Charlie Kaplan

@charlie-kaplan | contributor
Charlie is a writer, artist, and graduate student. She lives with bipolar I disorder, anorexia nervosa, GAD and ADHD.
Charlie Kaplan

Hiding Symptoms of ADHD and Bipolar Disorder

I’ve worked really hard my entire life to be a person who is “presentable” to the world, so much so it has become second nature; I lost touch with who I really was. I became tangled up in my diagnoses, who I wanted to be and who I was by nature. What emerged from this combination was a confusing mess I struggled to navigate. Part of the reason it took me so long to get diagnosed was because I was hiding my symptoms. Those I couldn’t hide I didn’t talk about or acknowledge, and no one else did, either. Looking back, I know now my symptoms of bipolar disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) both began at a young age. It was easy to interpret some of those symptoms as normal behavior because I did not talk about the more extreme experiences — how I struggled to stay afloat at school and my periodic bouts with psychosis. Part of me did not yet understand these things, and for some reason I suspected these issues should not be talked about. Somehow I sensed the stigma attached to mental illness even then, and found myself affected by it. As an adult, I felt pressures to be a certain person, to be everything for everyone, to not cause trouble, to be successful. I hid the darkest parts of myself, the symptoms that plagued my existence, and everything began to spin out of control. Why hide? There are a number of reasons. Shame, for one. I was ashamed of not being perfect and of being sick. A big part of me did not even know I was sick; I thought I was defective, or a failure at navigating life. I was also embarrassed by my symptoms. They caused me to think, speak and act in ways I didn’t have control over, in ways that caused me to wreck my life on a regular basis. I wore that shame and embarrassment at all times, the weight of it crushing me each day. The stigma associated with mental illness was a huge factor that kept me silent, even though I didn’t always realize it. I was afraid to admit to the world I had these symptoms. I struggled, so I created and tried to play the role I’d cast for myself. But there was no willing away, no shedding my illnesses that I’d been avoiding for my entire life. One of the ways I hid my bipolar disorder was through social withdrawal. No one knew I was staying up nights at a time, writing maniacally, exercising or shopping online, and then sleeping for days on end, because I avoided the company of others. No one knew about the shopping sprees at the mall until after the fact, and it was seen as some personal flaw rather than a symptom of a disease. No one saw the mood shifts, because I hid who I was from the world and only allowed them to see what I wanted them to see. I kept a carefully controlled image. Whether some saw through it or not, I didn’t know. I didn’t want to know. I wanted to believe I could change myself, that I could make these symptoms disappear. This only made things worse. I hid ADHD through anxiety and compulsions. I am, by nature, very disorganized. I counter this by being obsessive about it. I’d go on huge cleaning sprees, but inevitably, things always ended up a cluttered mess. This might not sound like a big deal, but it affected every area of my life. It affected my self-esteem: “I can’t do anything right. I can’t even stay organized.” It affected my relationships: I never allowed anyone to visit without scheduling with me first, allowing me time to clean and organize. No spontaneous drop-by’s allowed. The idea that someone could knock on my door and me not expect it caused me great anxiety. It affected my time: I spent countless hours focused on cleaning and organizing, to no avail. Things always ended up a mess again. It affected my money: I’d buy lots of tools to help with cleaning and organizing, only to fail to use them. This symptom of ADHD has been painful for me. But I didn’t talk about it. I went to great lengths to hide it, much like my bipolar disorder, to the point of total isolation. I hid my inattention and troubles with focus by overcompensating. I would stay up all night studying, memorizing texts so that I could make good grades. I didn’t want to say I wasn’t processing lectures at school. I just wanted to be like everyone else. I made my life much more complicated than it had to be by trying to hide who I was. I suffered under the burden of stigma for my entire life, which is why I am passionate about making it obsolete. We don’t need to stay silent; we don’t need to hide. We need to talk about mental illness. I have finally reached a point in my life where I am no longer afraid to talk about my illnesses. Do I still feel embarrassment and shame? I’d be lying if I answered with a definitive “no.” The truth is, I do still feel some negative emotions with regard to sharing, but it gets easier. I’ll probably always have mixed feelings because I am a private person and sharing is hard, but I want to show others they aren’t alone, and I want the world to see that mental illness is real and it hurts every bit as much as “physical” illness (I believe mental illness is physical, too). I don’t want others to feel they have to hide like I did. So this is me. I am disorganized. I have trouble concentrating. I sometimes concentrate on things too much. I have mood cycles. I am impulsive. I sometimes spend too much money or make poor decisions in the moment. I experience psychosis at times, when my mood is too high or too low. I struggle with anxiety and panic. I don’t hide my struggles anymore. I do my part to try to lessen them. I don’t fight against myself anymore. I believe these things can get better and my symptoms do not paint the entire portrait of who I am, but they are a part of me and I have come to accept that. But I am not my struggles. I am more. I am a person. I am a person who struggles, yes, but I am a person who loves, who writes, who creates. I am a writer, an artist, a wife, a pet parent. I am learning to let go of fear, to not be ashamed of who I am. It is a process. But I am on my way. The Mighty is asking the following: For someone who doesn’t understand what it’s like to have your mental illness, describe what it’s like to be in your head for a day. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Charlie Kaplan

What It's Like to Have ADHD and Bipolar Disorder as an Adult Woman

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) begins in childhood, which is when a lot of individuals are diagnosed. However, the number of adults being diagnosed with ADHD is growing — in particular women that seemed to slip through the cracks earlier in their lives due to an atypical presentation of the disease. I am one of those women. I did not exhibit bad behavior in the classroom and generally I did well in school growing up. But what most people didn’t know is that I secretly struggled to stay afloat both academically and personally. I was so ashamed, so convinced my symptoms were some personal defects that needed changing, that I buried them deep and did what I could to cope with it. This is something that followed me into adulthood. By the time I was in my 20s, my life was a mess, much like the chaos inside my head. My methods of coping got me through the first part of my life, but it wasn’t working so well anymore. It would take another 10 years before I would be diagnosed. A lot of people wonder what ADHD feels like. After all, many think they have it, or claim to, even if in a joking manner, but those who actually struggle with it know how severe some of the symptoms can be. Before I was treated, ADHD affected every area of my life — personally, professionally and academically. It isn’t just a lack of concentration. It looks different in everyone. This is what it looks like in me. It is hyperfocus — zooming in on a topic to the point that you lose yourself, lose time, lose relationships, because you are consumed by an idea, a project, a book, a television show. It is me, feeling like everyone knows things I don’t because I miss out on parts of conversations, on lessons and lectures, on life because I’m constantly fighting to catch up. It is me overextending myself to try to be like everyone else. It is feeling as though someone is pressing their hands against my ears, blocking out parts of what others say. I have to strain to grasp every word. It is reading, only not really, because I start to skim and skip over parts due to an inability to pay attention to each word; that, and a burning impatience that wants me to reach the end immediately. It is going to the movies, and then not knowing what your friends are talking about when they mention certain parts of it. It is feeling left out. It is fighting an uphill battle to stay organized, to find your belongings, to keep track of them. It is getting locked out of your house because you forgot your keys. Again. It is trying to listen, only feeling like the words bounce off of you instead of processing through your mind. It is thoughts, racing so fast you can’t capture them. You only see fragments, and sometimes they don’t make sense. It is trying to write, to finish something, only to abandon everything halfway through because you’ve lost interest or focus. It is being unable to explain to others it was not your desire to do so, but rather your brain refusing to cooperate. It is feeling shame when they tell you try harder, to grow up, to accomplish something with your life. It is wanting desperately to manage your disease, but being hindered by the same illness you are trying to treat because you are forgetful, scattered and disorganized. It is seeing the world in pieces, and trying to do your best to assemble the puzzle. For me, ADHD is complicated by my bipolar diagnosis. Even though the two illnesses have symptoms that overlap, the treatment for both diseases is different. I periodically have to cope with a lowered dose of my ADHD medication because it can trigger mania in some individuals. When a manic episode starts to manifest in my life, treating my ADHD sort of becomes secondary to controlling my mood — which of course has the potential to wreck my life if left unchecked. I understand this. I get it. It’s not fair and I want to kick and scream when it happens, because I hate feeling the way I do when my symptoms are out of control, but I comply because I know it is important. Bipolar is the monster that must be reckoned with. That is not to say my ADHD diagnosis is less important, only that in my life it is less damaging on a long-term basis if I temporarily take a lower dose of medication. Bipolar disorder and ADHD have a lot in common — such as impulsivity — so in a way they can overlap and exacerbate one another in some individuals. For instance, I have to deal with some level of impulsivity all the time, though it is much worse in mania. I wish I could untangle the two diseases, separate them so that they are independent of one another and thus able to be treated accordingly, but unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. That’ll never happen. I have to rely on my inner strength to get through those times when ADHD treatment has to fall by the wayside until my bipolar disorder is under control. Overall, things are better now that I have an ADHD diagnosis, even when my medication gets decreased. I’ve had more success with my ADHD medication than my bipolar meds thus far. Medication has done wonders for me. Learning some skills in therapy has also helped. It is still difficult, but these days my head is clearer, my thoughts less scattered and my life more manageable. I didn’t get here overnight. It won’t all be better tomorrow. It’s a journey, one I am discovering each day. One I am not ashamed of, because I did not choose this life, but nothing is going to stop me from living it. The Mighty is asking the following: For someone who doesn’t understand what it’s like to have your mental illness, describe what it’s like to be in your head for a day. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Charlie Kaplan

Talking About Psychosis as a Symptom of Bipolar Disorder

Psychosis can be a component of bipolar disorder (and other illnesses), but it is not addressed as often as other symptoms of mania or depression. Due to the nature of the symptoms of psychosis, discussion of this topic may be discouraged due to fear of judgment or ridicule. Often those who experience psychosis are viewed in a negative light, but psychosis is a symptom of a disease — just as pain is a symptom of a heart attack. By keeping this symptom tucked away in the dark, or maintaining the negativity towards psychosis, the stigma surrounding it festers and intensifies. Psychosis looks different for each person who experiences it. Some may hear voices or sounds that are not real, while others may have bouts of extreme paranoia and believe someone is out to get them. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the two major symptoms of psychosis are hallucinations and delusions. Hallucinations can involve seeing, hearing, smelling or feeling things that aren’t there. You may hear voices, feel something touching you or see a visual manifestation of something that isn’t real. Delusions are beliefs that are not true and are often irrational. Psychosis is common in mania, but it can also happen during depressive episodes. I have experienced psychosis in both mania and depression. When I was younger, undiagnosed and lacked insight into my symptoms, my hallucinations were incredibly frightening and grew out of control. I would hear screams, scratching and other disturbing sounds. As an adult I have been able to manage them better by doing all I can to stabilize my mood and maintain balance. Medication is helpful with limiting the number of psychotic episodes, or lessening the severity of it. As long as I take my medication as prescribed, I’ve experienced good results. When I’m not in the most extreme level of mania or depression, insight into my symptoms remains somewhat intact because I’ve learned what the symptoms are and how to look for them. I still have bouts where I lack insight, but for the most part I have managed to control the degree to which I experience psychosis by paying closer attention to my symptoms on a daily basis. Escalation of hallucinations can depend on the type — such as auditory or visual — and how irrational they are. With auditory hallucinations, when it is apparent it is not real (such as hearing a voice in the same room when I know I am home alone), and I’m still thinking clearly, I do not respond. Usually this stops the hallucination from continuing. In the past, I’ve gotten caught up in the situation which makes it worse. This may not work for everyone, but I have found ignoring the hallucination to be beneficial. I still have episodes of full-blown psychosis at times, but I try to keep myself grounded and attempt to remember what can or cannot be real. Still, sometimes these symptoms seem realistic and that makes differentiating between hallucinations and reality more complicated. It is important to extend some grace towards yourself. Perfection is impossible. Delusions can be harder to fight. Your entire thinking changes and supports the delusion. It compounds inside your head and spins out of control quickly. If I start to have false beliefs where there is even a hint of doubt that it is true, I talk about it with someone I trust in order to get an outside perspective. This helps me to sort out when I’m having delusions or when I’m being rational. Hoarding that information and entertaining those thoughts only makes it worse. Psychosis is just another part of the disease, and it can be controlled, just like other symptoms of bipolar disorder. For me, medication and lifestyle changes help to control mood, which also controls episodes of psychosis. Some examples of lifestyle changes I implemented include getting adequate sleep, keeping a schedule, avoiding substances and taking my medication as prescribed. I also avoid forms of entertainment that may trigger hallucinations, such as depictions of graphic violence. I do all I can to avoid stress such as not overloading myself and I keep track of my symptoms so that if possible I can see an episode coming. There is a tendency to glamorize mental illness in films and television, and psychosis is no exception. To experience a psychotic episode is not artistic, glamorous or fun. It is emotionally draining and can be horribly frightening, depending on how it manifests. Perhaps we will reach a point where discussion of psychosis isn’t taboo or shameful. While it is poorly understood by much of society, maybe continued awareness of bipolar disorder and all of its symptoms will lessen the stigma associated with psychosis. The Mighty is asking its readers the following: What’s one secret about you or your loved one’s disability and/or disease that no one talks about? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Charlie Kaplan

Stuck in Bipolar Depression

When depression starts to seep in, everything seems to gradually slow until it pauses completely. Or rather, you pause. The world still goes on around you. People wonder why you’re standing still. I recall one particular episode where it got to the point where I was sitting on the couch, staring at the wall, tears slowly sliding down my face for no reason in particular. I was practically catatonic. I’d given up on everything. My mind was running incessantly, but I was paralyzed. I could not sleep. I didn’t want to shower, I didn’t want to talk, I didn’t want to do anything. I thought of every single thing I’d ever done wrong, every mistake, every failure ran through my head. I could dredge up things I hadn’t thought about in ages, the smallest of situations amplified. We’ve all heard “depression hurts” thanks to Cymbalta, but this statement is true. It was describing this episode to the psychologist that almost got me misdiagnosed with major depressive disorder instead of bipolar 1. When I start to slow down, that is a good indicator that depression is coming. And I don’t mean slowing down from mania, I mean stalling out from normal daily activities. At first I may sleep more than usual, but then I stop sleeping altogether, as in mania. Some sleep a lot more in depression but I’m the opposite. I am stuck inside my head 24/7, haunted by my thoughts. It gets harder to do day to day tasks. The dishes pile up. My work load gets heavier because I start to neglect it. When everything in your life is piling up, it is added weight to the already crushing pain of depression. My self-esteem gets worse because I feel like a failure, like I can’t do anything right. My anxiety and rumination skyrockets. Depression is a miserable existence. And it is just that – an existence. You stop living your life. I used to think I’d still write during depression, that perhaps what I wrote would be heavier and less creative and, well, depressing, but I’d still write. Truth is, I can’t write anything once deep depression sinks in. I am filled with words, with memories, with everything, but when I try to write nothing happens. This is incredibly frustrating and disheartening, a writer that cannot write. It adds to feelings of failure. The one thing I do, and think I do well, I cannot do. I dread depression, but like mania, it always comes. That is the nature of bipolar disorder. The goal is to slow down the episodes, to stop the extreme nature of them, but if anything my episodes seem to be speeding up, with less time in between each one. This could be a result of medication, of not finding the right ones yet, or my condition might be worsening. It’s still early on in my new medication regime so I’m hoping we’re getting close to the right ones, but I live with the fear we may not find it. I’ve been through so many different meds already, it feels like there’s not much left. Depression is like rusting. It becomes harder to move, less fluid. But I know I have to keep moving, keep fighting, keep pushing through so that I don’t stop completely. I don’t want to veg out on the couch again, collecting dust. So as much as it hurts I’ll keep moving. Easier said than done, I know, and it’ll be a lot harder when it comes, but perhaps the weight won’t be as heavy next time, and if it is, I’ll deal with that as it comes instead of anticipating it like I usually do. I need to live now, not in the past, not fearing the future. I’m still relatively new in my diagnosis in that I’ve only had a few episodes of depression since then, and so far none of them have been as bad as pre-diagnosis, so I’ll take that as good news, that even though it may not feel like it, treatment is helping. I haven’t been able to maintain my routine in depressive episodes yet, so that is my goal for the future: to maintain as much normalcy as possible, without overwhelming myself and giving myself some grace to stumble a little. If I fall it doesn’t mean I can’t pick myself up again. Follow this journey on Decoding Bipolar. The Mighty is asking the following: For someone who doesn’t understand what it’s like to have your mental illness, describe what it’s like to be in your head for a day. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to mentalhealth@themighty.com. Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines. How would you explain your mental illness to someone who doesn’t understand? Tell us in the comments below.