If I could make a video of my entire life and pause it at the most satisfying point, that point would be right now—even though I am physically past my prime at age sixty-five. It’s an odd thing to say for someone who has had bipolar disorder for over 30 years. As few as six years ago, I most definitely would have opted to go back to my pre-bipolar days if given the chance.
I’ve been free of hospitalizations for eight years. Gone are the recurring extended hospital stays of two to three months, every second year or so, for full-blown mania or severe depression. Although functioning well, I still see a psychiatrist, as I have for decades, and will do so for life. My hope is that I continue to have a peaceful coexistence with bipolar disorder for the rest of my years; it seems a distinct possibility these days even though there was a time when I thought I would never experience serenity again.
I was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder late in life—in my mid-thirties—during a manic episode, even though in retrospect, based on my erratic behaviours in my twenties, I would say I showed signs much earlier. I also have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) with a smattering of OCD thrown into the mix.
I’ve had epic depressions, hibernating in bed in the foetal position sleeping an inordinate amount of time, looking as listless as the neglected vegetables in the crisper drawer in my fridge. The psychic pain was relentless: crying here, crying there, crying everywhere.
On the other end of the spectrum, during my manic episodes, I’ve often felt as if someone has taken over my brain, like fast eating termites feeding inside my skull, gaining momentum with each passing second, eradicating my introverted, serene, and kind nature. Regrettably, the mania has never loosened its grip until ultimate damage has been done, leaving me standing alone in the rubble.
While not a stereotypical crazed killer, like some with bipolar disorder are sadly depicted in pop culture today, I am guilty of over-the-top behaviours when manic. I’m reckless, impulsive and all sexed-up. I’m indiscriminate in my shopping, angry and sometimes even cruel with the truth that I speak. I’m just about anything I damn well feel like being, and even a snowplough couldn’t push me to the side of the road if I were in its path. Without exception I get into deep deep trouble when manic.
I always apologize and try to explain my inexplicable behaviour, once I return to a state of equilibrium, but no one has ever been even remotely receptive due to the hurtful nature of my actions. I can only take solace in having apologized. It took me many years to realize that if no one was going to forgive me then I had to. It has not always been an easy thing to do but I have learned to be kind to “yours truly” after my outbursts when sometimes no one else is. People don’t understand how a mental illness can turn me—a meek, considerate and well-mannered individual—into a she-devil. Unfortunately, during times such as these—because I can often appear to be so very rational—no one believes I am in fact exceedingly ill. Without fail they always assume I’m naturally spiteful; not to be trusted or worthy of their friendship.
“Without exception I get into deep deep trouble when manic.”
At times I wondered how I would ever be able to show my face to anyone but, now that many years have elapsed since my last indiscretions, it feels as though these misbehaviours were perpetrated by someone else. I have always told myself there are worse things that could happen to me in life, so I’ve been able to get on with the task of living without shouldering a truckload of anguish and shame.
I dread the manic episodes returning as they have always led to acting out, so I’m eternally grateful for the medication that keeps them at bay.
Of all the soul-destroying life experiences that can befall someone with bipolar disorder all have unfortunately happened to me: rape; permanent loss of employment; divorce; bankruptcy; loss of friendships; obesity and pre-diabetes due to some of the antipsychotic medications; long periods of no contact with family members and even the loss of the ability to drive—quite a long list. Most heart-breaking of all, I even lost my two children for several years.
I’ve become very philosophical over time finding solace and inspiration in small things. I am particularly fond of this line from a poem by William Wadsworth Longfellow; “Into each life some rain must fall.” This short phrase has become my mantra. It helps me see I have never really been alone with my challenges even though it has certainly felt that way in the past when I have been in the throes of a merciless mood swing.
I also take great comfort knowing bipolar disorder affords me interludes of stability, sometimes for long periods of time. This gives me something to look forward to. Progressive illnesses do not have such intervals but only offer the prospect of a steady decline (sometimes over decades) down a sunless and solitary downward path, without the possibility of remission. That scenario would be impossibly difficult to endure whereas the advantage of having a yoyo existence is that even though it can come with many stumbling blocks it can also come with triumphs.
“Yes. It is possible to be happy living with bipolar disorder. And it is possible to have recovery.”
The only constant is that I have lived a life of uncertainty, replete with vicissitudes. All lives are uncertain albeit to a lesser extent. No one knows whether they will continue to experience good health in two years’ time or find themselves financially ruined.
Over the years I glorified other peoples’ lives naively thinking they were perfect—so unlike mine. I’ve come to realize this couldn’t be further from the truth. The grand paradox is that life is messy, unpredictable, and sometimes discouraging, while still capable of bringing joy–although not necessarily all at the same time. This fact helps me reframe bipolar disorder and I’m happier as a result.
Yes. It is possible to be happy living with bipolar disorder. And it is possible to have recovery.
Gradually over the years my mood swings have become less extreme and the time between episodes widened. I have reason to be optimistic about my endgame as science is on my side: mania tends to decrease with age.
How am I able to navigate through a life less ordinary while managing to keep it rewarding? By adhering to the recommendations of professionals: making healthy lifestyle choices; nurturing friendships and family connections; attending all psychiatric appointments and doing everything in my power to procure a decent night’s sleep by practising good sleep hygiene.
“I have made a point of cultivating a few friendships with people who have various forms of mental illness because I never want to feel trapped or so very alone with my bipolar disorder again.”
Sleep is paramount and I monitor it with the precision of an ambush predator who has just seen his soon-to-be lunch walk by. If I’m only sleeping four hours a night, but still overflowing with energy, I know I am at the very least hypomanic and, if I don’t seek medical intervention right away, the mania will soon be rolling in. Conversely, if I find myself sleeping more than ten hours a night, I know depression has me firmly in its grasp. Sleep is the best gauge of my mood—and usually the first indicator that something is amiss and, more importantly, an excellent predictor of an encroaching switch—so I call my case manager if I notice a change either way.
These days I will also call my case manager if I see any other signs that mania is imminent. I used to embrace mania because of its characteristic euphoria but I have finally smartened up after realizing that mania not only produces ecstasy but also results in pain to loved ones and self-destruction too.
I have made a point of cultivating a few friendships with people who have various forms of mental illness because I never want to feel trapped or so very alone with my bipolar disorder again. Alone and trapped like a lioness in a cage watching the rest of the world live, not enjoying one second of her enslaved condition; trying to seek freedom and feeling as though it would never come in her lifetime of captivity.
These friends have helped immeasurably with my ability to manage by their unwavering support. I emulate their coping mechanisms and learn from their victories all the while trying to avoid their pitfalls. Most friends can easily relate to one another; those with mental illnesses more so because we have a very specific shared experience.
We commiserate. We cry. We laugh. We drink loads of coffee. We recover.
I’ve also educated myself about the disorder because ignorance is fear—not bliss—when it comes to mental health. I’m no longer terrified of bipolar. I used to be. It’s a cyclical illness that sneaks up on me when I think I’m in the clear, so I do an internal check every now and again to make sure it’s not brewing. It’s been my constant companion for a long time now, so I know it well.
The biggest contributing factor responsible for my recovery has been my steadfastness in staying on my prescribed medications, unlike my younger self who thought she knew better than the experts. I’d never stop taking any drug these days without the consent of my psychiatrist because he has more wisdom and knowledge than I do with his 13 years of postsecondary education and many years’ experience. If I’m dissatisfied with a medication, I wait to discuss it with him, and so far, we have always managed to work together toward a mutually satisfactory solution.
“I’ve also educated myself about the disorder because ignorance is fear—not bliss—when it comes to mental health.”
My psychiatrist and I have developed an excellent rapport over our 17-year relationship. It’s a partnership built on mutual respect; he has told me numerous times there is not much distance between us from where he and I sit. Mental illness is so much easier to deal with if patient and psychiatrist are concordant. I have changed psychiatrists in the past because we were not like-minded.
Despite having bipolar disorder, for what seems like eons, there are two great successes in my life nowadays. I have a mutually satisfying relationship with my children and have been in a stable, healthy and happy common-law relationship for over ten years—with absolutely no drama—something that always seemed to elude me in the past. Hope has crept back into my life these days.
It’s difficult to retain our sense of humour when we have any serious chronic illness. It can steal our strength of purpose, strip us of our enjoyment in life and destroy any carefreeness we may have had. I’ve learned to reframe some of my more eccentric and embarrassing past behaviours—like propositioning my psychiatrist when I was manic 30 years ago—and, with the gift of time, have come to see many of them as humorous. This newfound outlook has also contributed towards my acceptance of this somewhat bewildering illness and has led to my recovery.
Sigmund Freud once said, “One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful”. While I don’t know if I completely agree with that statement, after having had many challenges over the years, I can find myself in the slipstream, like everyone else—and when there—life is good.
Having experienced the mania and dark months of depression for 50 years, I can so identify with this article. Thankful there is hope and light at the end of the tunnel of blackness. Recovery is possible! This article will bring hope to many who suffer with this ilness.
Beautifully written. And I too can relate so closely to your story. Thank you for articulating it so clearly and eloquently.
Thank you for speaking out and sharing a piece of your story, Louise. Some beautiful reflections and insights. It inspires hope and some comfort in me after being recently diagnosed.
Thank you Timothy. I wrote the piece for people like you who are recently diagnosed and to hopefully give comfort and hope in what can be a very difficult time. I am glad you were able to connect with my story.
Thank you Louise for sharing your story. After having lived with bipolar for twenty years, I still live in fear of another manic episode. You’ve given me hope that I won’t have to climb out of the rubble again.
I am glad to have come across this and thank you for your story. I have a thirty seven year old son who is suffering this unwanted illness through no fault of his own. Your description is so much like a mirror of his that basically started when he was a late teenager which erupted into a manic episode at 26 and was not diagnosed until 3 years ago where it was previously Dx as Psychoeffective disorder, The BD type 1 Dx was such a relief as I was always suspecting that he was BD. I am a practicing Vet surgeon over 45 years and believe there is one not ‘multi factor’ that is responsible for this B D. I believe there is particular enzyme that is responsible for controlling the level of the serotonin that is missing in such sufferers. Regardless of what or how high or unstable level of the synaptic activity it is controlled by or affected by that lack of enzyme. I really hope they will find a cure as my son has had rapid cycles since being Dx 3 years ago and is homeless at present and staying with us after 6 weeks hospitalisation because he refused to take his medication to try to do without it. Your “alarm clock” of sleeping is so accurate I just wish my son will read your story which I have emailed it to him but don’t hold my breath that he will read it but I pray to God that he will as he is a very intelligent person like many BD people sometimes too clever for their own good. Many thanks for your story
Is it possible to NOT publish my name in this comment as to avoid my son see my name on this if he is somehow willing to read this which personally I think he should, he smokes ordinary cigarettes constantly because he said it keeps him awake not sleepy from his medication of Olanzpine injection and his alcohol consumption don’t help in fact it is keeping him on edge, I feel so hopeless to try helping him even since his correct Dx
Well first of all I myself and I’m sure a bunch of other individuals who’ve read your story we all thank you for sharing. I didn’t get diagnosed with bipolar or any of my other symptoms until much later in my adult life. I had a really good childhood as far as having the best parents and grandparents except for one my dad’s mom but I’ve been facing hallucinations, voices in and out, mania, suicidal adeation, outbursts, waves of depression. My mom says she knew something was going on with me when I came back home because I had failed at living on my own even though she knew I had all the knowledge to care for myself, I’ve been in and out of hospitals for Inpatient care they would get me settled down and calm down they’d spend a week to a few weeks getting what they called getting my medication dialed in but this has been a roller-coaster from or to hell off/ on situations with my current situation being in the off mode just 2 years ago I went to go see my doctor which he was coming up to my home town through the company he worked through but I was told too bad too sad he’s not coming back up here per the company he was working through and just here lately disability decided I’m no longer considered disability that they hadn’t received my paperwork that they sent out which I didn’t know I had received I’ve a hard time with knowing what paperwork is what and require help with any paperwork no matter what it is I get overwhelmed by the voices telling me things like we talked to them and they don’t need it or my hallucinations of individuals that tell me all sorts of things I can’t cope I can’t comprehend my ability to remember is deteriorating alot I dunno why I’m posting this I just wanted to say thank you for your story and to the rest of you thank you as well I guess I’m really hoping for a permanent situation so I can keep my insurance keep my medication and seek help to get permanent disability because with all my issues keeping a job is impossible. My brother is typing as I talk and he’s writing my words down even he’s sick of me (I’m his brother I just want help for him)
Thank you for reaching out. I am not a medical professional but am speaking as someone who has bipolar disorder like you. I feel your pain. I was also diagnosed late in life at age 35 and I am here to say that the first two or three years post diagnosis were the most difficult for me until I found the right mental health professional and a regimen of drugs that worked for me. I urgently advise you to seek treatment again even though you have gone that route without a good result. Sometimes it takes a few tries to get the right treatment plan that works for you. I wish you all the best in your journey toward living well with bipolar disorder. Louise