Just Because I'm Bipolar Doesn't Mean I'm the Bad Guy
Living with bipolar disorder is like balancing glasses on a tray while you’re also riding a unicycle. Some days you have the unicycle down great, the glasses are balanced and you can breeze through life like everything is wonderful. Some days you sway to one side and the glass labeled “low” will fall and shatter. Some days you hit a bump in the pavement and the glass labeled “high” will fly through the air before bursting into beautiful glittering pieces as it hits a brick wall. And then some days, when it’s already storming and hectic, you go out on that unicycle in the rain and you’re hit by a bolt of lightning … Forget about the glasses because they are melted along with the tray and the unicycle, and your body is burned, but you still have to somehow make it through the day, the week, the month, until you can stop for a moment, get back up on that new unicycle and reset your glasses.
Too often I see a character with bipolar disorder on a TV show or in a movie and they’re responsible for some horrible crime, like a school shooting or a spree killing. Maybe people like that exist because the brain is a horrible trickster, but that’s not all we are. We are not made of evil. We are not so “crazy” that people are never safe around us. We are not incapable of joy, and we are worthy of love.
This is the story of my battle with this mental illness.
I was originally diagnosed with bipolar disorder Type II somewhere around 2004 or 2005. Those years are during a time where I don’t remember much at all because my roommate had been murdered and another friend with her was almost killed as well. I wasn’t coping well, and for the 3 or 4 years previously I had been treated for anxiety and depression. I took medication that often makes bipolar disorder worse instead of better. So we finally figured out what was really going on, changed up my medications, and tweaked the dosage many times. During this time, I had decided to go back to school instead of holding down a job.
My lows were still earth-shattering. Like crawling through thick black sludge in the dark and not knowing what nastiness I would meet at the end, but knowing it was there, waiting for me. I didn’t care if I went to school, if my apartment was clean or if my friends were OK. Sounds a lot like depression, doesn’t it? But it’s not. I would call my dad sobbing because I felt so out of control and like everyone just thought I was making poor life choices because I was irresponsible and I needed to figure it out for myself. My dad didn’t know what to do. He told me once that maybe it was his fault and I am the way I am because of the issues surrounding my parents getting divorced when I was 16 years old. That’s not the reason. I would call my friends in California, whom I went to high school with, and tell them things I’m sure made them worry. I would imagine they may have blamed it on the abusive boyfriend I had escaped from years before. Sure that gave me some post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on top of everything, but that’s not the reason I am bipolar either. There isn’t a specific reason or event that people can hold onto and blame when my emotions are out of control.
The low would last for a few weeks, maybe a month, and then I would level off and put myself back together and live life, go to school, be social, clean up my apartment. After a few weeks or a month of that came the high.
My highs — well, they were like flying through the clouds of life at full speed and nothing could knock me out of the sky. I would spend all my money plus overdrawing my account until I was $500 in the red, but that didn’t matter because I could go get a new tattoo. I could go party with people. I could stay up and not sleep for days at a time. I could buy drugs for me and my friends because I didn’t want to have fun alone. I could sleep with whoever looked good that night because why not? My verbal filter would stop working and I would say horrible things to my friends, some of which I am still finding out 10 years later.
And then I would come out of it and realize how I had depleted my bank account and rent would be due the next week, or how I had no food in the house because the only responsible things I had spent money on during my high was cat food and litter for my aging Siamese. Scrambling to fix the damage I had done to my life and then just when I get it all straight (or almost there) along comes another low and the process starts all over again. I was on such high doses of so many medications specifically for my mental state and they only worked sometimes.
Life like this is exhausting.
I moved back home to my little town in California. Away from the drugs, the parties, the poor life choices. Away from negative energy vampires. I got a new psychiatrist and a new therapist. I slowly got my life under control. My lows were more like I was just having a few weeks where I was a bit down on myself but I was aware. I could tell myself it would be better soon. I was aware of the high and could limit myself to buying one $20 thing I didn’t really need. The time in between the two was growing longer and longer. I could usually sleep at night. I was regaining my sense of self.
Eventually, I went back to Texas. Back to my friends. Things were good for a while. I was dating, I got a job I really enjoyed and eventually, I graduated from college. I had accepted I would probably be on medication for the rest of my life, but if it meant I could function like a “normal” human being then that was totally OK with me. Sure, I still made some dumb choices that put me in a bad mental place, but who doesn’t do that in their 20s?
My family still didn’t really understand. I often heard that since I was doing OK I could come off the medication soon. Or hopefully, I could stop taking everything in the next few years, like bipolar disorder is a sickness I caught from someone and I’ll be cured after I take a course of medication.
One time I did come off the medication. I did exactly what I’ve told others not to do. I stopped taking them without telling a doctor because I felt fine. Admittedly I was scared to do this, and it was a decision I made after moving to Oregon to help my mom (and myself). I ran out of medication and every psychiatrist I tried had a wait list months long.
And nothing changed. I was cautiously optimistic, but I was actually doing fine. Little tiny bumps in the road I was able to recognize for what they were, but I was OK!
This continued after another move back to Texas. But somewhere around the 3-year mark, my lows started getting lower and my highs getting higher. I thought perhaps the city and all it offered were toxic and contributing to my unstable mental state, so I quit my job, got a new one in another smaller Texas city and moved away. I lost someone I considered one of my best friends with this move — someone I always thought would understand because he’s bipolar as well, but I think that actually kept him from seeing I was doing what’s best for me and perhaps more felt like I was abandoning him by moving.
The move kind of helped, but eventually I gave in, admitting I already knew this wouldn’t last and I needed to act in my own best interest. A new psychiatrist and therapist were obtained, medication was started again, and we’re back to figuring out the right balance of things to keep me level.
Bipolar disorder is a tricky thing to live with and hard for people to understand. It’s a lifelong battle that takes a significant amount of effort to overcome. We’re not bad guys — we’re just trying to make it until we can ride that unicycle balancing those glasses like it is the easiest thing in the world.
Editor’s note: Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.
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Unsplash photo via Vladislav Muslakov