Thanks for reading this post! It was not easy to write. The most difficult part of writing this post was trying to make sure I covered enough facts and myths in order to not be misunderstood. I have tried my best to explain my own illness in my own words in a way that is hopefully simple to understand.
What is Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar Disorder is a mood disorder. To me, this means that I experience moods at a more extreme level than the average person. This does NOT mean that I have terrible mood swings one day and that I bounce back the next day with a different attitude. It's not that obvious. I have a chemical imbalance in my brain that greatly distorts my thoughts in deceiving ways. Thanks to medication, I am able to manage my illness and work on my thoughts and actions.
In fact, I have noticed that I lean towards feeling very sad during certain times of the year, like the winter. When I say very sad, I am referring to depression. Everyone feels sad from time to time, but depression is more severe because there will be days where I do not feel like taking care of my basic needs (shower, brushing teeth, etc.) or even getting out of bed. It affects my ability to function as a normal adult.
There are also times when I feel the exact opposite of depression--this is called mania. I'm sure you know how it feels to be very happy or excited about a person, situation, or event. Well, imagine feeling so happy and excited that you lose self-control and say and do inappropriate things (or things that you wouldn't normally do), engage in risky behaviors, and are unable to function well at your job and around family and friends. The aftermath can be can be really embarrassing. In my case, I happened to be using social media while going through an episode. Not a great combination at all, but it has interestingly enough helped me reach out to the world about something I do not always feel comfortable talking about.
So What Does Bipolar Disorder Feel Like?
I have had some friends embarrassingly admit their curiosity about the nature of my Bipolar Disorder. They often start off saying, "I know this is a stupid question, but..."
I honestly wish more people would ask me what it's like! Although it is called Bipolar Disorder, I often think of myself as being "Tripolar." Here's why:
Being Bipolar is like being a seesaw. When I say this, I don't mean that my illness is like being one of the people sitting on a certain side of the seesaw--I am referring to the seesaw itself! I see myself as the seesaw because I have to maintain a balance between two extreme emotions: my mania and my depression. This explains why Bipolar Disorder is also called Manic Depression.
Come On! Bipolar is Not a Real Illness, Is it?
Indeed it is. When I was first diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, it was very hard to come to terms with it. Coming from a religious black community, we don't necessarily believe in such things. Instead, we emphasize prayer and do not like the idea of having to take medication. It was very hard trying to accept my diagnosis while hearing from friends that "everybody has a bit of Bipolar in them!" or the recommendation of prayer over therapy.
Over the years, I have come to see why someone may feel skeptical about the idea of Bipolar Disorder. To be even more real, I want to share how my Bipolar Disorder impacts different aspects of my life when I have a depressive or manic episode:
1. Work & School
During a depressive episode, I would feel emotionally drained and tired. I had no motivation to get up and go to class and I would stay in bed the whole weekend. I would not be able to get any homework done and by my sophomore year at Dartmouth, this resulted in a bad pattern that started to take a toll on my grades, my social life--everything.
During a manic episode, I would have symptoms such as racing thoughts and irritability that made it impossible for me to sit still in class or even concentrate. I would have such overwhelming energy that it would just be mistaken for a very cheery attitude or silliness.
As a result of these episodes, I would either end up losing a job because I would later become hospitalized and would miss so many days of work, or I would end up withdrawing for the semester at school because I would end up missing so many days of class and would be very behind in school work. An important lesson I learned about withdrawing from classes is that, hey, somebody has to pay for that! Even if it wasn't completed, there was money invested, and you must pay. This brings me to my second aspect: finances.
2. Money & Spending Habits
As if losing a job is not hard enough as it is, money can be a major problem for people with Bipolar Disorder. I certainly cannot speak for everyone who has this illness, but for me in particular, I tend to go on peculiar spending sprees while having a manic or hypomanic (almost manic but not quite) episode. I am talking about maxing out credit cards, having plenty of bills from creditors, and finding myself in bad debt once I've come down from a manic episode. What makes the spending sprees unique is that usually they would come with some obsession, like animals or even an idea of saving the world by making tons of hula hoops using expensive Home Depot supplies.
Let me explain even more.
There are several symptoms of a manic episode that manifest over the course of several days or even weeks. I've noticed that the symptoms would start slowly in small ways and then quickly turn into a nightmare. What makes it difficult to stop these spending urges is that by the time I get them, I'm already dealing with racing thoughts, feeling unstoppable and powerful, and constant pleasure-seeking (also psychologically known as reward-seeking behavior). Whereas a normal brain is able to put limits on how much gratification it wants, the MANIC, Bipolar mind is always yearning for more and willing to indulge in risky behavior (like maxing out credit cards) to satisfy itself. What a mind trip!
3. Relationships with Family & Friends
I have had several episodes over the past 3 years. I am starting to lose count. And part of me feels like some have started to lose hope in me. I feel like the Boy Who Cried Wolf--how many times will I have to get hospitalized to finally get better? How much more support do I need from people who might be getting tired of what may seem like a never-ending cycle? Although I listed this aspect of my life last, this happens to be the most painful. There have been plenty of instances where I have been blocked or ignored by a person (including by my own twin sister) when I start showing manic symptoms. Here is how I end up interpreting it all: No one wants to be bothered with my problems. People already have enough problems of their own. If I start acting strange, some may call me out on it, but many will not because they do not understand Bipolar Disorder or they just may not care. It's a tough reality to face, but I remain optimistic. I do not want a pity party thrown for me. I know that I can get better and I understand that it is a process.
Family - It's difficult going through an episode while living day to day with family members who may also not be paying attention to my symptoms. And the worst part is that when my mom would try to speak up about something that she felt was off, I would get irritable and upset with her! It's not like I wanted to do it, but it's just a bad feature that comes with have an inner struggle in your mind between a manic mind and what remains of a rational mind.
Friends - It is great to have a Support Team and a group of people that support you. I feel that during my episodes, friends can be almost just as helpful as family members (if not more) because they are able to quickly pick up on cues that something would be off with me.
Intimate Relationships - It has never been easy keeping a boyfriend for several reasons, but one reason that has impacted me the most has been my hypersexuality during my episodes. I won't get into specific details, but it's not unusual for me to try to date more than one person at the same time without them both knowing while suffering from a manic episode. It makes it hard for a guy to establish trust with me. Once again, it ends up becoming another painful experience that I have to deal with once I come down from my episodes. I have gotten a lot better with dealing with it, but it has also made me want to spend more time with myself before trying to have a relationship with someone.
But Aren't You Taking Medication? Shouldn't You Be Alright By Now?
If only things were that simple.
It's one thing to get a diagnosis, but it's another thing to discover other problems that may come with an existing illness. This is known as comorbidity. It is when someone has other issues that coincide with a main issue. In my case, I suffer from substance issues on top of my Bipolar Disorder. And on top of that, I also have to deal with my insomnia and anxiety. For the longest time, I thought my problems would end at me accepting that I have Bipolar Disorder. But it goes beyond that! I have to deal with all the other bad habits and coping mechanisms I have developed and try to figure out how I can live in harmony with myself. This is not easy at all! If it were, I would not be hospitalized nearly every single year. But one of my biggest goals is to seek help and substance abuse counseling, which is a whole different story that I will discuss in a later post--getting treatment while having no medical insurance in the USA.
I hope that you learned something from this article!