I have to admit that I didn’t know an awful lot about bipolar disorder. So in preparation of Shattering Stigmas, I read two books: When We Collided and An Unquiet Mind. One fiction and one non-fiction, these books gave me a fairly good idea of what bipolar entails. Still, there’s nothing like hearing it personally from someone who has it. Rebecca @ Vicariously! tells us more.
Forgive me if this is awkward. I’m good with words, but sometimes not the best at brutal honesty. At least, not when it comes to what I deal with on the daily. I’m not the best at being vulnerable, but I’m gonna try here.
I don’t like judgement. I don’t like to tell people I don’t have a job and can’t hold one only for someone to point out that my hair is blue and I went to a movie a day ago and if I can do that I can work. I don’t like for someone to see my five good days of the month and assume I’m immature or lazy or that I’m a rich girl who’s spoiled by her parents.
One of the most demeaning things I experience is when someone gets upset because I can’t perform at their level. ‘If I can do (insert painful thing here) then you can do (insert whatever they feel like you’re not trying hard enough or being lazy about here).’
Ableism at its finest. As it stands, the majority of people in the world are completely uneducated about mental illness. The only time they hear about it is when someone tries to justify a major crime. A lot of news stations contribute to the miseducation of the public at large. Statistically people who are mentally ill tend to be more of a danger to themselves than to others. However, with the lack of education and misinformation that is constantly peddled as truth on a television channel or news source people with mental illness face a lot of cruel and insensitive discrimination.
And as someone who, for the majority of her life, has really wanted to people to like her? It sucks. Listening to that rhetoric, pushing myself when I know I’m not in the right headspace has led to three of my psychiatric hospitalizations.
Nervous breakdown, med recalibration, and back home.
Oh. I forgot to mention. My name is Rebecca and I have bipolar disorder (among other problems).
There’s no cure for bipolar disorder. What works for one person doesn’t work for another. Some people can maintain stability and have a functional life without meds.
I am not one of those people.
I go through periods of time where I’m kind of balanced. I’m creative, getting stuff done, and functioning. I go out with my friends and I clean the house. I have the time and energy to do what seems like everything. It’s nice. I start contemplating going back to college, working on my music, writing, and I’m so productive. I love making lists and I love marking things off of them. I’m ambitious and goal oriented and kind of a Type A personality.
And while I’d love to consider that the ‘real’ me? It’s not the only mode my mind or body has. As much as like that version of me, she tends to only come out for the equivalent of three to four months of the year.
Then I get bad again. Either I’m clinging to everyone in my life hoping they won’t let me drown in my depression or I completely fall off the radar. No one hears from me. I don’t email. I don’t really leave my house.
When I’m bad, which is what I call my depressive episodes, it goes one of two ways. One way is numb. I don’t really feel much, nothing really impacts me the way it should. My mind is in hyper analytical overdrive, but I’m moving through molasses. Everything requires a gargantuan effort to achieve. I’m hollow and heavy, my legs struggling to get out of the bed to go to the bathroom and hold up the weight of my body. I can’t sleep so I lay in bed listlessly, staring at the books I should read, listing the things I want to do, the things I should do. The thing is I WANT to do them, but for some reason I just can’t.
Then there’s mode two which, unfortunately, dominates my depressive episodes. I eviscerate every move I make, obsessing over the implication of every thought and word, abusing myself with every attempt to communicate or misstep or criticism. I feel everything. Every bit of subtext in every word that I see or hear, the tone of voice people use. It feels visceral, like someone carving my skin up with a knife or an anvil on my chest preventing me from breathing or, even worse, crying. My anxiety is in hyperdrive. I talk myself out of every text or e-mail I try to write or every phone call I try to make, because I don’t like to ask for help. I don’t want to feel like a burden, I don’t want to be criticized, so I do one of two things: if I trust them? I tell them it’s a major depressive episode and that I’m having a rough time. I don’t really talk about it. I just kind of drop off the face of the earth and hope they understand. The people who I don’t trust and that don’t really know me? I tell them I’m struggling and that there’s a lot going on and drop off the face of the earth, hoping they’ll be there when I get back. But I don’t expect anyone to be. The inconsistency is annoying.
When my depressive episodes turn into major depressive episodes that means I may have to go on anti-depressants for some time. It also means more therapy, being extremely candid with myself, transparent with my doctors, and having to allow the people in my closest circle to weigh in with me if they think I’m becoming actively suicidal and need to seek inpatient help.
My US, my person for sixteen years, has had to hold my hand and help me check into inpatient treatment three times. My parents forcibly put me in treatment twice as a minor and once as an adult.
Getting inpatient help is hard and expensive. Due to the costs and insurance company policy, long term inpatient treatment is not available to me. However I do have the option of short term inpatient treatment. Short term inpatient treatment typically lasts three to ten days, and if you don’t show sufficient progress you can get transferred to a state institution or a private treatment facility.
As someone who naturally mistrusts authority figures (and people in general), this is so hard. While my psychiatrist will oversee my rehabilitation, inpatient treatment is structured. You have to surrender your free will and you have no control. To be fair, that’s kind of the point, because if you’re in there you’re a danger to yourself and others. I have to trust that people I don’t know have my best interests at heart. Everything you do is monitored and reported to your shrink and you are at the mercy of the clinical staff. You have to ask for food, medication, drinks, and, sometimes, permission to go back to your room. You’re required to go through group and one on one therapy, you have to be vulnerable. Everything you bring with you is screened through security. Depending on the facility, they can deny you books to read because they’re considered ‘harmful’ to your mental state. You aren’t allowed to have a personal phone or music device. Every phone call is monitored and on a schedule and visitation is from x time to x time. If someone is late they may make an exception, but mostly they don’t. It’s terrifying.
Inpatient treatment is a hail Mary, the very last resort. Sometimes, inpatient treatment means they need to monitor med changes to make sure I don’t get worse. And, believe me, it can get worse.
My life is filled with pill bottles and med changes. When my body acclimates to the meds and they stop working? We have to recalibrate them, a process that can take months to get right. In those months I’ll swing from angry, teary, withdrawn, and bitter to suicidal to somewhat tolerable. Sometimes I hurt myself just because my mind is so out of control and I just want to control some of the pain that I’m feeling. I actually relapsed earlier this year, in March, after refraining from self-mutilation for two years.
While the meds make me ‘functional?’ They aren’t miracle pills. A lot of the time it’s like trying to drive a car after you’ve blown out the tire and put the spare on that’s only gonna last about one hundred miles. You know you need to get that tire fixed, but sometimes the resources aren’t there to afford to replace it.
It causes me to be unreliable and I hate that. But I am. I’m very unreliable in some ways and, though I don’t like to admit it, it’s completely out of my control. I do not know what every day will hold. I do not know if the fog will lift, if I’ll be able to drive, if I’ll be happy, if I’ll be overwhelmed, or anything else. It’s not mind over matter. While outside influences can add to a mood, they aren’t what changes me. My bipolar disorder plays a large how I’ll feel. All I get to decide is how I’ll try to deal with it.
However, every situation, every sickness is different. Just like there are different types of cancer, there are different types of bipolar disorder and mental illness. What one person can handle, another may not or may deal with just fine. When I talk about this, I’m talking about my very own situation. I don’t speak for all mentally ill people. That said…
As an overly analytical woman, my mental illness factors into my decisions. Due to the fact that pregnant women can’t safely be on psychiatric meds and mental illness can be passed genetically? I decided I would not have children of my own a long time ago. I can’t bring a child into the world with a mother who can’t take care of them. I don’t really go out and get drunk because it can interact negatively with my meds. I can’t have a credit card and a lot of people who live with bipolar disorder are encouraged not to have one, because reckless binge spending (or what I call expensive retail therapy) can happen during a manic or depressive cycle. I have to get extensions for assignments when I’m in school and I have to put my mental health before my schoolwork.
I’ve had to choose my mental health over a lot. See, whether I like to admit it or not, my mental health is the deciding factor on my life. Every time I’ve gone off of my meds I’ve gotten into some pretty bad situations, a few of which landed me in a hospital being force fed charcoal.
I know a lot of people with bipolar disorder. I know a lot of people who manage with or without medication and I know a lot of people who refuse it. When I have a hypomanic episode I am bizarrely productive. I get by on three hours of sleep a night, get halfway through writing novels, plan universes, write seemingly endless songs, paint, draw, write poems & essays, and there’s no end in sight. It’s like I have a superpowered creativity. It’s an amazing high. I have all the energy and time in the world. It feels like the first time I tried drugs. I am confident, unstoppable, and amazing. I feel accomplished and I soar. You cannot tell me anything. I do really really well during a hypomanic episode. Without meds I have them three to five times a year each episode lasting anywhere from a week to a month. With meds…I can go years without having them. For someone who is artistically inclined this feels like someone has completely shut my brain off. On really bad days, days where I’m staring at a computer screen trying to type something that isn’t utter shit…it feels like I’ve lost limbs that there aren’t prosthetics for.
So, for me, it really came down to would I rather be creative and keep my work going, but get progressively worse during a depressive episode and attempt suicide or shut myself down to half capacity at all times so that I can continue to live. I stress this again. This is how I experience this, this is about me. I did have to choose between the two most important things to me. When I’m not medicated I do attempt suicide during a major depressive episode. I get so low. I don’t see anything anymore and I feel like I’ll never be happy again. After going on and off medication from ages fourteen to twenty one, I finally chose to protect my life after I chose to spend the four months after my Nana’s death in a blur of alcohol and drugs. I got it together the best I could so that I could attempt to live. I have a lot of people I love and a cat that brings me immense joy. That has been enough. On my worst days my nephews smile at me and I remember that there are good things to stick around for and, while I need to be healthy for me, there are people I do want to and need to be around for.
It isn’t all bad. It’s hard, incredibly so, and everyone’s situation is different. However, being diagnosed with bipolar disorder helped me get help I needed and gave me an explanation for a lot of things I do. It taught me empathy, to never assume what someone’s going through because everyone is different. It taught me to appreciate the good moments. It taught me to fight and fight hard. I learned a lot. I’m thankful for what I’ve learned.
Bipolar disorder isn’t who I am, but it’s a part of what makes me who I am. I’ve made peace with that. It’s hard and it sucks and I will have days that I don’t feel so great about it, but that’s part of this illness. My brain is sick and I’m going to deal with it for the rest of my life. It will not just affect me, but it’ll effect the people who choose to be in my life.
And, while my pain is valid and I refuse to invalidate anyone else’s experience, there are worse things for me to deal with than my bipolar disorder.