Note: a friend of ours without a blog wrote this post for us - due to the sensitive nature of the topic and its potential impact on her friends and family, she's chosen to remain anonymous.
To begin this blog post. I think we should at first get the whole "What is bipolar disorder?" question out of the way.
What I also would like to ask of you is to keep an open mind, to throw away your stereotypes and assumptions about bipolar and to keep your judgment and criticisms to yourself. I promise you, no one living with bipolar is unfamiliar with any criticisms you have.
So, what is bipolar disorder?
“Bipolar disorder causes dramatic mood swings — from feeling overly “high” and/or irritable to sad and hopeless, and then back again, often with periods of normal mood in between. Severe changes in energy and behavior go along with these episodes. The periods of highs and lows are called episodes of mania and depression. It is often not recognized as an illness, and people may suffer for years before it is properly diagnosed and treated. At least half of all cases start before age 25. Some people have their first bipolar disorder symptoms during childhood, while others may develop symptoms late in life.”
– definition from www.bbrfoundation.org
“Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.”
– definition from www.nimh.nih.gov
These descriptions are very accurate, but unfortunately there isn’t much information out there regarding how what it feels like to live your life with a bipolar disorder.
Life with Bipolar is hard. Very hard.
The fact that there are so many negative stereotypes out there and very disrespectful & degrading memes doesn’t make it any easier. In fact, it makes it so much harder for people to understand and have some sort of compassion for this medical condition.
I most likely had bipolar tendencies throughout my entire childhood and early teens, traumatic circumstances in my teens lead to it going from tendencies to real, full blown bipolar.
Often, I thought I was just depressed because for the most part my mood was stable – or so I foolishly thought.
I had wonderful highs when the world was so rich and colorful, everything was amazing and nothing could dim my shine, then I had normal days like everyone else with little ups and downs – normal life.
BUT then I had deep downs. And I don’t mean just little deep downs, I had deep downs that made me question if I wouldn't be better off dead because I am a waste of precious oxygen and my mere existence is so hopeless and awful that I am no good to anyone and in fact just ruin their lives too, hold them back from being happy, dragging them down with me.
In my teens I was at times so incredibly high on happiness that I probably thought I could fly – those were the days when I partied straight for several days without sleep without a care in the world.
I rode in cars with drunk people, I balanced on the balustrade of bridges; heck, we even build a mini race car out of a child toy and attached a 6PS engine to a frame that weight in at about 25kg.
All in all, wonderful, wild teen memories and amazing stories to tell on a bonfire night – except for the part that I felt invincible while doing this. When I was on a mood high, I had no real consideration of possible consequences and dangers. To me the world was just one big playground and I was some happy superhero that no one and nothing could harm.
Boy was I wrong and somehow I got so lucky that I made it through that without getting seriously injured.
Now, let’s talk about the days when I felt normal.
Those were my favorites because those were the days when I thought I actually fit in and I can manage my day to day life just perfectly. I made the best decisions during those days and I was actually in control of myself. My decisions were rational and I was able to control my emotions – the most difficult part when living with bipolar disorder.
But then the downs came again, and let me tell you, they aren’t a joke.
There were also situations where, out of being overwhelmed with negative emotions that I couldn’t control, I actually followed through with some version of those plans about taking my life and the wonderful picture I painted in my mind of everyone else being relieved I was gone and myself finding peace within the nothingness of the universe.
I was an excessive cutter during those times. Not for attention, the way it is often portrayed (believe me, I was incredibly good at hiding this, no one knew this side of me until I was almost 15).
I did it to see the blood; to see that I was not dead yet, that I haven’t given up just yet. “One more day. I can hold on one day longer” is what I told myself during those times.
Now, that I have finally gotten help and treatment for my problems I am so incredibly happy that none of those attempts reached their goal and that I managed to hold on.
As an adult and a mom my highs were thank goodness not too extreme but I still had days or sometimes even weeks where I was high energy, and the world was so much brighter. We did a lot of trips to the zoo and parks, I bought myself clothes and nice things that weren’t really in my budget.
Most of those days I was running on 3-4 hours of sleep,spent more money than I wanted and bounced through the house starting 50 projects in the same day and finished none of them in the end. It was a happy, overwhelmingly positive disaster waiting to escalate or ruin my finances for life.
The normal days weren’t that much different from the normal days in my teens. Just that I was a parent now, and on those days I was able to handle being a young parent incredibly well. No matter how stressful the day, I was able to respond to any challenge in a reasonable and controlled manner. My emotions weren’t an uncontrollable roller coaster and I knew exactly what I did.
Then the downs, again. Those were the days when I didn’t have any energy anymore. When I went to bed at 6pm and when the alarm clock woke me up at 6am, I ended up calling in sick to work, because I feared if I get up I would just pass out or crumble to pieces.
But the big and main problem here was that I was a parent. I had to keep it together.
Everyone who ever suffered from depression knows that “keeping it together” when we must feels like walking over broken glass while being blasted with a flame thrower.
It was so incredibly hard to resist the urge to just take my child / children and drop them off with family / friends and drive with the car into the nearest wall to put an end to my useless being and save them from having such a horrible parent.
When I look back at those situations I am scared because of all the bad things that could’ve been, but I am also a little proud because I managed to not endanger my children – which I now realize must’ve been some sort of miracle.
But even then, I was struggling so hard that I went back to the cutting for a while and once you have a child, hiding this isn’t that easy anymore and you constantly worry about someone seeing this and taking your child away or your child seeing it and being traumatized.
I got myself help at that point because as a mom, I couldn’t go around like that anymore.
The saddest part about this all was that I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone about it. I was scared to be judged, and in the past a lot of times, people in my life that I tried to explain it to told me to “just pull it together”, “you’re probably just getting your period”, “get over yourself” or “I don’t even care anymore. There’s no winning with you and I don’t want to deal with it/you anymore”.
Those things are like a knife to the heart, especially when they come from people that you trust and that you thought would understand and help you.
When you suffer from a mental illness, there’s no “just pull yourself together” and it is about time that we recognize those things and help people with those struggles.
All those stereotypes and all the judgment out there is one big reason why so many people who are suffering from such disorders don’t get help.
So please - if you take away nothing else from reading this, stop the stereotyping and the stupid comments. You never know who’s suffering from a mental disorder, but hasn’t “come out” yet.
When someone you know does come out, treat them with respect, dignity and take them seriously. Playing it all down doesn’t help anyone, it just makes it worse for the ones who struggle and it already hard enough for them to admit that there is something wrong with them.
Getting help was tough.
It starts with admitting that something is very, very wrong with yourself and fixing yourself isn’t an option anymore. That's not an easy thing to accept, especially in a culture where we're told we can do anything if we only want it enough, and needing help is a sign of weakness.
The first time I got myself help for these problems was one big fat failure. I lied to my therapist, got the wrong meds, gave up on it and struggled another five years with trying to keep myself under control.
It worked out more or less fine for a while, but January this year I was at my breaking point. I had the biggest down in years and I was so desperate and hurt that I all I wanted was to get better, to get a hold of myself and seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.
I’d been seeing my therapist at this point for over two years, but this was the first time that I was honest to him about how I really feel.
Of course I wasn’t able to fool him. He knew what was going on for longer than I did but I can tell you, I felt amazing finally, letting it out. Admitting my struggles and being told that there is hope, but that meds would be my best bet at this points.
…I hated the idea.
I’ve always hated the idea of this option, but I had to admit that after trying to deal with bipolar disorder for over a decade without meds I was at the end of that road.
So I got a referral to a psychiatrist.
It was bad. I didn’t trust her, I hated how she read the diagnosis and how she pronounced each one of my failures and flaws. I couldn’t stand it and definitely didn’t want to talk to her about it.
Then we talked about treatment and she discussed with me different options of medications, pointed out the pros and cons of each one, the side effects and how I might react to them (not everyone reacts to the same medication the same way!).
I was still breastfeeding and the side effects didn’t just apply to me, so it was really a tough decision to make. But I made that decision to give it a try.
And that was the changing point. I took control of the mess that was my life and changed it. I got very, very lucky that the first medication I tried worked.
I was on an incredibly low dose and felt so very much better. Then we increased just to see on what dose I would be the most stable. Again, another improvement. Then we increased again to see if we could still improve, but it didn’t work. I had bad side effects such as very bad headaches, anxiety attacks and tremors.
So we decreased again and I am fine.
All it took was a very, very low dose of the right medication to improve my life so drastically, I don’t even know I’ve ever been that good, balanced and in control before.
I still have ups and downs, but everyone has them. I am still moody on some days, which is normal for humans to have such days, and I still get angry & frustrated when things don’t go my way.
But I can handle it now. I don’t feel like having to kill myself because a plan doesn’t work out & I don’t have highs that I can’t control.
For the first time in my life I feel “normal” – not the boring kind of normal but the I am in control of my emotions normal.
For the days when I wake up with a bad attitude, or don’t feel too positive, I go on a walk or work out. It helps me get my mind off of things and refocus on what’s important & needs to get done. This also improved my self-esteem a lot and how I see my body.
If you’re struggling with a mental illness, please get yourself help. It is a big step and it isn’t easy but in the long run it will make your life so much better!