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How I'm Breaking Free From the Stigma of Bipolar Disorder

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The little girl didn’t know in 10 years she would wish for death. She loved her family, her new siblings and Jesus, too. Much like the Tom Petty song, “Free Falling,” she was about to take a free fall — down the path of a broken brain.
She was a preacher’s daughter with a genetic disposition to mental illness.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

Add on to that various health issues like chronic ear infections, asthma, allergy shots, antibiotics and steroids …. and a budding sugar addiction and insatiable appetite. She was all energy and filled with curiosity, wanting to know the how and why of everything. So, one day, when the darkness closed in, she would question why she couldn’t just pray it away.

It was a few years after witnessing the death of her grandpa when it hit. Why couldn’t she get out of bed? Why couldn’t she stop crying? Why couldn’t she pray enough to make it stop?

She filled up on academics and activities, theatre and cheerleading, sports — ways to escape. To cope. She used and abused food, she developed an unhealthy body image. All she thought when she looked in the mirror was, “Fat. Gross. Unloveable. Broken.”

She begged her God to fix her, to make her a better Christian, a better person. She had long bursts of success, though. Times when she’d be flying high on ideas and inspiration. Poetry, short stories, novels. Achievement, awards, the spotlight. She loved people and fun! She could stay up for hours and never feel tired the next day. She could talk a mile a minute and felt she could charm the world. Grandiosity was productive. Antidepressants helped the lows not to be so destructive, but the highs only got higher.

The word “mania” was first mentioned to her in the fall of her freshman year of college. Though she developed mononucleosis, she didn’t slow down much. At one point during the illness, she stayed up for over 36 hours.

Manic?” She thought. “No way. I feel good. I could get through college in a day. I make good grades. People love me. I’m good at so many things. I don’t even need to sleep.”

Yes, that was mania.

Though it was productive, it was also destructive.

The confusion toward God became a budding resentment, as more medication numbed the fun feelings. Alcohol helped. But it led to dangerous blackouts.
There were periods of calm, of stability, but not for long. The academic world provided respite, where she could focus on words and ideas and research. She made good friends. She didn’t try to understand her diagnosis, she simply accepted it and tried staying on medication, with bitterness.

Until a surprise pregnancy woke her up and provided the hope of restoration. During pregnancy, she felt a brief remission from the waves.

After the birth, she moved and found a teaching job to pour her heart into. She was determined to get healthy for her daughter and stay on medication for her baby’s sake, if not her own. She ate better. She exercised. She made herself sleep. She began to heal … and she met someone special.

This is where I switch from third person to first person to take ownership, because though my writer’s heart loves a third-person narrative, this is real life. This is my life.

I have bipolar disorder.

My fingers shake as I type this, and my palms sweat. There is such a stigma with that diagnosis, a stigma that comes from years of misinformation and misuse of the word.

What does this mean for me? It means I would have periods of productivity, then I would crash. This doesn’t make me “crazy,” it just means I sometimes see the world in brighter colors, feel a little more strongly and go at an extremely fast pace.

They told me I would be on medication my entire life. They told me it was just chemicals in my brain.

It was so much more than just that. I’ll never see the full picture, but I can say my label doesn’t limit me anymore.

At the time I write this, I have been stable for six and a half years now. I know I am an anomaly. I know I may need medication at some point in the future. It saved my life, many times. I know not everyone with bipolar disorder will experience this. Maybe trauma plus hormones plus stress plus adolescence made it worse for me early on. Who knows?

But, this is my story, and where I am at the moment.

It’s always there, under the surface. While the lows of depression threaten to take me under, the hypomania urges me to come out and play.

I am alert to every trigger. I focus on anti-inflammatory foods that stimulate brain health. I exercise, I monitor my stress levels and I choose sleep even when I would rather stay up and be productive. I see a counselor every month, and I never miss a doctor’s appointment. I take supplements to make up for vitamin and mineral deficiencies caused by so many medications and lack of proper whole food nutrition over the years. I read everything written on brain health to look for further ways to improve and maintain my health. Yes, I may seem a little obsessive at times, but I’ll do whatever I can to keep my brain clear and to help encourage others.

My illness is a gift. It gives me empathy. It keeps me grounded. It causes me to surrender. To trust. To persevere. It makes me who I am.

So, for anyone out there hiding under the weight of a broken brain, whatever the diagnosis, you are not alone and you are not “crazy. “There are so many different degrees, different phases, different triggers. Your story is your own; your journey is your own. But you are not the only one struggling in silence.

There is no one-size-fits-all.

There is no shame in taking medication.

There is no shame in asking for help.

There is no shame in relapse.

There is no shame in asking questions.

There is no shame in searching for other treatments.

There is no shame in mental illness.

Unsplash image by Sonnie Hiles

Originally published: May 22, 2021
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