stressed business woman at office with head in hands

To Those Who Know,

Thank you for giving me the courage and strength to show up on the bad days, but also the comfort I can stay home if I need to. Telling you was terrifying. There’s no taking back something like that. But I’m glad I told you so I don’t have to waste energy trying to hide it. I can walk into the office and shut my door, and when you know I’m at my worst, you respect that door. You may not think you’re helping on those days, but you are.

To Those Who Don’t,

Thank you for not prying. It’s an odd thing for me to explain over the phone, so, for the most part, you don’t know because I haven’t wanted to spring it on you. But thank you for noticing I’ve been gone from work and for asking if I’m OK. As silly as it sounds, asking if I’m OK lets me know it’s OK if the answer is, “I’m getting there.” You all seem to understand that just because I’m back doesn’t mean I’m fully healed, and that grace is liberating. Knowing I don’t have to cringe at my phone ringing is a big deal.

I realize there is a chance you are finding out by reading this now. That thought has crossed my mind, and I am prepared for that possibility. That’s the environment you have created. I’m not scared you’ll find out anymore. If you do, you do. If you don’t, you don’t. But I won’t hide, and I thank you for that.

Sincerely and thankfully,

Your co-worker struggling with Bipolar II

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Today is one of those. A cloudy grim dark chilly day here in Ontario. I expected to wake up barely being able to stay out of bed long enough to get the kids off to school. It was the total opposite. I glared at the clouds and loved observing the formations they took on. I admired the beautiful sound of rain upon my window sill. I embraced the thought of leaving the house in my non-hooded jacket to feel each drop of rain hit my face. It was all so beautiful, something I don’t remember experiencing.

I have been learning through cognitive behavioral therapy that our minds tell us a lot of things that aren’t true. It tells us we are worthless, hopeless and deserve to be alone. Those thoughts are not actually true, but for some reason they convince us to choose to believe them.

Imagine telling our brains you are not in control of me. You do not get the choice to make me feel worthless, hopeless and out of control. I choose to not believe you because I am aware and in control of myself.

Identifying today may not be a great day due to the weather is already giving your brain the control. It opens the door for more negative thoughts to occur. By saying today is going to be a “write off” eliminates your possibilities. It may lead to thoughts about sad times, sad movies and sad music. These things seem reachable and achievable because they feed the low moment.

It easier to withdraw from others and live selflessly alone, your brain convinces you these things are OK. I am not saying feeling sadness and loneliness is always within your control, but being aware that you are in a sad state can help you think of a to-do list. A list of things that make you more sad and feel hopeless is helpful. This is better done on a day you are feeling OK. This has helped me immensely.

I have identified that certain songs trigger my tears. Especially those that I listened to while going through a separation.

I have identified certain television shows bring on past insecurities as an alcoholic.

I have identified certain people trigger me into comparing my old life as a wife to being just a girlfriend are causes for feeling worthless

Certain holidays such as Valentine’s Day trigger upset, as this was the day I told my ex-husband I was pregnant.

It’s attainable to write the things down that feed your sadness so that you can avoid letting those triggers bring you to the depths of emotional turmoil

I identified my resources that support me when I am down. I chose to let in few people about my diagnosis of bipolar, but on my darkest days when I realize I have been consumed by all the triggers I wrote down, I reach out to the very few who support me and remind me I am worthy.

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Last month, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Until my body gets used to the medications, I’m considered to be on the “bipolar spectrum,” meaning there is no specification of whether I am bipolar type I or II. Regardless, I am happy to have at least some idea of why I am the way I am.

One of the worst parts of having bipolar is feeling alienated. I feel isolated, left out and alienated on a daily basis. My friends don’t seem to care what happens to me, how I feel or what is going on in my life, despite my numerous efforts to be active in theirs. I am rarely extended an invitation anywhere and I am usually the person who extends the invitations, despite the lack of people who show up. The only time I am checked on is after I tell someone how I feel, and that only lasts for a few days before I am suddenly on the back burner again. Some of you may be thinking, “Why don’t you get better friends?” The problem is not only that it is difficult for me to make friends being unemployed and out of school, but it’s hard to determine what is real and what is a symptom of my bipolar disorder. Are my friends actually leaving me out, or am I overdramatizing the situation?

To determine the answer to this question, there are a few things I can do. Firstly, I need to stop keeping score. I find myself often going back in my texts and seeing who was the first to message who. How many times did I get called by Person A today? How many times has Person B responded within a few minutes vs. a few hours/days? Doing things like this only leads me down a path my disorder has created. One of the best things I’ve done for myself recently is delete my texts at the end of each day. This way, I can’t go back and check on these silly little details.

I feel alienated for several reasons and social media only makes that 100 times worse. It helps me to avoid checking up on your friends’ social media profiles. I noticed I started taking mental notes of my friends’ activities. Person A went to the movies with a mutual friend, but when I invited them to a movie they turned me down and said they didn’t feel well. In reality, that person most likely didn’t feel well or wasn’t in the mood for a movie. That’s not a crime. However, my bipolar disorder tells me that person is making excuses to avoid hanging out with me because they dislike me, think I’m too sick or am boring. No matter what that person’s excuse is, my brain makes me believe they dislike me. Instead of keeping mental notes about my friends’ days, I decided to avoid social media. I unfollowed many of my close friends on Facebook and Instagram so I can avoid those dangerous thoughts.

What about in real life? How can I avoid real life triggers for these feelings? This one’s not as simple, and I’m still trying to figure out this portion of my thought life. One way I’ve started to succeed in this is to stop overanalyzing situations no one else is analyzing. For example, when I go to the bar with friends, I start to notice who is the center of the conversation, what body language and facial expressions are made toward certain people versus myself and who is surrounded by the most people. This is another way of keeping score that I have rationalized into being simply “fascinated with human behavior.” In reality, this analyzing causes me to feel inferior when, in fact, I am equal to my peers. Once I learn how to stop this behavior, I will be more capable of maintaining relationships without feeling second best.

Bipolar disorder is a sneaky disorder, tricking me into believing things that are much more simple than I perceive them. I struggle with my relationships daily, and it’s hard not to feel second best. Thankfully, I am on a daily medication to assist me, but I have to control my own behavior as well. One day, I will be able to feel equal to my peers and have a healthy relationship. Until then, I am learning about myself all over again.

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With bipolar disorder, every day my brain is in recovery. If you thought I was referring to depression, you’d only be half right. See, my brain doesn’t only have to recover from depression, it has to recover from hypomania, too. No matter which state of mind I was in the day (or days) before, my brain wakes up in recovery mode, and it’s exhausting.

Some days I feel like I can’t catch up, and when I do, I wonder if it’s another bout of hypomania or if it’s a stable day. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

If you have a chronic illness — mental or physical — your body is basically fighting itself all day every day, and we all have to recover in our own ways.

At 27 years of age, I have to pick and choose my battles. Whether it’s a decision regarding fun or a decision of importance, I have to choose which one I’ll have the energy to struggle with, and just as importantly, which ones I can recover from when needed. Most people my age can run circles around me, go out with friends, work and have extracurricular activities…but not me.

Even at such a young age, I have to choose if having a night out with friends will be worth the struggle to recuperate in the days ahead. Deciding can be tiring itself, and being the people pleaser that I am, I usually choose to go out anyway.

Likewise, my husband and I have opposite schedules, so I rarely get to see him. On some nights, I have to choose whether or not to stay up a little later to spend time with him. I have to think about if it will leave me exhausted and emotional the following day and if I’ll have the chance to catch back up.

As a wife, a mother, a friend and an employee, I have to choose which exhausting tasks I can conquer and recover from, while others don’t have to even think about it.

Luckily for me, I have a wonderful support system. I have an amazing husband who picks up my slack without being disgruntled. I have a sweet little girl who only wants mommy to feel better and tries to take care of me when she can. I have employers who know of my illness and know when I request to leave early, I really need it, because I rarely make that request. I also have a select few friends I can trust and vent to who will listen without judgment. I am lucky to have the support system I do when I need help on my recovery days and I hope you do too.

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Thinkstock photo via LanaBrest.

When you’re facing bipolar disorder there are some things you can do to lessen its hold on you. But in order to do so, you’ve got to have the right tools. Try to collect as many as possible for best effect. Shall we take a look at what they are?

1. The usual suspects.

Medication helps tame your symptoms, level your moods, get your brain back in gear and/or regulate your energy. A psychiatrist helps prescribe your medications (a primary care physician may also do this). A psychotherapist can discuss with you the issues you haven’t resolved, the problems you still have and the things the medication can’t do.

2. Self-care.

I believe the two most important tools you need for self-care are sleep and food. Without either, the body can’t function properly, and if the body doesn’t function, the brain is less likely to function properly. Ideally, the food should be nutritious and eaten regularly, but let’s face it, that doesn’t always happen. But you’ve got to give your body something to run on.

3. Support.

Find support where you can: a friend who’s willing to listen, a support group online or in real life. Try for a combination of these and don’t rely on any one of them for too much. Maybe you have a friend you can phone once a week. A support group that meets every two weeks. An online group of two of people who really understand, with links to helpful articles and blogs. Before you know it, you’ve got a support system — especially if you count your therapist (which I do) or have a supportive family.

4. Spoon Theory.

Basically, “Spoon Theory” is a way to measure how much energy you have on any given day. It is an understandable metaphor for explaining your symptoms to others and a shorthand for other people who are also up on the theory. It can also help alleviate the guilt of not being able to do all the things you are “supposed” to do in a day. It’s not an excuse, but an explanation.

5. Distraction.

Let’s face it, it can be all too easy to dwell on symptoms and how miserable you are. And if you’re at the bottom of the depressive well, there may be nothing you can do about it. But maybe there is. Do you know a person who tells good jokes – or really bad ones? Do you have music you used to play but have forgotten about? Do you know of a TV show you like? Do you have a go-to movie that never gets old no matter how many times you see it?

6. Creativity.

If your distraction involves creativity, so much the better. Coloring books and pages for adults have been the trend for a while now. I know someone who can make little sculptures out of drink stirrers or paper clips. The point is, you don’t have to paint masterpieces. Just keeping your brain and your hands occupied is a good idea.

7. Comfort.

Soft, warm, fluffy things and smooth, silky things are soothing. They just are. Cats and dogs come instantly to mind, but I also have a collection of teddy bears and other plushies I sometimes cuddle with. These are “comfort objects,” which is an actual psychological thing. I even took a plush bunny with me when I went to have a sleep study.

8. Stubbornness.

This may be the most important tool of all. Be stubborn. Take those meds, even if you hate them. Eat that egg, even if you don’t feel like it. Go to that appointment, even if will take all your spoons for the day. Call that friend, even if you don’t think a joke will help. Post on your support group, even if you feel you are alone.

We can’t let bipolar disorder beat us. Not when we’ve got so much to beat it back with.

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Thinkstock photo via gresei.

We’ve all been told at some point in our lives that exercise will make us feel better. And while that may be true, it’s not always that easy for those of us who live with a mental illness. Especially those of us with bipolar disorder.

See, with bipolar disorder there is a fine line between mania and depression, and then there’s the gray area in between. Triggers can make exercising and routines difficult to achieve, and here’s why.

In order for me to have the energy to work out, I need caffeine… which just so happens to be my biggest trigger. If I have too much, I’m hypomanic, but eventually take the spiraling plunge to the inevitable crash that follows. It’s like being pumped full of adrenaline to ski down a slippery slope and suddenly losing control! Before you know it, you’re crumpled at the bottom of the hill, but with no energy to climb back up again.

So then I’m faced with a dilemma: do I do something that I know triggers me so I can feel better for a little while and then end the night crying and yelling because I’m so tired and irritated? Or do I skip working out and end the night feeling so tired, and a little less irritated?

In a difficult to explain kind of way, caffeine is my trigger, but exercise is my solution. Because you know, luckily for me, I have been able to learn my body and gauge how I’m going to react to the trigger of caffeine. When you have been struggling with bipolar disorder as long as I have, you tend to learn your body and moods to decipher what will work and what won’t. I can tell when I’m “up” mentally but “down” physically, if I take anything with caffeine I will put myself into overdrive, only to crash later. But if I feel tired mentally and tired physically, I know if I have just a little bit of caffeine, I will be able to get through a workout and not crash after. I also know, if I am “down” mentally and “down” physically, taking anything with caffeine would be a disaster and instead of making me hypomanic I would become more depressed.

That’s the thing with mental illness. There’s a balancing act we struggle with all day long. Even when it comes to making decisions that could benefit our health… sometimes it could make our health worse. If you’re anything like me, all you would like to do is be the type of person who can exercise every day, work hard at a job you love without struggling to keep up and be able to balance those things with a productive and exciting home life.

I’m naturally too hard on myself, so I convince myself that if I can’t achieve those things I am not worthy of a happy life. But I also have to remind myself that I can only do my best and I need to accept when I’m struggling, and that it’s OK to take my time with exercising to feel better.

Some days I rock at life and some days I need to skip the gym, lay in bed in my PJ’s and pig out on soul food. It’s called balance, and that’s OK.

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Thinkstock photo via fizkes

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