Living with Bipolar Disorder
What it’s Like Having Bipolar Disorder
What’s the number one reason I’m hesitant, fearful, and anxious to tell people I suffer from Bipolar disorder? I don’t want someone’s perception or lack of understanding about what the experience of the disorder really is, to affect their perception of me.
I asked a few people what they thought Bipolar disorder is and here are some of the responses:
“Someone’s moods quickly change from angry to sad and the person is very unpredictable”
“Extreme happiness and extreme sadness”
“Really irritable and suddenly really upset and crying”
Although these things can surely be a part of the Bipolar experience, it is truly much more. If you’re suffering from this disorder, I hope you can be encouraged by my story and be reminded that Bipolar is just one part of who God created you to be. Although I’m fearful to share that I struggle with this disorder, I do want to raise awareness about what it really means to be diagnosed.
If you’re reading this and you have a loved one with the disorder, it’s important to create a space in that relationship, at least on your part, where you feel comfortable to ask questions. As someone with Bipolar, if I feel your compassion rather than condemnation in our conversations, I am a lot more likely to be transparent with you. It’s obviously not all on you to have a healthy space to talk about Bipolar disorder with your loved one, but it is important to do your part. For me, I feel important, empowered, and cared for when a loved one is intentional in asking me questions like the following:
How can I support you in this?
When and how often are you supposed to take your medication and should I be an active part in helping you stay compliant, or does that overstep my boundaries?
Is there anything I can be on the lookout for in regard to you possibly entering into mania or depression and how can I step in without you feeling attacked?
What are some things that can trigger an episode for you?
So, what is Bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder involves periods of extremely elevated mood, referred to as mania, and periods of extremely low mood, referred to as Bipolar depression. If not managed, these moods can become dangerous. The danger arises in the person’s inhibited thinking, and subsequently, their actions. A person in a manic state might purchase multiple cars when they don’t have the means to do so or, they might stay up for days on end with very little desire or need for sleep. Bipolar depression is a whole different beast and honestly, is very incapacitating for the person. Lack of motivation, suicidal thoughts with the intention to follow through, lack of appetite and weight loss, and paranoia about leaving one’s house are just a few examples of symptoms. These manic and depressive symptoms are just scratching the surface and can vary greatly depending on the person.
Many people with Bipolar remember the moment they were told they have the disorder, but it was much different for me. The first psychiatrist I saw misdiagnosed me and I began seeking treatment for things I was not suffering from. The second psychiatrist I saw never actually clearly told me I had the disorder. Instead, after months of seeing her, I was confused about what the hell I was experiencing and why I was on so many constantly changing medications, despite inquiring about them each time I saw her. Frustrated after my monthly check in with her, I walked out of her office with my session receipt in hand, hopped in my car, and pulled out my phone. I knew that after every session she wrote a diagnosis code on the receipt, and I had noticed that it had changed a few times, so I decided to google the one on the receipt I had just received. “F31.81 - Bipolar II (two) Disorder.” This is how I found out; not from the lips of my doctor, but from the internet, alone in my car. After another year or so, I was ultimately diagnosed with Bipolar I (one) disorder by two other psychiatrists.
So, what’s the difference between the types of Bipolar disorder?
Bipolar I and II are very similar in the fact that depression is present, but in Bipolar II, the experience of mania is a bit less severe and is referred to as hypomania. Bipolar I mania lasts much longer and usually interferes with a person’s life more than someone who experiences hypomania. Bipolar II also tends to come with more severe and longer lasting depression than Bipolar I, but this isn’t always the case. I have come across a common misconception that a person with Bipolar disorder has moods that are very unpredictable, when in fact, if the person is familiar with their tendencies and the way the disorder affects them specifically, their mood can be very predictable. The latter is actually an essential part of being able to manage the disorder by catching the symptoms before they escalate.
There are a few other types of Bipolar disorders, namely Cyclothymia and Unspecified Bipolar disorder. Cyclothymia consists of more intermittent highs and lows in mood and individuals suffering from this are usually able to continue their daily responsibilities. Being diagnosed with Unspecified Bipolar disorder means that the person does not meet the requirements of Bipolar I or II, or Cyclothymia, but still deals with changes in mood that are not normal.
For me and many with Bipolar disorder, the lows are extremely low and last for months on end. My most severe, and most recent depressive episode lasted 6 months and in the 5th month resulted in a suicide attempt and ER and psychiatric hospital stays. Unfortunately, this was not the first time Bipolar depression had me in its grips, as I had spent some time in the hospital twice before for suicide attempts.
When I’m depressed, it’s not just that I’m sleeping for 14 hours at a time or don’t want to turn the lights on during the day, but thoughts of killing myself rule the depths of the darkness in my mind. When I say I’m constantly thinking about suicide, I mean 95% of my thoughts throughout the day are centered around plotting exactly how I will do it and how I will leave things behind on earth in the most thoughtful and organized way. In my deepest depression I’ve experienced both visual and audible hallucinations. Dark figures sit watching me as I run or walk by, and screaming, chaotic voices dominate the darkness at night, all of which bring more paranoia to my daily life.
On the contrary, my highs are also extremely high. My therapist and I know by now that the first obvious sign that I’m entering into a manic episode is sleeping only a couple of hours a night, if at all, for days on end without being affected by my lack of rest. These episodes are extremely difficult for me personally, because they often come after a very long depressive episode and the high of mania feels like a euphoric switch from the paralyzing depression. It’s during mania that I especially don’t want to take my medication, as it stops me from staying up all night running through new ideas and plans to fulfill them, aggressively organizing my house, drawing intricate sketches, or whatever else my racing mind wants to do. I have some of the best workouts of my life when I’m manic because I feel like I have infinite energy, confidence, and power. These things sound productive and fun, but the truth is mania is very dangerous because it inhibits my thought process and I can end up making reckless decisions. If not managed, I become extremely agitated, paranoid, and begin to think and act in ways that are not characteristic of my true self.
I’ve been diagnosed now for almost 3 years and am still working on finding the right medication to manage my condition. The biggest hurdle for me in taking medication was, and quite frankly still is, acceptance that I have Bipolar and that I need medication to live a manageable life. I like to pretend I can handle the chemical imbalance in my brain with my own strength or that I can think my way out of the highs and lows. Not only this, but the side effects of medication are no joke and push me further away from wanting to take them. I’ve found some medications that work well in terms of managing my mood, but on the contrary, make daily life activities extremely difficult to press through. Finding medication to help me manage Bipolar has felt like running a marathon without any mile markers. I’m exhausted, frustrated, and ready to give up with every step I take forward because I have no idea where I am in the marathon. Somehow God has continued to bring people by my side to swoop me up into their arms and carry me along when I couldn’t run any further. I know if you’re reading this and have the disorder, you more than likely know exactly what I’m talking about here. My therapist once told me something that stuck with me and I hope it can bring you some encouragement as well. She reminded me that there are professionals out there dedicating their life to studying medication that can help people like us suffering from Bipolar. People WANT to help you, and not just that, they’re making it their life’s work to help make your life with Bipolar disorder more manageable. You’re not in this alone.
I’m not always experiencing one or the other - depression or mania. In fact, now that I’m learning to properly manage the disorder, I’m seeing that most of the time I can live with a balanced, healthy mood. Possibly more importantly, I’m beginning to grasp that I am not Bipolar, but instead, I have Bipolar disorder. I make mistakes and I’m sinful like everyone else, but my disorder doesn’t mean I’m not cherished and loved by God. I’m not any less worthy of love, forgiveness, support, or friendship, and I’m just as capable as anyone else on this earth. I was created in God’s image, with so many unique and interesting skills and characteristics that He has given me, so I can contribute to the world and glorify Him. I don’t have to be weighed down by this disorder, but I can use it to give strength to others and leverage the positive things that Bipolar has brought into my life, and so can you.