waves crashing. text reads: 17 people describe what it's like to have bipolar disorder

While most people know those with bipolar disorder experience periods of “ups” and “downs,” it can be hard to understand exactly what that means, since we all experiences mood fluctuations to some extent. But bipolar disorder isn’t an everyday shift from happiness to sadness — its periods of depression and mania can be much more extreme and sometimes debilitating.

Bipolar disorder isn’t a scary thing, either. There are several ways to manage it, and many go on to live fulfilling lives riding its waves.

To get a better idea of what it’s like to have bipolar disorder, we asked people in our mental health community to describe what it’s like.

Here’s what they had to say:

1. “Imagine feeling extremely happy and on top of the world but not able to truly appreciate the happiness because you know that soon (could be seconds, minutes, hours or days later) the happiness will be replaced with complete sadness. It’s only a matter of time before you are back to square one with the one demon that’s never gone and is always around the corner: depression.” — Hannah C.

2. “One day I have to miss work because I can’t get out of bed, and I spend the whole day wanting to die (even though I know I won’t, the thought is always there). The next day I’m staying up 24 hours taking on two jobs and spending more money than I have, running errands, loving life. It’s unpredictable and difficult because it’s not the kind of illness people understand. People look at it as a really bad illness and they don’t want to talk about it at all.” — Cailey C.

3. “It’s not always a slow spiral between depressed and manic moods. For some it could be rage and manic or depression and rage. Or any combination of those. On or off medication, it’s a battle to keep a balance of all the emotions.” — Tina B.

4. “Bipolar disorder doesn’t look the same in each person with bipolar disorder. Just because you know someone who knows someone with bipolar doesn’t mean I am like them or experience it the same way.” — David W.

5. “It’s a constant question mark. There are some days depression takes its turn and you can’t get out of bed. There are some days there is a weird burning sensation inside of you and you can’t eat or sleep or think straight and you feel alive and out of control. And there are the days you are trying to juggle the extremes and it requires all you have to make it through, though the smallest thing (a question, a song, a thought you keep obsessing) can make you fluctuate to one of the extremes.” — Livia S.

6. “It’s like one moment you’ve got your future figured out and you feel like yes! I’m finally doing something with my life and you start imagining about the success and how it would make people around you proud of you and then boom! Next moment all you can think about is how you’re good for nothing, and there’s nothing you could do with your life and no one expects anything from you anyway, and what’s the point of life in itself, and you just let go of that little hope that brightened your life for few seconds.” — Eesha I.

7. “I don’t trust if it’s joy or mania, so I fear it instead of leaning into any pleasure. And the burst of energy and creativity is tarnished by unrelenting disorganized thoughts.” — Jenn R.

8. “It’s not as simple as the mood swings everyone goes through. I’m fighting for control over my mind to not be the ‘suicidal me’ and not be the ‘manic me.’ The only time there is ‘just me’ is when I am stable on my meds and going to therapy. Before I was stable, I would have days upon days where I could not get out of bed physically… and the thoughts of death were so overwhelming no other thoughts could penetrate. Then, all of a sudden, I would be infused with so much energy, but it was too much. So much so that I would become so irritable, and angry and impulsive. Then the worst days when I would bounce back and forth with in hours from suicidal and crying to feeling like a God and planning on flying (literally, that was my delusion). Before meds, on those days where the alter-me was semi-quiet, I was able to pretend to function like anyone else. But every so often on those days I would have to get away and hide because an episode was upon me. It’s a fight. Every day.” — Julie J.

9. “I read this after sleeping for 18 hours and haven’t had a shower in a week and a half. It’s not even recognizing who you are sometimes. It’s looking in the mirror and seeing someone else. It’s hiding behind silence so you no one will call you ‘crazy.’ It’s every emotion rolled into a ball and you wait to see which ‘you’ comes out first.” — Ashley S.

10.I never know what to expect for the day. I could be super depressed and not want to get out of bed one day and then jump out of my bed with joy the following day. It’s often difficult to distinguish sadness from depression and happiness from mania. It’s very unpredictable.” — Lisbet F.

11. “Bipolar is an emotional roller coaster. Every corner is a different emotion. While a roller coaster flips you upside down, bipolar flips the person’s life and world upside down. The climb up one hill to feeling better is what we all want. It’s when you’re on top looking at the steep descent to the bottom knowing you’re on your way there that affects your mind and body. This can last from hours to days and in so many cases longer. The faster the ride the scarier the experience. That is also true with bipolar disorder. I wake up fearing what the day might bring and go to bed praying to be better the next.” — Allison Q.

12. “I used to feel like I was constantly at war with myself, punishing myself for ‘letting myself’ become manic or depressed. Over the past year I’ve learned to be a little less harsh on myself, knowing a lot of it is out of my control. But sometimes I feel like I have to ‘prove myself’ to people that I’m more than just my diagnosis. One and half years, no relapse so far. And have a healthy, happy 5-month-old little boy!” — Maria H.

13. “Bipolar disorder is like being behind the wheel of a car with the gas peddle stuck down. You have control of the steering, but you can’t slow down. You don’t want to be in the car, but you’re stuck there and you know it. So you attempt to avoid hitting other people for as long as you can, but it’s impossible to avoid everyone. Meanwhile you’re scared, crying and lonely in this out of control car just begging to be free of it, only to be even more inclined to stay in the car to avoid dealing with the devastation you’ve brought on other people. So you scream sorry at every person you hit but they can never hear you. Even if they could hear you, you’re fully aware of their inclination not to listen. This car ride continues to impound on itself, as more and more people are driven away from your path and roads are shut down, you are left to cruise alone in your out of control vehicle.” — Helena H.

14. “Bipolar is something that can be lived with and managed. I have learned that and always try to remember that. But it’s also hard to live with and almost equally hard to explain. Bipolar is being unsure if joy is really joy or if mania is creeping up. It’s doubting that it’s OK to be upset about something or that you can have a bad day because you fear it could be the start of a depression. It’s moments of doubt — total disbelief that you really have bipolar and feeling certain it’s all a sham and those meds and life changes are completely unnecessary. It’s trying to come to terms with the fact that bipolar can’t be past tense — even when you are stable you don’t get to say, ‘I had bipolar.’ You will always have it.” — Abigail J.

15. “For me, it’s like walking through a lighted tunnel and then suddenly having everything go dark… you feel trapped, scared and anxious not knowing when or if the lights will ever come on again. You feel lost and alone, uncertain of what is waiting for you in the dark. Often times, it feels like it would be easier just to stop moving forward and let the darkness consume you. For me, it’s usually a struggle to find the light again.” — Danielle C.

16. “It’s like two souls fighting over one body.” — Chino G.

17. “It’s like listening to music on a never-ending loop. The high notes are so high and the low notes so low that nobody around can hear. Sometimes I love the music, I’m in it, I dance as it plays for me and only me. Sometimes it’s haunting, vicious and it relentlessly encourages me to dance with the devil. Although sometimes — most of the time — the music is just the music that everybody else can dance to and I’m me. That’s my favorite.” — Lucy D.

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.


Many people have made New Year’s resolutions recently, pledging to give up something bad for them in order to make the first tentative steps towards a healthier future. I too, will be giving up something this new year, something that has had a hold on me for far too long. This year I am giving up being bipolar.

Mental illness is a funny thing, it seems to permeate our very core and the repercussions of it resonate throughout every area of our life. Many who struggle with mental illness are socially excluded, sometimes involuntarily through statutory intervention, sometimes psychologically, their demons keeping them at a distance from others, and sometimes through society’s inability to tolerate what at times seems like the intolerable.

I have known few users of mental health services who have not felt the sting of stigma and rejection by the mentally “healthy.” And the thing is, I get it. It’s hard for people who have never experienced mental illness to comprehend it. They cannot feel the rise and fall of fluctuating moods, they do not have the compulsions to cause harm to themselves. They do not hear the voices constantly screaming abuse from the corner of the room.

And while many may be sympathetic for a while, most often, with severe and enduring mental illness, the rest of the world eventually turns away. Because they have lives to lead, children to bring up, work to go to. No one can be continually “on call” for someone who is constantly in crisis. But what this does of course is marginalize people with mental illnesses further. Because no matter however valid the reason, no matter how understandable, it still feels like abandonment when someone you need leaves when you need them the most.

And already feeling like a psychological stranger in your own mind, you then begin to feel like a stranger in society. You realize you don’t fit into its mold of what a “well” person should look like. And it hurts. It is excruciatingly painful to feel you don’t belong, just like it is for a lonely child on a playground. As an adult who feels “different,” the constant battles with the bullies inside and outside your head wear you down. They become thieves. Thieves who steal your hope.

And in my experience, what so often can happen then is you begin to seek refuge in the chains that bind you. Like a psychological version of Stockholm syndrome, you begin to identify with your tormentor, because it is all you have. In the isolation of living in a world that doesn’t seem to either understand or accept you, your illness becomes the frame of reference with which you define yourself. It becomes like a trusted friend.

For years now I have described myself as “being bipolar.” You see, amidst the fear and the rejection, so often feeling lost in the darkness, I lost my way. I stopped being able to see myself as a person. I stopped being able to see myself at all. I “became” the thing that ails me, I reduced myself to a set of symptoms, I defined my identity by my diagnosis.

I have lost count of psychiatric inpatients I have known — myself included at times — who have been discharged from the hospital and have proceeded to lead the bleakest of existences imprisoned in their own homes. Shutting themselves away from society because they feel they do not have a stake in it, that they are not even part of it. Life becomes about seclusion, with the curtains drawn, existing on an hourly basis. Even off the ward, even with their freedom pass, they are not free. They are still shackled. Only this section has no end date.

And the thing is, it is so easy to forget the jailor is inside us and that we actually hold the key. It is we who have the authority to lift this type of psychological section and set ourselves free. Someone pointed out to me recently after knowing me for quite some time the only things they actually knew about me were I have a child and I am bipolar. And there is something very wrong with this picture.

Because I am so much more than the sum of my symptoms. There are other things about me. I have a passion for politics and social justice, I love retro fashion and vintage interiors. I am an avid cook, I eat crisps compulsively, my eye shadow always matches my outfit, Nelson Mandela and Gloria Steinem are two of my heroes, I have travelled the world twice and hope to see more of it, music is my soul food, poetry is my passion and American teen dramas are my guilty pleasure. And yet this person knew none of this.

And when I reflected on this, I realized “being” bipolar is all I give people of myself. Weary from a lifetime of rejection because of my “otherness,” I now deliberately cast myself in this role, projecting my disability outward like a silent challenge. “I’m bipolar. Go on, reject me,” is what I’m really saying to people when I tell them about my condition. But in doing so I debilitate myself more, I debilitate any ability to build new relationships on any sort of equal footing. Because then people treat me differently. They treat me like I’m ill. They treat me like I “am” bipolar.

So here’s the thing about having a mental disability. It is like being part of a club. Service users tend to stick to friendships with other service users, because it feels like they are the only people who can understand the struggles. And of course membership to this club is entirely exclusive. And it fuels the cycle of exclusion, because just as we have so often felt rejected by society, we begin to reject it. We form our own counter-culture, where people speak the language of the wards, where we define ourselves by diagnostic criteria, where our natural habitat is the hospital.

And if hospital is our “home”’ then the professionals are our parents. We look to them for everything, our medicines are our daily meals, therapy is our classroom, the Community Psychiatric Nurses (CPNs) are like the kind aunties contrasting with the strict father psychiatrists and other service users are our siblings. And we swallow our psychiatric sweeties and consume the services, because we don’t want to leave home yet, we are not ready to leave our family behind. Because it is the only time we have ever felt like we belonged.

But at some point, everyone has to leave home. Everyone has to beat those schoolyard bullies and grow. And when you leave the comfort of the family nest, it is scary. The real world is petrifying, just like when you go to university at 18 and everything seems big and frightening and people seem strange and different to you. Leaving services is like this, because when you’ve been out of the game for a long time, you forget what the real world looks like, you forget how people who are not ill communicate.

Of course mental illness is not easily “cured.” It is often chronic and requires lifelong management, but we do not have to become our illness. We can just have our illness, just like we have blue eyes or blonde hair. It is not who we are, it’s something we have. And this is why I am surrendering my membership to this club, because I no longer want to “be” bipolar.

When Nelson Mandela walked free from jail in 1990, he spoke famously about making peace with his past and forgiving his enemies. He said if he didn’t, he would have remained imprisoned. Having a mental illness is a bit like this, only the jail is your own mind and the enemy is the thing that ails it. Sometimes you have to let go of this version of yourself in order to be free.

Sometimes you have to open those curtains in order to let the sunlight of the outside world in. And this is our “long walk to freedom,” this is the path we travel. Sometimes we need to sit by the road for a while, sometimes we need a break from the journey, to take a minute, put the bags down and have a rest. But you know what, that’s OK. And sometimes we lose people along the way, people who just don’t want to make that journey with us. And that’s OK too. It’s tricky terrain, sometimes the territory is hostile. It’s not for everyone. In her final column for The Guardian a month ago, the late Carrie Fisher advised a reader with bipolar who had reached out:

“You don’t have to like doing a lot of what you do, you just have to do it. You can let it all fall down and feel defeated and hopeless and that you’re done. But you reached out to me – that took courage. Now build on that. Move through those feelings and meet me on the other side. As your bipolar sister, I’ll be watching. Now get out there and show me and you what you can do.”

Amen to that.

This post originally appeared on FortyFavourstheBrave.

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Today I am hurting because of you. Today, like many days before it, you have caused me unbearable pain, to the point I was surprised I did not break. I spend days being ashamed of you, hiding you behind nice clothes and cheery laughter, afraid the word “bipolar” would scare even the bravest of souls. I lie about you, say I have beaten you and you will never haunt me again. I say you were a phase and I pretend I have never even heard of you before, let alone experienced the internal struggle you cause.

But the truth is, you have not gone anywhere. Today you are more noticeable to me than on other days. But even on the brightest of days you still hide deep inside of me. By ignoring you and pretending you do not exist, I am doing myself more harm than good and today I realized that. Whenever I act as though you are not a part of my life — even when you are quiet — I’m actually just showing others I do not need help with something like you. And then when you are loud, they get confused and scared. They do not know how to handle me when you’re grasping my feelings and I never told them what to do because I was too busy pretending I never had you in the first place. But it is not only others who are affected when I hide you away. Every time I have a bad day, I feel ashamed because I had convinced myself this time things were different, that this time you would not return.

I think I hide you because I’m scared. As a child, all of my friends and I had dreams of our futures, of things like marriage and jobs and families. You were not part of my future back then. Now when I picture meeting someone and falling in love, I have to think about how I will have to explain you to them. My biggest fear is they will run away, and yet I’m also scared they will stay. I think to myself, perhaps if I pretend you are not as bad as you are, they will love me. And yet, I think I am undeserving of love because of you and therefore I must scare anyone away with warnings and stories about my worst days until they run and never look back.

It is not that I hate myself. No, I simply hate living with you. I hate seeing the sadness on my mother’s face when she realizes you have not gone away like it may have seemed. I start to cry when I think about the pain I have put others through because of you. I have so much guilt, so much shame to be living with you and I feel undeserving and unlovable because of that. But how do I not feel guilty about you?

No one ever seems to be optimistic about you. I must admit it is hard for me to ever be optimistic when it comes to you, but I am sick of hearing of what I can’t do. Everywhere I turn I seem to stumble upon article after article on how I should never have kids, how I will never be able to fully love my significant other and so much more. It makes it hard to see I can live with you and be happy and content with my life. And part of changing this negative stigma starts with me.

So what do I do with you? You are the source of my pain and agony, day after day. But you are also part of me. When will I realize perhaps it is time to stop being ashamed of you? Instead of saying simply you have gone away, I should be saying you come and go as you please, but nothing lasts forever. And when you loom over me, I just need to be reminded of how soon it will be until you are gone. I can choose how I present you to the world and this will depict the amount you can impact my relationships, family and future. It is not embarrassing to have a mental illness and everyone has struggles. The day has come for me to stop hiding mine.

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“What did you do today?”

Survived. I survived.

“Um… well, not much, really.”

I hate this question with a burning passion. I feel like people, even someone as well meaning as my boyfriend, expect some sort of productive or interesting response. When, really, I can’t even begin to tell them what I went through today. Even on my good days, it can be hell.

Today I spent most of my time with my nose stuck between the pages of a bipolar II self- help book. You can’t just say that to someone casually. There’s a stigma around self-help books society has painted as “pathetic.” Truth is, it’s not pathetic. It’s actually really brave to look at yourself and say, something needs to change.

What else did I do today? I painted a little bit. It helps me relax when my mind is too much. I cleaned my patio and I wrote a blog post. It’s about 3 p.m. so I have plans to clean the rest of my apartment, but knowing me, the kitchen will be done and nothing else touched. Oh, I did yoga today and I’ve taken my dog on a couple walks as well so, there’s that.

I do the same thing pretty much every day. I don’t currently have a job as I am unreliable in my current state of mental health. Right now, I’m in recovery, I’m my “normal” self. But with bipolar II disorder, who the hell knows how long this’ll last? I could fall into a depressive episode tonight or tomorrow and be completely useless. Can I just work from home already? So on days when it’s too much, I don’t have to cry to my boss asking for the day off? If only.

Truth is, I did a lot today. I’m worn out. I’m alive. I’ve had very mild depression today, but enough to keep me from being able to clean. It’s been hard to keep myself going. The fight is bad enough without any added expectations. I still have to go to the pharmacy today. It’s not even a five minute drive and I still can’t see how it’ll be possible for me to do it alone.

So, today when my boyfriend asks me what I did, just after he tells me about his day at work, I’ll be honest. I’ll tell him I survived. I’ll tell him about the self-help book and the cleaning. I’ll tell him how hard it was to tackle going to the pharmacy. The only way he’ll understand is if I’m honest with him. Instead of another, “Oh, not much.”

Take each day as it comes. Handle only the moments you are given. It doesn’t matter if all you can do is lay in bed. Do what you can to make sure you survive today. The world needs you. Someone needs you. You need you.

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I am one of the most positive people you’ll ever meet. That comes with constantly battling negative thoughts caused by my bipolar disorder. Somehow in this battle, I’ve become a pretty positive person. However there are times when rough things happen and it makes it really hard for me to be positive.

For example, some tough things happened in December and January. I shared with my friends how horrible I felt because of these things and some well-meaning friends said I should be positive. In that moment, I needed empathy, not positivity. My initial response was anger, but I cooled off after a few days because I knew those friends had my best interest at heart. I know I shouldn’t have been angry because I wrote a blog almost a year ago about being positive. Well, you live and learn.

So here’s my revision.

In hard times, when you have a mental illness, you don’t need people to point out “thinking positive” will fix everything. That’s probably the worst thing you could say. Thinking positive won’t necessarily fix your problems. In those times, we need our support systems to meet us where we are in the deep, dark pit of despair. We need our support system to listen and offer encouragement.

When dealt a blow to our routine, it’s hard for us to adjust, so please save the advice for later. We need those friends to meet us during our pain, validate our emotions and stay with us during our darkest moments. This kind of support system is truly valuable. Life can be messy, especially when someone is navigating life while battling bipolar or any other mental illness for that matter. Those who listen will be of more help than those who tell you to fix your thinking. When you are in a gloomy hole, you feel like you are never going to get out of there. You feel utterly, perpetually and completely alone. The ones who help us the most find their way down into the depths and sit with us until we are ready to crawl out. Those friends bring their light and give us strength to emerge from the darkness. I am lucky to have friends who know me well enough to know I need to process, grieve and vent in order to move up and out of the pit and become my positive self again. So for those of you who are struggling with a tough life situation right now, find the people who are willing to sit with you in the dark for awhile until you get the strength to crawl back out. And if you can’t find someone, know I would sit with you in the dark.

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In the past week, I have been out of the house more and seen more people than I have in years. It’s almost like having a social life. In the past week, I have also slept more than I usually do in my sloth-like, torpid existence. I think the two are not unrelated.

If you follow the Spoon Theory, then you know each spoon represents an amount of coping you are able to do. Every day you get a certain number of spoons, not the same number every day. You use them to perform everyday tasks that most people think nothing of, things like getting out of bed (a spoon that some days you don’t even have,) taking a shower (1/2 spoon for Janet’s patented “super-fast smelly-bits sink wash-up,”) getting dressed, finding something to eat and fixing that something. (Keep a box of Cheerios by the bed in case you run out of spoons at this point.) All this is without even leaving the house. Some days, that’s all the spoons you have, and when you’ve used up your spoons, that’s it.

Other days, you can manage to do all this and leave the house, go to work, run errands and an assortment of other normal activities. However, for those of us who have mental disorders, such days are few and far between. You hear people with depression talk of not being able to get out of bed, and for the most part, this is caused by a lack of spoons. I am usually notoriously low on spoons. My husband now understands the Spoon Theory, and we use it as common shorthand for, “I’m too tired,” or “That’s all I can handle right now.”

Dan, however, is an over-scheduler. I often have to rein him in by pointing out his proposed slate of activities will not be possible because I, for one, will run out of spoons, and he may too.

The dry run for my recent spurt of socializing began last week. After I went for my final session with Dr R., I managed a trip to the bank, a trip to the place where I could pay my power bill and since it was right next door, a stop at Kmart to buy underwear. It was a good thing that was a hypomanic day, but it floored me for the rest of the day and the next. It started a cycle of bipolar up-and-down oscillations that were clearly related to spoon usage.

My spate of social endeavors started with a double-header. On Saturday, I had lunch with a friend at a favorite restaurant I almost never get to go to. We talked about politics, social issues and book proposals. Then, I went home and had a little nap.

That evening Dan and I went to Monkey Bones for Zombie Dogz. I know that takes a little explaining. Monkey Bones is the tattoo studio where I got my semicolon tattoo. Zombie Dogz is a local food truck. (Also, it’s fun to say, “We went to Monkey Bones for Zombie Dogz.”)

Notice that in a single day I had to get out of bed and get dressed twice. That’s a lot of spoons. Sunday I was not able to get out of bed at all. Monday did not involve socializing, but it was another hellacious spoon-eater. Dan and I spent the day scrounging for documents and information that the IRS wanted. It was taxing. (See what I did there?)

Tuesday was an extra-special social event (though it did not involve getting dressed and going out or even interacting with other people.) It was Jenny Lawson’s online book launch party. Better known as the Bloggess, Jenny has severe social anxiety. At this stage in my life, I certainly would not be able to dress up, mingle and make polite conversation with both friends and complete strangers. The online party was a genius idea.

I sat at home in my pajamas with some red wine while the Bloggess read chapters from her new book, “Furiously Happy.” (You should get it, by the way. It’s about mental illness, but it’s funny.) As low-key a social situation as that was, it still used up spoons because it was something I had never done before. Making sure I had the right URL, converting Central Standard Time to Eastern Standard Time, not being able to ask questions because I don’t tweet and worrying Dan was getting bored. I did not have a lot a lot of spoons but still some.

The effects were getting cumulative. Again, I was unable to get out of bed the next day. In fact, Dan and I both slept away most of the daylight hours. For him, it’s understandable because he works third shift, but I have no such excuse. My only excuse is that if you borrow from the next day’s spoons or try to keep going without them, you will pay.

Thursday, I was determined, with or without spoons, I was going to meet a friend for coffee. I’ve seen her only once, briefly, in several years. In a way, it was a test of my ability to maintain anything approaching a real social life. I put forth the extra effort because a mutual friend cut her ties with me because I canceled so often on social engagements. I suppose I really have nothing to prove to anyone but myself, but it seems important that I do so. It’s not like coffee with a friend is an ordeal or anything. I just know I’ll be using a spoon for more than stirring my coffee.

I hope I have enough spoons left over to work on my other blog.

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