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.
It’s that time again, and with the beginning of a new year, it’s easy to get swept up in the idea of a fresh start. Lots of people make new year’s resolutions, but not everyone sticks to them. With bipolar disorder, it can be even harder to keep those promises to yourself, even when you have the best intentions. Things like unexpected mood swings, reactions to surprise triggers, and just life in general can get in the way, making it near impossible to live up to the grandiose pledges we make to ourselves after the holidays are over.
We’re smack dab in the middle of the holiday season right now, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt a little too jolly during this time of year. I’m jubilant, extra outgoing, and full of buzzing excited energy. I adore the spicy smells of mulled cider, glittering string lights and cozy inviting fireplaces. People are friendlier and more generous with sincere sentiment as they wish you a Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukah. The world comes alive with a positive energy that’s infectious. ‘Tis the season, so they say. Everything is brighter and shinier during the holidays, and this overstimulation can be a dangerous thing for someone with bipolar disorder.
I grew up with a bipolar dad who committed suicide when I was 24. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder four years after he died, when my delayed reaction to his suicide triggered my first depressive episode. Before my diagnosis, I struggled with unexplained racing thoughts, impulsive behaviors, and conflicted relationships. I always knew there was something wrong with me, but I didn’t know what it was. It wasn’t until I had a psychological evaluation, underwent therapy and found the right mood-stabilizing medication that I was able to finally find peace within myself. I’m thankful to finally have an answer as to why I made so many bad decisions. Here are five reasons I’m grateful for the insight my bipolar diagnosis has given me.
- I can explain my behavior.
From sleeping with strangers to getting arrested for shoplifting, I struggled with impulsive, destructive behaviors for years. I’m not saying my bipolar disorder was an excuse, but it’s given me an explanation as to why I compulsively made so many mistakes that hurt myself and those around me.
My eating disorder started in high school, but it really got into full swing after I split from my fiancé of four years in 2009. It was a rough breakup and I was devastated. I withdrew from people around me, ignored phone calls and cried constantly. I lost the spark that makes me who I am. My body felt like a balloon with the air let out, lying limp and sad on the ground. I was in a depressive episode. Everything tasted metallic and bland at the same time. I’d sit down to eat, take a few bites and lose my appetite. “Why bother eating?” I’d think to myself, “What’s the point? I just want to die.” Yep, that’s depression alright. So of course, I lost a lot of weight. My clothes got baggier, and it seemed like every other day I was buckling my belt one notch tighter.
And something strange happened. People around me began saying things like “You’re so skinny, you look different. You look so pretty!” Friends I hadn’t seen in years were asking me what my secret was, how I lost so much weight. I’ve never been overweight, but when I went from a size 8 to a size 2 I got attention like I never had. Men were flirting with me (something I’m not used to) and women were showering me with flattery.
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 manic. 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.
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.
Be yourself. That’s a pretty universal piece of advice. Whether you’re applying for a job or going on a first date, it’s something we’ve all heard at one time or another. When everyone can see the real you, the relationships you build are authentic. But because I have bipolar disorder, I have a hard time even knowing who “the real me” is. Am I the bubbly, energetic go-getter who’s the life of the party? Am I the sensitive, introspective person who sometimes cries too often? Or are those behaviors expressions of my bipolar disorder?
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been outgoing. I was the kid who made friends with everyone. By the time I was 11 years old, my parents and teachers noticed my seemingly endless energy and my inability to sit still. I could be disruptive to class and exhausting to my parents. In my twenties, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. So was I just an energetic kid? Or was I hypomanic?
For those of us who have bipolar disorder, second-guessing your true nature comes with the territory. I don’t always recognize the person staring back at me when I look in the mirror. I was 22 the first time I took the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator. I came out on the extreme end of ENFJ, with an emphasis on the “E” for extrovert. Does the big “E” mean I’m really an extrovert, or is that my hypomania? Hypomania can be subtle. It can look to everyone (and sometimes even me) that I’m just someone with a lot of friends who loves to participate in social activities. But that’s also what an extrovert is. Sometimes it’s difficult to detangle my authentic self from all these labels.
Someone once asked me if I could get rid of my bipolar disorder, would I? My answer was no. No matter what I’ve been through, or how I’ve gotten to where I am now—whether it’s my bipolar disorder or my personality—I’m happy with who I am. Does that mean I ignore my illness and don’t take care of myself? Of course not. I recognize that I have a lifelong illness that needs lifelong care, just like diabetes or high blood pressure. I take my medication; visit the doctor regularly; get enough sleep, food and exercise; and try to keep things in perspective. I surround myself with a strong support network of friends and family who can tell me if they see me start to go off the rails.
I’m really lucky the meds I started in 2009 are still working like little champions to curb my mania and depression. Not everyone finds a drug cocktail that works. Wellburtin and Trileptal have been my saviors.
I’ve tried so many antidepressants, anticonvulsants, and antipsychotics it’s been hard to keep count.
So let me see if I can remember all the meds I’ve taken and what they did for me:
Neurontin (when I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder).
Result: I stopped taking it because I didn’t notice a difference.
Concerta (my doctor thought I may have ADD – I was diagnosed ADD when I was a kid).
Effects: I was cracked out, like I had taken speed.
Result: Since my doctor only gave me 1 pill as a test to see if I had ADD, and I reacted the way I did, he deduced that I didn’t have ADD, so I only took that one pill, once.
INTERESTING SIDE NOTE: I’ve heard from both doctors and people who suffer from bipolar that bipolar kids are often misdiagnosed with ADD/ADHD.
Result: Stopped taking it under my doctor’s supervision because it did literally nothing.
Effects: It just made me really sedated and sleepy, and I gained fifteen pounds. I can’t put up with weight gain. I get so upset that I’ve gained weight (hello lifelong eating disorder) that I just refuse to take the meds. It helped my mania a teeny tiny bit but not enough to make me OK with gaining fifteen pounds.
Result: Stopped taking it under my doctor’s supervision.
Effects: I was suuuuuuuppppppeerrrr slow and sedated on it and I gained weight. So nope.
Result: Only took it for 2 weeks and then stopped on my own.
Photo by Thomas Iannaccone/Penske Media/REX/Shutterstock (6908974a)
Designer Kate Spade with a handbag of her own design on March 13, 1998 in New York
It’s such a terrible tragedy that we’ve lost Kate Spade. I was driving with NPR on and the moment I heard she’d committed suicide, my first thought was (and I even said aloud) “I’ll bet she had bipolar disorder.” I do that a lot, and too often, I’m right. Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, and far too many more that you and I don’t hear about on the news because they’re not mega-famous. As someone who struggles with bipolar, I was deeply affected by Kate Spade’s death.