On Being Bipolar
Most people exist on a spectrum; They are either happy, sad, or somewhere in the middle. Their happiness may come internally or externally and is often short lived, and their sadness is usually a result of a situation or barrier. Most of the time people, live in an area called even-keeled.
This is the area most people with Bipolar Disorder want their lives to be continuously.
As someone who was diagnosed early in life, I can tell you many things. I could write an anthology on what it means to be diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.
My story begins at the age of 13. I was a bit of a loner and not a social kid. I often hid in the bathroom during lunch. I struggled so much in Junior High that the school counselor suggested my parents take me to see a psychiatrist. After a history and intake, I was told that I had social anxiety and to take medication (SSRI). Because of my brain chemistry, the SSRI led me to a deep depression. My therapist at the time saw this and recommended to my psychiatrist that he or she was wrong and that there was more under the social anxiety. Later, after meeting the criteria of Bipolar Disorder, with enough depressions and manias to meet an arbitrary categorization, I was deemed Bipolar at the age of 14.
It’s challenging to deal with a mental illness so young. For most of Junior High, my life was spent on mood stabilizers and anti-psychotics. As a result, my elementary school friends accused me of changing. They did not understand that I lacked any control over my brain chemistry. It was an incredibly lonely place.
So I built coping mechanisms. I spent a lot of time alone. I spent a lot of time learning who I was. I took on a lot of responsibility at a young age. I knew I was different, yet I had to take on a chronic illness at a young age, one that defined me for a long time.
Mania is usually the only thing that makes being Bipolar a little fun. I’ve had manias that have lasted four hours long. It’s like being on drugs without the drugs. I’ve come up with various public policy solutions. I’ve written down a huddled mess to answer “the meaning of life,” only to wake up and have no understanding of what it all meant.
Mania is so high, the only way to get out is to go deep down into the darkness of Depression. Depression is hard for people to understand because it is a darkness and a chemical reaction that seems so foreign to others. Why are you depressed? I don’t know. I feel helpless, hopeless, etc. I’ll never be anything to anyone. No one cares about me. If I died tomorrow, it would be forgotten. With my particular diagnosis, I see depression much more than mania.
Further, there’s something called mixed states, where one is irritable, agitated. With mixed states, I will have mania-like periods that are short-lived and then depressions that are smaller. These states usually signify to the brain that one must go back to maintenance. I should sleep more, eat better, go out in the sunlight, stop stressing over x,y,z, etc. These are coping mechanisms.
Finally, there’s psychosis. Psychosis is basically being incredibly delusional. This happens very infrequently for me, but it is the most fascinating part of the illness: The mind, this organ that is so unknown, can alter one’s reality. For example, I’ve believed completely that even though I cannot see that I am on fire, I am in fact on fire. My body responds to this by making my flesh feel hot, as what it might be if it were on fire. No common sense allows me to believe that I am not on fire. I proceed to take off all my clothes and look in the mirror for hours to see where the fire is. The fire is in my mind. The fire doesn’t exist. The fire is unexplainable. 6mgs of my go-to anti-psychotic and I’m back to even-keel, though zombie state.
I take medication every day so that none of the above will happen again. However, enough stress and the right circumstances, and I can fall easily into mania or depression. Like many physical illnesses, maintenance is essential. Sleep, eating right, exercising, getting sunlight, social interaction, etc. is pivotal to continue to be the even keeled human being I tend to try to be through life.
Here are things I’ve learned specifically from having this illness:
Taking care of oneself at an early age means that you’re not like your peers. You can’t get drunk on the weekends because your high school football team lost to its rivals. You can’t develop at the level your peers are developing because of side effects of medications. They don’t describe the effects of anti-psychotics as zombie-like and lack of personality for nothing. It is essential that one builds an identity separate from the illness for survival purposes. External stimuli will change your mood. Internal stimuli will cause you to believe untruths about yourself. People will tell you that you’re limited. People will tell you that you’ll never be capable of anything. The system will tell you that you exist here, and you should just be lucky you’re alive.
Luck, inner strength, and the drive to prove everyone wrong is a recipe for success. That, and taking your meds every day regardless of how “stable” you feel. I am incredibly lucky that my family loves me and cares for my well-being enough. Sometimes I think I’m an anomaly and other times I understand that what my psychiatrist tells me may be true. I’m his or her success story, finishing college and being employed means I am a testament to the power that you can fight your mind every day and come out a better person.
No one is defined by their illness. The illness exists in the mind and one takes medication to be the person under the illness. My psychiatrist will often help me see that the illness isn’t a barrier if you believe enough that life is a beautiful struggle for everyone.
Find a support system, find a few coping mechanisms, and find where you excel. Then go do that.