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I Have Bipolar Disorder, but I Am Not My Bipolar Disorder

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“I am bipolar.”

These three words strung together are ones you will never hear come out of my mouth.

At age 16, I was diagnosed with severe anxiety and depression. I was displaying symptoms several years before my diagnosis. However, I had become an expert at putting on masks. Even through years of therapy beginning at age 13, I was technically undiagnosed mostly because I refused to open up and believe I wasn’t “normal.” As a result of so much hiding, all that tension overflowed when I was alone. I would cry and hurt myself for hours on end. There were several close calls on my life. Luckily, I found relatively effective medication very soon following my diagnosis.

I was not so fortunate with my next diagnosis. It was only in this last year that I was diagnosed with bipolar II. My psychiatrist, therapist, parents and GP have spent months trying to find medication that would accommodate all of my various symptoms. With all the different types of pills going through my system, this year of my life has been one of the hardest. There have been countless feelings I had never felt before that I was not sure how to deal with. I struggled with my identity; I struggled with absolute hopelessness. And the struggle continues.

Personally, when I hear someone say they “are bipolar” or “are chronically ill,” I want to give them a good hug and maybe a good shake. I have been told I am diagnosed with a disorder. People may identify me by my disorder. The disorder undoubtedly affects every aspect of my life. But, no matter what my brain tells me…

I am not my disorder. 

My disorder does not define me. 

I am not my disorder. 

I may have bipolar disorder, but I am not bipolar. This truth has been one of the hardest things my brain has had to process in the midst of my struggle. But, when it comes down to it, it is the most important. There will undoubtedly be days when the effects of my disorder seem to fill every nook and cranny of my mind, but I can look to this and remember that these feelings don’t last forever.

There are lots of things about me that are great. I usually have to do some major rationalizing to convince myself I am these things, but the fact remains that I am not my disorder. I am empathetic, brave, creative, loving and strong, but I am not bipolar.

There are lots of things about me that aren’t the greatest. These feelings may persist for weeks or months on end, but they do not last forever. I have feelings of depression, panic, self-loathing, exhaustion and irritability, but I am not bipolar.

If you are afflicted with a mental disorder, try whispering this out loud to yourself: I am not my disorder. Keep doing it. It may feel like a stretch in the moment, but it is a statement of truth. It could get you through your pain-filled day. You are not your disorder. You are resilient. You are a warrior; keep fighting.

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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Image via Guillaume Bolduc

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The War in My Mind Between Reality and Perception

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I have a good life which I share with four kids, three cats and an amazing wife. I have a successful career and enough money to care for my family. I’m middle aged but am physically healthy. Yes, I have a good life.

The logical me genuinely believes this and repeats that message every few minutes of every day to quiet the broken me and its desire to sabotage my happiness. In clinical terms, I have co-morbid rapid cycling bipolar disorder type II and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

To the “broken” me, my life is very different.

My family leaves clutter around the house. They should know my anxiety skyrockets in the face of clutter; their not decluttering means they don’t care about my struggles. I come home every day to clutter in the house and a family that actually wants to have conversations with me. I can’t do conversations when there are 500 thoughts racing through my mind. Focusing is near-impossible, and they keep making it harder for me by their incessant talking. They want to do things like leave the house and go places. If I go places, I worry if there are too many people there, will they touch me? Will I be able to not use the bathroom? Everyone knows I hate public bathrooms. Will I have to drive? What time do we need to be there? I can’t be late. I just.can’t.be.late.ever. Then there’s those annoying cats. Cats are supposed to be clean, but there’s cat hair everywhere! I just want to move into the shed in the backyard by myself because my peaceful house is a house of horrors.

Work, though, is probably my least favorite part of every day. I commute to New York City by bus. The seats are disgusting, and the people smell. I panic that someone may sit next to me so I take up as much space as I can. Then if they do, I get agitated if they so much as breathe in my direction or touch me. I’ve been known to yell at people on the bus if they get too close. One time, it resulted in a full blown fight in the bus terminal. Luckily, my office is my safe place. Between my antibacterial wipes and a door that closes, nothing can harm me. Unless someone comes in to talk to me — then I get agitated and visibly disturbed.

My health? I’m overweight and I wear baggy clothes and blazers all the time to cover up my appearance. Also, I haven’t been to the d*ntist in 30 years because my last experience threw me into a phobia.

All this stress in my life, it’s no wonder why my mood frequently bottoms out and I become suicidal for days or even weeks on end. I’ve made passive attempts because I couldn’t manage the emotions any more. Luckily, I had two extended hospital stays to help me pull out of that. When the depression passes and I can’t remember ever feeling so badly that I’d ever harm myself, I feel amazing and can conquer the world! Except, of course at night when I am following my predefined path to close the house up for the night and check the stove repeatedly until I can finally pull myself away.

I have a good life, which I share with four kids, three cats and an amazing wife.

…Sorry, it’s been a few minutes since the logical me reminded the broken me just how good I have it.

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, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

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Explaining the Mania of Bipolar Disorder With Chocolate Easter Bunnies

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I developed the metaphor of the “Chocolate Easter Bunny of Happiness” to explain my experiences with bipolar disorder.

In this scenario, each person periodically receives the same allotment of chocolate. With mania that allotment can become divided into 50 chocolate Easter Bunnies. Add a dash of random creativity and maybe 100 are possible, though so thin many get broken along the way. To get the high number, they are all hollow – and poor quality milk chocolate since that is the fastest way to get a chocolate Easter Bunny. Mania is – if anything – about speed. So yes, mania devours bunny after bunny after bunny. All those bunnies give an illusion of happiness because there is just enough chocolate in each one for “the quick fix.” This requires more and more massive numbers of bunnies. Now on a wild sugar high, all those hollow chocolate Easter Bunnies are suddenly gone. Then the only thing left is that sick tummy feeling and the sugar crash into collapse. This is the bipolar experience.

Without mania, that original allotment of chocolate becomes dedicated to one single solid chocolate Easter Bunny – dark chocolate – maybe some orange or berry flavoring – handcrafted in artisan excellence. Because of the richness, only one or two bites can be savored at a time. Satisfied, the rest is wrapped up for later. Maybe the next day or a couple days later another bite or two is just enough. Each brief encounter delights the senses, creating fulfillment and satisfaction. Now that one solid chocolate Easter Bunny maintains a steady chocolate paradise sufficient to last until the next chocolate allotment.

I think mania can only provide superficial happiness based on artificial quantity and manipulation. Ultimately, I don’t think happiness can never work like that. True happiness, solid happiness, comes in slowing down to experience the pure sensuality of each day this life brings to each of us.

Chocolate Easter Bunnies are best when they are whole. And so am I.

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Thinkstock photo via AND-ONE

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To the Husbands Who Stand by Their Wives With Mental Illness

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You think you’re flying under the radar and no one notices, but I do… At least, now I do.

It’s not been an easy road for you, has it? Your efforts may go unnoticed by your wife. She may be too wrapped up inside her own mind to see you actually are trying to not only hold her together, but hold yourself together. The people around you may be focusing so intently on her emotional well-being and mental state that your presence seems to stand back in the shadows.

I see you, though. I see you standing there, on guard — protecting her.

I know there are days you want to give up. I know there are times you want to lash out and scream at the top of your lungs that you can’t self-sacrifice any longer. Something has to give, right? You can’t single-handedly keep your family afloat while you work tireless hours and come home to a wife who is depressed, laying in bed with dishes and laundry piling up. Sometimes you think this isn’t what you signed up for. You may want to run away because it sometimes feels like it would be so much easier. You may want to give up, but you don’t. The warrior in you stays to battle.

I see you fighting. I do.

In sickness or in health is what you vowed. When you want to leave, you remember your promise to support her through anything — even though this anything is not the sickness you imagined. You may have vowed before God and family that you would stay by her side through any challenge, and so you hold on. You cling to the hope that one day she will again be the woman who stood at that altar with you. Sometimes you get fleeting glimpses in her eyes and you see her still in there. She is trapped and chained, but she’s there. And so you stay. Though you may feel confused and weak and defeated, you stay. Though you are unable to break the chains that bind her, you stay because you have faith she will one day free herself.

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I see you. I see you staying even though you might wish like hell you were far away from the mess she’s created.

She may push you away. No matter how hard you try to show your love, she may shove your attempts back in your face. She’s sometimes unreachable. You may begin to doubt your worth as her partner. No matter what you do, it can feel like you aren’t good enough, like you can’t love her how she needs to be loved. She may tell you this, even. You may want to give up, and at times it can even seem the most reasonable alternative. But you don’t. You keep trying to show love the best you can.

I see you. And even though no one else may see the demons you are slaying, I see your sword drawn and ready for combat. You may be holding that sword in a wobbly hand at times, but you are making progress.

You may not see this, but I do.

Slow and steady wins the battle.

You may be lonely. For a husband who fights so hard to provide, protect, show love and support… it may seem reasonable for you to have a loving home that embraces your efforts. Except you may not. You may come home to bitterness and resentment. You may come home to feelings of heaviness and tension, because her mood may be unpredictable. There’s a chance you might have an enjoyable night together — and you pray hard for that every day — but there’s an even bigger chance she may be too pissed off to even sleep in the same bed as you. And so you make your way to the couch… again.

I see you. I see you continuing to come home anyway.

Keep coming home. Keep protecting her. Keep carrying the weight and picking up the slack. Keep believing in your vows, even when she may not feel able to. Keep showing your love no matter how hard she may try to convince you it’s not enough. Keep fighting. Keep slaying demons. She may not be able to help her reactions. She may not be able to help the way she makes you feel. She probably wants to, though. I believe if she could, she would fight right by your side. Every time she screams at you, her heart may try to remind herself of your goodness — but the demons in her mind may still win out sometimes. She may feel weak. That’s why you must continue to carry your sword and fight for her. Fight for your marriage. Against all odds, you must remain strong.

The world will tell you that you don’t deserve this treatment, to walk away to find happiness. But please, if you love her, keep showing up. She may need you more than she will ever know. Keep being her warrior that stands in the shadows and fights when she doesn’t even realize she’s losing.

Because one day, after the rehabilitation and therapy and medication begin working together, there will be healing. And one fine day, you’re gonna look into those eyes and see the woman who wholeheartedly meant every vow she made at the altar with you. One day, I believe the mother of your children is going to reappear out of nowhere and begin taking over the extra roles you’ve been playing. Life will pick up right where it left off.

Your efforts may go unnoticed, but I see you. Please know I realize what you’ve fought through.

The world may rejoice for her healing, and you may stand in the shadows, not calling out for recognition. Instead, I believe you will be rewarded by being excited to come home. You will be rewarded by seeing the true woman you married stand before you.

I hope you will stare in awe when you see her laughing and playing with your children. When she notices your stares, she may question them. And you may respond saying, “I just love seeing you so happy.”

One day she may realize you kept the vows you said together. Against all odds, you fought for her. Even when she couldn’t fight for herself, you protected her.  You may feel too defeated to realize the warrior within yourself, but you are absolutely a knight in shining armor. If you keep fighting, one day she may tell you that herself. And she may be unable to ever show the depth of her gratitude.

And then you may have to wait. Because although you won the battle, the war of her mind may not be over. You will take in every good time over the next couple years. But you’re no longer a rookie to the game of mental illness. You know those demons may return. The medication may not be as effective anymore. The therapy may have paused.

But you will still be there. Sword drawn. Ready to fight. Ready to battle all over again when she needs you.

You will be there.

I see you.

I see you and how you just keep showing up.

For Daniel. My knight, my warrior, my safe place to land. I love you… I see you.

Follow this journey on Strong Humble Warriors.

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Why My Life Often Feels Like I'm Riding the 'Bipolar Express'

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It took me a long time to figure out that the extremes to which my sadness plunged were not “normal” amounts of sadness, nor did my spurts of dramatic happiness exist below the volume of 11. My entire emotional life existed on a rickety wooden roller coaster that only stopped long enough to let a fresh group of characters disembark and reload before the ride would begin all over again.

It started with a nice, slow chug to the top of the first hill, a feeling of nothing but pure anticipation. I would tell myself everything was going to be fine, that I’ve done this before. There was nothing to be afraid of. All of the kinetic energy needed for the ride hinges on the measured potential energy of that first ascent.

There’s a lovely moment as I reach the crest, looking at everything from this new, heightened perspective. The world is a little quieter, a little calmer. A brief feeling of all-conquering power overtakes me as confirm to myself, “I can do this.”

And then my stomach drops through the soles of my feet as the conversion from potential to kinetic energy happens. The car plunges at a rate I never anticipated, no matter how much I’ve prepared myself ahead of time. I jostle around, bruising my thighs as the safety bar pins me to the seat and I dig my fingernails into the torn vinyl padding, holding tight for dear life. There’s no escape. Spiraling through the loop de loop at breakneck speed shoots my heart up into my throat, with only centrifugal force to hold it back from flying out of my silently screaming mouth.

As I slam into the finish line at a breakneck halt, no matter how much I try to tell myself to just get off already, my malfunctioning neurotransmitters demand, “Once more, with feeling!”

This is what it feels like inside my head pretty much every day of my life as I ride this “Bipolar Express.”

My formal diagnosis of bipolar II disorder is recent, despite having been on and off of various therapist couches and antidepressant protocols for the past 17 years. And a good lot of that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and medication has helped me occasionally downgrade to the kiddie coasters and their caterpillar cars meander over gentle, rolling hills.

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But my most recent catastrophically steep drop left me broken down and stranded at the foot of the first hill. All of my energy had fizzled out and I didn’t have enough potential for the kinetic to take over.

It took a while for me to recognize that this time, I was not merely stalled out, I had derailed.

It was almost impossible for me to make the call to a psychiatrist. I couldn’t decide which was harder to admit: The acknowledgement that I was so broken I didn’t feel worthy to be alive, or the humiliation that I couldn’t make myself well on my own. I was mortified to ask about self-admitting to a psychiatric hospital. But the fact that I was asking myself that question on a daily basis made me realize it was time to enlist a professional.

The work has been hard. So hard. And painful. There are days when I felt like my own head was splitting apart, pushing in three or four different directions simultaneously. My arms went limp from trying to hold it all together. The desire to just let everything go was overwhelming. No amount of chanting would work for me, I was certain of it, and I was ready to be done with the pain.

With my psychiatrist’s help, I didn’t end up checking into a psych ward (this time), but three plus months of hard core analysis and a whole new regimen of mood stabilizers later, I’m finally starting to feel like the person I’ve always imagined myself to be: Someone who is smart and talented and desirable.

But the thing I have to do to keep myself in that place, every day and without fail, is to find and do the things that continue to help me “make myself well.” For me, that means dedicated and uninterrupted writing time every single day. It could be journaling, blogging or working on whichever current book, screenplay or film project needs my attention at the moment. It’s learning how to say “no” and setting boundaries for myself. It’s learning how to put on my own oxygen mask first before helping others with theirs. It’s learning how to navigate scary social situations sober for the first time in, well, ever.

And it’s everyday practical things too, like taking classes that will spur my creativity and tickle the parts of my brain that bring me joy, spending time cuddling with my dogs, traveling and continuing to learn all about myself and how to properly care for the precious woman I never knew I was.

Now when I chant, “make yourself well” I actually know what I mean. I can pinpoint the pain, focus all of my energy on it and use the tools at my disposal to get myself back on the tracks, filled with potential for the next round of hills and loop de loops.

Because even though I’ve got a lifetime ticket on the “Bipolar Express,” it doesn’t mean I can’t raise my arms high above my head and enjoy the hell out of the ride.

Follow this journey here.

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.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Unsplash photo via Theodore Barr.

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Am I Really Teaching My Students About My 'High-Functioning' Bipolar Disorder?

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As I sat on my couch to do some school work at a time when I should not have been —  because I should have been at school — I had a thought: Do I really “teach” mental illness? Allow me to explain my question.

I am ridiculously open with my students about my mental health when I need to be. If there is a student who is struggling emotionally and is diagnosed or is wondering if they should seek intervention, I will tell them I have bipolar disorder, that it’s really hard sometimes, but that there is also hope that it won’t “ruin” my life. I think it’s good for them to know you can have a mental health issue and still be a functioning member of society.

But then I really begin to wonder just what I’m teaching them in sharing this information.

I’m a pretty “together” person at school. I’m a teacher, mentor, coach, secondary school nurse (I hand out more Band-Aids than she ever does… and the occasional illegal cough drop!), unpaid athletic trainer (need KT tape? I’m your girl!), auntie, and mom. I have no children of my own, by choice, so my students are my kids, and I don’t really have an issue with filling these roles. I come to work more than not; I usually only miss for school-related meetings, but today is my sixth sick day this year. Two of these days were for a surgery, a few for god-awful vertigo, and today for a slight fever and flu-ish symptoms of chills and bone-tired body aches. I’m snuggled in a blanket next to a 90-pound fuzzy water bottle, my beloved Mira-pup, and have been alternating an extra blanket and a sherpa fleece hoodie most of the day. But I wonder if sometimes I need to take a day to practice better self-care and acknowledge my weaknesses as brought on due to my illness?

Do I create an unrealistic picture for my students by being super-teacher 95 or so percent of the time? Is my “high-functioning” bipolar disorder a lie in a sense?

I usually don’t pull the “I have bipolar and today sucks!” card as openly as one might think for someone who is comfortable with my disorder. I’ve been excusing my current run of bad days with the “awful headache” reasoning, and while that is 100-percent true due to weaning of antidepressant, I don’t think it’s the sole cause of my misery. While if anyone asks, I will acknowledge that the headaches are med-related, I don’t acknowledge my bipolar as the root cause. When my bones and joints ache or I’m just dead tired, I excuse it with the arthritis or my patellar-femoral syndrome or with lack of good sleep (often attributed to my bed-hogging, snoring boyfriend… and there is truth to that!), not symptoms of my current bipolar depressive episode. My current episode is a rough one. I have the highest score on the rating scale that I have had since 2010, and more days than not it’s been this…

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5:15 a.m. Alarm goes off.

I spend 10 minutes pondering if I can really get out of bed and be functional for the day.

5:25 Alarm two, with additional loud puppy barking from Gus.

I drag myself out of bed and make my way downstairs

5:26-ish – 6:20-ish

I let the pups out, give them food, water and dental biscuits, make the coffee, do random household chores like emptying the dishwasher, eat breakfast and go back upstairs.

6:20-ish – 6:55-ish

“Take the pills, Dave” (Our play on “eat the sandwich, Dave” from a Wayne Brady and Dave Chapelle skit). I shower, dress, put on make-up.

6:55-ish – 7:05-ish

I get the pup’s Kong filled, water filled and pop her in the crate, give the dog a treat as she lounges on the couch, lock the back door, grab coffee (unless we’re stopping at Dunkin or I’m making coffee at school), grab all my school junk and head out the door.
Once I get to school, it’s usually coach/mom duty until the school day starts at 7:45 and then I’m running until 2:15.

2:15 p.m. – 5:00/5:30

I have meetings or coach class and practice.

5:15 – 5:45-ish

I take two sibling pairs home from practice.

6:00-ish – 9:30-ish

I come home to the pups and care for them, make dinner and do household chores (because I’m also a housewife!), fall onto couch exhausted and nap, get things ready for tomorrow, go to bed and dread starting all over tomorrow.

What I really need in there is more me-time for self-care, and I just don’t take it. Instead, I run myself ragged and hope the occasional online shopping binge, for clothes that are comfortable (and weight gain/loss-flexible) and make me look like I care about dressing for work, will be enough to keep me going. With that in mind, don’t judge my LuLaRoe collection. Buying that is theoretically better than eating as much ice cream as I was just a few months ago… well, and yesterday when I downed a whole pint of Ben & Jerry’s with the cookie butter core. I don’t have the energy to properly prep for my upcoming run events. I don’t have the energy to grade during the week. I don’t walk the pups or play with them enough, and then I feel guilty. I don’t read as much as I’d like, unless it’s stories on The Mighty or things related to suicide. I get up dreading the day and go to sleep dreading waking and the next one.

I think there were only two times when I have been wholly authentic about my disorder with my students in the recent past. They happened within two days of each other about three weeks ago. On one of those days, I had a lunchtime heart-to-heart that ended up with both my sophomore male students and me in tears. I pulled it together after that and made it through coach class and coaching. The next day I fell apart. One of my seniors needed to do an interview for the school newspaper. Apparently I’m the most popular teacher for teacher profiles, I swear, and in the midst of taking about that I fell apart.

What was odd was that I bawled until I just let go and sat on the floor in the hallway to cry. He sat with me, co-workers came out of classrooms to check on me. It was bad. During coach class, I basically sat at my desk with my head down and let my awesome intern deal with the kiddos. Luckily that day I had an appointment scheduled with my psychiatrist, and I left at 3 to go to that.

My doctor switched my meds because I wasn’t about to stay on the current cocktail if it meant feeling like utter walking-death, and I walked out hoping for the best. That night I hit the couch way earlier and did take-out for dinner. My boyfriend understood (and I felt like shouting “for once!”), and I went to bed early. From the next day, up until today, I’ve been struggling along with my false happy face at work (thank you gods of coffee!), walking the black dog of depression with me on a tether, and dealing with the withdrawal from one med and the new side effects from the other. What I have not been struggling with is illuminating my struggles for everyone else; I’m too good at my high-functioning lie for all that. After all, I have been doing it most of my life!

So, if I’m indeed “teaching” mental illness, what am I teaching? That’s something I need to think about. How real is too real? Hope much hope is too much hope? How can I support self-care if I don’t engage in self-care? Teaching is always more questions than answers. I tell my kids that all the time… maybe I shouldn’t expect to have them all.

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, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

Follow this journey here.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo by George Rudy

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