Senior man sitting in woods on a summer day

I am a 58-year-old grandfather who enjoys his family, gardening, music (classical and roots), literature and creative writing. Next year I will take vows as a lay Buddhist. I love nature. My illness, bipolar disorder, presents as racing thoughts, alternating with periods of exhaustion – to a devastating degree. When unstable, my inner environment was distinctly altered from the norm. This, for many years was a horrible state beyond imagining.

I was diagnosed in 1968 when I willingly sought help. As I seem well, I was mistakenly diagnosed with an “identity crisis.” When I was properly diagnosed, it was crushing for me and my family. I would wake up hoping it was all a bad dream.

The impact of my illness is that I was unable to work or to return to university. Because of this, some people struggle to accept my illness. Discrimination and stigma were extremely difficult to overcome. Once, in the 1970s, I actually found bags of human feces tied to my shrubs that I took to be a show of discrimination against me as a person with mental illness.

My wife, however, was very loving and supportive. In fact, my wife, son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter are crucial in my continued health. Also, medication and meditation – Buddhism and my Buddhist colleagues at the Atlantic Soto Zen Center; having gone to the mental health inpatient unit, and New Hope where I have gained acceptance and loving kindness; my wonderful, loving friends – have all been vital in allowing me to maintain my health.

I would like to stress that there is very definitely life after illness. We are all individual human beings who have an illness – we are not our illnesses. For those who find themselves ill presently, my advice is to educate yourself. Be proactive. Don’t do it alone. Don’t let the stigma keep you from seeking help. Comply with your treatment program, don’t self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, and divert yourself with interests.

Never give up. Deeply satisfying joy is still possible.

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Thinkstock photo by jacoblund


In the depths of my mind I know as I awaken that today is another day I may or may not be OK. My mind is clouded with questions and racing thoughts that take hold of the gracefulness of the morning and press for answers. There is a reluctance in rising to conquer the day, and then at that very moment I realize I’m not OK.

You create excuses and stories of exhaustion and too much to do when in all honesty you’re just not OK.

Today is a day I don’t want to go to work. Today is a day I don’t even want to waken. I know deep down the rapid cycling of my bipolar disorder will make sure I am motivated soon enough, but for now I am mellow and disheveled. Yesterday the curtains were hung, the dishes were washed, a five-course meal was prepared from scratch, and then even some reports for work were completed. Today there will be no coffee, and the energy to even eat has dissipated. Yesterday I played and laughed with my children at their silly stories and silly personalities, but today I can’t even leave the room. I cannot withstand a hug or a kiss. Yesterday I was the most gracious and attentive wife, and today I cannot even be bothered to text back or listen to the pressing concerns of the love of my life. Today is not my best day, but I must know it won’t be my worst day.

I take deep breaths and tell myself I will be OK. I lie and tell everyone I’m all right. I’m not though… I’m overwhelmed over the simplest of things. I have moments I am unsure of myself. Moments that compile themselves on my insecurities and suffocate me with uncertainty. Moments where I try to breathe in and hold in all the pain and confusion. These are the moments that define who I am. These moments come and try to break me down and make me into the person I fight so hard to not be.

I know that these are little victories. The smallest of victories but a victory nonetheless. I woke up. I brushed my hair. I went to work. Even though the smile may not be genuine and the day may not be the best, I know that today, it’s OK to not  be OK.

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Thinkstock photo by Instants

A short film that demonstrates what being manic is like for someone with bipolar disorder.

I once had a relative who described bipolar disorder to me when he discovered my diagnosis. I don’t know why. I am the one who lives with it. He said it in the most simplistic terms, too. He said it feels good when you are up, but then you inevitably go down.

I sat there, with my mouth open, not knowing what to say. So, I said nothing.

I wish I had spoken up.

It is not that pretty, neat or simplistic. For one thing, I tend to get psychotic. For me, mania is more terrifying than “fun.” It is paranoia, hallucinations, delusions — not the party he described. I tend to isolate so I don’t go out and get in trouble, but I ignore people around me. I get distracted from those who mean the most to me. Other people I know have ended up with jail time, debt and ruined relationships.

And, this inevitable crash I hear about may be typical, but I don’t experience cycles like that. I have more depressive times than manic. And my depression doesn’t correlate with how “high” my mania went.

I don’t think he really wanted to be educated, but I wish I had said something along the lines of “It is much more complicated than that. I can tell you more if you would like.”

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Thinkstock photo via Zoonar RF.

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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Thinkstock photo via Halfpoint

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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Thinkstock photo via Grandfailure

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