Yes, I am laying it all out there right out of the gate. Just like that. I have bipolar disorder. I probably would never introduce myself to someone and say, “Hi! I’m Sarah and I have Bipolar Disorder!” And yet, it is as irrevocably a part of me as my green eyes or my curly hair or my size 9 feet. Except, having green eyes and curly hair and size 9 feet are all things much more widely accepted by people than having a mental illness. Especially when that mental illness has the stigma which bipolar disorder carries with it. Bipolar disorder: trumped only by schizophrenia in the chess game of psychiatric disorders. That’s why I decided to write this article. There’s a whole other side to this disorder that most people probably won’t tell you about, but I think it’s worth hearing.
So, you have a mental picture of what I look like, you know my diagnosis, and you could buy me shoes if you so desired. But who am I really? I am 22 years old, I am a Graduate Student in Clinical Mental Health Counseling (Surely you have heard that myth that therapists are the ones who need the most therapy? Yeah, not much of a myth after all), I have a penchant for remembering random facts, my life dream is to be on Jeopardy, I am convinced I should have been born in the 70’s, I have almost no ability to have an inside voice…you get the picture. You’re still reading, which means you want me to get to the good stuff, so I am happy to oblige.
I first figured out that something was amiss when I was 16. I was in my junior year of high school, I was getting phenomenal grades, I already had scholarship offers for college, I was the youngest editor-in-chief in my high school newspaper’s history, and I was in my first serious relationship. By all accounts, I should have been on top of the world. Yet somehow, I still wasn’t. Retrospectively, I can say that this was the start of my depressive episodes. At the time, I just felt alone and misunderstood. To be fair, this was also the time of the “emo kid” and so I didn’t feel all that out of place in my misery. My depression has always been easier to understand than my mania.
I had my first manic episode at 17. When people hear the words “manic episode,” they immediately assume things like crazy shopping sprees, or intense drug use. Those are features for some people, although I can’t much relate. Mania happens on a spectrum, and it can present in a lot of different ways. My mania started out as aggression. I would feel jumpy, irritable, on-edge, ready to jump down your throat at any moment. Sometimes I would jump down your throat. I would have violent outbursts. I put my foot through more doors than I care to recall. I was a train wreck to be around. I had virtually no filter between things that I thought, things that I felt, and things that are appropriate to be said aloud. I sabotaged the aforementioned relationship by punching him square in the jaw (with no sign of regret). My parents chalked it up to “raging teenage hormones,” which was an explanation I was all too happy to accept. Inside, I always knew there was something deeper beneath the surface.
There is a funny thing about mania that most people won’t tell you about: it can actually be really enjoyable. I discovered my love of writing through being manic. One of my major side effects is something author Terri Cheney dubbed “pressure cooker speech” in her book Manic. Pressure cooker speech is the overwhelming desire to speak to anyone that will listen about all of the racing thoughts you are experiencing. A manic mind is a lot like a mind on cocaine: imaginative, flitting from thought to thought, and overflowing with what all sounds like the best ideas anybody has ever had. In a manic episode, you are convinced that you are a supreme being, and all of life’s seemingly unanswerable questions can be answered by you. The problem is, your thoughts are so scattered, it’s hard to form intelligible sentences. That is how writing became my outlet: I would sit down and allow my “pressure cooker speech” to pour all over the pages. I felt like a creative genius, and to a certain extent, I was. My poetry won awards and gained recognition in my area. I felt unstoppable.
Mania heightens your senses, too. You feel, touch, taste, smell, see, hear everything intensely. It is wonderful and beautiful and confusing and overwhelming all at once. In a manic state, I could sit and study with hyper-vigilant focus. I could study for hours and memorize entire bodies of text. I was a part of choir since the 4th grade, and my singing was never better than those times when I was manic. It is in this way that it becomes harder and harder to discern the parts of you that are truly you, and the parts of you that are just your illness.
The name itself is a giveaway that bipolar disorder is a two-sided sickness. In high school, my depression was mild compared to the hell-storm that was my college years. From ages 16-18 I had a nasty habit of cutting my arms and legs, and even still have scars. In college, I found myself struggling to earn the grades that Manic Me earned herself throughout high school. Switching from mania to depression felt strangely like a loss of identity. I had no motivation. It hurt to even stand up half of the time, which made going to my classes an impossibility. In fact every task, no matter how small, felt close to impossible. My saving grace was that in a life where most things felt uncontrollable, my grades were the one thing I knew I could always control.
I experienced the worst spell of depression this past August, which came on the heels of the worst manic episode. This dramatic switch was so painful, so intense, so debilitating that I didn’t think I would ever live to write this. I was starting Graduate School, and I didn’t even have the energy to bathe myself most days. I did everything in a foggy haze of running on autopilot. I would go to work, get fast food for lunch (usually Taco Bell), drive home, get fast food for dinner (usually McDonalds), and then crawl into my bed. I packed on 40 pounds in no time at all. I spent all of my evenings and my weekends lying in bed in the dark, but couldn’t sleep most nights. I finally broke down to my boss about how badly I felt my life had spiraled, and she helped to get me into treatment.
I have been on a better path since November, but it has not always been easy. Perhaps the hardest part of recovering from a mental illness, and the part which people fail to address, is cleaning up the mess you made of your life while you were sick. Please let me be the first to say that when you are in a manic state, you make some of the shittiest decisions imaginable. You hurt people and you have no idea why. You feel no remorse, you don’t think twice–because you are invincible and unstoppable and your actions have no consequences. Except they do, and when you realize what you’ve done, it is shameful and terrible. When you are depressed, taking the time to care about anything is simply too much effort. You can’t bring yourself to care about you, so caring for other people is a completely lost cause.
My Zodiac sign is Libra, which is appropriate, because my life since getting help is all about trying to find a balance. It is astounding how your illness becomes engrained in your very existence. I find myself doing things, and realizing that they are residual effects from being either manic or depressed. Which brings me to the title of this piece, “finding the gray.” In having bipolar disorder, I always saw the world in a very black and white sort of way. The white was my mania—white-hot ecstasy and brilliance. The black was my depression—consuming, vast, deep, and seemingly without end. For a very long time, my life was dictated by these two mutually exclusive extremes. People hear gray and the connotation is generally negative. I feel quite the opposite. I try to find the gray every day because it represents my victory, and because there is so much beauty there waiting for me to discover.