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.