How I Learned to Hope in the Face of Bipolar Disorder

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From a very young age, I've been fascinated by the power of words. Their ability to shape and influence one's perspective. The power of voice, of accessing it and making it stronger.  The power to speak and to share, to give life. This is why, after a few years of secrecy, I've decided to speak out and share my story.

I was diagnosed with Bipolar at the age of 30. The best way I can describe the experience is like that of A Beautiful Mind, minus the paranoid schizophrenia. In other words, the loss of insight and connection to reality were complete, and I found myself acting in ways that were unrecognizable to myself and those around me. I also began to experience many extreme moods, some of which appeared beautiful, but which ultimately hid a vast darkness. 

The symptoms had begun rather subtly, the summer after I turned 29. This was a period in my life characterized by severe sleep deprivation, stress, and significant changes in my life and routine. Although I'd always self-imposed a highly structured daily regimen of sleep and routines, I'd never known why exactly — just that they were critical in order for me to feel and function my best. Unfortunately, these things fell to the wayside as my husband and I moved from one state to another, as I began a new residency, and as he began to pursue a second advanced degree.

We had planned to start a family soon. My husband was gone all the time, so I busied myself getting everything in place:  eating healthy, taking prenatal vitamins, and exercising daily. I went off birth control. This, I'm told, is what triggered the manic episode.

Nothing could have prepared me for it. Nothing that I had studied in school, none of the patients I had seen — nothing could have prepared me to experience firsthand the destruction that Bipolar uniquely brings.

Undiagnosed at the time, I began to engage in highly uncharacteristic behaviors. My mind felt unbelievably good and I felt as if I was invincible, capable of anything. It began innocently enough: although I wasn't getting much sleep, I began to feel as if I didn't need it anymore. My mind felt on all the time, and I was extremely productive, completing an incredible amount of tasks within a single morning. I'd wake up in the middle of the night feeling creative and write poetry that I was convinced were masterpieces written by a world renowned genius (me). Life held incredible meaning. I felt expansive, as if everything was meant to be, as if a force had led me in my life to this moment. Songs were filled with beauty, and colors looked brighter. I went on shopping sprees buying a lot of things that felt as if I absolutely had to have, like bright running skirts in every color of the rainbow. (I don't run.)

At some point the episode had begun to take a dark, disturbing twist. I was filled with a sense of frenetic urgency, which could not be relieved no matter how many tasks I completed. Colors were too bright, and songs too loud. Time moved too quickly, until voices and faces were blurred and spinning out of control, as if I were on a crazed carousel. Ordinary events and encounters with people I normally would have never given much thought to began to hold a strong cosmic significance. Stability and normality were things that began to make me feel suffocated, as if I were in a room lacking air. I began to experience difficulty with my memory, with entire aspects of my life seeming like black voids; it felt as if all that I could recall, and all that mattered was the present moment. I felt a severe lack of empathy and insight; my emotional responses and perspectives were strangely at odds with those of my loved ones around me. Things that should have been sad made me laugh, puzzled me. I experienced symptoms of hypersexuality, in which my brain felt as if it were going through an excruciatingly painful addiction and withdrawal from crack cocaine.

I can only say that it was extremely difficult to break through the madness to make contact with reality. Bipolar is a monster — seductively beautiful at times, but one that will consume you alive. Like drowning in an ocean and struggling against the tides to breathe, so was my struggle against Bipolar.  In the brief instances that I did make it up to the surface to gasp for air, it wasn't enough. The monster had a complete and total grip on me.

Bipolar will test the best of marriages. In the eye of the storm, it will bring you to your knees, peel away all the layers of your life and reveal its awful truths. We tried to make it work now that we both know you have bipolar disorder, but you've failed once again, my husband said to me. I had received my initial diagnosis, but had not yet begun any treatment. I can’t be with someone like this. 

I had gone to the psychiatrist on my own a few weeks earlier. A genetic kit I had frenetically purchased in one of my shopping sprees had revealed some confusing genetic results associated with Bipolar. How can I be Bipolar if everything I am doing seems great and normal to me? He was an unsympathetic man, with a long beard and cold eyes. I told him how I felt as if I were on top of the world, as if everything was meant to be. The limited sleep I had. All my symptoms. The new people I had met. Right now you are fine but when the episode ends, it going to hit you all at once and you will become severely suicidal, he said.  

Okay, I thought in my demented, manic state. This doctor has no idea what he is taking about. He's just some prudish 50 year old man with no clue how to live. I called Brian. Although he wasn't really speaking to me anymore, he was the only person I really had at the time. Should I take my medication? I asked. If I were you, I wouldn't, he said. The side effects seem very severe. 

Without medication, my manic behaviors continued. And what seemed like the end — a new diagnosis, an answer to my black voids and newfound addictions — was actually only the beginning.

And so, I was left with the aftermath, alone. A year later, I discovered Lithium, whose powers are like air or water to me: necessary. Taking it was like waking up from a dream, only to find my entire life destroyed. I felt as if I were Rip Van Wrinkle. Somehow time had passed, and I awoke to find the life I had known it, gone. I tried to restore the relationships that have been broken. But I learned that sometimes they can't be. And that's what you're left with; this is the dark point you must come back from. These are the pieces of a life that you must somehow reassemble. 

The trouble was wanting to, and I thought often of killing myself. One of the last things Brian had said to me was, Actions have consequences. Yes, they do. For months, I struggled with this knowledge. I struggled to live out a life irrevocably shaped from these consequences, a life without him. I couldn't help but feel an extreme sense of guilt and shame for what had occurred. And for a while, I drowned in a different kind of ocean. One of sorrow, of grief. One in which I saw too clearly the worst of myself and the mistakes I had made. During this time, I walked through what can only be described as the valley of the shadow of death. The mania had passed, but with it, it had taken my identity, dreams, marriage, sense of self, and everything and everyone I had held dear. 

I came out of this experience a different person. One with a renewed sense of purpose and hope. Although Brian  had not been around, other people were. Strangers, people who didn't really know me, were there to walk with me through the valley. Their kindness and compassion moved me. And although I had fallen, I learned to pick myself back up.

I've also learned that time reveals greater truths. It’s like flying a plane: when you’re close to the ground, all you can see are the immediate details. And yet the farther away you get, the broader your perspective is on what you see and understand, until you get so far that you can see the earth and marvel at its glory. My own journey with Bipolar has been like this. When I looked out the window at first, all that I saw was destruction. And yet as more time has passed, I can now see the greater truths of beauty and resilience. Of grace and forgiveness. Of love, what it is, what it means. Its power to restore and heal. 

Brian remarried within a year and has a new family of his own now. He hasn’t really missed a step in rebuilding his life these past two years, whereas I have struggled immensely. But it is through this struggle to continue to love and hope, that I have now found the light that I carry within myself and work to strengthen each day. 

It is with this spirit that I have decided to share my journey. Through it, I wish to share with others all that I have learned: that darkness will happen in life, that horrible truths may be exposed, that Bipolar can be a tough monster to defeat and one that must be continually confronted and fought back each day, but that through this process, something significant can be found, something life giving, solid, and real. There is hope. Let’s walk through this life, and all the pain it can bring, together.