My Bipolar Breakthrough
“I’m afraid,” I uttered to the nurses at the psych ward. When they pressed me as to why, I didn’t know how to say “Of everything.” I didn’t want to be deemed bipolar. I did not want a mental illness. To me, it was a tragedy. In my mind, I lost it all.
Stigma and shame almost stopped me from saving my mental health and my life. I officially had a mental breakdown December 2015 when I was 25. And a relapse in October 2017. I knew I was bipolar, but the symptoms were also atypical. For long periods of time, I struggled with persecutory delusions or paranoia on top of mania. I bounced back, but asking for help was stifled by fear that others would think I was “crazy.” I thought it would make me less of a person. I went through the mental health system — both a psych ward for a month and an inpatient facility called a long term structured residence (LTSR) for five months — twice.
Before that time? Everything seemed fine, at least to an outsider. But I was overworking myself in every area of my life. Yet, I had it all in place. Everything, in fact my whole life, despite some tragedies and traumas, was always in its place. I never let go of control for fear *I* would lose control. Then, one day it did, and I had to accept it happened to me.
The psych ward was a shorter stay. But the LTSR or inpatient facility almost broke me. It was hard. I had cabin fever, boredom, was used by other patients for money or more one sided interactions, the beds hurt my back as I needed one firm, the food wasn’t healthy, and it was difficult to exercise there as there was just a little room mostly used for evening phone calls and to find time to myself. The day was extremely structured. We spent hours listening to talks about mental health. Mentally, I would be drained and also not stimulated enough. And crafts. That was my only reprieve, but then, that was it. I didn’t have anyone to truly turn to. The workers meant well but didn’t understand how hard it was on me. The whole time I was itching to leave, I couldn’t focus on anything else.
Both times I got out (my initial stay then relapse), I was exhausted. Exhausted from fighting so hard to be heard, from trying different meds, from going from doctor to doctor and from not getting real rest. On top of it all, I worried constantly. I jumped to conclusions, catastrophized. Human things in the midst of crisis.
Now, I’m on meds and stable. I am on disability but keeping busy with my time writing books, writing for Forbes, Lifehack and Tiny Buddha and volunteering various places. It took a lot to get here.
It took not knowing what would happen in my life to finally surrender, rather than give up. Going with the flow taught me I am so much more than my mental illness. I am someone who rose and self-advocated to find the right help (which took years). Perseverance. I used curiosity to navigate the unknown. And I became a better emphasizer with those struggling with their mental health.
My abilities were affected as though I had minor brain damage. On top of that, I have dyscalculia (a math and spacial ability disability). This made it harder to do things because the bipolar breakdowns worsened it. When I came home from the LTSR both times, it was like starting over. I had to relearn things: how to drive, how to cook, how to adult in general. I was more easily overwhelmed. I also hated how dependent I was on disability.
But most of all, I struggled with hating myself for going through all of it. Due to stigma and shame, I blamed myself for the breakdown. I had to relearn self-compassion. I had to practice radical acceptance. I had to learn mindfulness in all the hours of boredom spent in the hospital. And I had to tell my story.
My story is that I am human. I am allowed to be imperfect. I am not “crazy.” I just happen to have survived mania, delusions, depression and psychosis in my mid-20s. I am one of the lucky ones. I am not weak. I am not a failure. I am free to be who I want to be. I am human, and that is OK.
This mental health journey has led me to meditate daily and become mindful enough that I wouldn’t worry all the time about what would happen. It led me to soul search and heal from past traumas and trials. It led me to write and get involved in organizations that I believe in. It led me to be creative with my time. It led me to notice the little things, things I passed up before. It led me to further self-discovery and to be proud of the person who came out of it all to the other side.
This isn’t the end of the story. It’s only the beginning. And I have learned how to live again.
The time bipolar and being hospitalized took from me cannot be regained. But I made use of it. I listened to people’s stories too. I learned that mental illness happens to one in five people, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. And 5.7 million adult Americans have bipolar disorder. I learned to recognize the warning signs and to create a crisis plan. I rebuilt my relationships and reached out to those I hadn’t talked to in a while. Shame slowly began to fade away as I walked into the light of owning who I am. That is why I am still here. That is my power. I have found the lessons and gifts of my hardship.
When asked the question, “Who am I?” I can safely say that I am a survivor. And mental health is something that always needs to be managed. I am lucky I found the right pills and mental health team. It took some times especially due to swallowing struggles for eight months while I tried tapering onto different pills. That was the hardest time of my life. I walk now a little lighter, knowing the worst is behind me. I know how to care for myself now so I do not relapse. I know to face the facts and get help if I see any warning signs, so do those around me. I learned I could not help everyone in the psych ward or LTSR. I had to let go so many times. I had to lose time, lose friends who weren’t there for me, l had to lose my mind. And yet, I’m still standing.
There was one thing they still forgot to teach me. How to accept myself. How to love myself, which I found in the work of Kristin Neff’s self-compassion workbook and other resources. But that stigma I suffered from kept plaguing my mind with insults — “I’m not enough.” That was the greatest struggle I had upon leaving. The aftermath was wondering why this had to happen to me, was it my fault? No, they do not prepare you for this. There is hope, though. There are also changes that need to be made. By speaking up and deciding to take space, I developed self-love and security. I gently tell myself it’s safe now, it’s OK, I am loved. And this meditation helps me to actually believe it.
I want to be clear that trauma did not help me find my voice — I survived in spite of trauma, not because of it. My mental health journey led me to be on disability. It led me to struggle in so many ways. I would not wish it on anyone nor say that it all made me stronger. I made me stronger. I rose up, but it’s also not about will power. It’s not weakness to fall down. Sometimes, you just have to surrender and be present and go with the flow. If you fight against reporting the symptoms or responding in time, you struggle more. Denial is the worst thing to have happened to me because my mental health slipped over time and then suddenly declined at 25. I had to learn that this was a wake up call. I had to take care of myself and find balance; I couldn’t rely on anyone else for that and sometimes, I couldn’t even rely on the system.
Relapses, roadblocks, bad side effects…these things can happen. You are not a failure if you experience them. The story you have to tell yourself matters. Self-talk is self-care. If you say positive things to yourself, you will begin to feel positive. It’s a simple formula that takes practice — it doesn’t come naturally to most. In fact, it feels counterintuitive to look for the bright side of things, or positive reframing. All you can is show up. Show up so you can get that help, make that progress little by little and become the person you were meant to be. Help who you can along the way, but don’t try to save anyone. Save yourself, put yourself first. That’s how you survive. Then, none of it can break you. It will only lead you to breakthroughs.
Bipolar didn’t break me after all. I am still Me. And that is enough.
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