1. Getting diagnosed sucks — but doesn’t change anything.
Receiving a diagnosis of any chronic mental illness sucks. In an instant, all hope of your symptoms being part of a “phase” that you will eventually “outgrow” is effectively erased. This is for life, baby — there’s no escaping it. Medication, therapy and regular psychiatrist appointments are now a permanent part of your future. I hope you have good medical insurance.
The best thing anyone said to me after I received my diagnosis of Bipolar II Disorder came from my dad; he simply said: “You are still you. This doesn’t change anything.” Being diagnosed can feel like a life-changing event, but really it isn’t. You now have a name for the demon you have been fighting for however many years, but this fight is not new. If anything, you are now better armed for battle via appropriate medication and therapy.
Once I got over the initial shock of being diagnosed, I found it to be liberating. Finally, there was an explanation for why I had been feeling like this for the past 15 years, why the antidepressants hadn’t worked, why my parents had to take me to a psychologist at age 10 because I was angry all the time. Once I decided I was not ashamed of this diagnosis, I actually breathed a sigh of relief.
2. Wanting to talk openly about our mental illness is not attention-seeking.
Not only does this mindset force people with mental illness to internalize when they are struggling, but it makes them feel invalid when they do bring up their illness. I have always been fairly open when it comes to discussing my mental illness with friends and family, but nevertheless I often struggle with this idea that if I talk about my symptoms people will think I am only doing so in an attempt to garner sympathy, when in fact I am merely talking about what is going on in my life. It just so happens that what is going on in my life at the moment is a total brain cluster fuck.
I am a firm believer that you shouldn’t take yourself too seriously, even (and perhaps especially) if you are mentally ill. Finding the occasional humor in having bipolar disorder is a pretty effective coping mechanism; without it you are signing on for a miserable existence if all you focus on are the negative aspects of the disorder, of which there are many. I am not oblivious to the fact that my jokes about having bipolar disorder sometimes make others uncomfortable, but to be honest I can’t say that I care. Laughing at the stupid shit I do keeps me sane. (Relatively.)
3. Having bipolar disorder is more complex than mood swings.
Bipolar disorder is probably one of the most oversimplified mental illnesses, with many people believing that it is nothing more than mood swings on steroids. While vacillating between extreme highs and lows is one of the defining symptoms of bipolar disorder, this is not the only — or even the most debilitating — symptom.
There are two different classifications of bipolar disorder: Bipolar I and Bipolar II. What many people get wrong about the difference between Bipolar I and Bipolar II is in assuming that they are two points on a spectrum, with Bipolar I being the more serious diagnosis while Bipolar II is less severe. The reality is a bit more complicated than that.
Bipolar I is characterized primarily by mania, which may include periods of psychosis, delusions of grandeur, hallucinations, hyper-sexuality, and impulsive spending. Bipolar II on the other hand is characterized primarily by depression with episodes of hypomania, a less-severe form of mania that may include racing thoughts, sleeplessness, forced speech, impulsivity, irritability, and over-inflated self-confidence. While individuals with Bipolar II have not experienced full-blown mania, they tend to spend significantly more time in a depressive state and are considered to be more at risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors than those with Bipolar I or unipolar depression.
There are also these fun things called “mixed states,” wherein you simultaneously experience symptoms of depression and hympomania/mania. Trying to explain this to someone who has never experienced it is like trying to explain color to a blind person.
The best way that I have found to put it into words is to say that it feels like I am vibrating out of my skin; I read something recently that described it as “exploding in slow motion,” which is also pretty accurate. These episodes are often physically uncomfortable and/or painful, can last for hours or days at a time, and at their worst are completely debilitating.
Finally, living with bipolar disorder does not mean you never experience periods of stability. Between episodes of hypomania/mania and depression, there can be spans of days, weeks, or even months where you experience no significant symptoms — which feels fuckin’ fantastic.
4. Medication is a band aid.
I’m not going to waste time going into all the reasons there is no shame in taking medication. Bipolar disorder is an illness. When you are ill you take medicine. End of story.
Medication doesn’t cure you of bipolar disorder, though — it’s not like taking an antibiotic when you get strep throat. While medication helps (a lot), it does not render you asymptomatic; you can be on medication and still experience symptoms, the medication simply reduces their severity. I like to think of medication as a band aid: it may cover up the wound, but it’s still there (and sometimes it bleeds through a little bit).
5. Mood swings can be sudden and unexpected.
Sometimes you can feel depression or hypomania/mania slowly creeping up, and sometimes they come crashing down and hit you in the face like a thousand bricks. And because life has a funny sense of humor and there is nothing convenient about having a mental illness, mood swings seem to almost always hit at the most inopportune moments: while you’re at work, on vacation, on a date, at the gym or at the bar with friends. Once while on a spring break cruise in college I suddenly began (inexplicably) crying during a stand-up comedy show, of all things.
There are some hilarious and extremely relatable posts about living with bipolar disorder on Tumblr. One of my favorites that sums this point up quite well is a post with the following dialogue:
“Brain: It’s crying time
Me: But I’m not feeling anything rn
Brain: Did I fuckin’ stutter?”
6. Our actions feel 100% rational — in the moment.
I think a lot of people tend to underestimate the level of self-awareness people with bipolar disorder have about their illness. Believe you me, we are fully aware that our mind is a rampant shit show. That said, rational self-awareness regarding our sometimes impulsive or strange behavior and actions tends to come after the fact. In the moment, throwing away half your wardrobe in a hypomanic cleaning frenzy seems like a brilliant idea. (Throw away ALL THE THINGS!) At the time, we are fully justified in throwing a full-blown adult temper tantrum because where the FUCK did our favorite pair of striped cat socks go?! We need $5,000 worth of new tupper ware. Last week our life purpose was to become a professional cheerleader; now we know it is really to save the turtles in the Galapagos.
I wish I had a dollar for every face palm moment when I realized just how ridiculous or reckless something I did or said that felt fully rational in the moment truly was. You have to find humor in these moments, though; constantly kicking yourself in the ass gets real old, real fast.
7. “It can be exhausting and overwhelming to be in your own skin.”
This is one of my favorite quotes by Cassie Brown-Bordley about living with bipolar disorder, simply because it is so true. One of the lesser talked about symptoms of bipolar disorder is the sheer mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion that accompanies it. There are days when it takes tremendous effort just to accomplish the simplest of tasks; when your limbs feel like they weigh 100 pounds and you have body aches down to your bones and getting out of bed seems as insurmountable an obstacle as climbing Mount Everest.
Sometimes just being you gets so frustrating and overwhelming that something as insignificant as running out of toilet paper can reduce you to tears. (Although let’s be honest, that can be a really shitty situation. Pun intended.)
8. We get migraines a lot.
And sore throats. And food poisoning. And nasty colds.
No one bats an eye when you say you are going to stay home from work or skip out on a social event because you have a headache, but tell someone you can’t show up because you’re depressed and need to take a self-care day and you’re labeled as lazy, a bad employee or friend, or a flake. Our society still views mental illness as being somehow less real than physical illness, and a lot of people still think you should be able to just “(wo)man up” and “get over it.” Until that changes, people with bipolar disorder are going to keep getting migraines. A lot.
9. Our loved ones mean the world to us — even if we don’t always show it.
People with bipolar disorder are notoriously hard to love. I hate that. I get it — but I hate it. At my best I can be the life of the party, and at my worst I might yell at you for sneezing too loud (sorry, Mom).
I know that I am not always the easiest person to be friends with, but those ride or die friends who continue without fail to show up for me when I am losing my marbles mean the absolute world to me. Through trial and error, I have figured out which of my friends can handle me at my worst and which ones can’t (or won’t). While I love them all, I have a special place in my heart for those who will put enjoying themselves at a Super Bowl party on pause to google pictures of kittens and text them to me in an effort to get me to stop crying over the most inconsequential of things. (Yes, I had a friend really do this, and yes, he is da real MVP.)