I have bipolar disorder. I also have a career. Sometimes I feel like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. It’s important to take care of myself, but I also need to work. Should I practice self-care and stigma-busting by disclosing my mental illness to my coworkers and, most importantly, my employer? Or should I play it safe and keep my diagnosis hidden? I’ve been struggling with this question for fourteen years, ever since I started working as a freelancer in the film industry. I’m still not sure I have an answer.
It’s summertime! This is usually the time of year everyone goes on vacation. I love to travel. The reason I work and earn money at all is so I can go new places and experience different cultures and vistas. Unfortunately, because I have bipolar disorder, I have to be careful when I go on vacation, because travel can trigger my mania.
I recently read an alarming article about how the new Netflix show “13 Reasons Why” has been linked to a recent rise in the teen suicide rate. While I tend to take sweeping generalizations like this with a grain of salt (like when video games are blamed for violence and heavy metal music is blamed for satanism) I was astounded to see that a doctor with the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) authored the study. The study says that NIMH as an organization is not responsible for the findings of this one doctor, but nevertheless, they still urge caution in regards to exposing teens to this hugely popular TV series.
Being depressed feels like being trapped under a heavy wool blanket. I can’t breathe, I can’t see, I can’t move. The immense weight of the world around me is almost unbearably oppressive. I get lost in my own mind as fearful, anxious thoughts overtake my brain. My muscles and bones ache, and I feel stiff and immobilized. I just can’t seem to move my body enough to get myself off the sofa or out of the house.
When I’m manic, blindingly bright electrical impulses fire rapidly through my head. Things that normally feel good are intensified tenfold. Food tastes incredible, music sounds melodious and meaningful, and colors appear more vivid. Like the rush of dopamine that comes with the high of a powerful drug, it’s pretty amazing. Sounds great, right? The problem is, ideas dart around in my mind so rapidly that even in the middle of a pleasurable experience, I can’t simply enjoy it, because I’m focused on chasing the next one.
In both scenarios, my body gets lost in the whirlwind created by my bipolar mind.
I just turned 45!
I have mixed emotions about it. On the one hand, I’m happy that I’m healthy (both physically and mentally), stable (bipolar disorder-wise), and I have a wonderful life. I have a fantastic, sensitive, caring boyfriend who I just celebrated my 5-year anniversary with in December. My mom is alive, healthy, and lives nearby (we’re even getting coffee tomorrow). I have amazing friends who are supportive. And I not only have a career I love, but I’m also writing a memoir that I think I’ll be very proud of once it gets published (or even if it doesn’t, because just writing it is meaningful to me).
But of course, 45 is also a scary sounding age to me. I’m getting older.
I love technology. I can keep in touch with friends all over the world through social media. With the click of a button I can order groceries, shoes and furniture. I can even use apps on my phone to change the temperature in my house or turn my living room lights purple. Having easy access to so many things can be wonderful, but it can also be dangerous, especially for someone with bipolar disorder. I’ve discovered six ways technology can fuel bipolar symptoms like mania and depression, and I’ve found solutions that work for me. They may work for you, too.
My dad, Jack Cantwell, had bipolar disorder and died by suicide in 1998. When I was born, my mom gave me the name Carrie Ann Cantwell. I was born with my dad’s last name.
I had a strained relationship (if you can call it that) with my dad. His bipolar disorder made him moody, unpredictable and scary to me. He was either lost in another world in his head (he was there, but not there) or irritable and snappy. When he was in a good mood, I always approached him with caution because I knew it wouldn’t last. I got my feelings hurt many times, getting my hopes up when my dad would pay attention to me, and then having them dashed when his depression would always inevitably return. I felt rejected and unloved. My relationship with my dad and his bipolar disorder, combined with my own bipolar diagnosis after he died, affected me so much that I’m writing a book about it called Daddy Issues: A Memoir.
I have bipolar disorder. I’m lucky that I’ve found the right cocktail of antidepressants and mood stabilizers that work for me. Of course, like everyone with this illness, I struggle, and I’m not immune to having episodes. But because I take my meds every day, and I practice self-care by getting enough sleep, eating healthy, exercising and avoiding triggers when possible, I’m generally stable and high-functioning.
I need to pay bills, and I require health insurance to cover medications and doctor visits. I’m not on disability, so I have to work. Like many people with bipolar disorder, I experience challenges in many aspects of my life, including my career. I have to pay close attention to my day-to-day routine, so it’s imperative that I work in a job that fits my needs.
I watched the documentary God Knows Where I Am on Netflix last night. For those of you who haven’t seen it [spoiler alert] here’s the description from Rotten Tomatoes:
“Linda Bishop was a loving mother, a well-educated and happy woman. Then her body was found in an abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse, marked by cold and starvation. What was once Linda Bishop had quickly become a mystery, accompanied by her diary that documents a journey of starvation and the loss of sanity. For nearly four months, Bishop, a prisoner of her own mind, survived on apples and rainwater during one of the coldest winters on record. Waiting for God to save her. As her story unfolds from different perspectives, including her own, we learn the heartbreaking reality about a systemic failure to protect those who cannot protect themselves.”
I’m so saddened and moved by this film. Much of the movie is someone narrating her diaries, and I really felt what it must be like to be inside her head. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar, bipolar with psychosis. Whatever it was, her words resonated with me. I felt what it must be like to lose one’s mind.
This is an old diary entry of mine from 2009, and it really captures what’s going on in my mind when I’m hypomanic:
I went out to a club last night where a friend was DJing. I had a blast but forgot to take my anti-mania meds. I also had a flask full of vodka that I poured into the $3 cokes – 3 of them.
I did have a great time and lucky for me, only drank that vodka and it was good quality. So last night was a nice, clean drunk with no blackouts and no hangover today.