I’ll admit it, I’ve always worried I wouldn’t be able to handle crisis. Because I have bipolar disorder, I often see myself as an emotionally delicate creature easily overwhelmed by the slightest trigger. When the pandemic began, I thought I’d be hit harder than people who don’t live with mental illness. But I’ve actually surprised myself. I’ve realized I’m specially equipped to handle crisis precisely because of my bipolar disorder. I’ve had to overcome incredible odds to make it to where I am today, and my journey to recovery is what’s made me stronger.
In 2002, I was hit with my first major depressive episode, which was triggered by my dad’s passing. I cried non-stop for days. I couldn’t eat because I lost my appetite, and even my favorite foods tasted like cardboard. It felt like a tsunami of icy water had crashed over me, and I was drowning. I couldn’t listen to music, because it provoked painfully overwhelming emotions that were too much to handle. I was besieged by a combination of anxiety and depression. I couldn’t drive my car, because it felt too scary to get behind the wheel. I felt hopeless, and I wanted to give up. For months, my old life seemed gone forever. The scariest part was not knowing what was wrong, because I hadn’t been diagnosed yet. I dealt with grief, confusion, pain and fear, all at once.
I saw a psychiatrist and received a diagnosis, and my anxiety lifted a bit, but my struggle towards healing wasn’t over yet. I began a months-long trial of different medications. I gained and lost weight, sleep, and hope as I swung back and forth on a pendulum of highs and lows. Some treatments worked, but the side effects were so bad I’d have to try a new one. Some meds worked temporarily, only to fade in efficacy, so my doctor would up the dose repeatedly until it was no longer safe, so I’d have to switch again. My treatment team and I were constantly wondering which one would work for me. I dealt with change, uncertainty, and a gnawing feeling of dread that I’d never get back to “normal.” After what seemed like an eternity playing musical chairs with antidepressants, mood stabilizers, anti-seizure and anti-anxiety meds, I finally found a combination that balanced the tumult in my head, and it stuck. The fog in my brain cleared, and life began to return to some semblance of what I remembered before my breakdown.
Once I was stabilized, I began the next step: the hard work of accepting my diagnosis. I made a personal commitment to myself and others that staying in recovery would be my number one priority. I went to therapy, attended DBSA (The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance) support groups, and read everything I could about bipolar disorder. I learned how to recognize the signs of an impending manic or depressive episode. I adopted effective coping skills to avoid another crash in the future. And I promised myself I’d reach out for help when I needed it. My journey was a hard-fought battle, but I emerged on the other side of it a stronger, more resilient person.
I know what it’s like to deal with loss, sadness, pain and fear. I know what it’s like to lose all sense of normality, routine, and stability. But stability isn’t always permanent. The other shoe could drop at any moment. Since 2002, I’ve experienced my fair share of manic and depressive episodes, but I fought my way back to the world every time. If I can rise like a phoenix from the flames of my illness, I can handle the next trauma, and I have proof that I will survive.
Living with bipolar disorder is like being an endurance athlete. Staying in recovery takes training and practice. And just because I’m stable one day, that doesn’t mean I’m not vulnerable to another episode.
Even after living years in a stable mental state, I was triggered by a bad relationship and in 2012 I experienced a mixed episode. I was both manic and depressed at the same time. I actually tried to end my own life. I ended up in an emergency room. I was transferred to an in-patient mental hospital. But I worked diligently to get better, and with the help of my treatment team, I not only survived, I came out of the experience with a newfound appreciation for the sacred value of my life.
I’ve dedicated myself to being vigilant and prepared. Maintaining stability takes work, and I never let my guard down. Thankfully, through my experiences I’ve developed an arsenal of tools to help me cope with future hardships, no matter what they may be.
I see a therapist, and I journal to keep track of my inner dialogue. I take my medications as directed so I have a solid foundation upon which to build. I get enough sleep so my mind can recharge and function properly. I exercise and eat healthy vegan foods to nourish my body, because mental and physical well-being are interdependent.
I’ve adopted specific preparatory behaviors that ensure I’m ready for the next emergency. Years before everyone was stocking up on toilet paper, I always stashed extras of everything from toothpaste to canned beans. I always have backup medications on-hand in case something unexpected happens, whether it be a pandemic or a hospitalization. I share important information with a few trusted friends and family members like passwords, bank account information, medication names and dosages, and doctors’ contact information.
I’ve been emotionally readying myself, too. I’ve had to learn to adjust to change, to life not being like it once was. I’ve been forced to cope with and overcome a range of emotions on both ends of the spectrum and everywhere in between. I’ve faced instability and uncertainty while finding new, creative ways to adjust. And through it all, I have focused on physical and mental self-care.
When news of COVID-19 began surfacing, I, like many others, panicked at first. ‘How am I going to handle this?’ I wondered. I had nightmares in the beginning about the planet falling apart. Up until recently, I thought my bipolar disorder meant I was made of glass, ready to shatter at the slightest jostle. A global pandemic seemed like an earthquake. How could I, with my mood disorder, ever hope to endure such seemingly unsurmountable odds? I thought I was at a disadvantage because of my mental illness.
And then it hit me: I’ve been preparing for this my whole life because I live with a mood disorder. Making it through my depressive episode and managing my mood instability had already enhanced my resilience and adaptability. While I’ve watched other “normal” people wrestle with new emotions and fears they don’t recognize in themselves, I feel like an old pro.
My brain has run the gauntlet. I’d argue that I’m better prepared to handle a crisis because disaster and collapse is nothing new to me. I know what it’s like to navigate anxiety, depression, triggers, traumas, negative thinking, rumination, hopelessness and helplessness on a daily basis. I’m creating new neural pathways because I’m learning effective coping strategies along the way. I’m better prepared to handle what we’re all going through right now. And I’m handling it much better than I ever thought I could.
I didn’t triumph over catastrophe, trauma and a suicide attempt just to lie down when faced with a pandemic. I’ve adapted to tragedy beyond my control before. I didn’t fight my way out of the depths of despair just to let a new crisis get the best of me now. Those were dress rehearsals. So, raise that curtain maestro, I’m ready step on stage and sing.