This is an incredibly personal post. Please act accordingly.
Everyone has parts of their lives they’d rather not have. I am not making the claim that my crap is worse than your crap. That’s not what this is about. This post is about my crap and how I live with it. It is entirely self centered and written to provide anyone who might be reading some information that may help them, now and in the future, should they so choose.
This is probably not the best forum for sharing this information. It lacks the time and space that are required to explain to someone else what it’s like to live a life that is entirely alien to them. You may think I am being melodramatic, you may think I am overreacting. If I feel inclined, someday I will catalog, in one place and with infinite attention to detail, every single thing that comes from living with bipolar disorder. Until then, suspend your judgement because you don’t have all the facts. I have lived with bipolar disorder since I was a teenager. I have the facts. I have perspective. What I am telling you is that this is part of my life and having to deal with it, having to continue to deal with it in some form for the rest of my life, allows me to tell you that having bipolar disorder is not something I would wish on my worst enemy, the most unscrupulous politician, the most heinous and deviant criminal. Life is hard enough without it.
For a little less than a year I have lived a life that, until it happened to me, I assumed was a myth or something that only happened for other people. A life whose main qualities were relative stability, regular good days, contentment, and general tranquility. After spending years fighting for this type of life and of living a life whose main qualities were prolonged fear, unpredictability, and way too many doctors appointments, transitioning to the opposite was a shock and delight. Of course I learned a lot during my years of turmoil, lessons that have served me well in times of tranquility. They have probably helped me prolong the period tranquility. Last night, I realized that something was wrong. I have been having trouble sleeping, I got sick (something that hasn’t happened in over two years), I’ve started forgetting things I normally don’t forget, I don’t care about things I normally care deeply about, my emotions are skewing towards the negative, I am having pronounced and disruptive mood swings, I have been feeling lonely, my energy level has decreased significantly- in short, I am in the process of a 180 degree flip and and the flip side is entirely composed of the worst shit ever. I know these signs, I have learned to pay attention to them. They are not suggestions that perhaps I need more fiber in my diet, they are a prelude to severe emotional upheaval. With any luck and skill, since I am aware that these are my warning signs, I can avoid the worst parts of the upheaval- hallucinations, terror, crippling anxiety, becoming a danger to myself and others, hospitalization- and compensate for the flip enough that I don’t suffer grievous bodily harm during the landing.
The likelihood that you will understand this is nonexistent. It’s impossible to truly understand what it’s like to have bipolar disorder if you don’t have it. The fact that every person’s experience is different, that there is a spectrum that, depending on where you fall on it, contributes to how you experience it makes it hard for someone who does have bipolar disorder to understand another’s experiences. Some facts: I am classified as having Bipolar Disorder I characterized by distinct episodes of major depression and mania, with psychotic features (I am so lucky.) I am a rapid cycler, meaning I have had more than four episodes of major depression and mania in a year. I also tend to experience mixed episodes, a blending of mania and depression. In classic parlance, what I have is manic depression. I have experienced terrifying aural and visual hallucinations, delusional thinking and beliefs, stretches of days where sleep wasn’t necessary or desired, crippling fear, exhaustion, and self hate. The early days of mania, often termed hypomania, are a blast. My thinking is crystal clear and flawless, I have the energy and drive to power through my endless to do list, I am charming and enjoy others immensely (since I normally lack most social skills and graces, this one is particularly interesting), and my creativity is at an all time high. However, for me, these symptoms last as long as a snowflake in Death Valley. In short order, I am suddenly irritable, snapping at everyone and everything. I have no energy but my mind speeds up and enters warp speed causing confusion and fear. Crying is a common occurrence. Inappropriate laughter is too. I lash out at nothing, sometimes physically. Paranoia becomes an intimate friend. I hate myself. If it continues, hallucinations, delusions, and very real danger join the party. In these periods, I do not recognize myself. In the beginning, right before being diagnosed, after the start of a very bad episode, I had to leave my first semester at college and when I arrived at the airport at home, my mother did not recognize me; I had physically changed. It’s a real life version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Let’s call it Dr. Iconoclast and Miss FUBAR (fucked up beyond all recognition.)
Since I know the ins and outs of the my disorder and have lived with it long enough to learn how to deal with anything it lobs my way, I know how to take care of myself. I take my medication faithfully. Medication is something that a lot of people with bipolar disorder struggle with. It can come with intolerable side effects (some I have experienced: a rare rash that could have permanently disfigured or killed me; a severe tremor that made it impossible for me to sign my name or hold a book and persisted for years; a side effect that made reading and comprehension impossible [since this is also one of the symptoms of bipolar disorder this one was particularly ironic]; severe double vision that once resulted in me stumbling off a curb into a street because I couldn’t see and had no depth perception or balance; a complete inability to do anything other than sit, stare, and drool [the drug’s nickname is dope-amax]; weight gain; severe lethargy… that’s all I can think of right now) and for some, the hypomania is an amazing feeling. It can be addictive. For me, while I acknowledge and enjoy some of the wonderful things that can come out of hypomania, it doesn’t last long for me and quickly morphs into experiences that one should never have. So I take my medication faithfully and for the most part, all that you see from day to day is myself. I avoid most of the horror show at the expense of less than two minutes a day. I’m happy to make that sacrifice. I also know the value of a support system and I cultivate mine. I know my warning signs and I know my triggers and take action when either of these show up (cough, perhaps not always as soon as I should, cough cough.) All of this preparation, all of this prevention, works for the most part. As life changes, as I change, sometimes even my best, most effective defenses only hold back the hordes for so long. They break through, I fight and suffer, survive, and move on.
As you are reading this, you are probably thinking that this isn’t too hard to understand. What you are missing, the thing I hope you always miss, is the emotions that accompany these experiences. Last time I had an episode, a comparatively mild but still utterly wretched, I came up with a metaphor, a way to try and explain the feeling of having bipolar disorder and it’s experiences for others. Imagine:
You have a favorite food. It is a food you never turn down and that, when you eat it, you experience your own version of heaven. One day, you decide to treat yourself to this food. It’s never been a problem to obtain. You go to the store and they don’t have it. You think they’re just out and go to another store. They don’t have any either. After the same experience at a third store, you ask someone what’s going on. They tell you that they don’t know, they just haven’t gotten any in. You go home, disappointed. As you are watching TV that night, a news bulletin comes up: your favorite food is no more. Suddenly, inexplicably, every source of your favorite food disappeared. You are faced with the fact that, for the rest of your life, you will never again taste the thing that makes you believe in the existence of a higher power, the taste that assures you, that, despite everything else going to hell in a hand basket, it will be ok, because you still get to have that taste. A sense of loss hits you like a heavyweight champion in a title bout. Your rock solid beliefs have a jackhammer taken to them. A cornerstone of your world is gone. As you come to grips with this fact, as you deal with the cravings that cannot be soothed, you learn to live without it. You adjust, adapt, and have reached a point where, when the craving hits you, it hits with the strength of a five year old. One day, you need groceries. You go to the store and as you are wandering the aisles looking for the Nutella and try to remember where it is (top shelf on the children’s food aisle) you see a display, a display that is showcasing the return of your favorite food. A celebratory booty dance in the middle of a grocery store does not seem like overkill in this situation. As you load up your cart with your beloved food, inwardly, a sigh of relief passes through you. The worst didn’t stay the worst forever. The world, which, unbeknownst to you, was slightly off kilter, is righted. You go about your life, with the fear that some day your favorite food might disappear again making rare and brief appearances. You tell yourself you’re overreacting. Then, one day, the whole scenario is repeated. Your favorite food is gone, forever. You experience the loss, raw and new and yet familiar at the same time. Because of past experiences, you entertain the hope that history will repeat itself and one day soon you’ll be doing another celebratory booty dance in the grocery store. History repeats itself. You present a scholarly article on this fact and receive accolades and awards. At the dinner afterwards, your favorite food is the star of the meal. And then, history repeats itself again. It’s gone. And while you are fairly certain that it will come back, you will never know for sure. You know and expect the loss. It comes, you deal, moving on. This is the rest of your life.
Replace the favorite food with a stable and secure life, amplify the emotions about a million times, and you have a pale approximation of living with bipolar disorder (please notice I said “living with” and not “having”.) There is a cycle of security, loss, destabilization, grief, hope, adjustment, joy, and a return to security that repeats itself ad infinitum. Despite having lived through the cycle numerous times, going through it never gets any easier. Sure, I probably learn a lot about myself and life and come out wiser but I would trade most of my wisdom for relative stability. I’m not asking for perfection. I would just like to be able to wake up each morning secure in the knowledge that there is no chance that my brain will suddenly short circuit and I and my entire life will plunge into chaos. That is the only guarantee I want. I will keep everything else, the intense emotional life, the intense self, and all the bad that can come with it. I just want to avoid the terrifying descent into utter chaos.
When someone tells me to just control my reactions and relax, especially when I am in the midst of an episode, I want to hurt them. Having bipolar disorder means that you only have so much control, over anything. How the fuck am I supposed to control my brain chemistry? You do know that brain chemistry is at the root of bipolar disorder, right? The chemicals in your brain, the one’s that regulate emotions, sometimes, for reasons unknown, suddenly get out of balance leading to your emotions becoming monstrous versions of themselves. THERE IS NO WAY FOR A HUMAN BEING TO HAVE GUARANTEED CONTROL OF THEIR BRAIN CHEMISTRY. Prescription medications can and do help, learning coping techniques helps, talk therapy helps, but NONE of these things will guarantee continuous balance of specific brain chemistry. I will say it again, because it’s a hard concept to grasp: dealing with bipolar disorder has nothing to do with strength, will, relaxation, boot straps, or any other absurd analogy meant to imply that if you just try really hard, all will be well. If that were the case, there would be no mental illness. Bipolar disorder is not something anyone wants because no one wants to be an emotional disaster of mammoth proportions.
Brain chemistry is complicated. Ask any psychiatrist worth the cost of their degree and they will tell you that and that EVERYONE’S is different. Pulling oneself up by the boot straps, relaxing, getting control, are all things that are hard for anyone to put into practice. Add to the regular vagaries of life a brain that has a propensity for deregulation and trying to control your emotions through sheer force of will is impossible. It’s easy to say “you can choose to be angry/happy/sad” and in some cases, that is true. That is knowledge I apply to my own life on a regular basis. But what should I do when there is no discernible reason for the sadness, when my thoughts become as tangled as the web of druggy spider, and the things I would normally do to change my mood either don’t work or are impossible to do because I can’t remember how? When I have a hallucination, should I simply say to myself, “stop seeing that imaginary terrifying creature that you think wants to devour your soul. It’s imaginary! Get a grip.” If you think that any of these things will work, and I cannot stress this enough, stay away from my blogthing, stay away from me, and please do the world a favor and remove yourself from the gene pool. If you tell me to do any of these things, I am liable to unleash a stream of vitriol with the express purpose of making you realize just how much of a waste of oxygen you are. If you do this, you are an asshole and are causing me harm. If you want to help, read up on bipolar disorder, realize that you will never understand what I go through, and offer your support, love, and protection. To get you started, my favorite book on the subject is An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison, who is a world renowned expert on bipolar disorder and also lives with that diagnosis. There are a few others out there I would recommend and if you ask nicely, I will provide you with titles. NAMI, NIMH, and the Mayo Clinic all have primers on bipolar disorder.
I will get through this, I will survive, and I will go back to my normal self. I know all of this. Reiterating this to me, over and over, is only going to piss me off and make me reconsider my relationship with you. I do not need platitudes. What I need from you is protection. By this I mean I need help doing daily tasks, rides to the unexpected/emergency doctors appointments, offers to take over some of my responsibilities, understanding that some of my actions are not of my choosing, support, being there at night when everything gets worse for me, listening and soothing me when I have a nightmare, and tolerating my heinous and vicious moods with the knowledge that this too shall pass (just keep that sentiment to yourself) and I will revert back to my normal, contrary, happy, sarcastic, blunt, energetic self eventually. Your love, support, and help will speed this process along. I know, that for most of you, you only mean well. I know that trying to relate to someone who is normally self reliant and responsible suddenly telling you that they are terrified, the slightest chore creates overwhelming exhaustion, and they lash out at the slightest of slights creates some serious cognitive dissonance. Here is my advice: do not try to relate. Now is not the time to share stories of your trials and tribulations, sorry, you are dealing with a person who’s struggling to survive repeated guerilla attacks coming from INSIDE themselves and while in most instances they are happy to listen to you rant and want to sympathize and help, right now it is all about them. For me, the constant friend, companion, and endless source of entertainment that is my mind has morphed into a faceless, nameless, utterly unrecognizable entity that is holding my real self hostage and torturing me with me ever active mind. It has control- the thoughts, feelings, and actions come from it for the express purpose of causing pain. Every once in a while, it allows me to get free, to remember hope, and then it attacks again, ties me down and redoubles it’s efforts to break me. I am a fighter. I will fight with every tool at my disposal. I will win and things will return to normal. Unfortunately, I have to go through the torture. This is why telling me I am strong provides no solace. When you are a hostage of your own mind, all the strength in the world doesn’t do a damn bit of good. What am I going to do, challenge my mind to a duel? The strength is there because I have survived this before, and in most parts of life, I put the strength to good use. All that my strength can do in this situation is help me hold on until I am released. I still have to contend with the barrage of horrific thoughts, the mass of conflicting and destructive feelings, and the pervasive fear.
At times like this, perhaps the worst part is the self doubt and loathing. The things I want, all my goals, suddenly seem unattainable and furthermore, are the foolish and naive desires of a damaged person whom no one could ever love and who should content herself with a quiet, uneventful life that minimizes any stress/excitement so there can be prolonged stability. Who wants to live with someone who can unexpectedly go off the rails and acts like the antithesis of a lovable person? When I am like this, I can’t even stand myself, so how can I expect someone else to willingly subject themselves to this for a lifetime? The insecurity is crippling. I believe this calls for some choice expletives: This is fucking bullshit.
Last thoughts: This is a excessively long post. It’s kind of angry and rant-y. It’s all true. Eventually, I’ll return to just really long posts that are mostly just rant-y and amusing.