woman's hand delicately holding pink rose with drops of dew

While in my flower garden recently, pruning and watering my long-suffering rose bushes, I began to think about my life with bipolar disorder and how I, too, am like a plant that is often slow to flower, with medicinal fertilization and psychological pruning hardly providing relief. There has been no master gardener able to clear my mind of the weeds that twist and choke and delude my senses. No administered drug has permanently lifted the fog that clouds my vision and no gentle hand has effectively coaxed me from my shell. Likewise, my roses aren’t particularly receptive of my care. I have spent hours nourishing them, watering them, ripping my hands open on their thorns. Despite my best efforts, they lie dormant, their buds browning with defeat.

Where I live, the weather is unpredictable: at times you can observe all seasons in the same week, including rain, frigid temperatures, sweltering humidity and devastating storms. The volatility takes a toll on the local horticulture; trees lose branches and leaves from wind and lightning strikes, yards are flooded and turned to mud by torrential rains, and blooming flowers and shrubs freeze to death overnight. Living with bipolar disorder can be similarly devastating. It’s about physical pain, of adversely reacting to medications, of losing hair and weight and then gaining it back, and then some. It’s about pallid skin, brittle nails and nausea, of feeling cold when it’s hot and hot when it’s not. It’s about overwhelming fatigue and weeks with no sleep and scars from painful moments that were too much to bear. It’s about retreating from reality and physically and emotionally surrendering to the disease.

I have been guilty of allowing my garden to grow wild. The rose bushes were indistinguishable from the weeds, the bag of fertilizer I optimistically bought sitting unopened mere feet away. I have also been guilty of letting my illness get out of control. I have refused medication, withdrawn from loved ones and chased irrationality to despair. Yet my will to live and thrive has prevailed, and like the changing of the seasons I now expect, and accept, the recurring swings in my mood and behavior.

I am far from an expert gardener. I would hardly even call myself knowledgeable. If you look closely, you’ll see the nicks I made while inexpertly pruning my roses last season. You can snap off the dead branches caused by sporadic watering and pull up the weeds that seem to thrive without nourishment. But despite it all, the rose bushes are still there. At first glance they may appear lifeless, but their thorns are set to pierce when you get too close and their buds wait, contemplating blooming, ready to unfurl and spread open toward the sun.

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Hi. I’m in a bad mood — a murderous mood in fact.

Call it being moody, call it irritable, call it stress; for me, it’s cyclothymia or bipolar III disorder. A mood disorder, whichever name you know it by.

This title earns me the privilege of — when stating my grievance — to be asked almost by rote, “Have you taken your medication? How much did you sleep last night?” This is instead of the human response to such, by asking, “What’s wrong?”

Does the fact that part of me is defined by a diagnostic manual remove my attributes from being purely human? When I reprimand someone, does that person get to ignore the admonishment because “it must be your disorder speaking?”

Can one not simply follow what I say without my words being referenced in comparison to see if it is “normal?” Tell me, have I lost my humanity by virtue of a label?

I’m still me. I’m the same girl I was before my diagnosis, before the years of “madness” sucked me into its whirlpool. I may be confused, sad and depressed.

I may be high in elation.

I’m still me.

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There are two of me. Each morning, I don’t know who I’ll be. No, we are not twins — in fact we’re completely different. It might not make sense to most people but I like being both. I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder; since I was very young it’s the two of me I’ve remembered. These feelings are familiar, and in a way comfortable.

When I’m depressed I go all in, I lie on the couch or on the bathroom floor, the tub if I’m really deep in the darkness. I wonder how many people like me have a go-to spot for when the world is just too much. It hurts; I wallow in my pain and sadness, sometimes it feels like my body is physically at its end. But these feelings are familiar to me, like an old friend who sometimes visits to remind you that you’re different.

When I’m up, I glide. Rapid thoughts and talking, of course, and impulsive behavior. I’m there, seeing a distorted world, making plans that won’t work. Sleep? Who needs it? Not me, I’m too busy making bad choices. Once again, there’s that familiar comfort. I feel energized and happy, despite knowing inside I’m spinning completely out of control and knowing how badly I want to stop.

The two of me have been walking hand in hand for so long it became my reality, my normal. What felt strange or unusual was just being OK, when the two of me disappeared and I was left with my true self. I couldn’t stand being OK; it was like standing still when I felt I should be lying down or skipping around in circles. Yes, inside I know rationally that being OK was what I needed and what I wanted. I wanted to want it so bad, at times just the thought of getting to the OK stage seemed impossible, like a glass of water you can’t quite reach when you’re dying of thirst. Medication has saved my life; having support and therapists and learning self-care have helped me. Without them, I know I wouldn’t have lasted as long as I have in life because of the choices I would make at my extremes. I had to learn to be OK — I had to make that my familiar.

I know there are many out there who understand exactly how it is to live this way. While I have an extreme case, there are those who struggle even more than me and I hope and pray they get to the OK state I have found. I’m actually happy — not fake or pretend happy, but healthy and real happy. I still have my cycles. I will never truly walk as one person because I live with this disorder. Sometimes there are weird moments when I feel strange and miss my extremes, which I have a hard time understanding, but it’s like when you move out of a crappy apartment into a house. The house is so great but just once every so often you miss that little apartment despite its poor condition. I get through those moments, sometimes barely, but I hold on as tight as I can to being OK, to being my whole self.

I know I’m lucky to have gotten the help I did when I needed it, to have loved ones with the resources to guide me. I wasn’t swept under the rug or shamed. However, just because there is someone who is struggling more than you, it doesn’t mean your struggling isn’t real or that it doesn’t count. Your feelings are valid, you are not broken and worthless, you are not beyond help, you are not damned because of the choices you made when you were two people.

Bipolar disorder is just that — a disorder, a brain and body illness. I still struggle — I still am not always sure who I’m going to be when I wake up, if it’s going to be a depressed day or a super-charged day of impulsiveness, or if it will be a day where I’m finally OK. I’ve learned I’m not alone. That took me quite a while to figure out, so I hope sharing my story will help someone in any small or maybe a big way. It hasn’t been easy and it won’t always be easy but I’m finally OK, and I know that while that might seem like an impossible goal, it is attainable.

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It can be common among individuals with mental illness to want to stop their medications. This can be dangerous, and is often cautioned against by behavioral health professionals. Despite the words of warning, I have never met someone with the bipolar diagnosis that has not gone off meds at least once (though I’m sure those strong-willed people are out there, and I do not dismiss their achievement of keeping themselves in good mental health). I was one of these patients who went off their meds. This is my story.

Every time I hear about someone who stopped, it is always because they were feeling good and so, like with cold medicine, since they were better they could stop. That was not my reason. I think it’s important to tell my story because people need to recognize that people with a certain diagnosis are not all the same. And we are not all that is depicted in TV, movies and media in general. Each person, each story, each reason is unique. For me, I was angry.

It wasn’t that I felt all better, it was that I was outraged that I needed medication to feel better.

I convinced myself that God made me this way. God made me with a genetic disorder that carried with it the common comorbidity of mental illness. I became angry at myself, at God, at the world, and I just wanted to rebel. “If God made me this way, by God I will be this way!” I carried a chip named bipolar on my shoulder and I just didn’t care about me anymore.

Shortly after I stopped I went on a beach trip with my entire family (parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins). At the end of the trip, on our way out of town, we all stopped for lunch. I sat on the end with my mom and one of my aunts. As we ate they slowly began to ask me how I was doing. They had noticed I seemed more depressed and more irritable during the trip, and they were concerned. I explained to them my frustration, and my desire to just “stick it to” the universe by not being well. They spoke to me about their beliefs, and why they believe God let’s us have illnesses and trials throughout our lives. They spoke of their experiences with mental illness, within themselves and/or family and friends close to them and showed me that God has a plan.

I do not mean to preach within this story, and know that belief systems, no matter which ones you espouse, can be an important factor in dealing with any trial, any disability, any illness. I will not lay out all my beliefs, except that I believe in a higher power, and that is very important in every aspect of my life.

My mom and aunt explained to me that while God may allow us to be “broken,” He also created solutions to our problems, like medicine. God never intended me to be broken and stay broken, but in this world it is hard to avoid, so He has given me provisions. I think it is still unfair that I have this illness, and that I will never be able to go a day without medication for the rest of my life. But when I get angry about it I remind myself that I can fight against it, but that fight involves medication to help me be balanced.

This was the only time I’ve ever gone off my meds. Unfortunately, bipolar is unpredictable, so I can’t say for certain I won’t ever go off again. Things may go awry, my thinking may be off and I may end up back in that place. But I fight very hard every day to do my best by listening to my doctors and following their direction. I am sure to involve my family, especially my husband, in what I’m thinking, to ask for input on my behavior, and to be supports throughout my life. With God’s help, and theirs, I hope to stay on the medications that work to live as “normal” a life as I possibly can.

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

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People have inquired about my personal journey through the extremes my illness brings.
Let me elaborate.
Right now, in this moment, I own success. My feet are grounded upon the Earth I was born.
Yet, often I desire to be more than myself, to be better, grander — magical.
The only caveat is I must let the elixir of strength and wellness seep from my daily cup.
Only thus — seemingly so, so simple, yet profound.
This temptation to ascend to the high places, to cast away my mere humanity, eats away at my resolve, bit by bit.
Until, one day, I give in and set aside my daily pill.
At first, nothing happens. Why would it? Who but the sick need to take such bitter daily droughts?
More days pass — elixir forgotten, resolve long chipped away until it exits no more.
Soon, life’s toils are easier to bare, smiles easier to wear.
Feet no longer on meager ground, but standing in the clouds;
I succumb to the glorious promise the elixirless world offers.

And I transform into the Faerie queen,
Glittery Green and sparkling Gold.
I ascend to my lunar throne, gravity no longer pulling me down.
My magic enables feats of super fae proportions —
Novels appear, ideas and plans reproduce into grand schemes.
They go off into my land singing my praises,
“Look, see this shining soul? Isn’t she the picture of health? She didn’t need the soothsayer’s cure after all.”
In a short span, these bright birthed plans have assembled a court of sentient admirers, clambering for my presence,
offering hedonistic experiences and endless resources.
I look down upon the Earthly realm and revel in this weightlessness, this ease of creation.
All is perfection.

But, my own admirers, my well-formed schemes, start jealous whispers —
rumors of cracks and faults in my pearlescent walls.
I attempt to banish them, but they clasp on, one by one, until I cannot see above them or around them, and I must be hypervigilant of their barbs.
Minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day; no rest or succor in sight.
No escape from the schemes and plans and seemly courteous thoughts —
Now abandoned of sentience and clamped upon inch of coppery skin.

Until —
I fall from this gallant throne,
fall not to Earth
but past it, beat upon meteors and rocky rivers,
Until my feet crash through Jupiter’s atmosphere.
This hypergravity strips away my wings and fairy crown.
I now must swim through leaded air as a mere mortal —
Nay, a sub-mortal with empty sycophant schemes dangling from ashen skin.
My eyes only see a few meters beyond myself in this graphene muck and mire.
Gravity, who once lifted my wings and helped me soar above in the lunar land,
now adds a triple weight to every breath.
Every action, every motion forward is stolen by this massive weight.
Until, I can move no more.

Alive, but deadened in this Jovian Hell.
Not free to escape, but free to ponder my release.
What release is possible?
What path may lead back to Earth,
back to the human realm?
In this moment, my once grand courtiers, schemes and plans reanimate;
they scream devious paths, knives and chemical concoctions.
“Cut us off — dare not take a breath, End this leadened rule!
Stop this existence;
You must – you must!
You abandoned all; you are alone.
Hope is lost.”
And I close my eyes.
Still… Still… waiting for the nothing.

Yet, I hear a faint jingle penetrating the Jovian air.
A soft hand lifts my head and I open my eyes
to find the order of white knights, snake-crossed and succor full,
offering soft words of wisdom and capsules of elixir.
I drink and a doorway appears.
Dare I enter? Dare I cast off this beastly burden?
Hands appear from beyond the crossing —
hands of friendships forgotten and valiant mental warriors
beckoning for me to just lift my arms and grab a hold.
Do I? Do I trust the help unlooked for?
Do I continue to drink the elixir
and allow the hands to carry me through?

Yes, I grab hold.
Inch by inch, step by step,
I am pulled through the passageway.
As I cross through the portal,
these hands pluck off the misguided plans, schemes and sycophants.
Wise words guide my bleeding soles to Earthly soil
and a glint of hope kindles,
blazing away hyper Jovian gravity.
I am just me, yet again.

And I declare my promises to stay grounded.
To accept the Earthly realm as my only home.
Not to stray — to listen to Wisdom;
not to quit the elixir mending my heart and soul.
In this acceptance is solace.
For without, I shall surely rise to greater and greater heights complete grander and grander feats,
and fall further and further
until I disintegrate and there are not the pieces to patch together into a whole.

I choose hope over dazzle,
Strength over magic,
And wellness over-exuberance.

I choose me.

Hear the author read this poem aloud below.

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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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