Editor’s note: Bipolar disorder disrupts the lives of far more people than we often recognize: from 2-6 percent of the population, according to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health. The support of friends and an understanding faith community can make a big difference in reducing the suffering caused by this illness. We hope that Bipolar Beauty's story will increase your understanding and empathy for people in your faith community who—either secretly or openly—live with this condition. —Christine Guth, ADNet Program Director
Bipolar disorder (formerly called “manic depressive disorder”) is a condition of the brain that complicates your thoughts, feelings, and attitudes about yourself and the world around you. There are varying degrees of bipolar, and people with this mental illness are able to cope differently in various ways. Yet, for the most part, all people with bipolar disorder share similar symptoms.
We experience days of extended euphoria when we manage with little sleep, become outgoing or more sexually inclined, and may talk at a rapid pace. Sometimes when a person experiences “mania” they may act impulsively and may have impaired judgement. This is sometimes evidenced through poor decision making such as going on a shopping spree, thinking that they have superpowers which can enable them to fly or jump off buildings with no harm done to themselves, or acting sexually promiscuous when this is out of character. This is then countered by days of extreme depression when we may be unable to sleep, feel restless and agitated, lose our appetite, or feel a sense of profound worthlessness. If not properly diagnosed and treated, the illness can even lead to suicidal ideation or a sense of wanting to harm oneself or others around them.
Since my diagnosis, I have discovered that many people who do not live with bipolar and have no close relatives or friends with this disorder lack a common knowledge of what this illness can do to a person. They either assume the worst: that I should not have leadership positions because I cannot control myself or that I am a “crazy psychotic” person, or else they show complete lack of empathy by telling me to “pull up my bootstraps” whenever I am experiencing severe depression.
Thankfully, because of a combination of medications, counseling, peer and pastoral support, and friendship, I have been in relatively good health since 2012; however, I still remember the terrible days both before and after my diagnosis when this was not the case. I oftentimes reference journal entries and poetry I wrote during those dark days as a way to reflect on what could have been done differently and to try to encourage others who may be facing similar experiences. Whenever I look back on this time, I often am most surprised by the complete lack of knowledge some of my friends possessed and the utter lack of empathy that some of my health care providers over the years have shown.
I know that it is not always the other person’s fault. If they have never lived with a mental illness or experienced it close to home, there may be no way for them to understand what it is truly like. I also know that my story is uniquely my own, and many other people with bipolar disorder have had different experiences and different symptoms. However, in an effort to clear up misunderstanding as best I can, I would like to offer you an inside look into the mind of one person with bipolar disorder – myself – on a few representative days.
The Euphoric Day
Everything seemed to be going well. I was making great strides in my personal and professional life. I had received numerous job offers, was able to finish five major essays in two days, and I had stayed up almost all night writing blog posts. After a few weeks of no inspiration, I suddenly felt creativity rushing into my head. Words were coming to me so fast I had to work hard to write them all down. Ideas were rushing in at such a high velocity that my speech became rapid because I was trying to share everything that was coming into my mind.
It got to the point that people around me had to ask me to slow down and not rush anything. I also got a raise that day. I felt like I had earned a well-deserved treat so I went to the local store to pick something up, but when I got to the cash register I had realized that I had so many items that my bill had come to much higher than I would have hoped. Yet instead of putting any of the items back, I ended up buying them all. I was in a great mood and I thought nothing could change it.
Then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, I began noticing changes in myself. I started getting anxious and agitated. I couldn’t stop moving! I felt like my heart was racing and I could easily run a marathon (even though I am typically pretty out of shape). I felt like I really wanted to be with people, even though it was late at night.
Then all of a sudden, I started feeling angry. I don’t know why, but I think it had to do with how much agitation I had stored up. I thought about all the wrongs that needed to be solved in this world, and suddenly became overly ambitious and overly zealous to fix all of them. Ah well, maybe not today, but tomorrow I could start working on all my pet projects – and I had about 5 on the go. But tomorrow had ideas of its own….
A Day Spent in Dark Depression
My alarm clock buzzed at 7 a.m., heralding a new day and announcing that it was time for me to get up for class. I suddenly felt completely drained of energy. I had only been hyper for about two days, so I didn’t see how this could zap me so much. Everything suddenly seemed to be going in slow motion. All the great, creative ideas I previously held seemed to have flown right out the window and now there was nothing.
I went to my school cafeteria to pick out my lunch, but I had no idea what I wanted. I stood there, agonizingly trying to make a choice until my friend finally chose a Caesar salad for me. When it came, I picked at it because I was not hungry. I tried to eat with my friends, but I didn’t feel like entering into their conversation.
I eventually wandered off to eat at a table by myself. When one of my other friends came to inquire about what was wrong, I suddenly broke down in tears. People kept asking me why I was crying, but to be completely honest, I had no idea. For the rest of the day, I kept crying and couldn’t stop. I felt like there was a huge cosmic battle going on in my brain and at the end of the day, it left me feeling exhausted. I went straight to bed, but I couldn’t sleep.
I kept hearing a voice in my head telling me that I was ugly and would never amount to anything. It said I was stupid and that I deserved to feel this way because I was a bad person. I tried to rebuke it, but it wouldn’t leave. Intellectually, I knew that the voice was not real, that it was coming from my own thoughts and attitudes about myself, but in that moment, it honestly felt real and I couldn’t tell if it was coming from my head or if it was an actual live voice.
The depression continued for about a month. I didn’t even have the energy to take a shower, let alone hang out with friends. I am usually an extrovert, but when this happens, I just want to be completely alone. It hardly seemed fair that in exchange for two days of hyperactivity and added creativity, I had to face a month of complete hell and torture.
The Day Spent in Outer Space (Psychotic Episodes)
It was 11 p.m. and I was in my last year of high school. I’d had a rough day at school and was more than happy to go to the safe haven of my bed. All of a sudden, I started thinking terribly negative things about myself. I thought about what a failure I am and how I would never get into college. I thought about all the dumb mistakes in my life. I seriously wanted to harm myself.
These thoughts started swirling together in my mind. I heard noises that sounded like a rushing wind. Many voices were talking to me, but none of them were making any intelligible sense. I was overwhelmed, and I begged them to stop, but the background noise just kept getting worse and worse.
Finally, I decided I needed to run away from home in order to get rid of the voices. I changed out of my pajamas and into my track suit. I tried to leave, but then I broke down sitting on the side of my bed, crying. My mom came in and asked me if I was feeling depressed. I just remember her holding me and me saying over and over again that I was depressed. To this day, I refer to it as a “break from reality.”
I sometimes still lose touch with reality and I forget what is real and what is imaginary, but it has never been to this same level again. Whenever this happens, I can feel pretty scared, and I think people around me who don’t really know what is occurring in my mind feel even more terrified. In order to remedy this problem, I usually try to explain to my roommates before an episode what it can look like and how they can best help me. Usually they have been pretty good about it, and I definitely owe them a lot of thanks as a result.
I have hardly ever experienced psychotic episodes; however, they are quite common among many (though not all) people with bipolar disorder. The day I describe above was the only severe psychotic episode that I faced, though I have experienced voices a few other times in my life. I have also experienced extreme paranoia, which may have been a result of my bipolar.
Finding God in the Midst of Bipolar
Many people ask me what role faith plays on my journey through mental illness. My answer is that faith does not further complicate things, but rather a belief in God is often what sustains me through times of crisis. Oftentimes people assume that when I am depressed I am angry and bitter at God. Sometimes when they pray over me they suggest that I may be asking God why this took place. In the beginning, this was very true. For about a year after my diagnosis I remember angrily making rash, off-handed comments that there really was no God.
Yet, today some of my strongest times in prayer have come through the darkest valleys. There is a saying that “sometimes you don’t look up until you are lying down.” I do not believe that God causes my depression nor do I believe that He delights in it. We read in the Scripture that God suffers right alongside us when we are feeling downcast. One great example of this is in Lamentations 3:33-34, “He takes no pleasure in causing us grief or pain. The Lord knows when our spirits are crushed and in prison.”
Conversely, when I am living off of a high, I do not necessarily think this complicates my faith in any profound ways either. I generally feel a need for God at all times. This doesn’t mean that I never struggle in my faith. Like everyone else, I go through periods of spiritual closeness and spiritual distancing; however, I personally do not find that my struggles with bipolar affect this any more than other reasons why you may experience spiritual highs and lows.
Two good resources I can recommend for people living with bipolar are the book of Psalms and Becoming: God Heals Broken Self-Esteem by Miriam Martin. Reading through the Psalms has sustained me when I am most depressed. Sometimes if I do not have the strength to read them myself, my friends will read them aloud to me and it greatly lifts my spirits. Becoming is an incredible devotional book written by a woman who has bipolar disorder.
Living with bipolar disorder can be quite complicated and challenging. It can often feel like you are in a lonely prison all by yourself with no one around who really understands what is happening in your mind. It can be overwhelming and completely brutal and sometimes the sheer knowledge that this disorder will stick with you for life is too much to handle. Thankfully, over time, it can become like driving a car. You won’t always have good days, but when hard days come, you can learn how to work all the gears in your favor.
When I first was diagnosed with bipolar it seemed like a life sentence and I thought I would never be “normal.” Today, I have learned that this is my new normal. Bipolar has moved from being my worst enemy into being a potential friend. If you or a loved one has ever experienced bipolar, it’s important not to go it alone. It’s important to reach out for help and to have accountability for things such as taking your medication and going to counseling even when you feel like you are in a good space. That way, you can maintain your happiness as much as possible and lead as productive a life as you can. You may even surprise yourself with what you can do.
Bipolar Beauty is a friend of ADN who asked to remain anonymous in order to avoid receiving more of the stigma that is so prevalent for people living with bipolar.