What does it mean to have bipolar disorder?
I was diagnosed with Bipolar I in college. After a clear manic episode while going to Temple University, a psychiatrist working on the campus prescribed me a mood stabilizer, along with the depression and anti-anxiety medications I was already taking.
At the time, I was relieved to feel better, but I didn’t think much about the diagnosis. I thought of myself as damaged. Ambitious, smart, driven, but deeply damaged and determined to succeed by sheer willpower.
I’ve never had a problem with taking my medications or going to therapy, or “working on myself,” so to speak. But underneath it all, I suppose I was always looking for a cure, the right insight that would free me of my mental illness and lead to a life of happiness and fulfillment.
That day has never come, though – so far, at least.
I’ve been told that, when it comes to bipolar disorder, there is no cure. You can arrest the disorder, manage it, take good care of yourself, but it’s a brain chemistry thing that’s with you for life.
Grief and healing
After my dad died in June 2018, bipolar symptoms hit me hard. The circumstances surrounding his death were difficult. When he passed, I was numb at first, then angry, then depressed – the full range of grief.
But the stress surrounding his illness in the final two years of his life drove my mind to extremes. Was I being a good enough son? Why won’t he stop using drugs? Why is he being so self-destructive? Why can’t I save him?
Despite my best efforts, as well as my family’s, we got the phone call of his passing on a Friday night in June.
I kept it together, for the most part, for the funeral and shortly afterwards. I knew that I couldn’t fall apart. But the grief was overwhelming, and it collided head on with my family’s stoicism about emotions.
I quit my job in a fit of rage. The holiday season was horrendous. In the month of December, I had several fiery mixed manic episodes where I was angry, depressed and manic at the same time.
I became paranoid, delusional. I had a few visual hallucinations.
I stuck with it. My grandfather, God bless him, helped me, even though my erratic behavior scared him. I tried a new therapy treatment for trauma, which made things worse.
What a crazy time!
Despite all this, there has been healing.
Eventually, I ended up in a partial hospitalization program where I received intensive therapy five days a week, which helped to stabilize me, give me structure, and get me out of my head and out of the house.
I had been locking myself in my room and shutting out the world, the world that I began to fear more and more.
A part of me – not all of me
So, is this what it means to have bipolar disorder?
In a way, maybe it is. I’ve learned to take experiences like these and try to learn from them, extract any lessons that I can.
Bipolar is a label; it’s a diagnosis. But it’s only part of who I am, not the whole of me. Not everyone will go through the mental twists and turns that I just described above.
It’s scary – knowing that I can descend into madness like this. Bipolar is a fatal illness. Many people who have it struggle with suicidal ideations during manic or depressive episodes, and some people carry out their plans.
But, like I said, it’s a part of me. My brain is wired this way, and it doesn’t make me damaged – just different.
The winter of 2018-2019 was long, dreary. I wrote a bit, did tons of reading, got plenty of therapy. Mostly, I’ve been trying to come to grips with my mental illness, trying to think of it in a way that I can still be vigilant, without becoming a victim of my own mind.
That’s the balance, that’s the hard part.
Perhaps I have some limitations that are inherent with the disorder. But does this necessarily make me disabled? I’d like to think not. This past winter was marked with me trying to understand that balance.
I think, for instance, about going back to work. What would that look like? I know my old way of doing things has to be modified. I can’t put my needs last and let my self-care, and mind, fall by the wayside.
Keep the faith
So, here I am. I have bipolar disorder, whatever that means, which I’m learning more about each day.
But I’m getting better, slowly but surely.
For anyone reading this who also struggles with these issues, hold on to hope. There are dark times, big swings in mood, highs and lows, but there’s always hope.
One thing that keeps me going is my faith. I wrote a poem in January during a difficult day that I dedicated to my spiritual director called, “The Light that Always Shines.”
For me, I think of my faith and my understanding of God almost like a candle in a dark room. The light only flickers sometimes, but it always shines, and it keeps shining forever.