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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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Thinkstock photo via Ralwel.

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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.

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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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My Worries About Having a Baby as a Woman With Bipolar Disorder

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

I’m terrified. No. Make that petrified. How do you hold two entirely separate things, one in each hand, and weigh the importance of one over the other? How do you wrap your head around the possibility that you might not even be able to have the one thing in life you have wanted for as long as you can remember? How can you choose your health over an innate, natural desire, or even need? How do you sacrifice your health for a dream?

Or do you have a choice?

Do you stand a fighting chance against the cards that life has dealt you?

And is life telling you to back off? Or fight back?

Fight for what you want, what you feel you need in every ounce of your body? Why should I be different? Why should I be deprived of something I’ve wanted for so long? Something that makes a part of me ache a bit because I yearn for that something to be a part of my life as well. A part of me. A part of us.

But…it is not that simple. Then again, what major decision ever was?

You see since I was young, I’ve wanted children of my own. Three. I’ve always wanted three. Whether it be two girls and one boy or one girl and two boys, I could never really decide. But I always knew it had to be three. And through the years, I’ve dreamt about what their names would be, what their personalities would encompass, what talents they might have.

But never in my wildest dreams could you have told me 15 years ago that having kids might not be an option for me. I would’t have believed it. And then, I would have dropped my bottom lip even further to the ground when you told me it is because a year later, I would discover I was bipolar, which meant, medication, which meant chemicals, which meant hundreds of milligrams cramped together in little yellow and green cases that could potentially bring harm to an unborn baby. Do I dare to take that risk?

It might be risky to try and have a child while on all the medication I am taking. Right? Sigh. And I’d be pretty foolish to try and stop taking the meds so I can have a child. Right?  Of course. I wouldn’t do that. Ween myself off slowly sure… I mean, that is what my psychiatrist told me is what I’d have to do.

But I’m so scared. I have been on these pills since I was a teenager. I’m scared to death to simply stop taking them. Will I be able to handle it? Could I cope? I mean, I’ve had a major relapse even when I was on the pills! What happens when I’m off them entirely? It…I don’t know. It seems so unfair. I feel like bipolar disorder makes my life abnormal enough as it is. Is it so wrong to have one thing in my life that is “normal?” So I can at least pretend to be “normal” again? Why should I have to deny myself of one of the things I want most in this world because I developed a mental illness?

But if I were to go off my meds? I fear the paranoia will come back. I fear I will start hearing voices again. I fear getting depressed. I fear getting stuck again. I don’t want to put myself in the position I was in before. It literally almost killed me.

But the thought of not having children kills me as well. It’d be easy to say, “I’m going to be strong!” And I’ll have the greatest reason ever for it. But the truth is, I might not be able to control myself or my illness once I’m off my meds.

But, and yes, I know this is like the 20th “but” now in this post, but (there I go again) I’ve always felt I was meant to be a mother. Always felt that motherly instinct. It is a part of me that’s been present for decades. What’s more, I don’t want to deny the man I love something he wants as well. I want to be able to give him children.

I never really know which part of me is my medication, and which part of me is me. The two have been blended together for so long, it is difficult to divide up the pieces. You are left guessing. And you are left to ask yourself, “This person I am giving up (this person who has been tweaked, formulated and regulated through the years), will that person disappear once I abandon my meds in order to create, what I want to believe, is a better, more magnificent life for myself (which I feel would occur the moment I am holding my baby in my arms for the first time)?”

But I know who I am and I like the person I have come to be. It’s taken years, but I’m happy in the state I am in. I am comfortable in my own skin. I have to believe this is the person I will continue to be once I stop taking my pills. I have to believe it because if I don’t… I won’t recognize me at all. And others won’t recognize me. My own boyfriend might question my new state of mind. My new behavior atypical of the girl he’s grown to love the past eight years and eight months. I don’t want to change for the worst. Hell, I don’t want to change at all if it means losing myself. I can get by in life being who I am today. I could excel if I wanted to.

But really, what I want is simple. A baby.

I’m working with my doctor to take the best path for me, but why does it have to be so hard? It’s all that B.S. baggage and everything that comes with it. But really? As petrified as I am to live a life without these drugs? I’m even more petrified to live a life without children. I can’t imagine that life. And it’s not that I don’t love this life I am in. It’s not that I don’t love Richard immensely because God only knows how much I love that man. But…I don’t think our family is complete. Not yet. It is missing a baby bottle or two…or three.

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Thinkstock image via Thinkstock

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Finding My Own 'Bipolar Beats' When Society Keeps Playing the Same Old Music

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The rhythm dances in my ears and the sun blinds me as it radiates huge beams of happiness down onto the world. There is a spring in my step and I can feel the softest breeze on my skin, like silk as it pulls across the body. A chemically charged ball of fire is pulsing through my veins and as my hair bounces on my shoulders, I cannot stop smiling. Life is good! Life is great!

Thoughts race around my mind, ideas crash into one another and I struggle to control the pace. Voices echo loudly. And music cannot drown out the screams. With hands tight over my ears, the sun hides away behind the looming clouds. The wind tears my heart and soul from my body and an icy grip wraps tightly around my neck. The light begins to falter.

With or without mental illness, life is a battlefield of people trying to figure out their hows, whys, whats, whens and whos. Then society throws in labels to identify the whos and whys. Not quite yet satisfied, society wants to tell us the label means we can’t do or be something. Then we tell ourselves the same lie. We listen to the same rhythm of untruth that wraps around our sore and broken souls. It is time to change the beat we’ve been listening to. Take out that old scratched record and replace it with something new. Those well-rehearsed lines are doing you no favors.

Yes it hurts. Sometimes it’s exhausting and sometimes exhilarating. Sometimes I think that ball of energy might burst from my body leaving a gaping hole in my chest.

Change your music, find a new beat to walk to, a new beat that makes your soul sing. Find your own rhythm to live to.

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Thinkstock photo via Robertobinetti70.

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5 Reminders for a Stressed Parent Living With Bipolar Disorder

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With my sons most recent admission to the hospital I have found myself in dangerous waters. I have been manic for over a month now, and the exuberant amount of energy and ideas of grandiosity have begun to take  heir toll. I am not sure what triggered this manic episode, if I had to guess the incredible amount of stress has something to do with it. For the past six weeks I have been living a life of medical necessity. Days are marked by doctors and medications — my son’s not my own — and the weight of responsibility is starting to take its toll.

I have been living a life of medical necessity, battling sepsis and surgeries alongside my son, and mania and depression on my own. While the depression has been kept at bay, my mania has not, and it is beginning to show. I have tried to keep it under wraps and while my therapist applauded my efforts at controlling my impulses, I can’t help but feel I am fighting a never-ending battle.

Living life at the hospital poses a unique set of challenges, masking my mania included. For me, I feel like I always have to be “on,” which is exhausting. My son deserves a mother who is emotionally and mentally present, not just physically there. The past month it has taken all of my coping skills to stay above water. Every day poses a new challenge, for me and my son alike. And every day I have remind myself of a few things, which I hope you find helpful if you are ever in a similar situation as the one I am currently in.

1. Take your medications. If you are on a medication schedule, keep it. My biggest mistake occurs on nights when I sleep at the local children’s hospital with my son. I tend to not take my medications on those nights, and pay for it dearly. Skipping doses does not do (any) body any good, especially me.

2. Keep talking. If you see a therapist, keep seeing them. It can be incredible hard to carve out time for therapy when life is calm, add in the additional time constraints and responsibilities of having a child in the hospital, and therapy seems damn near impossible. Make it a priority. Even if you can only phone conference from the hospital room (I’ve done it), make sure you have your support system intact. Keep your medical providers and therapists informed. This might seem like a no brainer, but it took me a long time to have the confidence to call my doctor and tell him when life became too overwhelming. During times of stress, it is important to keep everyone on your care team on the same page.

3. Ask for help. Rely on family and friends. If you have a support system, use it. If people offer to help, take it. I have a freezer full of ready to go meals, made by friends and family. I’ll admit I rarely take the time to eat them, but I have them.

4. Open up about it. I have found the easiest way to manage my mental health is to be honest and open about it. Close friends and family have been looped in for years now and my husband is incredibly supportive. And while I have an incredible support system, already I have learned that there is nothing wrong with looping others in. One day last week, during a conversation with an incredible nursing friend, I opened up about my disorder. Was it uncomfortable? A little. Did I worry what their reaction would be? Of course. But at the end of the day it was important for me to be open and honest with this person when they asked, “How are you doing?”

5. Take care of yourself. Above all else, practice self-care. This goes right along with taking your medications, but includes so much more. Take a break once in a while, get a cup of coffee and chat with a friend. Sleep — this is probably one of the most important things you can do when managing mental illness and stress. Try to eat well. I know it can be difficult to eat healthy if you’re living on hospital cafeteria food or take out, but try to fit in a vegetable or fruit once in a while. If you aren’t on one, add a multivitamin to your regimen. Exercise. This might seem a little selfish but one of the best tools I have against my mania is exercise. Physical exertion helps calm the anxiety that often comes with my manic episodes, so for me fitting in a run here or there is vital to my survival. Whatever you do, however you manage to fit it in, just remember to take care of yourself. You can’t pour from an empty cup.

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Thinkstock photo via diego_cervo

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