When Bipolar Disorder Makes You Take On the Feelings of Others

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As if it weren’t difficult enough to deal with my own feelings, at times, I’ve had to wrestle with the feelings of others.

It started when I was a teen. I had already experienced my first major meltdown, and was trying to put myself back together. Like most teens, I wasn’t really sure who I wanted to be. But unlike most teens, I was dealing with undiagnosed bipolar disorder and a shredded sense of self-esteem that made me even less sure of who I was, who I wanted to be and who I ought to be.

I began to notice I was picking up the characteristics of whomever I was with. When I was around Binky, I was light-hearted. When I was around Marie, I was a misfit. When I was around Fran, I was trying to fit in. And so on. Intellectual, silly, moody, outdoorsy, smart-alecky, boisterous, quiet – I became them all, in turn. None of them, it turns out, was really me. Or at least not completely me.

And when I was alone, who was I then? I was alone a lot of the time, and my default setting was depressed. I cried at unlikely songs. I hid in books. I cocooned. I had a banner on my wall that said, “I’ve got to start acting more sensible – tomorrow!” I blamed my troubles on living in Ohio.

I was a fractured mess.

Later, in my 20s, as I went out in the world and began to interact with different people, I realized I was picking up on their moods, rather than their character traits. Most of those moods were unpleasant ones. And I reacted to them with – you guessed it – fear and depression.

Even if I was in a hypomanic state, I couldn’t maintain it if anyone around me was angry or depressed or resentful, or even just crabby. It felt like I was hanging on to my good feelings by my fingernails, and the least inattention would cause me to lose hold and crash.

As for anger and blame, there was no way I could do anything but cringe and apologize endlessly. It was only much later I learned how annoying apologizing and self-deprecation can be to those in the vicinity.

One person became a master at using this to control me. A sigh and a glare were all it took.

The bad feelings didn’t have to be directed at me. I couldn’t be in a room with people who were yelling at each other. At times, even disagreements on television would bother me.

I did develop a few coping mechanisms. If other people were the source of the bad feelings, I would make an excuse to leave the room. A breath of fresh air was usually too transparent, and you can only plead a bathroom break so many times, so making myself a cup of tea was my go-to excuse (which also led to a believable increase in bathroom breaks).

My husband has caught on to my interior mood sensor and reactions. Since even raised voices can trigger me, we’ve developed a signal that he needs to take it down a notch, usually when we’re talking politics – sometimes he even manages to chill out the emotional temperature of an entire room. And if he’s having a snit, I can ask him how long it will be until he gets over it and he lets me know whether it’s a big deal or not.

Now even sighing and glaring is a joke with us. He’ll puff like a steam engine and lower his eyebrows until they touch. Then we’ll both start laughing.

After my most recent and worst meltdown — which I’m surprised to realize was about ten years ago — my therapist told me my shattered, scattered emotional state gave me a rare opportunity to choose which pieces of my former life I wanted to incorporate into my rebuilt self.

Maybe it’s a good thing I tried on those different identities as a teen, so I don’t have to now. I know it’s a good thing I’ve learned better ways to manage what emotions I allow into my life.

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Thinkstock photo via Grandfailure.

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What I Wish I Could Tell You About My Bipolar Disorder

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To my loved ones,

I wish I could tell you exactly what I need from you. But I can’t. Having bipolar disorder means my symptoms often change, so what I need from you one day may be different the next.

I have bipolar I, which is to say that my manic episodes are severe and may include psychosis. This means that during those times, I am not myself and will not listen to reason. I may need to be put in a hospital, depending on the severity of the episode. I need for you to understand that the things I say and do while manic are not coming from me, but from a place of disordered thinking that is out of my control. I need you to love me anyway. I know that might be asking a lot.

It scares me shitless, knowing that at times I may be psychotic and unable to control my thoughts and actions. Hopefully, my medicine prevents that, but … I wish I could tell you it will never happen again.

When I’m depressed, I need you to understand that I can’t help my negative thinking. I’m trying as hard as I can, but it’s not always possible to work myself out of it. It takes time. I wish I could tell you things are good and I have a positive outlook on life, but the fact is I feel rather hopeless.

Most of the time I am managing my symptoms and I am neither manic nor depressed. I wish I could tell you to trust me when I tell you I’m doing well. I understand that maybe you can’t; even I can’t sometimes. Not having complete faith in my own self-awareness causes me incredible sorrow. I wish it didn’t.

I know it’s not really fair to ask you to forgive my behavior if I’m experiencing psychosis, yet also to believe me when I tell you I’m OK. But that’s the way this disease works – sometimes it attacks, other times it leaves you alone. If you constantly suspect I am unwell, then you’re not giving me the chance to be “normal.” And much of the time, I really am OK. I think you’ll be able to see the difference enough to know for yourself, but I need for you to give me that chance.

There may be times where I am incredibly anxious or irritable. I will do my best not to let it get the better of me, but often it does and I accidentally take it out on you. I know this is not OK. I wish I could control it better. All I can do is ask for your understanding and hope you accept my apology. I don’t like having an “ugly side” to my personality but sometimes, I do. This makes me want to isolate during these times because I understand how agitated and unbalanced I’m feeling. I wish I could tell you to leave me alone when I’m feeling this way, without you getting offended.

I wish I could tell you my medication and therapy will keep me stable for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, we just don’t know if it will. All I can do is my best, and ask you be my support system and love me no matter what, even if I’m acting like a jerk.

I wish I could tell this condition to go fuck itself. But I can’t.

Follow this journey on A Different Kind of Sober.

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Unsplash photo via Callie Morgan

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Young and Bipolar: The College Search With Mental Illness

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The day I got into my dream school, I cried approximately three times. Twice, due to crushing anxiety prior to the 5 p.m.-release of decisions and the third at 5:01 when I opened my email to a flurry of “Congratulations!” and digital confetti from the college.

I cried that third time for a few reasons. Besides the overwhelming emotional relief that washed over me as soon as I realized I had been admitted, I cried because, at some points in my high school career, I thought I would never see the day I was admitted to college. After being diagnosed with anxiety and depression at a young age, I went into inpatient psychiatric hospitalization at the end of my freshman year due to a mental breakdown. At the time, I believed nothing was wrong with me. I fought to be released. By the end of the ordeal, I was diagnosed as bipolar disorder type II, a mental illness categorized by drastic mood swings and impulsive behavior. After another hospitalization, multiple medication trials, and daily struggles associated with my disorders, I became stable, content, and made it to my senior year of high school. College, finally, loomed on the horizon.

Of course, as interviews and essays approached, a question loomed over me: do I tell colleges about my mental illnesses? Disclose extremely personal information that could make or break my application? I wanted to be evaluated fairly in my applications; however, over the course of my four years in an extremely competitive, high-stress private high school, my grades had taken a toll — mainly due to motivational struggles I endured from depression. I had to make a decision: do I divulge my mental illness in a truthful reason for my dropping grades, or do I stay silent? The last thing I wanted to be was discriminated against, especially after how far I’d come in recovery. Not to mention, in a time where mental health has been shoved into a national spotlight and with ableism reigning strong, I didn’t want my mental health to be seen as a downside to my application.

In short, there’s no right or wrong answers to my questions. Google searches along the lines of “do I tell colleges about my mental illness” provided conflicting interests. In a world of promises of “you are not alone,” I couldn’t seem to find myself in line with anyone else. However, when one out of five people will struggle with a mental illness in their lifetime, I knew there were fellow seniors out in the world going through the same process as me, asking the same questions in the same Google search bars. College application decisions exist in a world behind closed doors; would a rejection mean the college was telling me it wasn’t the place for me? Or would it be a rejection based on stigma, looking past my qualifications?

So here’s what I did: I brought it up when the moment appropriately presented itself. I am fortunate enough that I never had to take a leave of absence or have any issues marked on my transcript or record. When one college asked for an essay about grit, I felt the only thing I could truthfully do was describe an account of my experiences as a bipolar student. I was accepted. In the case of my dream school, a question along the same lines arose in my in-person interview. My words sunk in my throat. Did I risk my acceptance at a school I had pined to go to for so long? With a deep breath, I said I lived with a mental illness. I didn’t disclose what I necessarily was diagnosed with but instead moved on to describe my successful recovery and activism within my school community through giving speeches about mental illness and advocating against stigma across social media. If there’s one thing I learned, it was to find the silver lining. I didn’t enjoy glossing over my struggles, pitfalls, and triumphs with bipolar disorder, anxiety, and depression, and presenting a watered-down version of my personal accounts. But by pointing out the upsides to my recovery, I left the interview feeling prouder that I had spoken about my mental illness in the mildest of terms rather than not bringing it up at all.

Of course, anxiety plagued me until the day that admissions decisions were released if I had done the right thing or not. But my early-decision acceptance confirmed my initial relief after the interview. Through presenting my mental illness as a learning experience and something I had gained valuable insight about life through, I felt as if I had figured out the right thing to do.

Recovery is not linear. If you are applying to college and are in a similar spot that I was in, I believe the best thing you can do is tell the truth. However much information you disclose to your schools is a personal decision; still, I abide by the rule of finding an upside to a seemingly negative situation. Describe your recovery. Talk about a time you faced the impossible and overcame it in the light of your mental illness. College admissions are very personal, and colleges want to know as much about you as they can, but you still have a decision of how much information you give them and withhold. Much more, no two cases of mental illness and no two stories are the same. Make your story your own and take control of the situation.

I have fears about going to college. Will my recovery be for naught in a new place? Will I face discrimination that other college students living with mental illnesses have? Whatever happens, college admissions are a scary, anxiety-provoking time in the lives of high school seniors; but to live through it is another feat in the face of living with mental illness.

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Photo via Audrey Lee

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The Missing 'Reason' From the '13 Reasons Why' Discussion of Suicide

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Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

The hype is whirling around the new Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why.” It is the latest binge-watching event that many people cannot wait to talk about. Now perhaps I should not be commenting, since I have not actually watched the show. With so few hours in the day, and so much to do, it’s simply not at the top of my watch list. However, I have read several commentaries and conversations that have been sparked by the show. I will leave the praise and criticism to those who have seen it. But there is one point that still needs to be made.

Sometimes suicide doesn’t need a reason.

I was once a high school girl who spent many days contemplating suicide. But I was different than Hannah. There were no dramatic events that led to my struggle. In fact, I could create a list about my teenage life highlighting the reasons why I “shouldn’t” have wanted to die by suicide.

My parents were happily married and absolutely adored me. I had many friends. I had a big brother who teased me, but not too much. I attended a small wholesome high school in rural New England with no cruel cliques or rivalries. Social media did not yet exist and my mobile phone was attached to my car. I grew up on a small family farm with nutritious food I helped raise myself. My father owned his own business, which was quite successful. I had countless material things (clothes, electronics, cars, toys, even diamonds at age 16). We took frequent family vacations, including weekends every summer on our boat. I was an outstanding student. I was in good general physical health with perfect orthodontia work. I had a nice big college fund waiting for me after graduation.

There was no trauma in my childhood or teenage years. There was no clear list of causes. My “reason” for nearly taking my life so often in my teens and 20s was elusive for many years, even though it had been with me always, likely sent down through my genes.

The reason was mental illness.

The long, messy path to emotional wellness took me through misdiagnosis, allergic reactions, terrible side effects, weight gain and a stalled start to my 20s. I battled on and survived, in great part to love, support and financial resources.

I tell my story not to negate the one Hannah tells. Bullying and sexual assault are real issues and should be discussed openly and honestly. But while Hannah and her reasons are lauded as a chance for a national conversation, I continue to see my bipolar II and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) diagnoses used as punchlines for jokes and sinister plot lines for “Criminal Minds” episodes.

Many have different “reasons” for contemplating suicide. For Hannah, it seemed to be retribution and escape from her 13 reasons. For me, it was a way to end the guilt, self-hate and nothingness that had seeped into me for only one reason.

I write this from a place of wellness after two decades of effort and treatment. But I worry often that we forget about those still hurting, whose reasons are perhaps more subtle than those portrayed in “13 Reasons Why.” But these reasons are no less haunting.

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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Screenshot via Netflix Youtube channel.

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The Hurdles That Had to Be Jumped on My Journey With Bipolar Disorder

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Mind, body and spirit all require care. If one is being neglected, it affects the other two. Sometimes it can be a neglect or damage that is out of your control. This is the story of how my damaged mind, body and spirit became whole again.

The beginning

It begins well: a happy home, a supportive family, an excellent student. I never showed signs of having a mental illness. There was the emotional stage going through puberty, but these were the things I believe are typical of a teenage girl or boy. I got into a great college and was excelling there.

Dreaming of Paris all my life, I decided to study abroad in France. That is when the unthinkable happened. I was sexually assaulted, and it was done by two young men whom I knew (or thought I knew) fairly well. It took a long time to recognize the gravity of what had happened to me. I came home about a month after my program was complete, but told almost no one what had happened.

Back to school

My junior year internship was coming up, and I began commuting into New York that summer. All seemed normal at the time. I was doing well at work, felt confident and productive, and then it hit me like a ton of bricks. Waking up from a complete fog in the middle of the night in downtown New York, I was completely disoriented and scared. Lucky for me, there was a police officer just down the block from where I awoke from my haze, and he called my parents.

Not knowing what to do, I was taken to the emergency room that morning in a state of distress. I thought everything was an alternate reality. The best way to describe it is to say that everything that I saw, heard or touched around me seemed to be connected by some great cosmic plan. My clothes were intact, I had absolutely no drugs nor alcohol in my system, but I kept insisting that I had been drugged and raped. Tests were run on me, and the only explanation that doctors could give me and my family was that I had a psychotic break.

Terminology aside, the next couple of months were not completely unpleasant. I was taken to a mental health residential facility after being severely overdosed on a mood stabilizing medication, but the nurses, doctors and other colorful characters who I met during this time kept me laughing and upbeat. In spite of the new and scary time for my family, I seemed to be in good hands.

Back to school … again

Taking a semester off from college in order to recover, I returned when I was well enough a few months later and resumed life as normal. No mention of sexual assault had been made while being treated. A common effect after a trauma such as rape is Stockholm Syndrome: I felt as though I needed to be closer to my predators, and felt as though they did no wrong for quite a while. I did not feel like the victim, so much as more the worthless girl who deserved what had happened. No one ever deserves sexual assault. It is a real crime and epidemic.

I later had the strength to confirm that what I had encountered was a real crime by doing research on the Department of Defense website. However, I was often told not to take action because it would lead to more stress for myself. The best I could do in order to get myself out of my depression was to speak up about it to friends, family and supportive professionals.

Before reaching this point, I became catatonic from depression after the semester I completed going back to college. Still, this was scarier for friends and family than it was for me because I only remember bits and pieces. I received about 10 ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) procedures in order to sufficiently pull me out of the nearly vegetative state. And thank God I did, because it pulled me out of the catatonia and I was able to go back to college a month later and complete my degree.

Things are looking up!

Things began looking up again. I found a great job after graduating and felt successful professionally and personally. But there was still something lying nearly dormant inside of me that was not addressed fully. After less than a year of going to work and feeling productive and happy, another ton of bricks hit me: I felt suicidal. It happened so abruptly all I could do was to call my doctor in the middle of the day, and he made an immediate appointment for me to see him. He called the facility that had helped me twice before in so many ways, and he said: I have a bipolar patient who needs a bed. It was the first time I heard a label. I thought, “I’m bipolar? This is getting serious…” Labels aren’t everything, though.

Or are they?

Again, a short stint in the mental health facility and I was on my feet again, just with a new “burden.” I was bipolar. It shocked me. I bought every book about the disorder and tried to educate myself on something I was going through firsthand. Still, it felt overly critical. Every mood that I felt, I thought, “Oh I’m manic now,” or, “Aha! This is that nasty depressive episode that I was warned would come…” It was difficult to lead a normal life. I came to realize that there is no right way of living, and there is no perfection. This took a long time to accept, being the perfectionist I had grown up as.

I’m no doctor, but I have been on every medication under the sun. I cannot prescribe, but I know how each one affected me, and it has taken years to come down to the correct concoction. There were brief times when I completely stopped taking medication, with or without a doctor order, and I have to say that this is not smart idea for me. When I consistently worked with my current doctor in order to be able to get to this level of clarity and contentment without over-medication, boy, did that feel good. I never gave up hope that I would someday reach this point, though there were incredibly difficult periods of time where I came very close.

Almost there…

One last hurdle had to be jumped before I could reach my level of zen: the voices. I began hearing voices, again very abruptly. And they would not go away no matter what medication I took. It felt as though I was in that alternate reality again, with visualizations daily that were termed as hallucinations and terrifying tactile hallucinations where I would wake up at night feeling as though I was being raped again. This was not a fun time, as one could imagine. And it lasted for three years, unbearably. Here is where the moral of my story comes in: what got rid of these voices and hallucinations. I spoke up, I told my family exactly what I was feeling and thinking and I stopped being afraid.

I told myself enough is enough, and that this was a symptom of a disorder. Once this happened, and I explained it to my doctor and therapist, the voices disappeared. It felt like a true miracle. I sought help for myself, learned DBT skills which help me when I am distressed or in need of a mindful moment, and pushed from the darkness into the light again by taking care of my mind, body and spirit.

I’ll leave you with this

My advice after all the turmoil is this: having a mental illness does not define you, and don’t let it! I was later diagnosed with PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, and schizoaffective disorder. The labels sound a bit worrisome, but there is treatment available if you are honest about what you are going through and seek help. Don’t focus on the label, but rather learning new ways to cope and deal with your situation. Some of the smartest and most creative talents and leaders have succeeded in spite of their mental disorders. And always speak up about what you are going through. You are not alone, and there are millions of others going through what you may be going through who can relate. Never give up hope, you can shine like the stars in spite of the darkness of night.

Originally published on Challenge the Storm

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

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How I Broke Out of Mania and the Cycle of Compulsive Spending

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I always seemed to have a funny relationship to money, and being a compulsive spender with bipolar disorder doesn’t make it any easier. From a very early age, I always thought if I had money, I had to spend it. My belief was quite simple, I should be able to spend money on me because, wasn’t I worth it? Compulsive spending seemed to be one of the things that could provide any small piece of relief from the way I was feeling — especially in a manic phase. Once I was earning my own money as an adult, my justification became simpler. I believed since I took care of everyone else in my life — and financially I did — whatever money was left over was mine to spend on me. And I would spend all of it.

Ever since I can remember, this is what would happen. I would get a thought — usually irrational — that would turn into a full-blown obsession. If I just bought that “thing,” whatever it was, I believed it would “fix” me. But usually, I couldn’t buy just one because to me, more equated to better. I would amass a collection of that “thing” in different colors and perhaps with different features. Once I had completed the collection, a curious phenomenon always set in. The euphoria of the buying binge would dissipate, and the deep hole in the center of my body would just ache in a complete disconnect from the flow of life. When the spree was over, I’d have to sell what I had collected because I couldn’t stand having it around. After all, buying that particular thing didn’t work. It didn’t fill the hole.

The spree almost always was followed by some prolonged period of depression. Eventually, the idea that some new thing could fill the hole would come along, and I’d be off on a new manic obsession. The mindset that would precede my buying sprees was quite subtle. I wouldn’t consider the financial consequence of the spree in light of the unrealistic reason that this particular “thing,” would fix me. The cycle was: obsess, spend, deflate, sell, repeat.

And my spending was marked by great secrecy. Those close to me never knew how much I spent. Deep down, I knew what I was doing was unhealthy, and I knew they wouldn’t approve. Over the years, the severity of the cycle of depression and mania grew, and I ultimately became suicidal and started self-injuring. I opened up to my therapist about this, and looking back, I realize this was the start of my recovery. He suggested depression is really anger turned inward, and I must be one really angry guy to want to hurt myself that way. Working with him, I committed myself to a psychiatric hospital. I stabilized while I was there, and I emerged with a new doctor, a new bipolar disorder diagnosis, and a whole new set of medications.

It wasn’t long after I got out that a new obsession took hold. My financial life was out of control, and that’s when someone suggested I go to a 12-step program for money issues. I went and began to relate to those who borrowed, to those who spent and to those who were “self-debting” by giving more than they had to give. I saw this was me, taking care of others at my own expense — in other words, self-debting. I had done this all my life. What I didn’t know is by not taking care of myself, I really couldn’t do a good job of taking care of others even though that’s what I convinced myself I was doing financially.

My final spending spree ruined me financially, and I found I was getting angrier by the minute. Why couldn’t I find that magic thing that would fix me? I wanted someone to say, “Go to the corner of Main and Elm. On the brick building, there is a red button. Push it and everything will be OK.” A man came up to me after a 12-step meeting where I was venting that the program didn’t work for me. I didn’t acknowledge I wasn’t really doing what was suggested to recover. He suggested that I try being willing to just to be willing to do the work to recover. I heard the message that day.Willingness to change my beliefs and behavior was all it took to get into healing. Most importantly, when I started feeling that obsession to spend, I reached out to people and talked about it. What an amazing tool to relieve the power of obsession. By telling someone else what was going on with me, it diminished its hold on me. I believe we’re only as sick as our secrets, and manic, compulsive spending was a big secret for me.

In that program I learned tools, tools to manage my financial life and the compulsion to spend. I track my income and expenses on virtually a daily basis and have clarity on my spending through a spending plan. I don’t keep credit cards handy, and I turn my online financial affairs over to someone I trust so I don’t have ready access to money when I’m obsessing. I talk with people before I make unusual purchases so I have a checks and balances system. I don’t keep secrets. It’s hard to fool those who know my condition the way I can fool myself. That’s why I talk it out.  These are all part of my larger wellness plan to manage my bipolar condition.

Sometimes I get angry that I have to do so much to be in recovery. It takes a lot of energy to fend off the obsession and behavior I honed over years of misguided practice. I just have to remember this work is much easier than being in the throes of a manic, compulsive spending spree. By staying open with my recovery team, I hope I don’t forget this.

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