Even to this day, I continue to have new self-discoveries as I try to understand the impact my mental disorder diagnosis has had on my life. I feel distant from the person I was during those times many years ago when I was in the thick of suffering. But not so far removed that hearing someone else’s story doesn’t bring me right back there again.
I am grateful I kept journals from the past. It is helpful to understand my past self and see her in a different light. Whereas I had so much anger and hatred for myself in those moments back then, I only have love and compassion for her now.
What I discovered recently surprised me. I thought I was completely “over” my bipolar disorder diagnosis–as if that is ever possible. I felt such a strong belief in my new identity of someone who used to live with this disorder a long time ago but has recovered and no longer suffering from it.
Even though I had these thoughts, I never said any of this out loud. I didn’t want to put it out into the universe for fear my current life could all be taken away from me. I really thought I had this mental illness all figured out. But I still have to work hard at managing my anxiety and my mind when life feels too overwhelming.
I also thought I can now talk freely about it without feeling any shame. Boy, was I wrong. I am mostly proud of the person I have become but there will always be moments where I will have some insecurities surrounding it. And I’ve realized that’s perfectly fine.
These days, people have a better understanding of bipolar disorder compared to 20 years ago. However, unless you or someone you love live with this disorder, it is quite a perplexing illness to grasp. Bipolar disorder has two extremities to it, most people understand the depression aspect. The ambiguity surrounds the mania or manic side of the disorder.
Every person living with bipolar will have different experiences and understandings of their own mania. Some would intentionally want to experience mania because it feels incredibly good. I heard someone who has bipolar say on a podcast, if he could somehow package up that feeling of mania into a bottle, it would be worth a lot of money. And I would have to agree. While some experience excitement and feel invincible during the manic phase, others could actually feel paranoid.
I would like to share my own narrative of how I experienced mania. It is like living with a wild and dangerous side of myself. A side that is more fearless, daring, and bolder than my normal self; at the same time, it is also reckless, mean, and irrational. My mania is ready to take over my life any minute if I am not careful. It doesn’t like being told what to do but in reality needs the help of others more than ever.
To not be repetitive continuously saying “my mania”, I will call it Lex. Lex has always lived inside my brain. Even though it is nothing like me, because it lives inside my mind, it is undeniably a part of me. When Lex has control of my mind, as strange and difficult as it may be for other people to understand, it isn’t always me making the decisions. Most of the time I don’t have any recollection of the actions I did or the words I said; it completely has no place in my memory bank. I equate it to wirings in my brain being momentarily disconnected during those times.
Lex came out to play for the first time when I was 18 years old. Since I was driving at the time, let’s add to this analogy by comparing my brain to a car. When Lex made its first appearance, it took over the driving and controlled where I was going. When I was hospitalized and given medication, this was an effort to paralyze Lex. It was effective but also had the side effect of paralyzing me in the process. The days after I was released from the hospital were foggy at best, but mainly exhausting and debilitating. At that point, neither Lex nor I was driving. We were both sprawled out somewhere in the car.
When I adjusted to the medications and the fogginess wore off, I moved Lex over to the passenger seat. I was not quite ready to drive but had control enough not to let it be anywhere near the wheel. When I felt more competent in myself to turn on the engine again, I carefully put Lex in the backseat.
Trekking along in my life, Lex was always ready to jump in the driver’s seat, wanting to get a hold of the steering wheel. For instance, during those moments when I stayed up late into the nights during my last semester of college, writing my weekly 20 page finance papers I always waited until the last minute to do.
After being hospitalized for the 2nd time at age 20, I learned my limitations and made myself go to sleep even when I didn’t want to. During those times when there was a party at our house and everyone else was having so much fun staying up all night, I went to bed not being able to explain why I couldn’t hang out longer. For me, getting enough sleep and keeping my stress level at a manageable level were the two key contributors to keeping my mania away. I couldn’t risk letting the monster take over again.
I seriously thought I left Lex in the rearview mirror after college. I thought it was no longer in the car with me. I thought I had this disorder all figured out, that I was far removed from my bipolar diagnosis. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Lex happily took over the driving one unexpected day as my wedding neared. I could sense the takeover coming but was having a hard time managing the stress of what everyone else wanted for my wedding day. I didn’t know how to keep Lex at bay. It won and I paid a visit to the psychiatric ward a few weeks before my wedding day.
When each of my babies were born, Lex was riding shotgun both times and took over at moments I was vulnerable. I was not able to see my newborn babies after I brought them home from the hospital, the 7-10 days felt like years. Those were the most painful times. All I had to hang on to were pictures of my babies. The days in the psychiatric ward were excruciating. I had so much incentive to quickly get better but it was still extremely difficult.
Each of the times that Lex was removed from the driver’s seat through heavy doses of medication, I knew the long periods of depression would follow. That was the hardest thing about Lex’s reappearances, the grueling days of darkness which followed. There was automatic self-hatred for not being strong enough to prevent it.
After all these years of living with Lex, what I recently realized is that it will always be somewhere in my car. Right now I have it in the trunk where it rests quietly. Lex is currently dormant and could be that way for the rest of my life. But I know it is always ready to come out to play. If I allow the circumstances of my life to get the better part of me, it will. However, I currently feel very stable and reassured that if Lex finds its way out of the trunk, I will know how to handle it. I am ready to do the dance of taking back control of the driving and putting it back in the trunk.
All these years, I never was able to get rid of my mania. That’s because I can’t, it is a part of me whether I like it or not. But it no longer has a hold on me. I am not afraid of it anymore. I am more powerful than it ever can be. It is helpful to understand who you truly are. Because without really knowing yourself, it will be difficult to understand an aspect of yourself you don’t care for or even despise.
If you live with bipolar disorder–or any kind of debilitating illness or condition–you have a choice. You can choose to let it dictate how you live your life each day. You can let it hold you back from ever moving forward. You can curse it, be furious with it, hate yourself because of it or blame it for the life you have. I have done all of these things at one point or another.
I wouldn’t go as far as telling you to embrace it, but perhaps you can befriend it. Your diagnosis is your circumstance. How you choose to think about it will impact how you feel, what you do, and the results you have in your life. Wouldn’t it make sense to think about it in a way that empowers you?
“You never know how strong you are, until being strong is your only choice.” – Bob Marley