The Mighty Logo

The Worst Physical Symptom Bipolar Disorder Gave Me

I’ve had lots of bipolar symptoms, and some of them have been pretty awful. Everything associated with the depressive side was a horror. But somehow the most distressing one came with hypomania, which for me manifests not as euphoria, but as anxiety.

There were the shaking hands. There were the delusions that other cars were swerving into my lane. But those I could live with. The worst symptom of all was when I had severe, recurrent, occasionally explosive diarrhea.

Wait, you say. How can diarrhea be associated with hypomania? It’s like this. Most of us have an “attack organ,” one that acts up when we are under stress. For some people, that means headaches; for others, nausea. For me, it was my bowels acting up.

I noticed this before I was ever diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Whenever I had to go to the emergency room with my mother or father, by the next day I had bowel trouble. It never occurred to me that this association of symptoms would become something that would affect my life so profoundly.

It only got worse. As my bipolar disorder became more severe, so did my disgusting symptom. By the time of my major breakdown, I was having diarrhea up to six times a day, often with only 60 seconds’ notice. Sometimes I made it to the bathroom. Sometimes I didn’t.

One symptom leads to another. This one increased my depressive tendency towards isolation. I couldn’t travel 200 miles with my husband to visit my in-laws. I had an unfortunate episode in a local bookstore. I still remember the humiliation of telling a clerk, “Someone has been very sick in the bathroom. Somebody needs to clean it up.” After that, I couldn’t even leave the house — or be more than one room away from a toilet.

Who has physical symptoms – headache, stomach ache, tremors, bowel difficulties – associated with bipolar disorder, especially the anxiety component?

Of course, I went to doctors. And I tried over-the-counter remedies. I took more anti-diarrheal pills than a person should probably take in a day, one after every episode. My primary care physician said I had hypersensitive nerves. A gastroenterologist said I had irritable bowel syndrome. None of them could give me anything that helped.

Finally, my psychiatrist figured out the symptoms were related to my hypomanic anxiety. When I became anxious, my bowels would react. And it was a feedback loop — the more episodes I had, the more anxiety I had and the more I would find myself running to the bathroom. The worse my bipolar disorder became, the worse the diarrhea became too. When I finally filed for disability, one of the main causes was this extremely physical symptom, which I thought would be easier for bureaucrats to understand than an “invisible illness.”

Once I was properly diagnosed with bipolar disorder, however, and properly medicated, the symptoms lessened. Anti-anxiety meds and mood levelers meant my nerves and my guts were no longer out of control. The appeal of my disability claim was dropped, as I was no longer struggling from my most obvious symptom.

Now I have diarrhea about as often as the average person does, I guess. I go out in public. I travel with my husband. I attend conferences and conventions. But I always carry a pair of clean underwear in my purse.

Just in case.

Getty image via Olga Matveichuk

Conversations 10