I have bipolar disorder. I was diagnosed in 2002. It wasn’t easy, but I learned to accept my diagnosis so I can stay healthy. I take my medicine every day. I get enough sleep, I exercise, and I do my best to avoid triggers.
I also try to pay attention to what’s going on in my head. You’ll notice I said “try to” there. That’s because with bipolar disorder often comes a stunning lack of insight. Sometimes I can barely hear my own thoughts, especially when I’m getting hypomanic. Ideas whiz around in my head so fast I can’t catch them. So I’ve learned to look for other cues. There are things I and others see on the outside that can indicate what’s going on inside my head.
One sign I know to watch out for is excessive shopping. I’m not like many other people with bipolar disorder who spend thousands of dollars at a time on luxury purses or flowers. I’m frugal by nature and I guess somehow my stinginess with money has luckily overridden my mood disorder so far. I’m not belittling the damage that can be done by mania that wreaks havoc on people’s bank accounts, but it’s not about the amount of money I spend, it’s about my behavior when shopping. I love to hunt for bargains, and ever since I was 13 I’ve considered thrift store shopping a sport. But I know I’m getting manic when I spend six hours at a thrift store, obsessively combing through every department, and leaving with Santa Claus-sized bags of clothes like an ’80s purple taffeta bridesmaid’s dress I just know I’ll wear at old wave night. That eats away at my checking account (those cheap prices add up) and wastes valuable time. Most importantly, it’s a sign that things aren’t quite right in my brain. I might not hear the little voice in my head telling me to buy all those clothes, but I sure can tell when I end up with bags full of stuff I don’t need.
Another indicator that I’m getting manic is my road rage. Atlanta has some of the most atrocious traffic in the country. Most people I know who drive in this city get frustrated with it. I often get irritated with how long it takes to get where I’m going. Whether it’s construction, a car accident, weather, pot holes, or just the sheer volume of drivers, driving in Atlanta is an exercise in patience for everyone, bipolar or not. I usually just get annoyed and roll my eyes when someone cuts me off in traffic. However, if someone pulls in front of me and I blow my horn repeatedly, ride up onto their tail, shoot them the bird and scream obscenities at the driver, that’s a sign that I’m getting irritable and agitated (2 signs of mania). I may not notice the thoughts in my head at the time (like hoping the driver runs off into a ditch and flips over) but I can definitely hear myself yelling.
So when I see (or hear) myself doing these things, I try to stop, take a breath, and say to myself “Hey Carrie, how are you feeling? What are you thinking?” I stop doing and start listening. Yes, I said “try to” again. That’s because sometimes I don’t realize it’s happening, but other people around me do. I’m very open with everyone I’m close to about my mood disorder. My boyfriend, my friends, my family, all know what to watch out for. I’ve made verbal agreements with the people I’m close to, to tell me when they notice my mania ramping up. And my end of the agreement is to listen to them. I, like so many other people with bipolar disorder, need this external feedback. The lack of insight that comes with this illness necessitates outside observation and communication. I consider myself lucky to have a strong support network of people who understand bipolar disorder and what to look for. It’s what’s helped me stay in recovery.