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4 Things I Learned About Myself After My Bipolar Disorder Diagnosis

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Three years ago I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. It was scary and confusing, but in a way, it was also liberating. I finally had a reason for the long bouts of depression and the high octane stretches I learned were manic episodes. At 27, I had an explanation for the previously unexplainable. It wasn’t me, it was the disease.

Now that I’ve sorted a little bit of that out, I find myself turning less to defining the disorder and more to defining me. Instead of marking things off as a symptom of the bipolar, I want to know who I really am.

Here are a few of the things I’ve learned so far:

1. I am loud.

When whatever holy being (I’ll go with God) created me, they omitted volume control. My whisper can be as loud as other people’s regular speaking voices, and when I get excited or passionate, you can hear me from across the room. This is not the result of mania or anxiety, it’s just me.

2. I have a ‘Type A’ personality.

I thought this might go away once I started my medication, but now that I’ve been medicated and in therapy for a while, I’m realizing it’s just who I am. Yes, it was certainly exasperated by manic episodes, but take away the mania, and I am still just as driven, ambitious and competitive.

3. I am a “crier.” 

Or a sobber. Sobbing is more my style. Commercials with puppies, championship sports games, books, movies, weddings — I have teared up during or sobbed through all of these. I cry when I’m frustrated or relieved.  Occasionally, I cry and laugh of the same time.

And the biggest thing I’ve learned about myself? 

4. I am resilient.

The bipolar wants to trick me into thinking I’m not strong enough. It wants me to think I’ll never make it and my life will always only be a tennis match between depression and mania. But I’m still here. I’ve survived the three years since my diagnosis and the countless years before. More than surviving, I’m actually living my life. I have a husband I love more than anything, incredible and supportive friends and a job I truly enjoy. If we are keeping score, I am winning by a long shot.

I will always have bipolar. I don’t believe medication and therapy will magically “cure” me. But now I know I am so much more than a disorder.

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Thinkstock photo via kameshkova.

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Bipolar Disorder and Losing Friends

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I read Meghan Camello’s “To the Friends Who Left Because of my Mental Illness” at the perfect time. I’d been thinking a lot about friends who’d faded from my life, who stopped interacting with me on social media, who never sent me a wedding invitation, who — last straw — dropped me after I made an ass out of myself by drinking too much. This is not a sympathy grab but an honest glimpse at the toll bipolar disorder takes on my friendships. Someone once said losing a friend is worse than losing a lover. I agree. What are the odds you’ll find “the one” on the first try? We expect to lose lovers. We don’t expect to lose friends. We assume friends will be around forever. We don’t expect friends to block us on Facebook or not invite us to their wedding.

I share the blame. I can be a difficult friend. I’m bipolar, but I’m responsible for managing my illness, though my brain makes it difficult. I’m a professor. Sometimes, teaching is the only reason I leave the house. Teaching forces me to perform, which means I’m exhausted at the end of the day. Off the clock or during summer, my voice changes to a whisper. My face slackens. Cashiers ask me to repeat myself. I look down. It hurts to speak. I sound like a boy. When manic or hypomanic, I can’t stop talking. I’m the life of the party. Teaching is easy. In college, people went out of their way to invite me to parties because, “Fish is so much fun.” I am no longer the whispering boy with a slackened face. I am the confident man with a sensuous voice women love. I remember one woman saying, over the phone, “Just talk.” Mania makes me magnetic. I own the room. Anything’s possible.

I don’t party much now, but two years ago at a writer’s conference, I drank liquor with my meds and embarrassed a friend of six years who’d had enough of my intense mood swings. We no longer communicate and are blocked on social media. I’ve made tremendous strides in my treatment since we fell out. I diligently take my meds, which have taken the edge off my symptoms. My psychiatrist is proud of me. I stopped drinking liquor and only drink beer, slow and steady, content with an easy, simmering buzz that doesn’t render me incoherent and unable to walk straight.

To my friends who were tired of me disappearing for long stretches when depressed or friends fed up with my erratic behavior, I’m sorry. I wish you were still around. It’s hard making new friends as an itinerant professor. I’ve moved five times since 2012 — five different states! You know I’m bipolar, but do you know I sometimes resent it? You know bipolar put me in a state mental hospital as a teen, but do you know my biggest worry was what my friends back home thought? Do you know I concocted lies to protect my secret? Do you know I wondered why my commitment was “shameful” when my health was improving? Do you know with each failed friendship, I become more paranoid I’ll fuck up the next one? Do you know I try my best to learn from my mistakes, despite my brain and stigma conspiring against me? Do you know I would give anything to take back the times I disappointed you?

Will you at least read this? I hope so. It’s proof of my existence.

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When Someone Told Me I'm Using My Mental Illness as an Excuse

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Someone said to me once, “Don’t use you’re illness as an excuse.” I thought to myself, “Are you really saying that to me? Are you serious?” I had never heard that before, and I was stunned.

Let’s be clear, shall we?

My brain is sick. My actions, behaviors and decisions are made from a cloudy mind, a mind on a ton of meds for bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and you think I’m using it as an excuse?

If my liver was sick, would you expect it to perform its duty as well as one that was not sick? If I needed medication to have my liver work better, would you tell me I didn’t need it? That all I had to do was change my thoughts, talk nice to it…

I’m not on holiday. I work tirelessly to improve myself, to improve my thoughts, but that doesn’t make my brain magically fix itself. Do you know what will help my brain heal? Love, compassion, kindness and understanding.

My brain is sick.

Please forgive me if don’t act the same as you or the other lady you know with a similar disorder. Guide me lovingly so you can understand what I’m going through because I’m more confused than you.

My brain is sick.

I didn’t do this to myself. I didn’t take a magic drink one day and decide I’m going to be bipolar today and for the next 10 years I want to struggle in silence in my head. I wouldn’t have wished my challenges on my worst enemy.

My brain is sick.

Please be patient with me. I’m learning how to cope with life’s struggles. How to care for myself. I need to understand so I can try hard to get better.

My brain is sick.

Please love me anyway, and don’t tell me I’m using it as an excuse. Get information on what is happening. Help me. My brain is sick.

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How I Get Through Bipolar Disorder Mixed Episodes at Night

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It starts like an itch, and then my face is wet. It is not raining. The sky is clear, especially for this time of night. I am crying. Barely five minutes ago, I was laughing.

The depression drowns out the mania and sometimes they mix like a cocktail, having the effect of making me sick. These mixed states are one of the very worst parts of my illness. I’m at two different poles of my bipolar disorder. Right now, it’s nearly 3 a.m. as I am writing this, and my mascara is blurring because I am raw, vulnerable and simply do not know what to do but write.

I write because I am scared. I am scared of my own mind. Am I truly feeling my emotions, or is it my bipolar disorder? Am I happy, or it is hypomania? Am I angry and irritable because the situation warrants it, or is this a full manic episode? Am I crying because I am sad, or is it a depressive episode? Bipolar disorder lies. I feel like I cannot control my own mind at times. I feel like I cannot trust my own intuition. Is it intuition or paranoia? The questions stack like the foundation of a terrible building.

I am strong. I am a fighter. There will be a sunrise and tomorrow this might be a vague memory of a nightmare I would rather soon forget. For now, I fight my way through the dark because I stopped crying. Putting my thoughts to print purges it from the crevices of my mind. Sharing lightens the burden I feel.

I often get asked, “What are tips for getting through mixed episodes?” and I want to offer a platitude or an encouraging word, but mostly I am honest and tell them how I do it.

“One night at a time,” I say.

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 cyano66.

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The 'Advice' I Don't Want to Hear as Someone With Bipolar Disorder

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“Don’t be upset.”

“Calm down.”

“Smile. It’ll make you feel better.”

“Stop getting all revved up.”

Never in the history of ever has communication of this sort had the desired effect on a person – especially one with bipolar disorder.

When you offer this sort of “advice,” what you are basically doing is telling the person not to feel the way they feel. Not only is this useless, it’s insulting.

It’s useless because ordering someone to feel a certain way simply won’t work. Saying “Be cheerful,” will not make it so. Emotions aren’t like flipping a switch on command. Even for neurotypical people, emotions are complex interactions of chemicals in the brain. While some people claim – or may perhaps be able to – shift their emotional state at will, it isn’t easy or natural. There’s a reason people feel the way they do.

For a person with bipolar disorder, it’s even more difficult – if not impossible – to shift moods at a whim. Bipolar is a mood disorder. It affects moods and emotions in a nonstandard, often unpredictable way. Telling someone to alter their own brain merely by thinking about it, is ludicrous.

Even if the bipolar person’s moods or feelings seem exaggerated or uncalled-for to you, that person is having an experience no different than when you feel elated or despairing or fearful. The emotions may even be more profound and less susceptible to alteration by force of will.

In telling a person with bipolar disorder things like this, you are denying their perception of reality, invalidating their experience, dismissing their concerns, minimizing their problems and discounting their feelings. In effect, you are saying, “I don’t feel the same way, so your feelings are wrong. Change them to match mine.”

Imagine you have written something – a report, a poem, whatever – and feel good about it. You’ve made your point and done it well. You’ve captured reality as you see it and communicated it in a way you think is clear and effective. Then someone comes along and reads it and says, “This is crap.” They have denied what you feel and believe. And even if they’re right, they have profoundly insulted you. And, of course, they may be wrong.

People with diagnosed bipolar disorder people most likely already know their emotions do not run the same as other people’s do sometimes. There’s no need to remind them of this. People with bipolar disorder are generally doing what they can to alleviate their symptoms, be it through therapy, medication, mindfulness, meditation or whatever works best for them. When you discount their feelings, you are discounting them as people. This can be anywhere from annoying to soul-damaging.

Adam Savage, of Mythbusters fame, sometimes wears a t-shirt that says, “I Reject Your Reality and Substitute My Own.” He is talking about substituting a provable, scientific reality for a mythical, uninformed one. But to go around substituting your own emotional reality for other people’s – and trying to make them agree with you – does a disservice to the people you think you are trying to help.

Instead of saying, “Don’t be angry,” how about trying, “I know you feel angry and I can see why” or “I can tell you’re feeling angry. How can I help you?”

In other words, start by acknowledging the other person’s feelings are real. Then ask what the person needs. This lets the person know you understand his or her feelings and you would like to help in the way the person thinks best. If you know other things that have worked in the past, you could suggest them (after validating the feelings, of course). Would you like me to run a hot bath? Do you need a hug? Do you just need time alone? Do you want to talk about it? Maybe later?

So, if you know someone who makes comments like this – a friend or loved one, maybe. Feel free to send this post to them, if you think it will help. I know it helped me when I figured out what was going on and what my husband and I could do about it.

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Thinkstock photo via Olarty.

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When a Bipolar Heart Breaks

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It’s not easy feeling so intensely. I try to pull back. I try to not feel this way. If I could feel less, maybe I would. They give me drugs that supposedly help me to feel less. I’ve been on drugs that do that even more, but it’s hard to go back to black and white once you’ve seen a rainbow. So you try to find a balance that still lets you enjoy life without letting it swallow you whole.

To everyone who reached out, I can’t thank you enough. I’m sorry to keep doing this to you. It feels like it happens far too often. I don’t want to be the boy who cried wolf. This isn’t some act. This isn’t some overdramatization. It’s hard to feel like you want to die when someone breaks your heart. It’s hard to share with others that you care about someone in a way that you feel ashamed to feel. It’s hard to feel like folks won’t be as happy about it as you are. It’s hard to know they’re trying to look out for you, but it only makes you feel more isolated because they don’t understand how this girl is different. It’s hard to understand exactly where they’re coming from and begin to question your own passion for someone. It’s hard to feel like you’re crazy…

But sometimes, I think we need to be “crazy.” We need to reach outside the borders of what we’re told we should do or how we should feel. That’s the good stuff. It’s the best parts of life. Not everyone can even see past the horizon, and for those of us who can and dare to color outside the lines, it can be amazing. But those lines exist for a reason, and the world outside them is dangerous, too. It’s so alive and exciting, but it can also hurt like hell.

I think a lot of you get that and understand it. In fact, I think the ones that tell me I shouldn’t feel that way are the ones who understand it the most. You dared to dream, but maybe it didn’t work out like you’d hoped. You’re trying to save me from that pain. It’s funny how often we tell others how to feel or how to act in order to protect them from our own pain. I do that, too, sometimes. I don’t know what to tell people in those situations anymore. Like Icarus, we want to fly to incredible heights, but we forget that if we fly too close to the sun — if we see too far — our wings will melt, and we’ll fall back to earth like a ball of fire.

But do not forget that we had those great wings, that we are capable of rising like the phoenix from the ash. I think that is the difference. Those who dare to fly into the sun again are so brave. They know the risk. They know how much it will hurt if they crash into the ground, for they have lived that life. But is not the sun worth it? Is not its warm embrace beyond anything else we feel? And perhaps the only way to learn how to find that balance is to be willing to step into its warmth once again…

I felt so lost this morning, wishing yesterday was just a bad dream.

I felt so incredibly lonely when I woke up. For the past few weeks, do you know how incredible I felt? It was the most amazing feeling. I was Icarus before the fall. I felt like I had just started the rest of my life. I felt like I had one thing checked off that I knew was gonna be forever. I had a reason to wake up.

And not just wake up, but jump out of bed! I was excited for life in a way that I haven’t been in years. She was my hope for a better future.

And this morning is the first time I’ve woken up since meeting her that I don’t have that hope anymore. And it is crushing. I thought I was over the worst of it, but I feel like I’m slipping back into it. I just feel awful. I feel so fucking lonely. I used to love that feeling of serenity in the morning before everyone else had woken up because that peaceful, silent world was mine and mine alone to enjoy. But now it just reminds me of how beautiful she looked curled up on her side, her beautiful curves rising and falling like the green Carolina hills from whence she came…

I guess it’s good that time makes us forget. In time, I’ll forget how good it can feel.

But right now, I remember.

There’s a bullshit mentality of “we shouldn’t be going so fast” that society beats into our little heads to beat back our hearts so that we don’t get hurt so much. Well, y’know what? It’s dumb. Those are the greatest loves. And the greatest heartbreaks. But as shitty as I feel, this has only reinforced the idea that it’s absolutely critical to love with all your heart when the right person presents themselves. I don’t feel this way about just anyone. And honestly, I don’t want to be with someone that doesn’t bring that out in me. I know how much I can feel for someone. I know the possibility of how much I will want to give them. I don’t want to put up with a half-love. I want the full thing. And if that flies in the face of what everyone else tells me, then fuck it. If it means I break my heart to the point of wanting to die, that’s a risk that I’m willing to take.

I don’t regret any of the great relationships that I’ve had, despite the mess and pain that followed. I think my life is richer for those experiences and the love I felt. I’m just saying that if you asked me if I would prefer knowing now that it wouldn’t work or if I’d prefer getting tangled up in her for a year and hurting even worse later…I’d take that year in a heartbeat.

Every time.

A friend told me that when she looks back on it, she sees how the sadness gives her depth. And how she is grateful to not be a shallow well.

Another friend said, “Chase the happy feeling. And do everything in your power to get there. And sometimes it might slip from your grasp, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep trying.”

I believe that with my whole heart. I’m gonna continue to chase that happy feeling, even when it gives way to deep sadness. Because I am not a shallow well, I’m a phoenix.

So thanks for listening. I’ll be OK.

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Thinkstock photo via frimages

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