Do you ever joke about being “bipolar” when you shift from excited to stressed in a short period of time? Do you refer to the weather in the same manner for its warmth one day, and chilly winds the next? Many of us are guilty of doing this, but it’s crucial we become more aware: bipolar disorder is a real illness, and it causes heavy turmoil for those affected – more so than a simple mood swing or a drop in temperature.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 2.8 percent of U.S. adults have bipolar disorder, which is considered to be very common. I got the chance to speak with one of the people behind those statistics: Mike, a 26-year-old video editor who has been battling the disorder since he was 16 years old, later diagnosed when he was 20. His experiences shed some light on the complexity of this mental illness. Read on to hear his story.
What first made you believe something was wrong, or “off,” with the way you were feeling?
When I was in high school, there came a time when I couldn’t control my mood whatsoever. I was all over the place, really. There would be nights I couldn’t sleep. I would be so upset for no reason. I couldn’t find happiness. But in the times I found happiness, it was very manic. I was on a high of being so overjoyed, also for no real reason. Up until this part of my life, I have always struggled with anxiety and depression, so I just marked it off as that and went on.
It wasn’t until my first year of college when I really hit a wall with bipolar. I would obsess over a lot of things: school, friends, family. I had a hard time sorting my thoughts and could never have a clear thought. Small things would bother me and send me into a dark spiral that I couldn’t talk myself out of.
Explain one of your worst, most severe experiences with your disorder(s).
I think one of my worst manic episodes was in college. It was a weekend and everyone was out at a party or something, and because of my past along with my anxiety, I stayed in. Something must have happened that day where I went into a bad episode. I must have paced my small dorm room for hours thinking. It must have been 3a.m. when I drove to the top of a local parking garage and sat on the ledge looking down. I never ever had intention of taking my life that night or at any time. But there were moments when I would think, “what if?” and think about how it would affect the people I surrounded myself with, and play out a timeline where I did.
That was the moment I knew this was something bigger than me, and I needed help.
When you’re in the middle of an “episode” or “attack,” how exactly do you feel, and what helps you break out of it?
This has multiple answers depending on if I’m medicated or not.
If I’m not: Small triggers bring me to a spiral of thoughts, those thoughts go into another train of thoughts, and so forth. It’s hard to think about anything. Typically, the only thing that helps is to sleep and almost reset my brain. This still is a tactic today.
Medicated: Thankfully, the medication I am on is a good balance of treatment and logical thoughts. Instead of being a zombie and numbing everything, it helps me think more clearly and talk myself through my thoughts. I am able to prevent a lot of manic episodes because of this. In the rare case of having an episode, I am fully aware I am having one, and it’s more of a waiting game. Doing things such as reading, watching TV, and sleeping help, but I have to be alone. Any social interaction tends to make things more complicated.
What does your treatment look like? Do you believe it is helping you?
For the most part, it was not the worst thing in the world. I was put on different medications, but over the course of my life have always been on Lithium to treat bipolar and another for depression/mood stabilizer. Since bipolar has many different phases, Lithium is always a maintenance drug while the other drug tends to vary.
How does your disorder affect your day-to-day life (i.e. relationships, work, etc.)
Finding a balance between medication and staying with it is important. There have been so many times in my life when I thought I could handle not being medicated, and it never works. Not to say that everyone should be medicated, but I think it should always be an option. It’s good to keep an open dialog with your doctor on your fears with medication and what each medication does and can help. Finding a good doctor is important too.
As for day-to-day, I am rather open about my disorder to prevent people from stressing. To anyone I am very close to, like my roommate, I break down being bipolar, how it affects me personally and what to look for. Also, I tell them not to be offended if I’m going through an episode. I like to be transparent. I also will let people know if I am having an episode so they don’t get the wrong idea of me ignoring them, because that tends to be the result of how I cope. I tend to shut everything out.
Do you think there is a specific stigma about the disorder(s) you have? If so, what is it and why do you think it’s harmful to those in your shoes?
Ha, yeah. I have gotten a lot of wide eyes when I tell people about bipolar. It seems to be a lot of high ups and low downs, but there is a lot more to it than that. Yes, it can be that; but it can be subtle. It can be crazy spending. There is so much bipolar can be. Overall though, it’s always good to be open and talk to people close with you that are suffering. If they are struggling, chances are they just want to talk and have you listen. It’s really interesting when you tell someone your thoughts out loud and how much that helps. It’s all about balance.
What is one thing you wish you could tell your loved ones about your disorder?
I think, not to worry? I don’t really know. I tend to get a lot of concern from my family, but I think that’s just them caring. At one point, I would always be asked if I was taking my medication, and that was always frustrating because a) it made me sound unstable and insane, and b) it meant that the actions of my stable personality were coming off as manic.
What is one thing you wish you could tell society about your disorder?
Just be open. Open up about mental issues and have discussions. Know they exist. Be supportive to the people suffering in any way you can. Some people need to talk, and some are in the state that they don’t know what comforts them. They know you are trying and are appreciative, even if they aren’t showing it. Mental issues are a lifelong battle, and it takes some time to start fighting. Be on the same team as those who are suffering.
If you could offer advice to someone who was just diagnosed with the same illness(es) as you, what would it be?
Seek help. It doesn’t make you weak; it makes you strong. If you don’t want to get on medication, that’s fine, but try to be open. Try to go to therapy. Anything to better help yourself that’s not destructive. There are people who want to help you. Know it’s going to be a long journey, but you have to start sometime. I’m 26 now and was diagnosed at 20, and I am still doing slight tweaks to my medication from time to time. You will find that balance, and it’s worth it.
Anything at all you want to add?
One thing I would like to add is to know that with mental disorders, it’s not as simple as “I have x disorder.” I feel that there are other mood disorders that tag along. For me, along with bipolar, I have depression and anxiety. They all kind of go hand-in-hand where if I treat the core (bipolar), the other get less severe. But know that these things make you strong even if you don’t see that now. When you get to a state where you feel at peace and stable, you tend to look at things differently and handle situations better. It seems like a strong thing to say, but it’s true. Please reach out to people, and get the help you need and deserve. There is no shame. Be healthy and be happy!
Edited for brevity and clarity by Sammi Caramela. Photo credit to Andrew Forino.
Want to help #BreaktheStigma against mental illness? Contact me to share your story!