized every time or the heart-wrenching decisions we have to make because our son has a mental illness. You couldn’t know the sleepless nights, the turmoil in our house, or the long nightly car rides to help him calm down so he can sleep.

You wouldn’t know what we watch him go through.

Then, there is the feeling of elation when a medication actually works, when we see him feel better.

That is why we will never give up on trying to help him and to make things better. Medication, therapy, all the tools he needs.

I hope after reading this, you can understand a little bit more about what he’s had to endure with the addition of each of these “many” medications. I hope you understand that he, and his family, never really chose to add any of these at all. It wasn’t a decision; it was a necessity due to his illness.

You probably would be less likely to comment about the number of medications someone with a less stigmatized illness takes, so please don’t make a remark about the number of medications he takes for his brain illness.

I also hope you understand what a strong and incredible person he is for carrying this load every single day.

Editor’s note: This story has been published with permission from the author’s son.

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A couple of days after I bought new paint for my room, I kicked a hole right in the wall. I created what seemed to be a black hole in the purple (the color I picked out in seventh grade) wall next to my bed and the heel of my foot was covered in dusty white. I shook it off into the covers in my writhing and screamed and screamed for what felt like hours. I was so full of rage, it felt like my body was pulsing. It felt almost electric, a feeling I would later find out was the result of withdrawal from my medication, an SNRI my new psychiatrist had given me without a proper diagnosis.

It had been three months since I came home from my sophomore year of college in Chicago to my Midwestern town, two hours below. I had been in such a heavy, depressive state, my mind felt like cement and my body like a corpse. It was rare for me to ask for help, but I was doing it and when I got home I was lucky enough to have an appointment with a psychiatrist who immediately gave me a new prescription, after about four years on an SSRI. I always thought I had chronic depression and that my original medication was helping. But what I found out later was the seemingly “great times” were a medication-induced mania. I would write and edit for six newsletters, blogs and magazines at a time, work four different jobs and be with a different boy every day or night. I felt unstoppable. Finally, I was stopped and I asked for the help to get me going again.

I picked out a new white color for my room and I held the weight of the paint can with a feeling of hope and responsibility. I would cover the old paint, though it would take several coats and my room would be clean and new. Buying the paint was the first thing I did after being released from a mental care facility in town. It felt nice to know the psychiatrist and social workers there felt good enough to let me go.

Before I was sent to the mental care facility, I was in the emergency room because I was terrified I would kill myself. This feeling had never felt more prominent than it did that night, when I couldn’t help picturing killing myself to take me out of the body that felt like a vessel helplessly controlled by a malevolent brain. I told my boyfriend, who told my mom, who took me to the hospital. From there, I was sent to respite care, respite simply meaning “rest,” where I would meet with a psychiatrist every day at 7:30 a.m. It was there I truly realized asking for help saved my life.

At respite, I was finally diagnosed with bipolar II, after speculations from my therapist I had been seeing since high school. There, they quickly weaned me off the second medication and prescribed me with an high amount of two different drugs meant for bipolar disorder. I felt fantastic. It helped me sleep, but not too much and I even felt good enough to work on a paper. Soon after, they let me go home.

A couple days later, the withdrawal symptoms reared their ugly heads. I sweat through all of my clothes, felt on the verge of vomiting constantly and was so dizzy I couldn’t stand up to eat or go to the bathroom. I had a feeling of electricity in my hands, feet, ears and eyes. I couldn’t look at a computer or read a book. I was bedridden, staring at my purple walls and popcorn ceiling. I knew it was the medication. I immediately stopped the new medication and swore off the previous medication for the rest of my life. It felt as though my brain was full of pills like pretty toppings, mixed at an old ice cream shop and then scooped out and sold. I was so physically ill. It was here I asked for help again.

I was admitted to the hospital for my physical symptoms and stayed here for a few days. I was given a new medication. The storm of medications had me stuck. It was as if I kept reliving the worst day of my life over and over again, an odd sort of groundhog day. I thought going home from school was the worst day of my life. I thought my depressed days in bed and sweaty pajamas were the worst days of my life. I thought the day I almost killed myself was the worst day of my life. I thought the day I kicked the hole in my wall was the worst day of my life.

But the importance of these days was each time, I knew to ask for help. And the help was given to me. Since then, I’ve learned to view my life in relative terms. Yes, today might feel terrible and endless, but at least I’m not stuck in bed. Yes, today I may have reverted to some old habits, but at least I no longer feel the effects of the wrong medication. Yes, today I may have cried three times, but at least I am back at school. Yes, today may suck, but at least I fixed the damn hole in the wall and painted over the purple of the past.

Editor’s note: Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.

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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“Hannah, I know you aren’t going to want to hear this. But given your symptoms, I’m almost positive you have bipolar 2.”

I sat there, looking at the doctor, dumbfounded. No, no, that doesn’t seem right. No way. My mind was spinning, trying desperately to comprehend her words. In that moment, nothing seemed to make any sense.

I sought out psychiatric help not long after coming to college. In high school, I had battled depression, generalized anxiety, panic attacks, and restrictive eating. I knew these challenges wouldn’t suddenly disappear as soon as I came to my university, although I certainly prayed and hoped they would. When things got a little messy toward the end of my first quarter, I decided it was probably time to go back to receiving professional care.

I started going to therapy and began taking stronger medication for my anxiety, but something was just a little out of sorts. Over winter break, my anxiety started to rage for days on end. With it came irritability, racing thoughts, little desire to sleep, a surprising amount of productivity, and seemingly boundless energy. I was still anxious, sure, but I wasn’t really in a bad mood. In fact, I felt pretty good about myself, even as I experienced a certain edginess. My doctor would later describe this phenomenon as “hypomania.” In retrospect, this probably wasn’t the first time I’d experienced such a mood swing.

About a week after I returned to school, I felt like I hit a wall. The anxiety, the neuroticism, the productivity was all gone. I was exhausted. I developed severe headaches and found it challenging to do anything but sleep. For about a week, I felt engulfed in a fog, as if life was moving way faster than I was. I certainly recognized it as depression – this kind of situation had happened more than once before. Still, as a new quarter began and my responsibilities grew, I struggled to figure out what was up.

The next week, I went in to the campus health center and got my diagnosis. It was one I never thought I would receive. Bipolar. You have bipolar disorder. At the moment, it didn’t make any sense. I was a normal student. I was taking 16 academic credits, had earned a prestigious internship, and was in a leadership position in my sorority. I had been dealing with my mental health issues, sure, but there was no way I could have expected something like this. I stared blankly at the physician with tears streaming down my face. She offered very little in the way of comforting words or detailed explanations. Instead, she sent me home with an enormous pile of paperwork, a new prescription for mood stabilizers, and a lump in my throat unlike any other.

For the rest of the week, I tried to put the pieces together. I knew what I had experienced over the holidays was more than just anxiety because it wasn’t all so bad. Depression was more typical for me, so it was much easier to identify those symptoms. Still, I struggled for days to come to terms with this new label.

My roommate was the one who helped me to understand the importance of self-acceptance. “Think of it this way,” she told me. “If this ‘label’ is what helps you receive treatment and ultimately feel better, isn’t that a good thing? I know it’s hard and I know it’s scary, but maybe this is what you need to get well.”

Her words really helped put things into perspective for me. She was right: a changed diagnosis is sometimes a positive because it helps point towards a potentially more effective treatment regimen. It took me days to really understand what she meant, but I think she had an excellent point.

Don’t get me wrong, there is still a lot I am trying to understand about bipolar disorder and what it means for me, if my diagnosis is indeed accurate. But today I feel much more at ease, knowing whatever my “label” is, it doesn’t have to have a negative connotation. More importantly, it doesn’t have to define me. My identity lies in my humanity, not in whatever disease I may have.

I am not bipolar. I am not anxiety, nor am I depression. I am not a sleepless night, nor a restless mind. I am not a bad day, a bad week, a bad month, a bad year. I am not a statistic. And I most definitely am not some diagnostic label.

I am supported. I am loved. I am an intellectual. I am a friend. I am a sister. I am a daughter. I am a child of God.

I am Hannah, and I am beautiful.

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