Living with Bipolar Disorder

by October 9, 2015
filed under Activism
Topics ,

Jillian Nicole Portrait, Girl Named Shirl Photography

Jillian Nicole Portrait, Girl Named Shirl Photography

I’ve been living with Bipolar One disorder for the past 13 years, though I was only diagnosed three years ago. Having this disorder means that my moods cycle between two different states – depressive phases and manic phases.

I was 12 years old the first time I experienced depression. During these times of deep numbness, I would feel like I didn’t know who I was anymore. In these moments, I would wonder if I’d ever really felt happiness. Like maybe it was all just a wonderful, vivid dream – but never a reality.

On the other end of the spectrum, I experienced mania. For me, being manic meant speaking so fast that my thoughts couldn’t keep up, and slurring my words and jumbling my speech. It was the feeling of being at the top of a roller coaster, anticipating of the rush of the fall. I could feel it in my stomach and my skin and my hair. I was alive. I was electric. I was buzzing, on endless search for an unreachable high. I would shop and act only on impulse. And as hard as I would try, the gratification would never come. It would agitate me. Suddenly these brief feelings of euphoria would vanish, and in their place was nothing but irritation, over-sensitivity and hostility.

As the years passed, my illness went undiagnosed. And the longer it went untreated, the sicker I became. My world kept getting darker. I was losing myself.

I was 22 and studying education at university when it all came crashing down. After a decade long struggle, I finally waved the proverbial white flag. Enough of the destruction, chaos and shame. Enough of pretending like everything was okay when it wasn’t.

Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club, once said, “It is only after we have lost everything that we are free to do anything.”

Losing everything was my first step to recovery. But it doesn’t have to be yours. While there can be major gaps in our current mental health system, help is always available in some form. I just didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t know what was happening, but I was not going to let it defeat me. With the support of my now-husband, I called to schedule an emergency appointment with my doctor. She immediately referred me to a psychiatrist, whom I was able to see within a couple days. So, on the day of my 22nd birthday, I saw my psychiatrist for the very first time.

It was a tiny office, crammed with books. Somehow the psychiatrist managed to fit in a desk and some chairs. He reviewed the notes from my family doctor, and I openly told him that I was terrified of being there. I felt weak. In response, he assured me that what I was experiencing was in no way due to any shortcomings in my personality or in my coping skills. This wasn’t my fault or due to weakness or failure. Rather, something in my body just wasn’t working as it should.

From there, we discussed treatment options. Based on the evidence my psychiatrist had gathered, he placed me on a mood stabilizer. I was also referred for further psychological assessment, as there was a suspicion of bipolar disorder. Shortly after, this suspicion was confirmed in the form of an official diagnosis. I embraced this with open arms. Getting diagnosed felt like seeing in color for the first time. My life drastically changed for the better, because I finally knew what I was up against. I was overcome with the desire to become well.

I began volunteering as a Community Correspondent for Partners for Mental Health, a national organization centered on improving the way we think about mental health. PFMH provided me with something that had long been absent from my world: A voice. Through this role, I had the opportunity to share my experiences with mental illness in a public forum.

This lit a fire in me that I never expected. I discovered how strongly I believed in the power of sharing our stories. There’s no denying that there is a stigma towards mental illness. Many of us have lived it. By speaking freely about our experiences with one another, we have the power to make a difference in the way mental illness is perceived. Humanity has evoked so much beauty. We have torn down walls of oppression, built each other up and inspired one another to be better. We can eradicate stigma together. Together, we can make it so those of us who struggle with mental illness know it can get better. You matter. You are beautiful. You are important. And most importantly, no matter how this illness makes you feel, you are not alone.

In 2013, I finished my degree with a special focus in educational psychology. Entering the professional world, I knew I wanted to be in mental health. After a few months of hunting, I landed the job I’m at now. I work full-time running a program for a non-profit organization that delivers education on mental health to the general public. I develop programming that addresses stigma, and I have the privilege of delivering these sessions alongside a staff of lived-experience speakers. The speakers share their stories to address misunderstandings and to humanize mental illness. In addition, I teach a weekly recovery education class, as well as facilitating a peer support group for youth living with mental illness.

There are days when working in mental health non-profit is exhausting. But more often, there are days that fill me with so much passion, excitement and purpose. This is where I am meant to be. I am mindful to live what I teach. I am in recovery, but I am not cured. Bipolar will always be with me, and I work every single day to keep it from consuming me again. Adhering to my medication as prescribed, taking the occasional mental health day when I need it and realizing that it’s okay to practice self-care. The journey to recovery is a learning curve, and a constant process. It can be arduous, I admit, but the result is undeniably worth it.

I sometimes get asked that if somehow I could erase having bipolar, would I? I’ve experienced incredible pain at the hands of bipolar, as have my loved ones vicariously. There have been times where I thought I wouldn’t survive. But would I change it? No.

I will never be able to change the fact that I have bipolar. The only thing that I can change is how I choose to manage it. I have decided to deal with my disorder through purpose and optimism. If I didn’t have bipolar, I wouldn’t be where I am now. The people that have come into my life, the strength of the relationships I have had to build, and this job that I love – I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Life didn’t end after my diagnosis; it opened up.

Published in the Fall 2015 issue of FLURT.

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