Bipolar Disorder: The Stages of Grief
What do you remember from the day you were diagnosed? What were the thoughts and feelings that went through your mind? How many times have you questioned your diagnosis? How many times have you felt angry or resentful of your disorder? Have you had times when you just gave up?
I had a realization one day as I was thinking about all of these things. When you are diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder you suffer a loss. You lose who you thought you were. You might feel angry, discouraged, alone, hopeless, lost, and all of these feelings are part of the grieving process. It is important to recognize this process and acknowledge the feelings that you are having as valid.
It is also equally important to work through this process, ideally with a mental health counselor, so that you don’t get bogged down and lost in it. It is normal to mourn the loss of who you were, or who you thought you were, but you need to look forward and embrace who you are and who you can become.
The Stages of Grief
Shock and Denial
When you are first diagnosed there are a number of different emotions that you experience. You are experiencing a fundamental shift in your life and it can be jarring.
When I was first diagnosed I experienced a rollercoaster of emotions. First, I felt relieved that there was finally an answer to the dramatic mood swings and the irrational thoughts and behaviors. Then I felt like I had been told I was broken, fundamentally flawed and defective. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was experiencing a loss–the loss of who I thought I was–and it was a shock.
Over the years I have had many times when I was in serious denial about my diagnosis. I would go through brief periods, usually at the beginning of mania, or when a medication would offer some temporary relief, when I would start to feel good. I was clear minded and productive, and I would think, “There is nothing wrong with me, I’m not broken. I don’t have Bipolar Disorder.”
Denial is a very common challenge with those diagnosed with Bipolar because you don’t want to believe that the “old you” is no more, and that this new version is someone you don’t like.
Anger and Bargaining
When the inevitable followed and I crashed, I would often feel intense anger. Anger is a very common feeling when you are struggling with Bipolar Disorder. I had so many times when I felt angry that I had to work so hard to be “normal” and that it wasn't fair that everyone else had it so much easier.
I felt rebellious about what I struggled with, and I would decide that if this was the way I was, then everyone else was just going to have to suffer too, because it was just too hard to keep trying.
I also remember begging God to take away this disorder. I would read in the Bible about the woman with an issue of blood who touched the hem of the Savior and was healed. I thought, “Why can’t God heal me? I have faith, why can’t he make me whole?” I spent a lot of time dwelling on this, and it usually made me either angry or more depressed.
Obviously someone with Bipolar Disorder will struggle with depression. However, this type of depression is not caused by the disorder itself, but is caused by the discouragement and hopelessness you feel because of the disorder.
I thought for many years that if I tried hard enough I could fix myself. So every time I would cycle and end up making irrational choices and ultimately crash into depression I would feel like there was no point to trying. My depression was magnified by my hopelessness in what I felt was a pointless effort to try to live well.
I also felt very alone in my struggle. Even the people who loved me and tried to help made me feel lonely, because they didn’t understand what I was going through. Often their attempts to help would make me feel worse because I viewed myself as broken and their help seemed to confirm that for me.
The Turn Upward
This is when you finally start to really accept that the “old you” is gone, but that doesn’t mean that the “new you” is broken or flawed. It is just a different you. I wrote a post Bipolar Disorder: You are not broken! where I discuss why comparing yourself to who you used to be can prevent you from moving forward. When you get to this stage of the grieving process, the turn upward, you are starting to recognize that there might be hope for a positive future with your new self.
Reconstruction and Working Through
This is the stage where you really begin to accept responsibility for yourself. You recognize that living a positive, productive life is possible, but you are going to have to work for it. You are willing to work with your counselor, develop tools and make changes in your life so that you can become the best version of yourself.
Acceptance and Hope
There were two stages of acceptance for me. The first was when I resigned myself to this “new me” that I thought was just going to spend my life surviving. I had spent ten years actively trying to treat my disorder, and it just got progressively worse. I finally just decided that this was my life, and I would simply just have to survive it. It was a resigned acceptance.
The second stage of acceptance was when I finally started to find the tools and resources that helped me to finally make some progress in learning how to live well with my disorder (see my post on Medication). I was able to not just accept my new self, but embrace my new self. I finally had hope for a fulfilling, productive life with Bipolar Disorder.
I have also learned to be grateful for my Bipolar Disorder. I have learned so much over the years since my diagnosis that I don’t think I would have learned otherwise. I love my life now. I am grateful for the challenges that I have been through with my disorder because I have so much more confidence in myself and my ability to persevere and triumph over challenges.
Moving Past Grief
Understanding the stages of grief and learning that it is normal for you to go through these stages as you mourn the loss of your “old self” can be helpful on your journey to wellness. However, you don’t want to allow grief to take over your life and get mired down in the mourning process.
If you are ready to take responsibility for yourself, to learn to accept and love yourself as you are and work towards living well with Bipolar Disorder, I invite you to start with my free guide to developing a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan for when your emotional power goes out. In the guide I will take you through the Four Steps of formulating a response plan for mental health emergencies so that you are prepared when they hit. It will help you take more responsibility for yourself, minimize the impact on those you love and help you learn how to reboot your system to get your emotional power back online.
There is hope and help. Are you ready to start?