Bipolar Disorder


To some it’s creativity; to others it’s disability. To some it’s pride; to others it’s shame. To some it’s inspiration; to others it’s a death sentence. There are about 5.7 million people with bipolar disorder on this earth, and that means there are about 5.7 million different definitions of bipolar disorder.
The unique impairments of mania are what distinguishes bipolar I from bipolar II. I am technically diagnosed with bipolar I, but it is not the best fit. Maybe I’m bipolar I ½. I have experienced mild psychotic features when manic - loose paranoid delusions and strange sensory perceptions. I’ve always had some level of insight into the reality of these symptoms in some part of my mind (and maybe a benefit of having dissociative identity disorder too?). I have never emptied my bank account or had an affair or believed I was a celebrity or anything wildly out of the norm for myself. I have maintained schooling and employment through the worst of my mania. Unless you live with me and witness my inability to shut my brain off to sleep at night (and an equal inability to allow those around me to sleep as well), you probably wouldn’t even know I’m in a manic or hypomanic episode.

When it begins, mania is seductive to me. I feel magnetic, invincible, important, loved, wanted. I feel creative, and my mind effortlessly strings together volumes of poetry in the background of everything I do. Everything is a song. Everything is art. Colors are brighter and people are lovelier and I am in love with everything. I stop thinking about sex as some kind of trauma because even that is an incredible cosmic experience and I wish I could have it all the time. I want to drown myself in alcohol because drinking feels like turning up the volume during a song I can’t get enough of. I don’t believe that anything bad has happened to me or that anything bad ever really could. (Mania flirts with my PTSD a hell of a lot.)

As it goes on, my focus on everyday tasks falters. I struggle to maintain my hygiene or eat much at all. I cling to the control of restrictive eating. My body image becomes more distorted, and I start begging myself to be as beautiful as I just felt I was. I begin rambling on too long when I speak, and parts of my mind begin begging me to shut the fuck up. I can’t. There’s no filter. There are no breaks. I make jokes I wouldn’t usually make because everything is so goddamn funny because nothing is really real. I stay up later, have more vivid dreams and more gruesome nightmares. I am quick to rage over the smallest things. I need to scream. My mind is going so fast with so many thoughts I wish I could just kill myself and make it stop.
Mania sharply descends into depression. They don’t always occur together - sometimes there is mercy. Sometimes hypomania bubbles up for a week or so and fizzles back to normal. Sometimes I finally get some sleep somehow and level out. Sometimes depression acts alone. But if true mania goes unchecked in my brain, it mixes with depression until the bubble pops. Painfully. Just like so many others who share this diagnosis, this mixing of mania and depression is what led me to attempt suicide for the first time when I was 16 and brought me to that cliff many more times after. (I have since made peace with this precipice. I’ve learned to keep my distance and hold on to anything I can until it fades. Therapy has been great, but honestly my dog has been even greater.)
Although I’ve also had PTSD for essentially my entire life, I have been in treatment just for bipolar disorder since I was 16. (I’m just beginning to work more intensely on my trauma symptoms, and I think more recently they are what drives my mood more than anything else.) I’ve worked on honing in my bipolar symptoms for about a decade now through therapy and endless medication. I’ve learned to trust my insight even more, and apply it not only to the manic symptoms but also to my depressive symptoms. I’ve learned to challenge the beliefs that plague my brain when I’m at my lowest, that I am not loved, not worthy, or completely hopeless. And I don’t really know what’s going to happen when I decide I want to be a mother one day, but for now, I am so blessed to have lithium in my life. I still have episodes a couple times per year, and they are worse when my trauma is activated, but being on lithium and a modest dose of an antidepressant (as well as a couple more medications for the anxiety side) is like having bumpers set up over the gutters at a bowling alley. The ball isn’t always centered, but at least I’m not losing myself completely. Without this balance in my brain chemicals, I wouldn’t be able to make the progress I need to make in therapy or in my daily life. But just like there are so many ways to have bipolar disorder, there are also so many ways to treat bipolar disorder. 
I’ve lost a lot of my life to bipolar disorder, even though I am still fairly young. I used to think that if there was a cure for it, I wouldn’t take it. I used to think that bipolar disorder made me creative and interesting and fueled everything I’ve accomplished... Now, I think I would take a cure. I’ve lost so much time, opportunities, relationships, and genuine self-love because of this disorder. I’ve been the victim and perpetrator of so much inconsistency. I no longer believe it is bipolar disorder that makes me creative, interesting, and accomplished; I think that is who I am. I think bipolar disorder has realistically stood in my way in those things: rushing my creativity with overwhelming urgency, creating chaos and drama rather than intrigue, and holding my accomplishments at its mercy with a frantic energy or complete lack thereof. I think bipolar disorder has also given my abusers an “out” for abusing me. I understand the functions my mood episodes have served, at least for the most part, but I would rather experience this complicated life without that added barrier of complications. My equilibrium is long overdue. At the same time, I accept that there is no cure, and I also accept that if nothing else, bipolar disorder has made me so much stronger and so much more of a voice for people who struggle like I do.
With love,
T
March 30th is World Bipolar Day. For more resources on bipolar disorder, visit the International Bipolar Foundation, Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

A Letter to My Body


Body, you have carried me. You carried me through this week and through so much worse in this life. Let me thank you.

Body, thank you for the anxiety this week. You are delicately wired to alert me when things are unsafe, and you are absolutely right this time. You feel it in the air around us, in the words others say to us, in the scrambling for resources, comfort, and guidance we witness every day. You are so perceptive, and you notice even the slightest warning signs. You are right that the world is unsafe right now. You are right to fear an illness we have never experienced before. You are right to fear that washing these hands, keeping our distance from the people we love, and cleaning the things around us might not be enough protection from this. You are right to fear that my workplace is not somewhere I should be every day. You are right to struggle to find relief or imagine an endpoint to this trauma. You are right to tense my muscles and shorten my breath, to quicken my heartbeat, to pump adrenaline through my veins to prepare me to run as far from this situation as I can. But body, like so many other times in this life, we cannot run. But this time, we can breathe. We can lead. We can provide. Do your best to carry me, and I will do my best to carry you with tenderness too. 

Body, thank you for the feelings this week. While it used to give me emotional whiplash, I am now learning to love how deeply you allow me to feel and how openly you allow me to express it. I accept the unexpected tears you give me, and I validate the despair in reading the latest breaking news, the fragile hope for some kind of progress, the disproportionate joy in seeing a cute dog being walked on these empty streets, and the radical roller coaster of feeling them all at once. Body, it is beautiful to feel so much when the world is so cold and numb. Body, thank you for the emotions and the creativity I need to cope.

Body, thank you for withstanding the pain this week. I know this time every month means so much. I know this time is a clockwork trigger we suffer. I know pain medication does next to nothing when the physical and emotional pain is driven by footprints of the past I barely remember. Body, the first time a period came, I wondered what I did wrong to you and how should I be punished; now each month, I wonder how I can love you and treat you better than before. Body, you deserve chocolate cake. You do. You deserve scented candles and comfy sweatpants and a tiny dog curled on your lap. You deserve to make it through this. Body, by Monday, we will feel some kind of new again because you always make it through this. You have carried me so far and I am still somehow struggling to love you, but body, I will love you.

Body, they say you are done growing, but I am still growing into you. Body, I am still learning to love you. Body, I am sorry for falling in love with the abusers who abused you before I fell in love with you. I am sorry for believing them before I believed you. I notice your skin stretching and cracking like I am trying to burst out of you, but body, I am still making myself comfortable. I do not want to leave you now. I am making myself home. I am coming home. Thank you for being home. Thank you.

With love,

T

"How Do You Sleep at Night?"


Honestly, how is anyone able to sleep well when things are this chaotic? 


My anxiety about the world around me has had me in a constant state of physical panic all week, and depression has slithered in right behind it. I can feel the physical weight of fear on my chest. I can feel myself drowning in thoughts of uncleanliness, contamination, illness, and a potential long struggle to have my needs met. I feel smothered by the idea that at any moment, I could cause catastrophic harm to someone else without even knowing it if I’m not careful enough. My focus on my body has become even more overwhelming. It feels so strange for me to be triggered by COVID-19, beyond the “normal” widespread panic, but I definitely have been. But I don’t want to dive into all that just yet. I want to mindfully pause and acknowledge that at times like these my sleep hygiene is even more crucial. I am so grateful that I have been (mostly) able to get enough quality sleep this week despite everything on my mind. Sleep has been an eternal struggle for me, and I have personally never had medication alone do enough for me in that department (although I absolutely do not sleep without taking my bedtime meds!). Sleep can be a universal struggle among people who have experienced trauma or other mental health conditions, and I wanted to share the “little things” that make up my sleep routine in hopes that it may inspire your own.
  1. A hot shower. I’ve found that I sleep better and am less likely to have nightmares if I take a hot shower before bed. Taking a mindful shower about an hour or two before bedtime is an important signal to my whole self that I am safe to rest throughout the night. After my shower, I apply a calming lavender and cedarwood scented lotion all over as well as a soothing muscle balm to my neck and shoulders where I carry the most tension. 
  2. A cup of hot tea. Warmth is so comforting for me, and in the same way a hot shower relaxes the outside of my body, tea with a dash of milk and honey relaxes me internally. I prefer vanilla chamomile, but at times I’ll drink wild berry tea or even just a cup of warm milk and honey.
  3. My weighted blanket. My weighted blanket simply feels like safety and home. It helps me stay asleep through the night and my dreams are significantly less distressing when I use it. There’s a lot of hype out there about weighted blankets, and it’s not a complete solution to my insomnia, but it has made a difference for me.
  4. Something to listen to. I have always needed background noise to fall asleep to; not white noise, but something to focus my racing thoughts. My dad used to read to me when I was little, then as I grew older I would leave the TV on while I went to sleep. At times I will still leave the TV on, but most of the time, because my spouse enjoys reading before bed, he will play an audiobook or read a book out loud to me (the latter of which magically puts me to sleep in about 30 seconds).
  5. Doggy snuggles. I don’t care what anyone says, my dog sleeps in the human bed. He’s a little guy, and he loves to climb under the weighted blanket with me and snuggle up close through the night. Feeling him pressed against me is reassuring as I fall asleep or if I wake up during the night. It is a reminder that only will he protect me if something unsafe happens while I’m asleep, but that I am capable of protecting him as well.
You might notice that sensory experiences are essential to me feeling safe and oriented as I fall asleep. Closing my eyes is something very scary for me, but I can lessen this fear by hearing something I can follow, tasting my tea, smelling my lotion, and feeling the heat of the shower, the soft weight of my blanket, and the gentle touch of my dog. It’s not a perfect system, and I still have nearly sleepless nights here and there, but having a routine and reminders of my safety have made a massive difference in my sleep during the night and my mental health during the day. Please share with me what helps you sleep the best in the comments or on social media!

With love,

T