Guest post by Paul.
Hello! I’ve got bipolar disorder. Whew, feels good to admit that publicly!
I’ve encountered many people who misunderstand bipolar disorder. They seem to think patients have a sane/crazy switch for their emotions, like a Jekyll and Hyde roulette wheel that’s spun every few minutes. But that usually isn’t the case. These kinds of misrepresentations fuel stigma and prevent people from getting the treatment they need.
The only remedy’s the truth: the awful, sometimes bloody truth. I suffer from Type II Bipolar Disorder, which is characterized by hypomanic and depressive episodes. Here’s an overview of how I experience these altered states and how they affect my life.
My hypomanias are intense and can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. They’re more contained than full manias, but carry their own set of problems. Here are a few hallmarks:
- My self-confidence goes through the roof. The world’s my oyster and all I need is gumption, which is available in large supply. Life’s short and I intend to do everything I can in that time.
- I take on far more responsibilities than I could possibly handle. Promises are something that I don’t need to worry about until the future, which is a long way off.
- I don’t have time for food. My appetite is replaced by alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine. When I do try to eat, it’s scarcely more than a few bites of peanut butter and oatmeal.
- I’m unable to sleep for more than an hour or two at a time. But that’s alright because sleeping is the last thing I want to be doing. It’s a waste of my precious time.
- My mind is flooded with ideas. It frantically jumps from one to the next. When talking to people, I’m a blur as I try to share my vision.
In short, my mind is a derailed freight train and I neglect my physical needs. An overload of thoughts and stimuli has driven me off the tracks. With this new unhinged “freedom,” I tend to barrel down one of two paths.
The first results from a deluge of ideas feeding into each other. One thought leads to the next ten and before I know it, I’m totally immersed in a project. I’m obsessively productive during these phases and will explode at anyone who attempts to distract me. The project will dominate my existence and I’ll work nonstop until it’s done or I collapse.
Other times, the ideas are unchained. Under these circumstances, I can barely follow a conversation and struggle to process events as they happen. I can focus on an activity for about five minutes before dropping what I’m doing, irresistibly pulled in some orthogonal direction. It’s impossible to watch a half-hour television program, let alone do something productive.
In either case, the scariest thing about my hypomanias is the lack of self-control. It’s like I’m on fire and there’s no time to fully contemplate my choices. This can sometimes lead to positive outcomes; I came out as bisexual during an episode. Other times, maladjusted thoughts take over. There was a week when I was convinced that my life goal was to start a non-profit… despite lacking any entrepreneurial knowledge or experience. In hindsight, I find a bit of grim humor that people can mistake this effect of my illness as high-functioning behavior.
My depressions aren’t struggles – they’re surrenders. I’m gradually paralyzed into a subhuman cocoon, overwhelmed by anxiety and fixated on the futility of my endeavors. An episode can last for months. If my highs are like being on fire, then my lows consist of crumbling to ash.
By now, I’ve had enough depressive episodes to recognize their warning signs. In the early stages, I can still function. I’ll go out with friends and even laugh sometimes. But I start feeling more and more detached, zoning out while happier people are talking. I can’t understand how they’re so ignorant and free; and that dissonance will slowly make them intolerable.
Strangely, my depressions share some symptoms with my hypomanias. Insomnia will take over again, but now I’ll lie awake pondering the ways I’ve failed my loved ones or planning my suicide. In the manias, I’m never unconscious for more than an hour or two. In the depressions, I’ll sleep 17 hours straight because getting up to face reality is unbearable.
Another repeated symptom is my loss of appetite. When my depression starts spiraling out of control, a void grips my stomach. I get nauseous and dry heave. Then, after staring into space for hours, I tell myself that I don’t deserve food. Somehow that logic makes makes sense during a low.
Self harm is the most visible consequence of my depressions. I might end up with new scars if left alone with a knife or a lighter. Analyzing this terrible habit calls for its own post, which I plan to do in the near future. As for now, I’ll just say that it never takes long to regret mutilating myself.
But the most frustrating part of my depressions is their pointlessness. They’re rarely initiated by a concrete problem. I was massively stressed when my grandmother died during the last round of my graduate qualifiers, but still had enough will power to pass. In contrast, a depression can leave me bedridden, clueless about the origin of my distress.
The more I dwell on my depression’s irrationality, the worse it makes me feel. There are important problems in the world that need solving. Stuff like racism, sexism, famine, war, poverty, disease, and everything else. But here I am, an ungrateful shit with a cushy life who has absolutely no excuse for feeling so shitty.
As those thoughts tighten their grip, it gets harder to escape. I close off avenues and quarantine myself. I don’t want to bother my friends and family with my trivial troubles. They’ve got better things to do than worry about a sad idiot.
The worst part of bipolar disorder is knowing that I’ll never get better. It’s not like a cold; it’s hardwired into me. There’s no way for a doctor to reach in and “fix” my brain. Instead, the possibility of an unexpected swing always looms over my future. These ups and downs are just something I’m stuck with until I kick the bucket. And that is so goddamn frustrating.
So I try to focus on what I can do – like reaching out for help. I started seeing a councilor and he helped me come to terms with my disorder, to not feel ashamed of it. He eventually convinced me to see a psychiatrist and I began taking medication. The pills aren’t a panacea, but they’ve aided me in maintaining balance. The past two years consisted of careful experimentation, searching for a practical combination. This process has been trying, but I’m much healthier overall.
Yet it’s writing that’s helped more than anything else. I used to repress my pains while they developed into grotesque demons. My fear was stubborn and silencing. Writing hurts too, but it’s a cathartic pain. Blurting out these words compares to the ache after a five mile run or the pang following a tragic hero’s downfall. It’s self-expression and it’s cleansing!
It’s been difficult to open up to loved ones about my disorder. Most of them don’t fully understand it, but they’ve still been extremely supportive. They help me recognize my hypomanias and avoid making reckless decisions. They’re also the ones who assure me that I’m not a waste-of-space-fuck-up during a depression. In either state, or anything in between, they’ve got my back.
If you think you have bipolar disorder, please reach out to someone! It’s a disease and there’s no shame in seeking help. If you’re not comfortable opening up to someone you know, there are places where you can get help anonymously and confidentially, such as Contact USA. It might feel weird at first, but it’s worlds better than suffering alone.