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The Financial Consequences of Bipolar Disorder We Don't Talk About

My grandfather worked for the biggest bank in Canada for 42 years. My dad just retired from the same bank two months ago after working there for 45 years. Both sets of grandparents were frugal and my parents raised my sisters and I in a home where we always had what we needed; what we wanted (a popular new toy, a brand name sweatshirt, fancy running shoes, tickets to a concert) came on Christmas, your birthday or you bought it yourself. I grew up knowing the value of money, what it means to have to work to save enough to buy that special thing, and understanding there is a difference between a want and a need.

At least, there was a time when I knew those things. I’m sure of it…

I’m also a person who loves order — order in my schedule, my finances and my living space. I write budgets for myself every month, keep a very meticulous, hand-written planner and love spreadsheets. But, if you were to take a look at my bank account or my apartment, you would quickly conclude that either I am a liar or that I don’t understand the concept of order because many things in my life are in complete disarray. Those budgets, calculated down to the cent, are never followed.

Mental illness will do that to you.

Anyone with a chronic illness will tell you it’s expensive to be sick. And most would understand that the costs of things such as medications and treatments by practitioners such as physiotherapists, massage therapist and counselors can add up. But as someone with mental illness, specifically, bipolar disorder, I would like to shed some light on the impact my illness has had on my finances.

Long story short — I declared bankruptcy two years ago. It took a lot for me to take that step, and I carry a lot of shame about it. My parents have bailed me out of significant debt several times in the past, costing them well over $50,000. But I just couldn’t bring myself to ask my parents for money yet again. And I decided that maybe feeling the deep shame of bankruptcy was what I deserved. Though I knew it wasn’t logical or scientific, I thought maybe that sense of embarrassment and regret would reset my brain. My impulsive, unreliable, often chaotic bipolar brain.

So, how exactly does bipolar disorder lead to financial meltdowns? In many ways, actually. Bipolar disorder causes episodes of deep depression, (sadness, isolation, irregular sleeping and eating habits, thoughts of suicide, etc.) broken up by manic highs (racing thoughts, rapid speech, diminished need for sleep, risk-taking behavior, feelings of grandiosity, etc.).

During one manic episode, I experienced very intense agitation and the only way I could handle being social was by drinking heavily. Between buying myself alcohol, buying my friends alcohol (I felt like it elevated my status to be the one buying the drinks) and paying for taxis to and from parties and bars, I spent thousands of dollars in just four months on partying.

Then there was the time I became obsessed with establishing a “perfume wardrobe” for myself, consisting only of designer brands, because I really enjoyed having people tell me I smelled good. (I apologize to all those who had headaches after brief encounters with me during that time due to the dense cloud of scent that surrounded me every day.) I once received a new credit card with a credit limit of $2,500 on Friday and had it maxed out by Sunday. I don’t even remember what I bought. During mania, I act recklessly without regard for consequences, including obsessive and excessive spending.

Today, I am considered to be “in recovery” and rarely have the dramatic mood swings I used to, thanks to a set of psychotropic medications that help control the different symptoms of bipolar disorder. The word “help” is important there, because I am not cured. I feel my illness every day.

I am able to work full-time with minimal absences due to my mental illness. However, while I don’t think many people would suspect it as they interact with me, there is almost always a fight going on in my brain about something. Sometimes it’s minor, like a racing heart and feeling weak, and I just remind myself that it’s anxiety and it will pass. Or feeling agitated by a repetitive sound that I can’t turn off, and I have to breathe through the frustration. Other times the battles are more consequential, for example, I have a very distinctive physical sensation, a feeling of a heavy weight just below my rib cage that is a sign that I’m slipping into a depressive episode, and I know I have to take purposeful steps to try to prevent it. I am always fighting my own brain on some level. I can keep the fight inside, off my face and out of my interactions with others for a limited amount of time a day. So, by the time I get home from work, I have a lot of feelings, thoughts and behaviors I’ve been suppressing all day that I need to work through. It’s exhausting.

Clearly, SWM (spending while manic) created a lot of financial trouble for me. However, most of my financial mistakes have occurred since I’ve been in recovery. But if I’m not out buying alcohol and perfume, where is my money going? Everywhere and anywhere. It’s death by a thousand cuts, as the saying goes. It’s in the many, small decisions we make every day that I fail in. Today, my money problems are linked to spending for the following reason: to distract myself, to build my self-esteem, to bribe myself, because of the many aspirations I can’t let go of and because I can’t even.

Spending to distract: I know I am not the only one who does this. In fact, I know people who are perfectly mentally well spend money they don’t have on things they didn’t set out to buy and/or don’t need.  Buying things online is one of my coping mechanisms, not a good one, but it works in the moment when I am feeling overwhelmed, anxious or depressed. When I’m totally focused on finding that fabulous shoe, in my size, in a hard to find color, at a great price, my mind is quiet. At least, for a bit.

To build self-esteem: Again, I know this is not isolated to people with a mental illness. I hate the way I look. I hate what my medications have done to my body. I am embarrassed about how I’ve acted in the past. Sometimes I am convinced that if I have a particular watch, or purse, or piece of furniture in my apartment, people will see me as “normal,” put-together, competent. Which is ridiculous. My family and friends aren’t going to love me more or less depending on the sweater I am wearing. But when I’m feeling extra low about my situation, it’s hard to resist the lure of a face mask that promises clear, soft skin. (FYI: I have tried many face masks, including many high-end brands, but not a single one has restored my self-esteem.)

To bribe myself: This one is pretty straightforward. I find some events and situations difficult. I am a volunteer speaker for Canadian Mental Health Association and have no problem getting up on a front of a room of strangers and telling them about my experience with mental illness. But a family event with my aunts, uncles and cousins? Seriously anxiety-inducing. So, I promise myself a pedicure or article of clothing if I go to the event. My dad’s retirement party this past June took a new dress, a pedicure, a manicure and a trip to the salon to have my hair put up. I went and I’m glad I was there. But the level of bribery it took was, well, expensive.

Aspirational: *sigh* This type of spending is particularly frustrating because it is easiest for me to rationalize, but also seems to bother me the most. I own several workout DVDs, a fancy yoga mat and various other props and an exercise bike because I know that physical activity can help treat symptoms of depression and anxiety. How often do I use these items? Next to never. I love to shop for craft supplies, because I love to craft and find making something with my hands soothing. I now have enough craft projects to last several lifetimes. And instead of soothing me, I am overwhelmed by the number of projects I have lined up. Then there are the journals, meditation apps and workbooks. All of these could be very helpful if I had the time and focus to work on them at the end of the day. Instead they languish on my desk, empty and unused.

I can’t even…: When we have a friend who is unwell, it’s a normal thing to take them a prepared meal or soup. But what about the loved one with a mental illness? What is it exactly that you do for that? For most people, nothing. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hold any ill-will towards any of my family or friends for not flooding my fridge with homemade soup or pasta salad. But there are many days when I am too physically and/or mentally exhausted to do things like wash floors or cook a meal. I just can’t even… So, I spend money to take-out, prepared meals from the grocery store and cleaning services. It is a form of self-care, I supposed, but it comes at a cost.

So, what is to be done?

I’m not sure. I still owe money before my bankruptcy can be discharged. I owe taxes to Canada Revenue Agency. I am able to cover my monthly expenses, but I’m not making any headway against my debt. I have been to credit counseling. I spent over a year writing down every penny I spent and on what, with 12 different colored pens for different categories of spending, hoping that if I could see in black and white (and red, orange, purple, turquoise, etc.) how much money I was wasting, it would change my ways. It didn’t. Cash in an envelope is a bit harder because I am self-employed and my income is irregular, but I did try it. I failed. Spending apps? Tried and failed. Maybe this very public admission of my financial failures will do the trick? Time will tell. In the meantime, I should probably find the receipt for that pink sweater I bought and don’t need. A deposit into my bank account, however small, is a step in the right direction.

Lead image via contributor