The 3 Faces of My Bipolar Disorder
I have bipolar I, and I have since I was very young. As I have gotten older and lived with the illness longer, I have started noticing things for the first time. The biggest thing I have noticed is when I am looking back at my life, it seems like my life has been lived by three different people instead of just one — and they’re all different versions of me.
Bipolar is characterized by extreme lows (depressive episodes), extreme highs (manic episodes) and periods of stable moods between. Each of these different mood episodes seem to create a distinct personality in me that does not translate well into the other mood episodes.
My depressed self is extremely unwell. I have cognitive distortions in my thoughts, I’m prone to crying spells, I have little to no energy, I have limited ability to sleep, I have no way of cleaning up after myself and the depression permeates every interaction I have. I focus a lot on the concept of suicide, I struggle to prevent relapsing with my self-harm addiction, and as a result, I can be extremely self-centered. I am too focused on survival to be able to regularly help others the way I usually do. I must focus too hard on keeping myself alive and safe to maintain healthy connections with those around me. It is not a conscious decision, but I am always forced to prioritize myself.
My manic self is extremely impulsive, erratic, unpredictable, energized to the point of ceaselessly searching for and working on projects and neglecting to sleep or eat for days at a time. My manic self lacks any kind of stability and cannot be trusted around other people. The lack of impulse control means interacting with other people can put me at increased risk for harming myself or others. I tend to stay to myself and work on whichever projects are appealing until the manic episode passes.
When I am level is the only time I feel I deserve the people in my life. I can help those around me. I am a great friend and partner. I love going out. I can have fun staying in. I can adapt to any budget. Work is not a struggle and I tend to make a good living. I am excited about the future — and the present, for that matter. I am happy more often than not. I only cry with good reason. I do not have a problem being open and honest or expressing my affection physically with my partner. I do not struggle to let people know I love them and appreciate them on a regular basis. I am more creative, more communicative, more loving, more approachable, better at speaking the love languages of the people around me, considerate, empathetic, compassionate, caring and doting. All the things I cannot be in the other two states.
This shift between my three faces does not bother me just because it is inconvenient for me. It bothers me because the people in my life must adapt to three different versions of me if they plan on remaining in my life, and not everybody can. Maintaining healthy relationships of any kind is a serious challenge. For those who do come into my life and choose to stay, it can be extremely difficult at times. It is extremely isolating for me because so few people are willing and able to endure the changing moods and my changing faces.
I have had conversations with people where they have brought up things I said while I was wearing a different face, and I can recall saying those things, but I disagree with what I said. It is not just a matter of time and distance giving me a different perspective — it is that I am in a totally different mindset with a totally different way of thinking at the time I am reminded of the past conversation, and I can’t even see the issue being discussed in the same way I did at the time. It makes me feel like I have been dishonest with the other person at some point because I no longer agree with what was said, but ultimately, I meant it at the time, and I have to accept that is the best I can do.
I understand how frustrating it is for the people around me. It is frustrating for me, too. It is frustrating never knowing which version of me I will be when I wake up. It is frustrating not knowing when my next depressive episode will impact every area of my life, or for how long, or what the severity will be. It is frustrating wondering if I am becoming manic every single time I have a good day with a good amount of energy. It is frustrating looking back and seeing how I acted when I was in an altered mood, knowing it is not a good reflection of who I am when I am level and at my best.
I want my loved ones to know the one thing that never changes is that I do love them, and I do appreciate their existence in my life. I may not be able to verbalize it at times. I may verbalize it too much at other times. I may need to prioritize myself over them at times, too. But, I never stop being grateful for their presence, and for sticking with me through all the highs and lows.
Stephen Fry said, “It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.” I would like to expand this to incorporate all mental illness, including bipolar disorder (which Fry himself struggles with). It is truly never easy to love someone whose own brain is their greatest enemy most days, but I think it is a unique kind of strength that allows you to give those of us who are struggling with various mental health challenges a very precious gift — the gift of unconditional love and friendship. So, thank you to all those who enrich my life with this gift. I know it isn’t always easy, and I do not know how I would get through this life without you.
Getty image by Nvard Akopyan