A man with headphones in wearing a backpack and walking around a city

I read a lot of posts about mental illness, including accounts from those who live with it. I frequently see one idea pop up: that the illness is not the person. Depression, anxiety or what have you is something that we have, not something that defines us. We’re not broken. We just have something extra on our plate.

If that view is comforting, and if it describes you accurately, then by all means keep it. I’m not here to rain on anybody’s parade. But I have come to accept the opposite for myself.

Bipolar disorder is an integral part of my personality, my mind and who I am.

Let me break it down.

What, exactly, defines someone? How would you describe a friend or yourself? “He’s a funny guy. She’s very sweet. He’s super strict. She’s quite smart.” Other than physical attributes, we tend to view people in terms of their temperament, emotions, experiences, words and actions. My bipolar brain influences all of these.

People call me smart. Some may say I’m talented. Many times I dove into challenging subjects, books and creative pursuits. I believe I can attribute nearly all of those initiations to swings of mania and delusions of grandeur. I wouldn’t have tackled a statistics minor in college, “Les Miserables” and “The Phantom of the Opera” when I was 13, or music composition in general without a surge of courage and energy.

That came from mania, and is difficult to maintain or replicate under normal circumstances.

I’m often described as calm and collected. I developed this trait through practicing constant cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, even in social situations. I would not have learned that and internalized it without therapy. I can thank my illness for sending me there.

I listen a lot. This comes from an innate sense of empathy my depression has given me. So many times I just want to scream all of the dark and lonely thoughts in my head. I totally understand wanting someone to listen to me. When someone else needs the same courtesy, I give it to them. I know how important it is, and I’ve come to enjoy it.

My illness prompted me to start a support group and get a job as a social worker. Those experiences color my political beliefs heavily. I depend on my religion for quite a bit of strength. I don’t know where I’d be spiritually if things came easy to me.

Most of the thoughts in my head are spontaneous. In depressive periods they are dark, crippling my social and professional lives. In mania they are wild fantasies that fuel any number of imaginative speculations from politics to dating to religion to science to art. In stable times they are dull comparatively.

Again, thanks to bipolar disorder.

Speaking of dating: I become a decently hypomanic with most dating successes. This influences how I speak, act and even boosts my sense of humor. When I am depressed it’s hard to put up a good act and I feel I come off as muted or boring. If I feel well, I’ll go on dates. If not, I turn people away.

There certainly are aspects of myself that do not come from my neurodiversity. My ethics come from my parents and my religion. My intelligence is largely a product of my education. My tastes, hobbies and interests probably come from the circumstantial influence of friends and family.

But I do think differently. I daydream a bunch and my imagination can be wild — a side effect of racing thoughts, I presume. I can be incredibly suspicious of others’ motives — a product of paranoia. I mull things over and over, including solutions for work and relationship turmoil — obsessive tendencies, anyone?

I don’t want to challenge or upend the dominant narrative that mental illness is a feature and not a definition of a person. For myself, I am myself largely in part to a different kind of brain. I’m OK with that. I think that’s a beautiful thing.

Follow this journey on That Bipolar Guy.

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

Feels like it all happened in slow motion. He was in the kitchen asking me a question about the day ahead. He says it was a simple question. I heard something entirely different. My body filled with heat and anger. I leaned forward on the couch and unloaded words of hatred. They shot across the room with venom. This is not who I am. 

I then rose to my feet and vile came spewing out of my mouth. This is not who I am. 

Shame surrounded me. I felt trapped. The only thing I knew to do was run. Out of control and desperate I fled the scene.

This emotional upheaval actually began the night before. My sponsor always told me we are as sick as our secrets. It’s not a new phenomenon that I withhold information. This time, I chose not to tell my husband I quit taking my meds. The funny part is, and this is the honest truth, I was cleaning the bathroom and declaring to myself I must tell him. I would absolutely find “the right time” this very weekend. I didn’t know the phone rang and I certainly didn’t know it was my psychiatrist calling at 6 p.m. on a Friday night. Shit hit the fan fast. 

She was in my ear saying how worried she was I am not taking any medication at all. He was in my sight worried I was receiving this phone call knowing something wasn’t right. I just wanted to yell at everyone to leave me alone. How very selfish of me to want people to not care about me. How very selfish of me to make an important decision about meds and not include my husband. It’s called keeping a secret. I need to get honest and real. I am not a malicious person. My attempt to keep information secret was not meant to hurt him. Although, that’s exactly what it did. 

Back against the wall I came clean. Stopped all meds cold turkey about a month ago. Ups and downs continue. Suicidal thoughts continue but I am making it through so far. But, in my bipolar mind, no reason to take meds. If I die, I die. I am still selective in what I want to share. 

Catching you back up… morning comes and we are both harboring feelings from last night. I yell and scream, grab my keys and bail. So many emotions fill my car… guilt, shame, fear, sadness. I drive around aimlessly for a while alone with my thoughts. It’s time I take responsibility for this illness. For my one sided decisions. For my overreactions. The road laid ahead of me. My future in front of me. I know this much: this is not who I want to be. I drove until all those emotions no longer took up space.

I didn’t rush home to make amends, but I did eventually return. I’ll spare you all the details of what ensued upon my arrival home as it was not pretty. I am hopeful that it was productive. I shed many tears as I listened to how hurt he felt, how he wonders if at the root of all this disease is my unhappiness with him, how he worries every day I am going to hurt myself. I was able to tell him I don’t know how to let him into my darkness. I told him I didn’t want him to know what I think, the places my mind goes. After many minutes of intense silence, he said this is the most honest conversation we have had for months.

I think we have come to an unconscious “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality. We are both scared and dancing around each other. I do think I do much more dancing and juggling than he does. 

There isn’t a lack of deep love between us. Darkness affects the family as a whole. While I’m in my pit trying hard to cover up my fall in an effort to “protect” him from me, all I’m doing is creating more space between us. That for sure is not productive.

I still have to figure out if medication is going to play a role in my recovery. What I learned today is that not including my husband in the equation is not an option. He wants to support me. But he simply can’t if I won’t let him. My task is to learn how to let him.

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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It is fairly widely known that people with bipolar disorder and depression can have trouble taking a daily shower. It’s not that we don’t know what’s involved in taking a shower or why it would be good for us to do so. It’s just that showering uses up a tremendous number of spoons.

Here’s what showering looks like according to Andrew Solomon, author of the now-classic “The Noonday Demon”:

“I ran through the individual steps in my mind: You sit up, turn and put your feet on the floor, stand, walk to the bathroom, open the bathroom door, go to the edge of the tub…I divided it into 14 steps as onerous as the Stations of the Cross.”

I performed a similar exercise in one of my blog posts and here’s my version:

“First I have to find a clean towel and a bar of soap, get undressed without seeing myself in the mirror, fiddle with the water temperature, wash and shampoo, dry off, find clean underwear and that’s not even thinking about drying my hair and figuring out what I can wear! Oh, my God, I’ve used up all my spoons just thinking about it! I should just eat Cocoa Puffs and go back to bed.”

Now let me say, first of all, I don’t really like showers. I grew up taking baths and have never enjoyed the sensation of water spraying in my face. But with my bad back and bad knee, getting up from sitting in a bathtub is nearly impossible these days.

To most people, showering is a single act that requires the expenditure of a single spoon. Take a shower, that’s it. But for those of us with invisible illnesses, each separate step may require its own spoon. Take something as simple as finding a towel, for instance. Go to the linen closet, grab a towel and voilà! Only a fraction of a spoon, if that.

But surely you don’t think I have had the spoons to fold and put away my laundry. It is all there in a jumble on top of the dryer. (Who needs a wrinkle-free towel anyway?) I have to root around to find one and maybe twice if a cat has thrown up on the first one I pick. (They love sitting on my clean laundry.)

If I have to go to a business meeting, I force myself to use some of those spoons showering and getting dressed and acting respectable. But I will pay for it later, collapsing after the meeting in need of a mega-nap.

Now here’s a little secret I’ll tell you. Most people believe you gain spoons by going out of the house – walking in the fresh air, meeting friends for lunch, shopping, going for a drive. But the fact is, according to Spoon Theory, you get a certain number of spoons every day when you wake up. You cannot gain, buy, beg, borrow or steal any more, not even by breathing fresh air. You can only spend them.

Given the mathematics of spoons, I don’t spend a single one I don’t absolutely have to. Not going out? No shower. Have to go out for a loaf of bread or a drive-through meal? Wash up in the sink. If I need a shower between outings, my husband reminds me and helps by, for example, rummaging on the dryer for a clean towel and clean clothes or a clean nightshirt.

I need those spoons for doing my work at home in my smelly pajamas more than I do for the ordeal of showering.

Follow this journey on Bipolar Me.

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Thinkstock photo via Choreograph.

I have (very) recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition in which I have shown symptoms of for many years (and ultimately has left me being hospitalized on various occasions), but was dismissed by my CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) and instead led to various different mood disorders being diagnosed, including general depression, clinical depression and psychotic depression. On this journey, I have found there are many misconceptions about this disorder, and it has made it really difficult to get people to understand what is actually going on.

Here are 10 things I wish they could know.

1. I can make my own decisions, please don’t try to take decisions out of my hands.

Yes, I have a severe mental health condition. However, I am capable. I am a student and I’m definitely not clueless, especially when it comes to my condition. Please do not assume I cannot make my own decisions and I need you/others to make important decisions on my behalf. If I’m struggling to make a decision and I ask for your help, advise, but please do not give your advice unless I ask. It may sound rude, but if someone tries to lecture you on a condition they have little understanding of, then you would understand how difficult and demoralizing it can be.

2. Do not act like I’m only using my mental illness as an excuse.

A big thing for me is that I do not like to use my condition as an excuse to get out of things. For example, at college if I ask a teacher for a deadline extension, you can be sure I’m struggling an extreme amount. I may have had an extreme depressive episode where brain fog becomes a mega problem, and forgot to do the work, or I might not even be able to move, let alone work. Please do not undermine this. Please understand how hard it is for me tell someone about my condition, let alone use it as an excuse.

3. My condition, my choice.

I live with bipolar, not you. This means that unless I am truly a risk to myself or others and need to receive treatment against my will (which is up to medical professionals) and need to be detained under the Mental Health Act, then I take control over my treatment. This means I decide which medication to take (along with support from my psychiatrist and mental health team) and which therapies to have. Please do not try to force me to try a “natural remedy” or “magical cure” you read about, or tell me how amazing a therapy is. Unless you have bipolar (and even then, not always), I will not have the same symptoms as you. Every mental health condition is different, and treatment is not “one size fits all,” so what works for another person with a mental health condition may work for them and not for me, and vice versa.

4. I cannot control my moods, it is completely out of my control.

The true definition of bipolar is having extremes of moods. This condition, similarly to other medical conditions, is out of my control. Although there are certain things that have the potential to trigger an episode (such as stress, traumatic event or lack of routine), once I have entered an episode, I have no control over it. Especially when I’m experiencing the manic side of my condition, I am often not aware of what’s happening, but I can sometimes really enjoy not feeling so low, which comes with the depressive side. As I am not aware of what is happening, there is no way I can control it. I often need support from professionals to stop the episode from getting out of control.

Please do not yell at me and tell me to “behave myself.” In my mind I’m doing fine, I am naturally outgoing anyway. Don’t assume I’m manic and don’t tell me to just control myself. It is incredibly difficult to be in that mindset and even harder to hear people think it’s my fault.

5. I am so sorry if I miss an event, I probably wanted with all my heart to be there, I promise.

When I am in the depressive stage of my illness, the thought of social interaction feels as though I am trying to run a marathon in flip flops, aka nearly impossible. I try my hardest, and in all honesty the memories of interacting with my friends are held so dearly to me during this period and help to keep me going. In the past I put social interaction in front of my mental health and it led to me being about as fun as a led balloon. I felt as though I sucked the life out of the party and ended up in tears. In these periods, I need to have space, or stick to socializing with a few friends at a time as it helps to prevent sensory overload. See below for more information on my own version of hell.

6. Give me space if I need it, sensory overload is scary!

With bipolar and the mood extremes that come with it, for me irritability is a key symptom of both manic and depressive episodes. This irritability can be about anything, and I mean anything. Honestly, sometimes I’ve become so aggravated by someone moving their foot in class. It ended with me becoming so uncomfortable it triggered intensive anxious thoughts, me tapping a lot and the teacher telling the other student to stop. Other little things that have caused me to become overwhelmed include lights (the whole class had to be dark, thank goodness my teachers understand) and busy places, which can cause a full blown meltdown and leave me anxious for hours afterwards. When I am in these situations, I honestly do not care how silly I look. I am petrified and feel very out of control. For this reason, I may need space or act in a way which you’re not used to. I’m really sorry, but I will be OK soon! Ask me if there’s anything you can do, but please don’t crowd me, it makes the overload a lot worse.

7. Do not assume I’m manic when I’m happy. Mania and happy are two very different things.

A big big pet peeve for me is when I’m feeling positive and people mistake this for being manic. Honestly, if I’m manic, you would know about it. I’m more likely to take risks and act extremely recklessly. Although they share similar symptoms, me being happy is not a warning sign. It can make me really angry when people ask if I’ve taken anything, as it feels as though I’m not able to be happy as a result of my condition. Before I became ill, I was extremely optimistic and usually very hyperactive. Please do not assume that just because I’m happy or being excited for the future, I’m having an episode. I’m just being the happy person I sometimes miss.

8. If I’m either depressed/low or manic, do not assume I have not been taking my medicine.

This is probably one of the most important things I need my friends to know. I hate it when I’m having an episode and people say, “Why are you acting this way, you’ve stopped taking your medication haven’t you? I’m telling (insert teacher/friends name here) that you’re being irresponsible.” It’s tiring enough having to take medication with horrible side effects every single day, but to have people doubt if I’m taking it hurts. Medication is not 110 percent effective and symptoms can still be visible on some days. I’m responsible about taking it, and do not skip doses, so do not doubt me just because I don’t fit the ideal of “normal” at that particular time.

9. My mental illness can influence my physical health. It is not just all in my head.

People with bipolar are at a much higher risk of developing cardiac problems as well as problems with the endocrine system (such as increased risk of diabetes). This means I may need additional tests to make sure my physical health is doing OK. In addiction, medications for mental illness can have side effects. For me, they include drowsiness, irritability, weight fluctuations and vivid dreams. These side effects are both physical and mental. Looking at the side effects you have to understand that by choosing to take the medication with unpredictable side effects, I believe my illness is much worse left untreated.

10. Although I may be able to “get to grips” with my condition, it will never go away. Bipolar is extremely unpredictable.

Right now, bipolar is a lifelong condition. I will never be cured of the condition that has disrupted and derailed my life on way too many occasions. However, in time I can come to terms with it. I can begin to understand my triggers, how to avoid them and learn techniques to help decrease the impact episodes have on my daily life. This being said, bipolar is increasingly unpredictable. A trigger can be sudden or nothing can trigger it at all (thanks brain!) and I have to come to terms with that.

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Thinkstock photo via Tilly Gops

For me it means every day contains a new battle.
One day Depression turns my limbs to stone,
Alters my vision so everything becomes shades of gray.
And makes a phone call a nearly impossible task.
Taking a shower, going to work, meeting a friend for coffee,
Each of these are small victories.

Another day Mania spins me in circles,
My mind leaping to dizzying heights,
Spiraling flights of thoughts,
Dangerous impulses,
While I use every bit of my inner strength to
Sit and stay,
Waiting for the eventual
Crash back into depression.
Then crawling out from depression
Back to something akin to normal.

Some days loud, crowded spaces trigger panic attacks.
I enter rooms looking for empty corners and exit signs.
I enter conversations listening for pauses so I can escape.
A panic attack means a quick retreat
To the safe space of my car,
The comfort of my home.
I cover myself in blankets
In the comfortable cocoon of my recliner,
Listen to my favorite songs on repeat,
Tell myself everything will be OK.

Some days I feel this intense pressure inside of my head,
Like my mind is in a vise and there is no escape.
I look for respite on park bench rest stops,
Under tall leafy trees.
Still, more and more stresses pile on,
Brick by brick,
And my head begins to splinter under the weight.
An alternate personality speaks,
Her toxic honeyed words trying to convince me
to let her take charge of our head.
I say no.

If I let her speak for me then
I will start to lose my true self.
I must be the main personality and control my mind.
Soon other voices taunt me,
Calling me names and cruelly attacking me
In my vulnerable places.

Sometimes I slip back into other versions of myself.
I am 8 again.
My voice quivers and squeaks,
My eyes can’t make contact,
the world frightens me.
Then I am 20,
An angry young woman who keeps
Repeating her words,
Writing accusing poetry dripping of self-pity.

Sometimes I dissociate.
I find myself in a tree branch
Watching my body live an illusion.
I disappear into the woods
And reappear when a deer crosses the road.
Sometimes I wake in a strange city
With no memory of the trip.
My body knows how to get home.
My body knows secrets my mind can’t hold.

I dream of wholeness.
I dream of single-mindedness.

Still I accept this may always be my struggle,
And I will not give up the fight.

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Photo via contributor.

I hated myself. I hated that I have limits, I hated that I have doubts, that I have fears, that I can’t do what others can. I hated that I am disabled, that I feel loose, lost, that most of the time I feel broken, that I don’t trust today, tomorrow, that I see darkness, nighttime, emptiness, loss, anger, confusion…

I hate me.

Powerful, isn’t it?


I hate me. But I can’t lie, this has been life for a long time. I hated every
aspect of myself for years, hated my lot in life, hated the cards I was dealt.

Hated it all.

I have bipolar disorder and I hate that too.

People would mention the concept of self-love, but that concept had been too elusive, a fleeting moment in the back of my thoughts, like a spider’s web, catching all the refuse, shredded. Why would I bother with self-love when all that is me can so easily be broken down into fragments of manic highs and depressive lows?

This time last year, I reached the apex of that garbage-ridden journey of
self-hatred, frustration, despair. Sitting in front of a computer screen,
surrounded by an office cubicle, bathed in harsh, florescent lights of my
day-job. Knowing that I should be grateful for a day-job – so many others like me didn’t even have that. Couldn’t have that. Knowing that I was smart, that I had talent, but full-heartedly believing that I just simply couldn’t. Couldn’t do anything but push papers and blink under that harsh light. Couldn’t do anything but brace for the impact of the highs, the lows. The fall-out.

The fall-out stripped me of all that I thought I was worth.

But I’d had enough.

Enough lack of will.

Enough absence of motivation.

What was my life? An endless battle of “I can’t” and “that isn’t my life”? Why? Because of mental illness? Daily, hourly, minute by minute, I’d gaze out the tinted window of the 21st floor, Queen’s Park in the distance. The university’s buildings just grazing my line of vision.

The words, “Why me?” slowly became, “Why not me?”

Can’t I? Should I? Am I good enough?

I wanted to go back to school. I’d wanted to for years. To reinvent myself. To see how far, I truly could go. To test my own illness, this battle of emotions constantly raging inside me, to see if truly, I could be me.

Just be me.

Without self-loathing. Without self-disgust. Without despair. Without damn self-pity.

And possibly with a little success? Is that possible for me, I wondered. Is it possible I challenge my own self-imposed limits and win?

I decided to investigate if returning to school was an option for me. I
made the calls, still filled with doubt. I conversed with my partner, with
trepidation. I registered for classes, with fear.

And then I quit my job. My fluorescent-lit, paper-pushing, 21st floor
job. This decision wasn’t borne from a manic-induced bought of impulsivity.

This decision, the decision that was to forever change the course of my life, was meticulously thought out. Carefully planned. And for a small moment, I felt capable. Just a little bit of competence.

When classes started, doubt poured over me once again. Conversations with my partner would start with questions like, “What business do I have being in school with peers who are almost half my age?” “What if I dysregulate?” “What if they all find out just how ‘crazy’ I really am?”

What if I end up in the hospital again?

What if it all falls apart?

What if, what if, what if…

My partner responded with, “Then we will deal with that, too. In the meantime, go to class.”

The semester continued, I attended classes as best I could, riding my bike to and from campus. I met other students. I even told one peer that I had bipolar disorder. I wrote my finals, and I did well.

I started to forget that I hated myself.

The following semester, I applied for a position with a student club. I led a registered study group. And I got to know my peers and professors. I wove my life around campus, around the busyness of academia. I delved into projects and research, and even garnered a research position at the Center for Addition and Mental Health.

Doubt began to fade, to be replaced by a glimmer of confidence. The fear of my illness shuffled to the back of my mind, pushed out by papers and learning and grades. Of conversations over topics in class. And possibilities of a bright future began to bud.

A bright future for me, that I carved out for myself. With my own two hands.

I wrote my finals, I turned in well-crafted and purposeful papers, I earned respectable grades. And I began to smile. To feel pride. And accomplishment. And a little bit of love.


One year ago, I sat in that office chair, at that cubicle, gazing out the 21st
floor window. Gazing at the university. Filled with self-doubt, despair, fear. Self-hatred, self-loathing. A self-image buried under years of carving a box for myself and filling it with memories of hospitalizations, of therapy, of medications and perceived failures.

A month ago, after I’d finished my finals, as the grades started pouring in, my partner wrapped his arms around me and said, “I’m so proud of you. Look at what you’ve accomplished. You did it.”

Today, writing this, I feel hope and promise. I see possibility and excitement.

Today, I know self-kindness, self-care.

Today, I’ve learned self-love. Because I faced a decades-old fear – that having bipolar disorder would forever pigeon-hole me into despair.

I still have limits and doubts and fears, but I don’t hate myself.

In fact, I love myself.

Just a bit.

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Thinkstock photo via mixformdesign

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