Why I Rarely Tell People I Have Bipolar Disorder

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Why is it that every organ in your body can get sick and you get sympathy except the brain?” ― Ruby Wax

It would be so much easier to disclose I have a blood disorder.

Which I actually do. But unlike bipolar disorder, it’s not so much of a conversation stopper. Most people have never heard of it, so a lengthy explanation of my blood disorder follows. They then become well-educated on what it is and how it affects me.

Ah. If only explaining bipolar disorder were so simple. Both my blood disorder and bipolar disorder are genetic diseases of vital organs. Neither one is visible if you simply look at me. I wear no identification bracelet. But that’s where the comparison ends because of preconceived information, thoughts or bias. Choose your reason. People believe they know all about mental illness — yet they are able to keep an open mind on learning about a fairly rare blood disorder. Not bipolar. I can tell you the reason why, but first let me tell you how I view these people.

1. The Completely Ignorant.

These people have seen television stories about mass shooters who the (unlicensed as psychologists) media have deemed mentally ill, often bipolar or schizophrenic. They accept everything they see on television as the absolute truth and question nothing. Rarely do they read newspapers, unless you count “The National Enquirer” in grocery checkout lines.

2. The Moderately Informed.

Unlike the Completely Ignorant, these people do read print media and do not depend on television pundits to tell them right from wrong. They have the ability, but not always the desire, to dig deeper if they hear information they do not understand. They are satisfied thinking no one they know could possibly have a mental illness, although one out of six of their friends does.

3. The Sympathetic Friends and Family.

These well-meaning people do know about bipolar disorder. Even if they don’t really understand it, they are sympathetic that you honestly have times where you are too depressed to leave the house. If your name comes up at family gatherings, they will defend your honor and behavior because they love you unconditionally.

4. The Empaths.

My trusted mental health team are empathetic to the fact I have a brain disease — not by choice — and must manage it every day to stay in the zone of stability. My first-line empaths are my fellow bipolars. They will always be my first go-tos because they get it. My other team members are my brothers, my former husband, a childhood best friend, and my psychiatrist and therapist. The criteria is demanding. They have gone out of their way to educate themselves and understand bipolar disorder. They’ve learned my triggers and distress signs, sometimes before I do. I can call them at 3 a.m. and ask for help without fear of judgment. They’ve seen me both at the top of my career and at the lowest. And, oh God, they love me so much that sometimes it hurts because it’s a love so precious to me.

Now, earlier I told you I know the reason why people react the way they do when I tell them I have bipolar disorder, as opposed to when I tell them I have a blood disorder. I can tell you why in one word and it’s the sum total of why I tell my stories. Because someday I want this word to go away. To be in a place where if it’s spoken out loud, no one has any idea what it means. You will no longer be able to find it on Dictionary.com, because it will have ceased to exist and will no longer have meaning. Poof. Gone. Disappeared. Everyone will be in the Age of Enlightenment.

This word is stigma.

Oh, and just so you know. I have the genetic blood disorder hemochromatosis. Google it. I believe you likely will still want to invite me to parties and not be afraid of how I’ll behave.

This piece originally appeared on Feminine Collective.

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What I Will Tell My Future Children If They Inherit My Mental Illness

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I do not have children, and I am not pregnant. My husband and I are not planning on having kids in the immediate future. And yet from time to time, my mind wanders towards the tiny humans we will bring into this world and how my mental illness may very well get passed on to them.

I struggle with bipolar II and anxiety — two illnesses that stand a chance of being passed on along with the rest of my genetics. It’s not a 100 percent certainty — I know this — and it will happen no matter how much or how little I worry. I know that too. So all I can do is prepare for the eventual possibility our child may be like his mother in a way no parent would choose.

On the bright side, I’ll be able to guide them a little. While no two cases are the same, I have a blueprint, however messy, I can pass on to them. I will do everything in my power to smooth the path. And if that is a path we must go down, here is what I will tell my child:

1. There is nothing wrong with you. This is an illness. This is not you.

2. You will get through this. It won’t always be easy. You will have good days and bad days, but your father and I will be there through both.

3. You will watch me have bad days. Don’t be afraid. Just because we have the same illness does not mean we will experience the same way. Please don’t think that you will have to fight every battle that I do.

4. Self-care isn’t selfish. Learn what puts you at ease. Think about what makes the stress and the sadness and the uncontrollable energy go away. Those are the things we will make a point to do, and if you need to stay home a day, say so.

5. There’s nothing wrong with taking medication. Don’t get me wrong, we will do everything to make sure you are on the right medication. But lots of people take medication for lots of things. This is just yours.

6. You are strong. You are a gladiator. I know you won’t feel like it some days, but you are.

7. It’s not as rare as you think. When I finally started telling people about my bipolar disorder, people opened up to me about the bipolar people in their lives and their own struggles.  I also found out how many people struggle with anxiety, so when I got my diagnosis I didn’t feel quite so alone.

8. Not everyone will get it. Give them credit for trying. Just because they don’t understand doesn’t mean they don’t care about you.

9. Celebrate the little victories. You’d be amazed how quickly they add up.

10. I will always love you — good days, bad days, difficult days and celebratory ones. Your father and I love you.

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What the Weather Would Look Like if It Was Actually 'Bipolar'

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The weather is particularly tricky to diagnose, as any meteorologist will tell you. Yet so many of us are quick to confidently call it “bipolar.”

I know society is generally becoming more educated about my disorder, and I’m not even offended by that saying anymore. However, it does us all a disservice by spreading the stigmatizing myth that bipolar disorder is just about ups and downs.

Let me set the record straight and show you what a bipolar weather pattern would really look like. Because if the weather really were bipolar, none of us would recognize it.

Some days will simply be black. The sun won’t shine, the wind won’t blow and everything will stand still.

But don’t panic just yet. The weather hasn’t left us — it just can’t get out of bed today.

The sun will go to bed at 5 p.m. and wake up at 10 a.m. It will never be able to get enough sleep, even then.

Cloudy skies will linger for three, six or nine months, depending upon how well the new medication works out. It’s hard to be shining brightly when you’re depressed, and a pill that colors everything gray is useful, but only goes so far. 

Rain will fall even if there are no clouds. The weather is crying without any rational explanation why. And sometimes the rain will taste incredibly sweet. It’s been depressed, and has barely eaten anything today.

If the weather becomes manic, the sun will stay up all through the night. It’s had way too many good ideas to be able to fall asleep. The next morning the sun will be in a different position in the sky. It spent all of its money impulsively, and even though it’s 4.6 billion years old, it has to move back in with mom and dad.

Lightning strikes will flare unexpectedly. The day could be perfectly pleasant, but some small thing sent a quick surge of anger through it.

The pressure in the air might get tight enough to end organic life on the planet. There’s just too much on the atmosphere’s plate, and keeping it all together is stifling.

When guilt, worthlessness and hopelessness drift in, expect a continually cold front socially. Should delusions of grandeur roll in or inhibitions dissipate, expect it to get really weird. A hot rain or dry freeze could come out of nowhere.

Prepare for occasional gusts of wind reaching over 100 miles per hour. Sometimes it helps to just scream when the emotions get too intense.

The weather will change and fluctuate, no doubt. But that will take place over weeks and months, not days or hours. In the rare case, it flips back and forth in a short time — stock up your storm shelter. This is going to be some of the roughest weather you’ve ever seen.

Do you think what I’ve written is implausible? Because if you do, I’d have to agree with you. Perhaps next time you want to label the weather as bipolar, you’ll use a more accurate description instead. How about fickle? Or wishy-washy?

Whatever the weather is, it will never truly be bipolar. 

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Thinkstock photo via Michael Blann.

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Diary of a Mixed State

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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.

My eyes open. It’s 10 a.m. Nothing but darkness, with a slight shine breaking the edge of the black sheet blanketing the window. I shield my eyes with the bend inside my elbow. I’m awake. I’m alive. Another day I don’t know how to handle. I slide the shower lever. Water, extra hot, rains on my back. It burns. It feels good. It reminds me of my skin, of nerves, of feeling. I don’t want to get out and face the world. This is my sanctuary.

It’s 90 degrees out. I pop on my beanie because there’s no use for style today. I don’t eat breakfast. I slide into my car, start the engine, breathe deeply and talk the anxiety away. It stays.

Foot on the gas. Driving. I smile. I feel that instant rush of energy. Pedal to the floor. I climb: 50, 60, 70, 80, 90. Wait. What am I doing? I slow. I want new shoes. I buy new shoes. I want new jeans. I buy new jeans. The mall is my closet. Whatever I want I shall have. Credit card swipes. Swipes. Swipes. It’s a rush. I walk outside with a stride, a leap, a gulping laughter.

What did I just do? No money. No use. I am a failure. Who would ever want me? I don’t want me. I do nothing right. Fuck. You’re useless. You’re better off dead. Don’t you even dare wake up tomorrow.

Beer. It sloshes in the glass. I feel better. What was I even thinking? I’m fine! I’m basically invincible. I have to tell someone how great today is!

Text. Text. Text.

Ramble. Ramble. Ramble.

No response.

No response.

It’s been 10 minutes. No response. Why?

Because I’m loveless. Nothing. No one. Who cares?

I drive. No direction. Maybe the mountains? No. Maybe the city? No.

Circles, squares, parking lots. I need to drive. I need to get somewhere. Puff. It’s my eighth cigarette today. Feels good. Feels bad. I buy another pack.

Sunset. Beautiful. Calming. Exhausted.

Unsure what to feel, I slip into bed. TV. Another shower. I slowly fade.

I’m alive. I feel better. I’m stable.

It was my second mixed state, but I’m getting better.

And I know there’s hope.

There’s always hope.

There’s. Always. Hope.

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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How My Mind With Bipolar Disorder Is Like My Rose Garden

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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.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

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When People Invalidate You Because of Your Bipolar Disorder

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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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