What It Feels Like to Live With Multiple Mental Illnesses

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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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How I Learned to Love Myself With My Bipolar Disorder

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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?

Hate.

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.

Self-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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Bipolar Disorder Makes Me Feel Like a 'Human Fuel Tank'

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I begin my week the same way. I am optimistic and positive. Monday has not reared its ugly head and I have no obligations.

Cue Monday and my alarm clock.

It’s still dark. I know my son will be awake soon and I have to make him breakfast, help him dress and drive him to preschool.

I start off with a full emotional “fuel tank.” Carrying out this routine five consecutive mornings with no break easily uses one fourth of my fuel for the week.

I am finishing my college degree online. For at least one test per semester per class, I am required to drive to campus and take my test in person. Due to a mild agoraphobia associated with my generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), I rarely leave my house unless it’s absolutely critical. I had two tests this week and I had to commute over four hours total, excluding the hours spent in mental preparation to ready myself to leave my house. Routinely having severe panic attacks while driving in congested traffic, it was agonizing.

I could transfer to a college nearby, but few of my credits will transfer and starting a new school at age 30 is daunting and leaves a pit of dread in my stomach. My college is familiar with my bipolar disorder and anxiety and very helpful in that regard. That’s another fourth of my tank this week if I am being conservative.

Fast forward to Friday. Seems like a great week because I only used half of my fuel! But life likes to toss curveballs. I bought my son a toy and as we went to the car, the keys got locked inside. Here I am in the middle of a hot parking lot, surrounded by noise and traffic and people, with a preschooler who is asking me lots of questions and looking at his mommy for reassurance. I salvaged the afternoon with milkshakes and letting him look at fish. Easily another quarter of a tank.

The last bit of my fuel is spent on having a night out with friends. I definitely had fun and needed those connections, but it was entirely too much in one week and I was zapped.

Whether it’s spoons or my fuel tank theory, mental illness can take so much of us. I have to hold it together until I have somewhere private to break down. Daily obligations and my own goals push me beyond my capacity. There are weekends I do not leave my bed so I can refuel for the next week.

Cue Sunday and my naïve optimism.

The week begins again.

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Thinkstock photo via grinvalds.

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Having Bipolar Disorder Taught Me I Don't Have to Be 'Perfect' on the Inside

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For as long as I can remember I’ve been striving for perfection on the inside, instead of the outside. It seems counterintuitive to say this because most of the time we’re taught that perfection comes from outward appearances.

When I was younger this rang true, but now it seems all I want is to feel perfect on the inside. My diagnosis of bipolar disorder in 2007 was a relief. I finally had a name for what was going on inside my head, but felt like something inside of me was “broken.” I have spent the last decade trying to outrun my diagnosis, through embracing it at times and outright denying in others. All because I want so desperately to feel the unattainable, “perfect normalcy” on the inside.

I imagine if you’re on the outside and looking in on my life you’d think I was, for the most part, “normal” and maybe even close to “perfect.” The beauty of social media is you are able to craft an image for the world to take in. Don’t get me wrong, I write about my struggles. I’ve written about my depression and surviving suicide so people also catch a glimpse of the reality of my life. I wonder though if sometimes I’m trying to fool myself.

In my quest for feeling perfect on the inside, am I denying myself the ability to feel?

I work hard at a job I am good at. I work hard to maintain good grades at ASU. I work hard to be the best wife, mom and friend I can be. I work so hard to be perfect on the inside so I’m perfect in all these roles.

But the truth is, I’m exhausted.

I’m finding ways to be OK with sometimes not feeling OK. I’m finding ways to be still enough to recognize when my brain is going a bit haywire and my emotions are running high. I’m finding ways to look in the mirror every day and say, “you are perfectly imperfect and you don’t have to hide.”

I’m good with having bipolar disorder. It sometimes allows me to be more creative in a lot of ways. I’m good with listening to my body. That’s part of the stillness, it forces me to pay attention. I’m learning how to be enough for myself and sometimes that means not being enough for anyone else. I’m learning how to be good with not having to be perfect on the inside.

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To the Couple Who Asked Me if There Was a 'Test' for Bipolar Disorder

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You wanted to know information about your son’s bipolar disorder. At first you asked specific questions about the illness and I did my best to answer them. You told me about your son and I was impressed with his accomplishments and sorry to hear he was struggling.

One of your questions stuck with me.

Is there a physical test? Is the diagnosis just based on observation?

It is a common question. I wish I had an X-ray or blood test that would show my diagnosis is real. People can understand a broken arm or diabetes, but not brain disorders.

But it was what I didn’t hear that struck me.

I have heard of parents with children who won’t get treatment, desperate for answers, trying to figure out how to help them get better. Instead, you sounded like you doubted he really had an illness. I could picture you using the “tough love” approach to get him to be more productive.

My mind went back to my own brother. He had a psychotic illness starting in the late 70s. My father didn’t believe in mental illness so he didn’t really get treated. He died young in an incident that was either a reckless accident or intentional, I don’t know.

I told you about my brother. I feel guilty he didn’t have the chances I do. I pleaded with you to be gentle with your son. The words slipped out of my mouth that suicide is so common. It has been reported up to 20 percent of people with bipolar disorder die by suicide. I felt like I said too much and second guessed myself when I came home.

Now that I have had time to think, I am glad I said something. I did not want to make you feel bad or scare you. I have not met your son and I don’t know where he is mentally. But, you wanted information and that is a valuable piece of information.

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.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via Archv.

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When Springtime Spells Disaster for Someone With Bipolar Disorder

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Ah, spring is just around the corner. It’s so close I can feel it! But for me, that feeling of springtime can often lead to the most difficult phase of bipolar — the dreaded mixed state. Don’t get me wrong or view me as ungrateful… theoretically I love the blooming flowers, buds on the trees, longer days and abundance of fresh air. However, the change in time and fluctuating weather can often wreak havoc on my system. Chris Aiken, MD who is director of the Mood Treatment Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina recently described it as: “Being tired and wired and urgent and distressed and anxious…you feel driven to do something but you don’t know what to do.” This is exactly how it presents itself in me and it’s frustrating, puzzling and very scary.

The extra light and fresh air feels amazing, but it triggers something almost indescribable in my brain. It’s like breathing in a huge breath of fresh springtime air that saturates my lungs then travels to my brain as a current, cleaning everything out it encounters (including the fog of winter depression). At first it is refreshing. I equate it to a pressure valve opening to get rid of all the grogginess that has built up inside my head. The problem is it doesn’t know quite how to regulate the release — it quickly erases the cobwebs but suddenly my mind feels as though it is being stretched too far and might snap. It’s as if upon emptying, the ability to connect to the world around me has also been sucked out along with all inhibitions, judgment and self-control. The initial feelings of motivation and renewal morph into desperation and urgency — to do what, I usually have no idea — and that is what becomes maddening.

I find myself pacing a lot, I can’t sit still and my patience is virtually nonexistent. I lose interest in reading because I can’t concentrate and it’s difficult to absorb information especially at work. I get disorganized despite the fact that I am constantly “organizing” everything. My mind bounces back and forth to all of the things I need to accomplish but it paralyzes me because even though I am capable, I can’t figure out where to start so often I just sit and stare at nothing while getting trapped inside my head. The urgency to do is incredible. The ability to start is gone. It’s a tug of war that declares no winner.

Reflecting on my past I clearly see a pattern of my springtime “awakenings” dating all the way back to my late teens. They have been characterized by risky behavior brought on by a sense of invincibility. In hindsight it’s obvious how this state led to staying up all night partying, suicide threats and episodes of self-harm. If I close my eyes, instantly I’m transported back to those moments vividly reliving how I was feeling and it was the same every time. The same sensations were present in my head, my eyes and even the blood coursing through my veins.

My most recent episode was several years ago when my kids were very young. Sleep became nearly impossible — two to three hours a night if I was lucky. I would wake up exhausted, but within an hour my mind became wired. It was absolutely necessary to keep moving because I felt if I stopped the crash would be just around the corner, so I spent every waking moment trying to outrun it. When it was time to go to bed anxiety flooded my entire being because I had run out of things to do, but the thought of laying still in my exhausted body while my mind raced at lightning speed was torture. My thoughts had no substance and made little sense, whereas my body would be on the verge of collapse. The nightmare would peak when my skin would literally start to crawl and my blood felt like it was shivering. Knowing that despite not sleeping the sun would inevitably rise and I’d have to do it all over again made me cry and want to rip my skin off and pull my hair out. After a week or so of trying to cope with this I would feel desperate and often end up in a hospital because if it was bad enough I would envision jumping through windows or actually harm myself as an attempt to wipe out the agitation that took over every cell in my entire body.

I used to feel so guilty because it was spring! How could anyone be unhappy? There would be people everywhere declaring how springtime was their favorite time of year and I desperately wanted to join them, but I could never shake the sense of being on the brink of destruction, so eventually I began to dread the season. Even when I didn’t know what I was dealing with, I somehow knew there was something lurking.

Now, thankfully, I know there is a name for it and I am not the only one who has ever felt this way. I recently read that springtime (March in particular) can be the most difficult time of the year for people with mood disorders. At first I found that very surprising because we often associate long, dark winters with depression, so logically I thought the light of spring should make it all better. But studies have consistently shown suicide rates peak in the spring. Theories range from increased energy, circadian rhythms and increased socialization. Whatever the cause, it is real and is difficult to deal with.

Yes, it is once again springtime and I’ve already felt my chemistry shifting. I write this as a reminder to myself to use what I have learned to avoid falling apart so I can truly appreciate the beauty of what is going on around me. I have done it before and I will do it again. That means I must swallow my pride, ask for help and turn to God over and over again because let’s face it…medication is unreliable, the weather is unpredictable and the chances of me following through on everything I need to do in order to stay completely symptom free are pretty low. But, thanks to people around me, I am reminded I will get through this.

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.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via moodboard

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