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How My Bipolar Disorder Is Like the Rushing of a River

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I live in a New England town that’s on the mouth of a river leading out to the sea. One early morning as I drank coffee along its banks, it came to me that living with bipolar disorder is a lot like this inlet. When the tide comes in, the water becomes brackish, dark and cold. The sea slowly floods the low-lying spaces, filling every crack and eddy in the riverbed and riverbank with its immense power. I can’t see what’s below the dark, salty water. It rises so slowly that it seems to not move at all, a wet blanket covering the landscape. But it is moving and unstoppable, slowly, methodically and relentlessly surging.

That’s what my depression is like. Finally when the tide recedes, a river of freshwater rushes back downstream, freed from the retreating massive wall of seawater. The freshwater washes out the debris brought in by the tide, which was left to languish on the bottom. I revel in the beauty of the freshwater system, but this flow is sharp and disruptive in a different way. Rushing water isn’t clear after all; it churns up what was left undisturbed by the slowly retreating tide. These pieces of debris are everywhere in the river, tossed and roiling in all directions. The river moves so quickly that I’m tricked into seeing only the reflections of the beauty above the water, caught in the prism-like surface. This is my view through the distorted lens of hypomania. Ultimately there is a point of relative calm, that peaceful place where the sea and the river mix and exist in balance.

Some people pass by the river at different times of day and never pay attention to what condition the river is in. Maybe they just see water, or maybe they don’t notice the river at all. Some play in the river, boating or swimming. Some sit beside it, dining, relaxing and enjoying the day. But there is beauty in the midst of this constant natural back and forth flow, that is hard for me to see when I’m experiencing extreme symptoms of bipolar disorder. I might see the ugliness of the bottom, or I might revel in the river’s rushing beauty. I may want to disappear into the darkness and drown in the cold salty water. If I could just disappear, then the pain will disappear too. I might want to dive into the freshwater, riding the flow in an exhilarating rush toward open water with no regard to where the river will take me, how I’ll get out or even if the water is deep enough for me to jump in without hitting the bottom. In that moment, I’m certain it’s the greatest idea I’ve ever had.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 2 over a decade ago, but I now know I began to experience its symptoms two decades prior to that. My earliest memory of severe depression was in high school. That’s when I first felt the cold creep of depression make its way up the back of my spine and neck, slowly enveloping me in it damp, oppressive weight. I had convinced myself that my girlfriend had become pregnant, but in reality that belief was completely delusional. There was no evidence that what I believed was true, but I believed it with all my heart. For the first time I had the thought that the solution was suicide, and that’s the first time I almost took my life. The next delusional thought was that if I just broke up with her the problem would go away. That’s what I wound up doing, and she had no idea why as I couldn’t give her the real reason for my actions. It would be years later that I could make amends for my behavior.

I first recall experiencing what I know now as hypomania later in my high school years. Growing up in an upper-middle class family, I was fortunate to have the luxuries afforded by that situation. I went on what would be the first of numerous spending sprees, amassing a collection of guitars and musical gear. I thought that if I had the right equipment, I would be an amazing player. It was just another delusional belief, but I clung to it as if I had stumbled upon the cure for a disease. That’s when first felt the exhilarating rush of hypomania. It was fantastic, and the ego boost I received from my friends surely didn’t hurt.

Once I left the nest and began making my own way in the world, my hypomanic spending sprees only grew as my income grew. What I experienced time and again was that each hypomanic period would be followed by worsening, lengthy depressions. Two decades after the crisis in high school, I experienced a four year chronic depression and hospitalization for self-harm and suicidal ideation. Receiving the diagnosis of bipolar disorder type 2, I went on a mix of medication and was launched into the most severe hypomanic state I had ever experienced. Five months and several hundred thousand dollars spent later, I crashed and back into rehab I went. I was given the gift of desperation, and threw myself into the work of recovery. With the help of many kind people who are still in my life today, I began the healing period of my life. I worked with my doctors, I stuck to my medication regimen, I learned breathing and relaxation techniques with the help of yoga, I stayed close to 12-step work and I built a network of loving people who know me and can call me on my stuff when things go sideways. There are many solutions to healing, and I don’t know which one will work for me in any given day. That’s why I try to do as much as I can each day to keep the illness at bay.

Learning to live with and manage bipolar disorder is striving to find this place of peace between the creep of depression and rush of mania, the push and pull of the river and the sea; that’s the ecosystem I live in. It seems as though the power of the river pushes the dark, brackish tidewater out. The opposite seems to be true when the tide comes back in. Depression and mania mainly exist at opposite ends of the bipolar spectrum for me, coming and going in between periods of stability. However sometimes I experience mixed states, that is both depression and mania together. This is the place where the river and sea mix in a chaotic tug-of-war, and I can’t know which will win. It has been my experience so far that neither of these states last forever in me. I know the illness will be with me as long as I am alive, but I also know that I can exist and thrive in between these two opposites.

Fortunately today, I feel like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer at the beginning of their trip down the Mississippi. I’ve left behind the oppressive town of depression, but I haven’t reached the manic rapids that surely lie ahead. I’m just floating on the water, on top of the darkness and out of the chaos.

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, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.

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What It's Like Living With Bipolar II

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This is a piece I have wanted to write for months but didn’t have the courage to write, nor the words to put onto paper.

This feels difficult to write because I am writing about own my mind. And the mind can be a subtle and mysterious thing. Once you shine a spotlight on your mind, it either runs away or it may just bare its teeth and lunge at you.

My mind seems to be either random or just raw.

I can live in my mind. I am a writer, so I guess it comes naturally. Entire conversations occur in my head without a word being spoken, relationships come and go, and lifetimes are lived without breaking a sweat. Once the dream concludes, I am left with little else but fragments of feeling. Most days, my mind seems random. I can play out solutions to problems and imagine myself carried off into some new adventure.

All without leaving my desk.

My mind can take me to every possible outcome in a conversation. At times, I feel talked out and exhausted without even uttering one word. On those days, my mind is more like a prison, holding me inside. I want to reach out to my friends, my wife and those who care about me. But my mind has already been there, and it has covered that conversation. My mind has already said what needs to be said, and it did not go well.

So why talk about it anymore?

Some days, my mind carries me to places I don’t want to go. They are not always dark places, but they are not usually helpful. My mind is not really a dangerous place. It’s a little like my garage. It’s a mess, and the half-completed projects are like wooden skeletons that call to me. So I leave the garage and lock the door behind me. It’s just better that way.

The creative mind is a compelling place. Random things can become linked. A phrase from a book can mix with something a friend said to me, and my mind is off running in three directions at the same time. I imagine how an idea can be a new article, a possible series or a theme that might help people find greater freedom in their recovery. Later when I look at the idea, it may seem like little but words on the page.

My mind can be a wild and undisciplined place sometimes. Some days, it feels a little like the Wild West, all within the thick walls of my skull. Most days, though, my mind plays nicely in the sandbox. Ideas are helpful, and they seem to make my life a little better. I get excited by a new idea, kind of like I get excited when I open presents on my birthday.

I endeavor to be a good father, a good addiction therapist, a good writer. I never set out to be a good person who also lives with depression, anxiety and what my doctor calls bipolar II. These labels can loom large; they can define how you think about yourself… and how other people think about you.

And that is scary.

It’s like living with Santa Claus.

Living with bipolar disorder type II for me is like living with Santa Claus. A few days of the year he is jolly and everyone loves him. But most days, he is busy in his shop with his creations. He gets lost in his imagination and can spend hours in there. He brings gifts and makes everyone feel great. When he comes out of the shop, he heads home. He eats supper, watches TV, talks with his wife and then he wonders what it would be like to do some doughnuts with the sleigh and reindeer.

The diagnosis sometimes sits in my head like the books on my desk. It holds space. Sometimes it gets in the way, and other times it is a resource. And just like the books on my desk, for me, the flavors of my mind can be as divergent as my bookshelf. Some days my mind is full of dark fiction and mystery. Other days, science and psychology take me on a journey. And yet other days, I become lost in the “how to” section and try to fix everything in my life: my mind, my relationship, and my tendency to overthink things.

When I feel depressed, I write raw. When I am anxious, I write raw. On good days, I write raw. And on days like today, where my mind is a harsh and dry place, I write raw. Writing raw seems to take the edge off my tendency to live raw. It dulls the raw emotions that cut like razors through my mind. Writing gets me out of my mind. It frees me from the hell I am in. I am able to walk through the door, clothes singed and smoking.

Good things pull you to better places. I write, and I am learning to walk by myself well. I have a few good friends, and I am opening up to them about the things that go on inside of my head. I have a good relationship with my doctor and we regularly talk about the things inside the walls of my skull. Most days, I can listen to my mind but it holds much less power over my moods or over my actions.

This post was previously published on The Good Men Project.

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The Promise I Made My Roommate in a Dark Moment With Bipolar Disorder

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It was a dark, drizzly night when I found myself sitting on the floor, leaning against my dresser, fighting the demons inside my head. I was in the depths of an episode of bipolar depression, and tears were streaming down my face. I sniffled uncontrollably, trying to fight back the tears. But they just kept coming.

My roommate knew my day had been particularly rough, and she was quick to offer whatever kind of consolation she could. She sat down next to me on the floor, held my hand, and told me I would get through this. I tried so hard to believe her. I wanted to believe her. But I was so tired. The battle just to get out of bed and get through that day had sapped me of all of my physical and mental energy.

“This is just getting so hard to keep doing,” I said, the exhaustion in my voice audible even to me.

She suddenly squeezed my hands as tightly as she could. I looked up and saw tears welling up in her eyes. I had only ever seen her cry once before, so I was extremely caught off guard. I wondered if something was wrong, or if I had done something to hurt her in some way.

“Are you OK?” I asked, my voice trembling in my own emotional pain.

She squeezed my hands even tighter. “Promise me something,” she said, her eyes glistening.

I nodded my head weakly. “OK.”

“Promise me,” she said, her voice shaking, “that you’ll be here tomorrow.”

Promise me that you’ll be here tomorrow.

At first, I didn’t grasp what she meant. But after several minutes, I understood. She knew the magnitude of the pain I had been feeling. She knew I might be battling suicidal thoughts. She knew I was getting tired of constantly fighting my bipolar disorder. She knew every day was a battle, a battle she had to witness constantly.

She knew.

And she cared.

“Promise me,” she said again, firmly. I had been so busy turning her words over in my head that I hadn’t said anything.

I took a deep breath and held onto her as tightly as I could. “I promise.”

And I felt, in my heart, a renewed will to fight, to keep going. I felt something move inside of me. I was overcome by emotion, by an immense outpouring of love. Sure, she was my best friend, but I never knew just how much she loved me. I never knew just how much she was on my side.

At my words, we both broke down. We held each other, for God knows how long, promising each other we were going to be OK. That we weren’t going to let one another go. That we would fight this together because nobody should ever have to be alone in their struggle. We held each other, and we cried. And we kept repeating the words that changed everything for me.

“Promise me.”

“I promise.”

Battling mental illness is not easy, but having an ally, having someone who cares, makes the fight that much more worth it. For all of you out there who think you have to do this alone, I am here to tell you that you don’t. I am here. I am fighting with you and for you because I care for all of you so deeply. And I know you all are out there fighting with me and for me. So let’s not do this alone. We can do this together. We can fight this thing together, one day at a time. 

So just promise me one thing. Just one, simple thing.

Promise me that you’ll be here tomorrow.

Because I promise you that I will be.

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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The Simple Metaphor I Use to Describe My Bipolar Disorder

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It’s winter. I go outside to my car to find that it’s stuck in a snowdrift. I don’t have a shovel, so I have to dig my car out of the snow with my hands. I don’t have gloves. All I want is to get in my car, but my fingers are turning blue. I’m feeling dizzy and overwhelmed. The world feels like endless inches of snow, under a grey sky. It starts snowing, with a wind that whips the snow about my face.

I am so weary. I feel like I have nothing left. I want to give up and go inside, but I fight to keep moving. I am so incredibly tired. I can barely see anything with the snow and wind, but I keep pushing on. I want to get back in the driver’s seat of my life and not let the depression win. Finally me and my frostbitten fingers slide into the front seat and start up the car.

I pull onto the highway thinking, “I’ve done it — I’ve beaten the depression.” Then I unexpectedly hit a patch of black ice called mania. My car skids and slides out of control for what feels like an eternity. I watch myself spinning across the road, spinning out of control. Other cars honk at me, but I have no control of the car. I am powerless. I don’t know what to do. I call all the contacts in my phone and say all sorts of different things. I think I hear the other drivers shouting at me, or is it just my head pounding, my thoughts echoing back?

I finally land in a ditch, a deep snowdrift. Back to depression. I go outside to dig out my car again.

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I Am Beautifully Bipolar

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Living with bipolar disorder, there is a fine line between amazing and awful. Because of our unique brain chemistry, we must learn to walk it well. We must master the art of resilience in a life skewed by mental illness. We are forced to learn how to rise often. We still feel a need to thrive just like everyone else but there are times when we must focus on mere survival instead.

Does this make us weak? No. Truly quite the contrary. We fight battles the rest of the world knows nothing about and this often means waking up to fight the same demons that left us so tired from the night before. It takes bravery and strength.

I love to explain this with two words: “beautifully broken.” The truth is, however, we are not “broken” at all. We are simply different. We are strong by default because our strength is what keeps us alive. Living with the pain and uncertainty of what tomorrow will look like in silence is no easy feat. Constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. You are a soldier. You are a warrior.

We have the same emotions as everyone else but we can feel them more deeply. Our roaring emotions can feel unstoppable and sometimes so can we. It’s scary to quickly turn into someone you’re not when everything turns gray. It’s a battle we must win over and over again or the consequences could be fatal. An emotional baseline is faint and every emotion can feel like an illusion. Stability becomes a luxury we long for and one most people take for granted. Our negative emotions can be overwhelmingly debilitating. But on the other end of the spectrum, we are capable of loving harder, laughing louder and having more confidence.

This makes a bipolar brain unique in the very best way. It feels like I’m blessed and cursed all at the same time and it’s so confusing. I need not be ashamed and sometimes this means removing toxic people from my life. It is heartbreaking when the ones we love so deeply don’t understand us no matter how hard we try to explain.

It’s a disorder not a decision and something that must be lived to fully grasp this seemingly invisible condition. It can be the loneliest feeling in the world. We must learn early in life to accept the fact there is no such thing as perfect. We must learn not to compare our lives to the pictures people have painted of theirs.

Like an amazing work of art, only some will be able to appreciate the beauty that lies within us. We must learn to enjoy the good times to their fullest because just knowing we can feel that way again can be the only comfort when we are drowning. It becomes a life raft we won’t find elsewhere. Often forced to learn the hard way a life spent waiting for the next episode is no life at all. They say life only gives its hardest battles to its toughest soldiers and apparently, life believes you are a bad ass. And life is absolutely right!

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Dear Bipolar Disorder, How Are You Doing?

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Dear BP,

Hi, how are you? How have you been? I’ll admit I’m a little nervous writing to you because I don’t want you to think I’m asking to see you. And I don’t want you to think about me and decide to visit. I’m just not ready to be around you. But I did want to check in with you since you’ve been relatively quiet lately. If you recall, it’s been about six months since we spoke. Well, formally anyway. I see your posts online from time to time but I never comment. I think we were last together at the hospital, right? That particular stay was a doozy! I hope I never go back. That was so wild.

So Ziprasidone and I are pretty friendly these days. I know how you guys feel about him, which is also why I’m staying away. But he’s good for me. I do miss our old friends, though.

How’s Elevated Mood doing? I hear she might be coming to town soon. I know she always heads this way in the spring for an extended visit. Ooh, maybe she’ll get to see the cherry blossoms this time. Tell her I said “hi” if you talk to her. Out of everybody, I miss her the most. She can be a lot to take, but she doesn’t mean any harm. She just has a ton of energy. We always have fun when we’re with each other. I wouldn’t mind getting together with her for old time’s sake.

Hey, you know who I’ve been thinking about?

Impulsivity. Man, we used to get into so much trouble back in the day! I’m so glad I’ve learned to love him from afar. But sometimes I like to reminisce about the things we used to do. If nothing else, to remind me what life used to be like before my health got better.

Do you remember when he and I went to get matching tattoos? Goodness, it was like we couldn’t help ourselves. We just had to do it and nothing would deter us. I was shaking so much in the chair from all my nervous energy that the tattoo artist got upset. He said if I couldn’t sit still, he wouldn’t continue. Imp just laughed at me.

Afterward, I felt so ridiculous. And by then, Imp was nowhere to be found, as usual. I was embarrassed I’d let him talk me into getting the tattoo. What bothers me is I’m not even supposed to have those. It’s against my religion. But as soon as Imp started hyping up the idea, I couldn’t say no. And it came up out of the blue, so suddenly too. We didn’t think about the consequences or wonder if we’d regret doing it. This didn’t occur to either of us. All that mattered was getting that ink. To be honest, we’d been hanging out with that guy Compulsion too often back then, and we let him influence our choices. I think both Imp and I are pretty suggestible if you ask me.

Oh my gosh, do you know what I did the other day? I decided to create a gratitude journal to remind myself of all the good things in my life that I’m grateful for. Oh BP, it’s been such a help.

Every day I write about the things that make me happy and what I appreciate. You know they always taught us to do this whenever we’d go to the hospital. Well, I finally got around to it. You should try it sometime. You’d love it!  And maybe it will give you a better outlook on life.

Guess who I’ve been chatting with lately? Insomnia! Can you believe it? I know we used to hate each other. But we’ve since reconciled and we’re spending almost every night together. We laugh and carry on like two little old ladies. Her jokes about not sleeping are too funny. And she still loves to play pranks on me in the middle of the night, as much as she always did. That Insomnia is such a card! We really have to stop meeting up though, or I’ll get sick again.

You know how that goes.

So I have to know, how’s BPD doing these days? Do you see her often? Has she gotten herself together yet? Last I heard she was ruining yet another relationship. I’m sorry to say it but I hope I never interact with her again.

She and I do not get along.

She makes me so mad, I can’t stand it. And we always bring out the worst in each other. It’s always all or nothing with us. Things are either great or horrible. There is no in between, it’s awful. She’s just not a good influence for me so I try to avoid her at all costs. And if you remember, I had to go to therapy partly because of her. I’m still salty about that. I’m not trying to shift blame or anything, but I can’t help thinking that if I’d never met her, my life would’ve been much less stressful and anxiety ridden.

Speaking of my cousin Anx, did you hear she had a baby? Yeah, she named her OCD. I’m not one to criticize name choices, but OCD? OK, I have so many questions. Don’t tell my cousin… but why that name?

What does it even mean?

That kid’s going to have a tough time in life with a name like that. Why OCD? Is it a family name? Is it symbolic in some way? I keep saying it over and over, letting it roll around on my tongue so I can get used to it. It just makes me feel so prickly inside when I say it. But I can’t stop. I’ve repeated it about 500 times now. OCD. OCD. Nope, I still can’t get used to it. It sounds strange in my head, like an echo and a hollow tinny sound all at the same time.

Oh wait — I’m getting fixated again. Don’t mind me. You know I do this sometimes. It’s gotten better, but I still slip now and then. My brother Buspirone has been helping me overcome it.

He’s been such a blessing. He has his moments, like everybody, but overall I’ve loved having him around. I wish I had told him sooner that I needed his help.

You know, Depression has been on my mind a lot lately. I can’t help thinking about him and wondering if he’ll ever get better. He just seems so lost sometimes. It’s like he lives in his own dark world where no one can reach him. I feel so badly for him. He brings everyone down with his misery, negative outlook and detachment, and he doesn’t even realize it. He’s a good guy, just misunderstood I think.

I guess you heard that Anger and I made up a few weeks ago. We decided to part ways for good, but in doing so I think we’ve reached an understanding. I’m so happy about it. I think he realized how he much he was hurting me and knew why we couldn’t see each other anymore. It’s really for the best. I sometimes get scared that I won’t find anybody else, but I’m trying to be patient. I don’t want to go back to him just because I’m lonely. It’s hard, though. Being alone I mean. I can’t shake the fact that I’ll die by myself, with nobody there to notice. That thought bothers me all the time.

People say, “Just be positive.”

But even in doing so, I haven’t found anybody else that understood me like Ang did. A friend of mine always counsels me to accept things as they are and to look forward to better times. You know that girl, Patience? The one everybody always talks about? Well, she’s his best friend. I guess that’s why he’s always so calm and collected.

Maybe I should meet her someday. She sounds lovely.

I’m not even going to ask about Grandiosity. He annoys me to no end. Always thinking he’s better than everybody and deciding he can do whatever he wants. He seems to think the world revolves around him. That guy is so obnoxious. And he makes me look bad when he’s around. I get sucked into his schemes and plans, and I forget who I am. But his presence is so intoxicating. You know how he is – charismatic and charming — until he completely alienates everybody with his over inflated sense of self. I’m sure I’ll run into him again soon. It’s inevitable.

Oh wow, I just realized this whole letter has been one big gossip session. Hey, maybe we both needed that.

Anyway, I hope you’re doing well, BP. I don’t hate you or anything, but I need some space. I hope you can accept that. I know we’ll always be in each other’s lives. I just think it’s best if we limit our time together. Take care of yourself.

Love,

Karen

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