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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Thinkstock photo via Evgeny Sergeev