This year, 2011, it will be 15 years since I had my first bipolar experience and was diagnosed and began treatment.
mania and depression changed me
stole my dreams & who I believed I could be
I lost myself. I was afraid of myself, let alone other people’s judgment. I feared that there wouldn’t be opportunities for me to be “somebody”. And if there were opportunities, I feared I wouldn’t be able to handle it.
My hopes and dreams crumbled away. In all that rubble and anger, I discovered an opportunity to prove fear wrong and that is my story.
I trust that I am living with Bipolar Disorder for three reasons:
1. My genetic vulnerability (I was born with genes that when triggered could significantly alter my brain structure)
2. Environmental circumstances (stress and/or trauma)
3. How I respond to both
I can’t do anything about my biology or the environmental stressors I experienced growing up. When difficult, traumatic and painful things happened to me growing up, I didn’t cry…I didn’t talk about it with anyone. I smiled. I was a smart, self-aware, kid who could tell anyone what they wanted to hear. In my family we lived by the unspoken rule, “You must always be strong.”. As a result, I never let myself be vulnerable, I didn’t know how. Not being vulnerable meant I was strong. The idea of asking anyone for help really scared me.
Therefore, when I was thirteen and my mom’s cancer and grandmother’s death hit my family at the same time, I ran. I abandoned my emotions by locking them up as though in a jar and ran away from my life.
This I call “the trigger” of my genetic vulnerability. Bipolar Disorder entered my life, but I didn’t know until I was sixteen and that jar exploded during a full-blown manic and depressive episode.
the best and scariest experience of my life EVER.
I was swept off my feet by the possibilities and unique abilities of my thinking, learning, spirituality and emotional experience. I felt like I was a genius who had super hero powers and just so happened to be a prophet.
I felt at peace and invincible. It was beautiful, as I said, the best experience EVER. I had visions that gave me a profound understanding of the universe (but didn’t excite those I called at 3am). I got the meaning of life. I felt I was literally a part of God. I truly believed I was a prophet speaking the words of God. My intentions were to unify all people. I didn’t need sleep. I stayed up all night studying Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the Bible, Torah, Koran, Buddhism, and Quantum Physics.
At the same time, I was reckless with my relationships and life. I began with leading a walk-out in chemistry because I wasn’t learning anything. I was a brand new driver in a mini-van doing 80 mph on surface streets. Without money, I tried to buy a new car. I seductively tried to encourage a salesman to want to give me the car for free. I didn’t need sleep. My sexuality was beyond impulsive, I declared my desire to everyone I knew. So the people in my life (particularly my parents), kept me from acting on it. I also scared away the people I was trying to have sex with.
My thoughts worked in ways I had never experienced before. In the beginning they moved so fast that I couldn’t speak them quick enough or even write them down. And I didn’t have one thought at a time, I’d have three different perspectives taking place all at once.
As the mania intensified, I went more days with no sleep. My thoughts would get jumbled up in knots. I’d get so frustrated that I’d cry and scream, but no one understood because my words were incoherent. The only thing that helped me gain a sense of control and coherency of my thoughts was to doodle highly detailed intricate drawings that repeated the same kind of pattern.
I lost control of my mind, rapidly.
During the peak of mania, which lasted almost a week, every emotion that I had held within me came exploding out at once. I was completely out of control in my own body and mind, and I knew it, but I couldn’t do anything about it. Mania caused me to think my parents were trying to hurt me. I called the police on my mom. I thought they locked me in a room to control me, so I violently took a hammer to the door (it was never locked.) I verbally attacked my mom with rage and hatred. I sobbed and wailed uncontrollably with guilt and shame as I mourned for the first time my mom’s cancer and grandma’s death, which occurred at the same time three years prior. I blamed myself for both. I started a fist-fight with a friend. I told another friend that he needed to get me pregnant right now because our child would be the messiah. I threatened to beat up a kid for splashing water. I had delusions of being raped. With this kind of terror, it’s easy to forget the beauty of mania. It’s so easy to silence mania and to be so full of shame.
I was never hospitalized. It wasn’t an option because when I peaked I was on vacation. My mom journaled every action I took and every word I said. The police, who I called for help to protect me from her, considered putting me in jail to contain me. Instead, the Sheriff checked on me daily. My family brought me home and to get me help. By the time we arrived home, I had crashed into depression.
I preferred to be dead
If I were dead, I wouldn’t have the awareness of not being able to think, feel, or move beyond a fetal position. Not thinking and not feeling was not living. I was not alive and did not see a light at the end of the tunnel. Death would have been better to me. However, I couldn’t hold a thought in my mind long enough to make a plan and carry it out.
After a few weeks the medications began to kick in and I began to come out of my depression. I went back to high school struggling to hold my head up and stay awake. However, I was able to write beautiful poetry and announce to everyone that I was crazy.
rejection of the label and stigma
It took me months to start to almost feel safe in my own body and mind. I felt a huge sense of shame because I desired mania so deeply, yet I feared it more than death. When I felt I was in my “normal”, a state where I was slightly manic (exuberant and full of energy), I thought I was safe.
I didn’t want to be on medication for the rest of my life, medication to make me “normal”. So when I felt normal, I stopped taking my medication under the supervision of my psychiatrist.
I relapsed within less than a few months.
I wasn’t able to see the relapse until I saw the terror on a friend’s face as I drove 80mph on a surface street without noticing it. He had me pull over, get in the passenger seat and drove me home and told my family. When I returned to my “normal” self I impulsively and persistently “educated” (forced them to listen) my family and friends about the early symptoms.
I didn’t trust myself to be able to recognize when I was in trouble. Realistically, I couldn’t, it all felt normal to me until I lose complete control of my mind and body.
When I relapsed, I wanted to be helped this time. I was deathly afraid of losing control and the mania peaking. I never wanted to go through depression that followed that kind of mania again. I wanted medication badly and was committed to taking it this time.
This forced me to believe in my diagnosis (it wasn’t just a one time thing), the label, and accept that I’d be on medication for life. It made that amazingly beautiful, incredibly terrorizing experience feel wrong, bad, and permanent. I felt worthless.
pissed off enough to heal
When I finally started feeling better about myself (because I returned to my naturally exuberant state), three words from my psychiatrist’s mouth changed my path, “You can’t be…”. After those words came a list of everything that I wanted to be someday, that I could no longer be because they required stress. So I gave up on going to college, and fulfilling my dream of making a difference in the world.
I got angry. I was able to feel for the first time since my depression. For some reason it was okay for me to place limitations on myself, but I refused to let anyone else place limitations on me. The day I got angry, I changed my focus from fearing that I wasn’t in control, to taking it back, without asking for permission from an “expert”. I chose to educate myself on how to integrate the limitations of Bipolar Disorder into my life, master my relationship with Bipolar Disorder and move beyond all stigma.
However, I trusted no one, especially an “expert” because they’ve never lived my life and I felt so dehumanized based on their analysis of me. Therefore, I began a long, lonely journey I called “Building My Own Damn River”. I spent years on that journey. I read and lived the principles of every personal growth book, then began writing my own. I soaked up information about Bipolar Disorder like a sponge. I immersed myself in exclusive research during my eight years of higher education. I never wanted to have a major episode again.
bipolar disorder beyond episodes:
things medication doesn’t fix
Due to my perceived differences in the structure of my brain due to bipolar disorder, to this day, I still have difficulties with impulsivity. I have difficulty thinking before I speak, it does not come naturally to me. As a result, I express my thoughts and emotions impulsively. I practice daily to do my best to think before I speak. Most people don’t have to do that.
I don’t embarrass easily because I don’t pick up on subtle social cues easily (unless they are facial). In talking with people living with bipolar disorder, one of the things we often have in common is the feeling like everyone else got a book on all of the social rules and expectations except for us. It is true for me, I don’t intrinsically know what is “socially appropriate” in certain circumstances and I don’t have an intuitive sense of “the right time” to bring something up.
As a result, my deficits have given me the qualities of transparency, humility and humor to compensate for it all.
I am consistently doing my best to compensate for what I lack. Medication doesn’t change that.
learning how to live with it
I got good at preventing episodes by developing pro-active skills for responding to stress and conflict. Yet, I was always in a struggle for control. I felt the need to be in control, even after many years with the disorder. My deepest fear still was having another episode. It was so painful. I always felt alone and never felt safe being vulnerable with anyone. I repeated a lot of mistakes over and over again. I got sick and tired of doing the same thing and expecting a different result. So I decided that the pain from trusting and letting go of control probably wasn’t worse. This is how I learned to ask for help, receive it and be vulnerable.
During this realization, I received a gift. The gift was giving myself permission to be Bipolar. Part of the gift was giving myself permission to not be afraid anymore. I replaced that fear with the trust that I’ll be okay because I trusted people would help me. Furthermore, I began to learn how to stay safe as I go with my Bipolar experience. I learned how to identify and inhibit what’s fueling mania. Most importantly, I learned to ask for help from my family, friends, colleagues and psychiatrist without feeling like a failure. After fifteen years, I still take my lithium every day. I’ve developed a relationship with Bipolar Disorder in which I give minor episodes permission to exist and know when to intervene. In finally learning how to go with the my life’s journey, I haven’t had a significant episode in fifteen years. I’ve overcome my fear of “experts”. As a result, I’ve become an innovative and collaborative expert of facilitating a process that I hope will enable you to influence how you experience Bipolar Disorder.
Share your ideas and experiences