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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.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

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.

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.

Unsplash photo via Theodore Barr.

Originally published: June 1, 2017
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