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5 Tips for Living With 'High-Functioning' Bipolar Disorder

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There are a multitude of things I can never claim as a sure thing, but one thing I can declare with a good deal of certainty is my life will never be a Disney movie.

For eight years I ran my own business while dealing with the challenges and stressors that came with it. Panic attacks had become a weekly, if not daily, occurrence and I lived my life like I was only half a step ahead of a charging boulder. For a time, I even convinced myself this irrational, all-encompassing fear was what spurred my drive to succeed, but instead of propelling me closer to the finish line, I found myself dropping further and further behind with each new challenge — each setback taking me longer to recover. I was failing both mentally and physically and I realized that the life I had been enduring, not living, was no longer working for me.

Determining what was wrong and what needed to be done to set things right seemed, at first, an insurmountable task. With depression holding me prisoner in my bed, and an overwhelming sense of failure constantly pressuring me to give up, it was evident I had become my own worst enemy. I would later learn the antidepressants I was prescribed were doing more harm than good due to a conflict with my at the time, undiagnosed bipolar disorder, but all I felt was that I was going “crazy.”

Having encountered the term “high-functioning alcoholic” at some earlier point in my life, I appropriated it to explain how I had survived for so long on what was obviously so very little. As a self-described, “high-functioning bipolar,” I fooled the world into thinking I had everything under control while on the inside I was crumbling into myself like brittle, flame scorched, paper walls into an ever-expanding black hole. I have since come to learn this is a common tactic adopted by many dealing with mental health issues, and while it may prolong our charade of fulfilling some mistaken sense of self-preservation, it does little more than guarantee our eventual downfall. The truth of the matter being no one will make a move to catch you if they never see you falling.

Then, starting in 2009 and spanning the course of the next two years, I would sell my business, take a position with the new company, and move my family to another city for a fresh start. I began seeing a therapist and worked with my doctor to try and get myself the help I needed. None of it ever became easier. I cried almost every day on my way to and from work and thought often of giving up. Eventually, I ended up in the hospital where I received an official bipolar diagnosis and a regimen of medication and therapy, most of which continues to dictate my routine to this day.

If my life was a Disney movie and the demands upon me had become too great, I would have thrown my arms in the air and shouted, “Enough!” and the whole world would have listened. I would have quit my job, told my boss to go to hell, picked up and moved my family to some often-dreamed-of-but-never-thought-possible destination and somehow, in some fairy tale, twist of fate sort of fashion, landed on my feet with enough money and security to make the whole dream sustainable, as I lived out the rest of my “happily ever after” life.

But my life will never be a Disney movie.

But Disney or not, you can still learn a thing or two from movies and it was from Grandpa Gustafson in 1995’s “Grumpier Old Men” that I gained some valuable perspective. While explaining the reality of wishes, he said, “Well, you can wish in one hand and crap in the other and see which one gets filled first.” While it is certainly no, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” I believe it is a lot more relevant and infinitely more practical. If you spend your life wishing things were different, all you will be left with is a pile of crap. The unpopular truth is that life is hard. Its journey is often uphill and it doesn’t care how heavy your baggage is, but if you are going to get where you are going, you are going to have to start walking.

Making significant changes in one’s life is never an easy task, but for someone dealing with a crisis born of their own mind, I believe it can literally mean the difference between life and death. As daunting and impossible as it may seem though, it can be done and I like to believe I am living proof.

The following lessons are ones I have learned since I began my journey towards a better life. I don’t pretend any of them are easy and I know none of them will bring instant gratification, but they are things that have helped me so far and with any luck, they may help someone else as well.

1. Surrender.

First, ask for help. Second, take it. Do the opposite of what your brain tells you — it’s not your friend right now and it wants to keep you isolated. Reach out and let people know you’re not OK. If you can gain professional guidance and support, surrender to it. Following your own plan hasn’t saved you so far, so why not let someone else have a go?

2. Fight like hell.

Now that you have the support you need, fight. You can’t enter this half-assed. You’re either in or you’re out. This is your life you’re battling for and some days it will bring you to your knees with exhaustion. Focus on your goals and don’t give up. You can beat this.

3. Be patient and forgive.

Everyone slips up now and again. The most important thing is to not let it stop you. Don’t lay blame and don’t lay down and let it swallow you. What is past is past and what is in the future, is still to come. Live in the now and know you can only do what you can. No more, no less. You are worth forgiveness and another chance.

4. Simplify.

Declutter your life. Remove the extraneous elements you accumulated in your effort to obtain “normalcy.” Life will never be “normal.” At least not in the neatly pre-packaged, romanticized version you may have been chasing. True “normal” is what you build, not what you buy. Let go of the things you assume make you a “real person” when they only serve to create strain and stress. Disconnect from those who are toxic in your life, present only to introduce drama and conflict you neither need nor deserve. Remove the triggers that sabotage your efforts to achieve peace.

5. Choose, not allow.

Start making choices. Do something with your life and don’t wait for it to do things to you. Each time you engage in something you wouldn’t choose for yourself, you can accumulate resentment. You can learn to feel helpless and to hate the world. You can learn to hate yourself. You’re not weak and you’re not helpless. Figure out what matters to you, what makes your life matter and pursue it. Live for yourself and find happiness in the space you want to be. You can’t control the world but you can control how you place yourself in it.

My life will never be a Disney movie, but I’m not convinced it would be any better if it was. There is no one more uniquely qualified than myself to write the script to my life. Even when I struggle with writer’s block or find my plot meandering down roads I don’t recognize, I know it’s the surprise twists in my tale that make it worth the admission and I, mental health issues and all, am a better person for experiencing them.

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Why Bipolar Disorder Makes Deciding to Have a Child More Complicated

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I always thought I wanted to be a mom, but never imagined that anything other than finding the right partner would interfere with my decision of having a child. Even though I wanted to have children “later in life,” as I approach my 40s, I realize the odds are stacked against me, largely due to my mental illness. Bipolar II disorder is sneaky because on the outside it appears I have chosen not to have children, when in reality I feel robbed of something so many take for granted.

1. I recently posted a story on my blog describing the many ways that having bipolar has negatively affected my life, and having children is one of them. As a child of an alcoholic, I hid the truth and did anything and everything to appear “normal.” Romantic relationships are difficult for me, largely because I do not want anyone to see my weaknesses, so I always do my best to not show any. The closer I get to someone, the more difficult it becomes to hide my illness. I avoided men up until my mid-20s, and while there are many reasons for this, the shame of having a mental illness and my emotional immaturity due to my upbringing were simply too much to reveal.

By the time I was ready and emotionally available for a healthy partnership, I was well into my 30s and time was passing quickly. After years of therapy and a lot of work on my part, I’ve only recently begun to feel ready for something deeper, now just shy of my 40th birthday. “Later in life” did not imply my fourth decade; and, although more women are waiting to have children after establishing their careers and doing the things they want to do before starting a family, science does not lie about the difficulty of and higher risks associated with bearing children in your 40s. While research shows my chances of getting pregnant at my age is more challenging, the ultimate reason, in my opinion, is due to my mental illness. It took years to get properly diagnosed, emotionally stable and on the proper medication regimen. This takes time and is a by-product of why I am nearly 40 years old and now ready to have a child.

2. Aside from the biological complications of getting pregnant in your 40s, the majority of women, in general, are not taking psychotropic medications that may or may not have been “proven” safe for pregnancy. Currently, I take six medications to treat my bipolar disorder, not all of which have been through clinical trials and approved by the FDA for use during pregnancy. To this day, I continue to adjust my medication regimen with my psychiatrist and regularly struggle with the withdrawals and side effects that come with it; I would have to do the same and perhaps experience worse if I chose to get pregnant, particularly because I would need to stop taking some of six medications.

I wonder, though: Who is this really about? Me or my child? Yes, I would have to deal with the tough withdrawal symptoms and emotional difficulties from weaning off my medications, but I do worry about exposing my child to several psychiatric medications, even if they have been FDA approved. On the flip side, there have been innumerable healthy children born to mothers who took medication for their mental illness throughout pregnancy. Just the same, there are many women who live with other illnesses who cannot and do not stop their medication for pregnancy. Why should mental illness be treated any differently? Why don’t I have the same rights or life wishes others get and desire to have? With that, though, I still have concerns that it could be selfish of me to potentially put my child at risk during pregnancy while I am on psychiatric medication because I would like to have a biological child.

3. We know that genetics can play a part in passing mental illness on to your children if a parent has one. But this is not the case every time or for everyone, and results often have too many confounders to associate any direct effect. Interestingly though, research does show that bipolar may be one of five major mental illnesses with a strong genetic component. Science gives us a few bites to chew on, but we do not know definitively where mental illness comes from. However, we would be ignorant not to worry about passing our illness to our children. My gene pool does not only include bipolar, but also generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and addiction. I worry that any, a combination of, or all illnesses will genetically impact my child’s life like mine has been impacted. No one deserves to struggle with mental illness and, if my child does, the guilt and shame would debilitate me.

4. Of course, my illness has hardships and needs constant attention and care, but in the context of bipolar, it’s necessary I have enough sleep, consistent exercise and a healthy diet. A lack of any of these results in irritability, impatience and overwhelm, making it difficult for me to have what it takes to care for a child in the way she or he deserves. Will I have the energy for nightly feedings? Will I have the patience to soothe a crying baby? Will I be able to handle multiple things at one time? Child-related “crises” are the rite of passage to motherhood, but these episodes terrify me if I’m behind on self-care and a stable schedule.

But again, is it too complex for someone with bipolar to have children? Is it fair to the child? Is it fair to the mother? I believe each of these four reasons contributes to the difficulty for me to be a mom, and they are also illustrations that make bipolar invisible to the common person. I know I am not the first person with mental illness to productively and lovingly raise a child and that it’s possible for me to do so. For one, I do feel ready, regardless of what age I am and what happened in my past. I am deserving of being a mom. Secondly, there are psychotropic medications that are approved safe for a woman’s pregnancy. While it may be difficult for me to adjust my medications for a safe pregnancy, I’ve done it in the past and survived. If I choose to do so, it is worth it to me to have a child? Thirdly, genetics are a factor in any birth, but to single out mothers with mental illness is unfair and unnecessary.

I do not deny that my illness will interfere with nightly feedings and temper tantrums, but I do have support I will rely on during harder times; My husband is loving, caring and very supportive, and we will work together to find the best schedule that works for both of us. He needs less sleep than me so we can arrange feeding times that allow me to sleep without interruption for a longer period. My psychiatrist and I will find the best medication regimen for me, perhaps the one I was on before I had to adjust, to ensure I feel my best to be there for my children. I will continue to see my therapist who is and has been a large part of my healing and growth over the last several years. I will navigate motherhood with her assistance and encouragement. I will keep a healthy diet and regular exercise, and will ask for help from friends and family to watch my child so that I can make sure I get my self-care. It is only in this way I can be fully present, feel good and provide the best care for my family.

Don’t let your mental illness be the reason for not having children. Explore your options to have a child, and be comfortable with your decision that’s best for you, not in what other people believe you should do. Since bipolar is an illness not always seen as a reason why a person might not have children, if you’re asked why you don’t have a child, perhaps have a pre-planned response ready. Regardless, I believe a question asking why you don’t have children is socially inappropriate and none of anyone’s business. Although I note my own concerns for motherhood as a person with bipolar, I do not know one mother who didn’t have any fears about their child’s safety while pregnant, mental illness or not. And of those women, I have no idea what “illnesses,” if any, they have, even though they look as though they have everything together. I don’t want to know, as it’s their business and has no impact on me.

Remember that we didn’t ask to have a mental illness, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t ask for the same rights, as available to us, as others so easily have.

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

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Why Hypersexuality Is the Most Difficult Aspect of My Bipolar Disorder

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I’ve been living with bipolar disorder for the past 10 years or so and I’ve spent quite a lot of time during those years analyzing the research on it in order to grasp the marked impact this mood disorder has on me and my life. Of course, tips for living with bipolar disorder and treatment options are all useful and significant goals of my personal study as well.

Recently, I came across a statistic that said bipolar hypersexuality affects about 25 to 80 percent of patients who experience mania. I feel quite certain the generality of that statistic is at least in part significantly related to the shame and embarrassment which shroud the subject. It is certainly an area which implores further study.

I personally experienced hypersexuality several years ago. I was in a period of disequilibrium at the time. My illness was again uncontrolled by pharmacological interventions (it is medication resistant) and my own coping strategies were still weak and ineffective. I spent the better part of six months in and out of a hospital. Some stays were short, others extended. It was during one of my respites at home that I experienced intense hypersexuality. Sex preoccupied me completely. I focused on sex talk when out with friends, flirted with strangers and enjoyed watching pornography. I bought sex toys and masturbated whenever I had an opportunity. None of these behaviors are even remotely typical for me when I’m not in this state.

Blessedly, I’m in a long-term stable marriage with a caring, loving and mostly understanding man. He took time off work to be with me during the worst of this experience. After the weeks of pain and shame I had endured, I still thought naively that if I could just be satisfied, this overwhelming drive for sexual stimulation would end. So, my husband and I tried that too — over and over and over again. Instead of helping, this approach seemed to make me more than exhausted. In desperation, from the bed, we contacted the psychiatrist — an emergency. He offered a strong antipsychotic I hadn’t tried yet. Unfortunately, this didn’t offer any reduction in symptoms. The result: despite my fervent protests, I had to be hospitalized again. Even there, I was forced to endure several more weeks of medication adjustments and daily individual and group psychotherapy before the state of hypersexuality abated completely. The relief I felt was palpable.

During my personal struggle with bipolar, I’ve experienced numerous mood states — some last for short periods, others are much longer. Through the years, as I began to accept my diagnosis, became more comfortable with my medications, attended therapy regularly and strengthened my coping skills. I became less surprised by the inconsistency of my emotional life and more able to handle the unexpected. The hypersexuality state I experienced has remained the most difficult to withstand — the most painful to experience.

Perhaps sharing personal stories and encouraging therapists and psychiatrists to be more open about this subject can go a long way toward helping the bipolar community cope. Furthering the body of research about hypersexuality in individuals with bipolar disorder in an effort to find effective treatment strategies is essential as well. In all situations, we must push aside our embarrassment and share honestly so we may all gain greater understanding and control.

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The Hardest Part of My Bipolar

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The hardest part of being bipolar is not knowing who I truly am.

Am I the resting bitch face walking around large and in charge; the pathetic girl on the verge of crying any minute; the awkward girl who will replay every word of this conversation over in her head for years, wondering what she should have said differently and what people are thinking as they hear her words? Am I the girl who is judgmental of everything and everyone, while terrified of being judged by others? Am I the irritable mom always annoyed and yelling at her kids to behave and get along; the adventurous mom always looking for ways to expand everyone’s horizons; the fun mom letting her kids paint, jump in puddles, play in dirt, knowing that cleaning will take longer than making the mess The mom always careful to feed balanced diets, teach something new every day and encourage active lifestyles; the wonder woman always able to keep up with the house and laundry on top of everything? Am I the wife and friend offended by every facial expression and tone of voice? The fun-loving breath of fresh air? The best day ever, always smiling, always happy, even if it’s just on the outside? The ray of sunshine and ball of energy that lights up each room she enters? Am I forgivingness or a grudge? Am I empathy or selfishness? Am I the sun or the moon? Happy or sad? A walk in the woods or a day on the couch; a critic or a victim; a laugh or a tear; the broccoli or the cupcake? A burden or a peer; a curse or a prayer? Am I anger, regret, pride, energy, sadness, gloom, friendship, honesty, a nuisance, hope or judgment?

The hardest part about being a hundred different people is indecision. Because this me is sure about the decision I’m making while next month’s me surely will regret it. And if the decision can be reversed, then next month me will without a doubt reverse it, only to regret the decision to reverse that decision a few months later. This is a life in a never-ending cycle of guilt, regret, envy, tears. That is not who I want to be.

The hardest part of bipolar is being one of these people at any given moment — never knowing which one is actually me, because this month’s me and next month’s me are two polar opposites. It’s not having friends because one me is incredibly likable while the next me is unpleasant and judgmental and there is only so much forgiveness a friend can give. It’s having to teach myself constant mindfulness, creating the person I want to be in my mind and trying unsuccessfully to be that person every moment of every day. It’s thinking this me isn’t good enough. It’s always wanting, always trying to be a different person. It is needing to constantly be here now. It’s everyday life being a struggle and a battle to be someone I don’t even know I am.

One day I will perfect mindfulness and bipolar will be a part of me I am not ashamed and embarrassed of. One day bipolar will be something that gave me no option but to learn the skill that many have not or never will perfect — the act of staying present for each moment of my life because I have to be mindful of every single thought, word, action. Right now, bipolar is a constant struggle; a battle between selves. But this me refuses to let that be my life. This me seeks constant self-improvement. This me lives in each moment of her life, or tries to at least. This me is confident that mindfulness will one day be second nature and life’s little moments will be enjoyed. All of this is me, and the hardest part of bipolar is deciding which one I want to be.

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The Moment I Knew My Mom Really Understood My Bipolar Disorder

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I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was about 20, and in the ensuing 17 years, my mother has felt guilty about it. It’s not her fault I have it, and it’s not her fault that sometimes, despite my — and everyone else’s —best efforts, I slip into manic mixed episodes and have to be “talked down” from doing something I wouldn’t normally do.

My mother has seen some pretty “crazy” behavior from her eldest, dearest daughter. You all know the classics of hypersexuality, racing thoughts, grandiose ideas, etc. But the past decade has been pretty calm. I have excellent doctors, a medication schedule that works, and am pretty happy. I also have an overprotective mother. She always is “on the watch” in case something goes wrong.

So I was at my mom’s the other day, and was chatting away about something, and was extra chatty. Usually I’m not super chatty, but I was in a good mood, so I decided I wanted to be. My mom asked me, out of habit, if I was manic. And for the first time in 17 years, she caught herself. She literally said, “I don’t know why I said that. I’m sorry. I know that hurts you.”

It was such a wonderful moment. I was so proud of her.

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Balancing Motherhood and Multiple Mental Illnesses

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I’m lying in bed again, wide awake as my fiance and daughter snore beside me. Sleep is again elusive, so I get out of bed and pad down the stairs. In the kitchen, I drink cold water and stare out of the kitchen window. This night is familiar, and it takes me back to so many other nights before it.

As I stare out of the window, relishing in the quiet house, I remember how these nights usually ended. I glanced down at my hands, remembering how they ached from cleaning constantly. I could still feel the sting from the chemicals like it was yesterday. I could feel the soreness in my shoulder as I remembered pushing and pulling furniture into place.

And then, a glance at the garage door makes me remember how I would stand outside, watching the stars and dripping sweat from my latest nightmare. The night was always a chance to let my feelings out, knowing my son wouldn’t see how I was really feeling.

Now though, it’s different. These nights I stand in the kitchen with a cold cup of water are very different from how they used to be. I have a young daughter now, and I am much more stable than I used to be. Having children and two mental illnesses can be hard to handle.

My 9-year-old sleeps upstairs. My 8-month-old sleeps soundly, blissfully unaware of how I used to be. Parenting and struggling with my own diagnosis was hard. It was hard to fight my own symptoms while juggling life and trying to be the best parent I could be. I needed patience and understanding. I lacked those while I was unmedicated and newly diagnosed.

But now, it’s much different. I have a lot more tools in my toolbox. I am taking a medication that helps keep me in check. And while I will always go up and down on the rollercoaster that is bipolar disorder, I do not go as high or as low as I used to. The post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is manageable, too. I have medication that helps me sleep at night and therapy to keep the nightmares away.

But nothing is perfect. Stability is not perfect. I still have struggled when life gets too hard and sleep evades me. But looking at my children and knowing how life could be makes me grateful I have those tools to help me. Without those tools, I can’t imagine the kind of mom I would be. Those tools help me be a better version of myself.

A heavy sigh makes me turn around and walk back upstairs quietly. I slip into bed next to my daughter and snuggle close to her. I’ll need my sleep for the day ahead. This isn’t the perfect stable life I’d imagined I would have when I started taking medication, but its the stable life I’m glad to have.

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