7 Women on What It’s Really Like to Live With Bipolar Disorder
"I suffer from grand delusions and an uninhibited quality that makes everything in life glitter with an indescribable sheen."
Bipolar disorder will affect an estimated 4.4% of adults in the US at some point in their lives, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health. But the disorder—which is characterized by the intense highs and lows of manic and depressive episodes—remains shrouded in stigma. Here, seven women open up about what living with bipolar is like for them, to help dispel some of the myths and misconceptions that swirl around the illness.
“I have a mood disorder that I’m trying to figure out how to navigate every day.”
I live with bipolar disorder, type II. I really have to take life day by day. Some days I feel on top of the world and others I want to lay in bed all day or feel super moody. For the most part, my mood is stable, but there are days that feel completely debilitating. I, along with so many others, have triggers that can almost always turn my day on its head. Unfortunately, most of the time I don't even know what my triggers are until they happen and by that point, it's usually too late to save it. When I have a mood episode, I don't realize that I have lost control of my emotions until I'm deep inside an episode and it's too late to turn back. Typically, my mood escalates until I'm at the peak and really angry, but once I come to and realize what's happening, I spiral downward and get extremely sad and self-deprecating—asking myself questions like ‘why me?’
I’ve been in intensive treatment twice in my life. The inpatient facility I was at in Santa Fe six years ago saved my life. Now, I go to therapy and see a psychiatrist regularly. Finding both the right therapist and right psychiatrist is key. There has to be a relationship and synergy there or it just won’t work. I’ve jumped around with psychiatrists a lot just looking for the right one, but luckily, I’ve been seeing my therapist for nearly six years (she’s a keeper). I also look to working out (running and kickboxing are my go-to’s). Meditating also helps me – I read 10% Happier by Dan Harris and it changed my life and whole view on meditation. Just finding things that relax me and make me happy, like reading and cooking, are really important to me.
One stigma I want to bust is that people suffering from bipolar are not crazy. People have a tendency to call angry people “bipolar” and throw that word around like it means nothing. I’m not an angry person, I just have a mood disorder that I’m trying to figure out how to navigate every day. I’m a work in progress and I always will be because there’s no “cure” for bi-polar (or any mood disorder for that matter), but I’m trying my best. —Kaity C.
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“I wish people would have more patience and empathy”
My moods fluctuate, for sure, but doesn't everyone suffer from moods fluctuating? Are my moods more severe? Maybe. I've had pretty intense reactions to hormonal changes, like my menstrual cycle—sometimes instigating severe depression and anxiety. I've had deep anxiety from jobs I've held in the past and less from others. Sometimes I can't tell if my moods are a result of being mentally ill or from the exponential other variables that life presents. This is why psychiatric care is so difficult. It's hard to pinpoint. I'd say, day to day I'm usually doing ok!
I respond extremely well to medication (or at least I have since I've been diagnosed which was 26 years ago), so mood episodes that can be categorized as manic or depression happen fairly infrequently. I've only had two extreme episodes but they both derailed (or rerouted) my life. When I'm manic, I'm basically wilding out (a technical medical term)—I believe I'm all-powerful, related to Jesus, that I'm a high performing mathematician. I suffer from grand delusions and an uninhibited quality that makes everything in life glitter with an indescribable sheen. The problem is, the mania is directly followed by deep depression (for me), I have to crawl out from the surreality and figure out how to function again. How to take meds again. How to live again.
I wish people would look at anyone suffering from anything and have more patience and empathy. That person is going through some shit and they need help, not anger or at the very worst to be ignored. I think that's the ultimate and larger problem, that the disorder is very nearly impossible to self-identify and often difficult for people close to or around the sufferer to spot.” —Jaime Lowe, frequent contributor to The New York Times magazine and author of Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing my Mind
“I see manic symptoms being praised in our work culture.”
I’m 31 years old and was diagnosed on the bipolar spectrum when I was 28. I specifically have Cyclothymia, a milder form of bi-polar. I worked in tech startups for the past 10 years and my manic tendencies earned me much praise and promotion in that stressful, 24/7 environment. For example, my ability to get angry about business setbacks showed how seriously I was taking my job and helped me develop camaraderie with my coworkers. For the first five years, I didn’t seem to notice the pain. The high of success numbed me to the physical downsides I was experiencing. After my first major setback, the pain really set in. I wasn't able to bounce back after a demotion. I struggled to work under a new authority figure and my bitter attitude kept me from thriving at the company. My sense of failure felt unbearable.
After a hypomanic episode (a less severe manic period), complete worthlessness kept me from getting out of bed. Constant anxiety made my stomach feel like it was going to cave in. Lack of sleep and bad nutrition kept my mind fuzzy and I couldn't think straight. I had to overhaul my lifestyle and step away from that career path in order to recover. With those changes and several types of therapy, my symptoms are completely managed at this point. I see manic symptoms such as grandiosity, racing thoughts. and hyperproductivity being praised in our work culture, without regard for the pain and suffering that accompanies them. I think many people are afraid to treat these symptoms for fear of being less successful or "losing their edge." —Natasha Walton, blogger at Low Stress Living
“I’m no longer the emotional equivalent of earthquakes and monsoons.”
My current diagnosis classifies my illness as "bipolar type 1, in remission." So while my mood (like most people's moods) varies at least a little from day to day, depending on both external circumstances and my own physiology, I don't experience the extremes of mood that I did years ago, when my bipolar was less effectively managed. In fact, I haven’t had a major episode of depression or mania for at least a decade. I probably experience a greater range of highs and lows than people without a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and the shifts in my mood can happen quickly, but nowadays I'm quite acclimated to it. It's no longer the emotional equivalent of earthquakes and monsoons; now it's more like the regular shifts in weather.
Bipolar for me (and actually for many women over 40) tends to express itself more as a nagging sense of the blues, anxiety, and tension, which is very different from discrete, diagnostically specific, clinically acute depression or mania. To attain (and maintain) health, talk therapy is enormously beneficial for me, and it is still believed to be a vital component of treatment for most people with mental health concerns. There are a whole range of talk therapy approaches; I work with an EMDR therapist who specializes in my areas of concern. Beyond that, I use a number of evidence-based supporting treatment approaches, including exercise, light therapy, and meditation. Working, volunteering, and engaging with community are all critical elements of recovery for me, as well. All of this sounds really time consuming and daunting, I think--but actually, these are all just small adaptations that work together to make life with bipolar very manageable.
I want people to know that bipolar is not a dead end or a death sentence. Our bodies and brains, as well as our emotional lives and mental states, are always changing, always in flux; there is always something more we can do to take care of ourselves. Just as we have the capacity for disorder, we have the capacity to attain balance, wellness, and heath. —Marya Hornbacher, author of Madness: A Bipolar Life
“Our brains get sick just like other parts of our bodies get sick and need treatment.”
My day-to-day is very stable. I have type 1 bipolar, so my risk is that a hypomania mood could turn into a manic episode which could quickly lead to psychosis and thus require hospitalization. I most recently had my longest period of stability, between the spring of 2010 and the fall of 2017. Because I am committed to my medication and protecting my sleep (my two main triggers), I am able to experience long-term stability. However, even with the most proactive recovery plan, traumatic events can catapult a person into mania, which is what I experienced recently when I lost a loved one unexpectedly to a heart attack.
My manic episodes tend to start off with me feeling as though I'm being super productive at work and home, when in reality it's just the thoughts in my head spinning so fast I can't keep up. Often during a mania, I feel as though I'm living whatever major story is happening in the news. This most recent episode occurred during the time of the Houston floods. I thought our home was flooding and we needed to get to higher ground. Also, my thoughts become extremely jumbled and I'm not able to make sense of the situation once the psychosis takes over. It's scary losing control of the thoughts in your mind, but having experienced it five times now, I know that it won't last forever and that once I get to the hospital and receive the proper medication, I will be okay. It's my goal, obviously, to avoid hospitalization and to stay healthy, but some things are out of my control, such as the death of a loved one.
When I first was diagnosed, I thought I may never be able to have children. But the reality is that with the right support I was able to have two beautiful, amazing kids. My husband and I believe in being open with our kids about my illness, and because of my work leading a mental health awareness nonprofit, I have been talking about mental health issues with my kids for the past five years (they're now 7 and 9). I believe the sooner we are able to have discussions with our children about mental illness, the earlier they will learn that mental health issues should be treated the same as physical illnesses. Our brains get sick just like other parts of our bodies get sick and need treatment. This is how we'll raise a more accepting society. —Jennifer Marshall, co-founder and executive director of This Is My Brave
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“None of us asked to be bipolar.”
On a day-to-day basis, I battle both bipolar symptoms and medication side effects. On the bipolar side, there are mood symptoms to concern myself with. For example, I’m often in a mixed mood where symptoms of both hypomania and depression are present at the same time. So I can easily fall into depressive symptoms where I cry and hug myself while still having copious amounts of energy to burn which I do, partially, by talking to myself constantly. I literally cannot stop.
As for the side effects, right now the medication cocktail I’m on is worsening my anxiety quite a bit. I deal with this on top of the bipolar symptoms and it is very hard. I find that my own set of coping techniques are absolute essential to getting through the day. Obtaining the skills provided by cognitive behavioral therapy I believe to be very helpful for anyone with a mental illness. And, for me, a medication cocktail is critical to my survival.
I wish people understand those with appropriately-treated bipolar disorder are not violent, unpredictable or unreliable. We truly are like everyone else, but with a serious health condition. I wish people understood bipolar disorder is a disease of the brain and not a personal failing. Believe me, if it were simply a matter of thinking your way out of the illness, or just trying really hard, we wouldn’t be struggling and suffering like we do. None of us asked to be bipolar, none of us want to have a brain illness, but we do. Nonetheless, we are still special, wonderful and loveable. —Natasha Tracy, author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar
“It’s not what defines me. I just happen to suffer from it.”
I have late-onset bipolar type II and was diagnosed in my 40s. There’s a raging history of bipolar I and II in my family. Everyone has been hospitalized and institutionalized. My highs are so high, but the lows are deadly. The things you do on a high are not good, though they’re fun (you have a lot of sex, get a lot of work done, and drink a lot), but when you go down you’re horrified by what you did when you were high. There have been a few suicide attempts, often triggered by financial stress. Drinking alcohol didn’t help either. My depression augmented with wine made me isolated and paralyzed. I was scared and ashamed that I couldn’t go on and would lose everything. I’ve been in a mental institution four times. But they don’t help you. They stabilize you and then release you without providing any assistance on how to get on with your life.
For anyone suffering from bipolar, I suggest they see a therapist and psychiatrist—and put those two professionals in touch. Listen to your friends. If they’re good friends, they’ll tell you something is different about you. Know your family history. What I’m trying to come to terms with is that this is a medical condition. It’s not what defines me. I’m not bipolar, I just happen to suffer from it. Otherwise, you give it a lot of power.” —Anonymous