Symptoms of Mania and Depression: Don’t Normalize Them!

symptoms of mania and depression

Something that I have noticed on social media over the past few years is the normalization of the symptoms of mania and depression. It is usually motivated by the desire to raise awareness or help foster compassion for people that are experiencing the symptoms. Awareness can be helpful if it is done to help people recognize the symptoms in themselves or others so that they can get help, but normalizing the symptoms is different.

To normalize something is to “make it normal and natural in everyday life” but there are things that we shouldn’t be viewing as normal. That includes the symptoms of bipolar. I understand the desire to make it seem normal because it feels like this will be your “normal” for the rest of your life and you want to be accepted as you are.

Is It Normal?

If I had been able to see people normalizing bipolar symptoms 13 years ago it might have felt validating for me and it would have made me feel less alone. At that time, I believed the best I could expect out of my life with bipolar disorder was learning how to suffer well with it. After 12 years of trying dozens of different medications prescribed by my doctors, hospitalizations, electroconvulsive therapy and suicide attempts I had resigned myself to an existence of just surviving life.

Experience had taught me that no matter how hard I tried, or what medication I took, I would always suffer with unpredictable mood cycles and struggle helplessly through the manic-depressive rollercoaster. I felt like I had no control over my bipolar and I would be at the mercy of the mood-cycles for the rest of my life. The idea of helping people understand what I was going through and asking them to have compassion for me when I was compulsive and irrational would have been very appealing. 

Over the past thirteen years my perspective on bipolar has changed. In 2010 I found the first tool on the road to wellness. My doctor and I found a micronutrient treatment that helped my brain begin to heal. Over the following decade I started finding other tools to continue the healing process and I eventually discovered that I can live a healthy, balanced, productive life. 

Once I recognized that it was possible to live well with bipolar, I started to understand that normalizing the symptoms of the disorder is actually very detrimental to those who are living with it. 

A Mind in Distress

The first problem with normalizing the symptoms of bipolar is that you start to view them as normal or acceptable rather than what they are, indications of a mind in distress. We don’t normalize the symptoms of other illnesses. 

Take diabetes, for example. If someone is having excessive thirst and fatigue, blurry vision, losing weight without trying, or passing out you don’t seek to normalize these symptoms because you are afraid the person will feel bad for what they are experiencing. That would be ridiculous! You recognize that there is something wrong with the body. It is in distress and needs treatment to address the underlying cause of the symptoms.

The same should be true for bipolar disorder. The symptoms of mania and depression are indications that the mind is in distress and needs treatment to address the underlying cause. Normalizing these symptoms doesn’t help you when you’re suffering, it just prolongs it unnecessarily.

Damaging Relationships

One of the worst challenges that I experienced when I was struggling with bipolar for the first decade was that I would do and say things when I was manic or depressed that I wouldn’t normally say or do. This included behavior that was abusive and painful to my family. 

When I was back in a rational state of mind, I felt humiliated and discouraged by what I had done and vowed that I wouldn’t repeat it again, only to break that promise the next time I was in a mood cycle. This contributed to me feeling helpless and hopeless. I knew I was damaging relationships and I didn’t know how to stop it. 

The worst experiences came in 2008 when my disorder was at its worst. That year I was hospitalized multiple times, experienced my first psychotic episode and I made two attempts on my life. The symptoms I was displaying were emotionally and mentally damaging to my husband and my children. Regardless of whether I was doing them on purpose, my family was being harmed–and I knew it. 

Normalizing the symptoms that were hurting me and my family wouldn’t have helped, it would have hurt us. It wasn’t fair to me that I had bipolar, but it also wasn’t fair to my family. I needed to find a way to treat my disorder effectively, not expect them to accept abusive and damaging behavior as part of our relationship.

Normalizing Perpetuates Stigma

Finally, the idea that trying to create awareness for bipolar by normalizing the symptoms actually has the opposite effect than what is intended. Instead of creating more compassion around the disorder, it can make people who see it from the outside more cautious about entering into relationships, or hiring people who have bipolar because it looks like people are trying to make excuses for unhealthy behavior.

While it can create a feeling of solidarity among those suffering with bipolar, it perpetuates the stigmas for those who do not understand what it feels like to have those symptoms. Additionally, it can make those who are newly diagnosed feel more resistant to accepting their disorder and more helpless and hopeless that they can ever live well with it.

We shouldn’t stigmatize the behavior of someone that is struggling with something that they feel is beyond their control. But it doesn't help to try and normalize the symptoms of bipolar either. Recognize symptoms as indications that the mind is in distress and needs help because it is possible to treat bipolar and live well with it!

Accept Your Diagnosis

The first step to treating your bipolar is accepting that you have the disorder. This can be a struggle for people often because of the stigma attached to the disorder. When I was early on in my diagnosis, I struggled to accept that I had bipolar because it didn’t feel tangible to me. The diagnosis is based on mental and emotional symptoms that seemed really ambiguous. 

Any time I didn’t experience the symptoms I would think that I had been misdiagnosed and that I didn’t really have the disorder. Then another mood cycle would start up again. Remembering that the symptoms of the disorder are indications of a mind in distress can help you view the symptoms in a healthy way. The symptoms of bipolar are like your body having a fever. They are trying to tell you there is something wrong that needs to be treated.

Track Your Symptoms

Begin tracking the symptoms of your bipolar using a mood tracking app. I highly recommend the Bearable app. 

  • (This is not sponsored and I receive no benefit from recommending the app, it is the one I use and it is very user friendly, highly customizable and the free version is very robust.) 

Tracking your symptoms can help you provide more accurate and complete information to your doctor or therapist for more effective treatment. It also will help you to recognize when you are entering a manic or depressive episode so you can manage the mood-cycle more successfully.

Proactively Manage Mood-swings

Developing a Mood-cycle Survival Guide will help you learn to successfully manage your bipolar mood swings. While you are learning the tools necessary to effectively treat your bipolar will experience mood swings and being proactive about managing them will help you:

  • stop feeling like a victim to the mood-swings, 
  • lessen the impact on you and your family, and 
  • shorten the duration of the mood-cycle.

Get on the Path to Wellness

Unfortunately, the comparison between bipolar and diabetes doesn’t extend to the treatment of the disorder. It would be wonderful if treating bipolar were as simple as taking an insulin shot. When I was first diagnosed, I was told by my doctor that all I needed to do was find the right combination of medications and I would be fine. That idea was appealing to me because it was as simple as taking medication, but it proved to be false. 

Even though treating bipolar isn’t as easy as just taking some medication, it is possible to treat it effectively and live well with the disorder. The path to wellness includes:

You don’t need to suffer with the symptoms of your bipolar for the rest of your life. Remember, symptoms are an indication that your mind is in distress. If you treat the underlying cause, you can heal your mind and lessen or eliminate your symptoms. You can live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar. There is hope and there is help.

Should I Have Children If I Have Bipolar Disorder?

One question I hear frequently is:

 “Should I have children if I have bipolar disorder?” 

This question and the worry underlying it are understandable. There are so many unknowns with motherhood from the stress of pregnancy and hormone changes to the worries over the unpredictability of motherhood and passing on mental illness to your children. 

While there is not a one size fits all answer to these questions, learning how to proactively manage your disorder will prepare you to be successful as a mother with bipolar. 

Mindset

The first thing to address is your mindset about your disorder. It is essential to acknowledge that you have bipolar and that you are responsible for treating it consistently if you want to have children. 

Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness and can be dangerous, even life threatening if it goes untreated. It is possible to live well with bipolar disorder if you proactively treat it and that begins with:

  • accepting that you have bipolar, 
  • not comparing yourself to others without bipolar, and 
  • understanding what wellness with bipolar disorder looks like.

Accept that you have bipolar

Acknowledge that you have bipolar disorder and take ownership for treating it. Although this seems like it should go without saying, many people struggle with accepting their diagnosis. You might wonder if you were diagnosed correctly in the first place–bipolar is diagnosed using such intangible symptoms. 

You may go through periods when you start to feel healthy and balanced and begin to think that maybe the diagnosis was wrong or that you don’t have it anymore. There are also periods when you will feel angry about your diagnosis and refuse to treat it because you are sick of how hard everything is. Regardless of what prompts your denial it can be a major barrier to living well with your disorder. 

Do not compare yourself to others–you are not broken!

Women have difficulty not comparing themselves to each other already. As a society there is tremendous pressure to conform to certain “ideals” of womanhood from many different directions. This is amplified by social media where people post their “highlight” reels and distorted versions of reality which can cause you to feel inadequate, or worse. 

With bipolar it is even more important to not compare yourself to others without the disorder because it can create a barrier to learning to live well. The pressure to be and do everything can prevent you from eliminating unnecessary stressors while you learn how to effectively manage your bipolar.

Recognize what “wellness” with bipolar disorder looks like

For years as I was trying to learn how to live well with bipolar, I always thought of wellness as a linear path–like climbing a mountain–with the destination being never having a mood swing again. The problem this created for me is that I felt like I had failed each time I experienced a mood cycle. One time I had been healthy and balanced for months and then suddenly became depressed and I was so angry. I went to see my therapist and told her that I felt like a failure. I had been almost to the top of the mountain and now I was all the way back down at the bottom again!

That day my therapist helped me to understand that learning to live well with bipolar is not a linear process. It looks more like the addiction recovery cycle where there will be times when you relapse into mood swings, but this isn’t failure. The key is to learn how to successfully manage your mood cycles so that you can lessen the impact on you and your family and shorten the duration of the cycle. 

Preparing for Motherhood with Bipolar

Once you have acknowledged the reality of your disorder and your responsibility to treat it you can start learning the tools on the path to wellness with bipolar. 

Mood Cycle Survival Guide

One of the most important tools you will have as a mother with bipolar disorder is your Mood Cycle Survival Guide. While you are learning to live well with bipolar disorder you need to have a plan to help you successfully manage your mood swings. This guide will help you:

  • Minimize the impact on the mood-swing on yourself and your family, and
  • Shorten the duration of the mood-swing by creating a plan to get back to mental health and balance.

Be Intentional about Prioritizing Self-care 

If a mother has diabetes, she needs to be very deliberate and conscientious about prioritizing her self-care–monitoring her blood sugar, eating healthy and caring for her overall health. If she doesn’t take care of herself, she won’t be able to take care of her children because there can be serious, sometimes life-threatening consequences if she’s not careful. 

The same is true for a mother with bipolar disorder. Self-care for bipolar is essential to keep yourself and your children safe and healthy. This includes:

Balancing your brain chemistry

Most people with bipolar disorder need some form of intervention to address the imbalance in the brain. This can look different for different people. Some people do well on medication, while others, like me, find healing with specialized micronutrient treatments. 

If you take medication, it is necessary to discuss with your doctor which medications are safe to take while pregnant or nursing. Remember to stay consistent with your psychiatric appointments and monitor your mood and symptoms consistently during and after pregnancy as hormone changes can affect your body and brain chemistry. 

Regardless of the type of treatment you choose it is essential to stay consistent with taking your medications or micronutrients and ask for help immediately if you start to notice changes in your mood.

Working with a therapist

Therapy is essential for anyone who wants to learn how to live well with bipolar and it is especially important as you enter parenthood. Anxiety and worry can increase, and unhealed trauma may be revealed as you enter this new phase of life. Working with a competent therapist is critical to help you navigate the new challenges and continue to work on identifying unhealthy thoughts, behaviors and coping mechanisms, processing and healing trauma, and setting healthy boundaries.

Developing a daily routine

Setting up a healthy daily routine specifically to manage your bipolar disorder is going to help you manage stress and live healthier–body and mind. Each of the tools listed here are important but you need to learn one at a time and figure out the best way to incorporate them into your day.

  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Exercise (keep it simple, easy and accessible)
  • Yoga
  • Healthy, consistent sleep habits
  • Good nutrition
  • Hygiene habits
  • Carefully evaluating and managing stressors

Get support from other moms with bipolar disorder

Motherhood with bipolar disorder can feel lonely and isolating because you feel like no one understands the challenges you are facing. Join our Facebook group Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well to get encouragement and support from other moms on the same journey.

As a mother with bipolar disorder, I can tell you that it wasn’t always easy. I was very sick with my disorder when my children were little. Over time I discovered how to live well with bipolar. I started my blog to share what I learned so you don’t have to figure it out the hard way like I did. 

I am forever thankful for my children. They are the greatest joys of my life, and I am filled with gratitude every day to be their mother. You can live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar–including children–if you choose to:

  • Shift your mindset to accept your disorder, don’t compare yourself to others and learn what wellness with bipolar looks like, and
  • Prepare for motherhood by proactively treating your bipolar.

 There is hope and there is help!

New Year’s Resolutions for Bipolar Disorder: The Road to Wellness

New Years Resolutions for bipolar

It’s that time a year again, when many people resolve to make changes in their life to improve in some way. The new year feels like a natural time to consider life and the changes that you want to make. You want to start off the next chapter better than the last one.

Social media is filled with people talking about their New Year’s resolutions. Advertisers are encouraging you to make big changes in your life–change your eating habits, lose weight, get organized, clean your house, start a new hobby, and on and on.

When you have bipolar disorder, New Year’s resolutions can be a trigger for a mood cycle because they often involve major lifestyle changes that can trigger mania or depression. The motivation behind the resolution is easy to understand–you don’t like your life the way it is now. The damage caused by manic or depressive episodes can make you feel desperate. 

Living with bipolar disorder is really hard. You often feel like you aren’t in control of yourself or your life and that makes you feel helpless and discouraged. You think maybe a major change is the answer. Start eating healthy, or exercising regularly, or get more organized and then you will be able to live well with your disorder. When the next mood swing happens, it feels like you failed, and this can lead to frustration and hopelessness. 

Why keep trying so hard if it doesn’t change anything anyway? You can’t help it! It’s not your fault! It’s not fair! But, you don’t want to keep living like this so what do you do?

It is possible to learn to live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar, but it isn’t going to happen overnight. A big resolution committing to major change all at once isn’t wise or healthy with bipolar. The best approach is a steady commitment to making one change at a time, one step at a time on the road to wellness. 

Step One: Mindset

The first step is recognizing that learning to live well with bipolar requires a mindset shift. There can be some mental and emotional barriers to fully accepting your disorder and committing to managing it well. It is easy to feel like you don’t have any control and develop a victim mindset. The problem with this is that it doesn’t help. Your life just continues to be hard, and you don’t make any progress towards wellness. Three ways that you need to shift your mindset are:

  • Don’t compare yourself. Don’t compare yourself to who you were or thought you should be. Don’t compare yourself to others who don’t have bipolar. Learn to love and appreciate yourself for who you are. 
  • Allow yourself to grieve. It is normal to mourn the loss of who you were, or thought you were, and then you can look forward and embrace who you are and who you can become.
  • Understand the recovery cycle. Learning how to apply the recovery cycle to yourself will help you to stop feeling like you have failed when you have manic or depressive episodes and choose to accept more responsibility for yourself and your disorder.

Step Two: ERP

The next step is to learn to manage your bipolar mood swings successfully using a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan (ERP). Eventually the goal is to lessen the frequency and intensity of the mood swings, but while you are in the process of learning how to live well with your bipolar you need to utilize an ERP to minimize the impact of the mood cycles on you and your family and shorten the duration of the cycles.

The ERP helps you to successfully manage your mood cycles by helping you:

  • Identify the people you can ask for help when you’re struggling in a mood cycle.
  • Learn the symptoms and triggers of your mood cycles.
  • Develop a plan for self-care to aid in recovery.
  • Plan for getting back to health and balance.

Get a FREE guide to create an ERP here.

Step Three: Work Towards Maintenance Mode

Once you have a plan to successfully manage your mood swings you can learn the tools that help you spend more time in maintenance mode–healthy, balanced and productive. You do this by:

  1. Find the treatment your brain needs to be balanced. While there are different treatments that work for different people, most people need some intervention to help their mind function in a healthy way. Some people have found mental balance with medication while others, like me, were able to heal their brains with specialized micronutrient treatments. To learn more about my experience with medication and alternative treatments click here.
  1. Work with a therapist. Living with bipolar you will have periods of time when you are manic or depressed and you have irrational thoughts–you experience the world through a distorted lens. This leads to developing unhealthy thoughts and behaviors and unhealthy coping mechanisms. It is also common for people with bipolar to have unhealthy boundaries and unhealed trauma. All of these things can cause you to continue to trigger mood cycles, even if you have found the medication or micronutrients to balance your brain. Working with a therapist will help you to heal and resolve your triggers, enabling you to be more mentally well.
  1. Develop a self-care routine. Self-care is something critical for living well with bipolar. This will take time to develop as each piece needs to be learned and integrated one at a time. Some important tools for self-care include:
    • mindfulness meditation
    • Exercise (keep it simple, easy and accessible)
    • Yoga
    • Healthy, consistent sleep habits
    • Good nutrition
    • Hygiene habits
  2. Simplifying your life. This is especially important in the beginning. Stress is a major trigger for mood swings and in order to learn to live well with bipolar you need to eliminate unnecessary stressors while you are learning to manage your bipolar successfully. Working with a therapist can be especially helpful in this process. 

What is Your One Next Step?

Hanging in my office is a quote that has special meaning to me in my life. 

“I may not soon make it to the top, but I can do this next step right now.”

–Scott Whiting

Whenever I get overwhelmed or start to feel discouraged, I focus on just the one next step.

Learning to live well with bipolar disorder is not a linear process, there will be ups and downs, mania and depression on the way. Choosing to focus on the one next step, however, will empower you to keep moving forward on the road to wellness. 

If you are struggling with a manic or depressive episode, focus on using your ERP to successfully manage it. When you haven’t found the right medication or micronutrient treatment, focus on that. 

The key is making the commitment to the journey to wellness and then taking one step at a time on that road. It is a journey, not an event. You are working on a lifestyle change for your mind and that takes patient, persistent effort. 

This new year instead of resolving to make major changes in your life that could result in a mood cycle resolve to take your first step on the road to wellness with bipolar and stay on that road, one step at a time.

Pro-tip: Get encouragement and support from others on the same road

Trying to live well with bipolar disorder can feel like a lonely road. Don’t travel alone! Seek out others who are on the same road to wellness. There is hope and there is help. 

If you are a mom (or potential mom) with bipolar, join our free Facebook group Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well to get encouragement and support on your journey.

Bipolar Disorder: Lessons from the Pandemic

I remember when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in the beginning of 2020 and the shutdown started I was relieved at first. I was struggling at the time with managing what felt like overwhelming commitments, so having everything canceled all at once was a huge relief. 

That reprieve was short lived, however, as the previous, predictable stressors were replaced by new, unpredictable ones. I was obsessively watching the news and the case count. I was overwhelmed by the requirements of online schooling and trying to keep my children on task all day long. 

I was dealing with my own fears about what was happening and also carrying the burden of my children’s fear, disappointments and pain as their world was turned upside-down.  To top it off, every time I left the house it felt like traversing a minefield, wondering if today was the day I would contract Covid.

I was also deprived of many of my self-care tools–going to the gym, hanging out with friends and family and going to therapy in person. It didn’t take long to settle back into old, unhealthy coping mechanisms that wore on my mental health and caused me to get severely depressed.

Increasing Mental Illness

The experience I had during the pandemic was not uncommon. There was a surge in the number of people struggling with mental health challenges because of the increase in stressors and decrease in the normal healthy outlets for the stress. 

The pandemic made clear the damaging effect of a serious, prolonged crisis on individual mental health. Numerous studies have been conducted on the impact of the pandemic on mental health with estimates of the increase in rates of depression and anxiety ranging from a 25% increase cited by the World Health Organization1 to a massive six times increase found in a study conducted by Boston College2.

Having bipolar disorder can make you especially sensitive to major stressors. Disruptions to routine and increases in mental or emotional strain can trigger mood cycles that then add to the distress. This means it is essential to learn to be proactive with your bipolar and prepare to handle stressors more effectively. 

Becoming Proactive

Since there is no cure for bipolar disorder, mood cycles will be a reality of life going forward. If you fight your bipolar or ignore it, you will lose. The alternative is to accept that you have bipolar and learn the tools to live well with it. 

You can learn to manage your disorder so that you stay in maintenance mode for longer periods of time and the severity of the mood cycles can lessen. But you will still have cycles and it is essential to learn how to deal with them more effectively. 

Mental Health Emergency Response Plan

Accept the reality of your mood cycles by developing a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan (ERP). An ERP helps you proactively manage your mood cycles in order to lessen the impact of the mood cycle on you and those you love and shorten the duration of the cycle.

In this plan you:

  • Identify your Emergency Response Team – who are the people who are willing and able to offer support and what are the boundaries you set for that assistance?
  • Develop an Early Warning System – What are your triggers and what are the symptoms that indicate you are experiencing a mood cycle?
  • Determine your Auxiliary Power – When you have limited emotional and mental resources during a cycle, what are your priorities?
  • Learn how to Reboot Your System – How do you get yourself back to maintenance mode?

The more you utilize your ERP the more effective a tool it becomes in helping you proactively manage your mood cycles. Each time you use your ERP you can evaluate it to see what worked and what you can improve. To get a free guide to create a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan click here.

Back-up Supply of Medications or Supplements

The second priority is to prepare a back-up supply of medication or supplements–ideally a month. The pandemic presented some unexpected challenges like supply chain shortages, shipping issues and the shutdown caused many doctor’s offices to cancel or postpone appointments. Running out of medication or supplements that you need to keep your brain and emotions balanced can be dangerous. Discuss with your doctor what you can do to be prepared for a situation like this.

Counseling or Therapy

Third, counseling or therapy. Learn to use therapy proactively rather than waiting until you are in crisis. Therapy is a crucial tool for managing bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is truly “all in your head” and it can affect the way you see the world. Therapy can help you identify, process and heal trauma, unhealthy thought and behavior patterns and unhealthy boundaries. Using therapy proactively will eliminate some triggers and help you manage others more effectively.

Self-care

The next step is developing a healthy and sustainable self-care routine. This includes tools like mindfulness meditation, simple, accessible exercise and yoga. Going through the pandemic revealed some issues with my self-care routine. 

Prior to the pandemic shutdowns I was going to the local recreation center for exercise each day, and my youngest was going to the child watch. When the shutdown occurred I no longer had access to the gym or childcare. I struggled for months because I wasn’t exercising. I finally realized how important it was to have a way to exercise that isn't dependent on anyone or anything else. That was when I started running again and doing simple HIIT and yoga workouts in my living room.

The benefits to the change in my routine have been that I:

  • Save money on gym membership and childcare,
  • Save time traveling to and from the recreation center,
  • Have a simplified self-care routine that is easier to sustain, and
  • Have improved mental health because I am more consistent with my self-care.

Support System

Finally, it’s important to cultivate a support system. One of the big challenges during the pandemic was the feeling of isolation. That coupled with the increase in the use of social media caused many people to become more depressed and anxious. 

It is critical to develop a support network that you can stay connected with, even if it is only virtually. This connection helps you have the mental and emotional support you need to navigate highly stressful situations and experiences. 

Some people to remember in your support system are:

  • professional support (psychiatrist/therapist), 
  • family and friends, and 
  • group therapy or online support groups

During the pandemic I was grateful for my support system. I was able to meet virtually with my therapist. My siblings and I started using Marco Polo and Zoom to chat online with each other. I joined some Facebook groups to find support from the bipolar community, although I discovered that some of the groups were not very helpful. 

I was looking for a community of individuals with bipolar that were trying to live well with it. The negative experiences I had led me to create Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well. It’s important that the groups you join support your goals to live well. This Facebook group is designed to offer support from others who understand what you’re going through and proactive solutions to help you learn to live well with bipolar.

The pandemic was a stressful experience, one that I am not in a hurry to repeat. However, it has helped me to identify ways that I can be more proactive and better manage my bipolar disorder and for that I am grateful. It is possible to live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar disorder. There is hope and there is help!

Bipolar Disorder: How My Daughter Saved My Life

TW: This blog post mentions suicide. If you are having thoughts of self-harm please contact 911 (or your local emergency services) or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255 (in the USA).

My Story

I didn’t start off having suicidal thoughts. It started with nightmares. Vivid, intense nightmares about dying and I would wake up feeling horrible inside. This went on for years until it progressed to daydreams about dying. I would have random images or scenarios pop into my head of things that could cause my death. 

I knew intuitively that my mind was suffering with my bipolar disorder and it was trying to find a way out, but I didn’t realize the full implications of what I was experiencing. I didn't recognize the danger these thoughts posed to my safety.

When this first started I recoiled from the thoughts and images. I felt anxiety and fear when I would have them. But as the years went on and my disorder grew worse I started having thoughts like, “your husband would be so much happier if you were dead and he could find a better wife,” or “your children would be so much better off if they had a better mom who wasn’t sick.” 

I didn’t tell anyone about the thoughts I was having because I was so embarrassed and ashamed of them. It made me feel crazy and I didn’t want anyone to know how broken I really was. So, I hid them and suffered alone. 

Then in 2008 I had a breakdown. I was hospitalized three times in three different hospitals in two states. During that time I finally gave in to the thoughts that had been plaguing me and made two attempts on my life. I don’t remember much of what happened because during one of my hospitalizations the doctors performed a full course of twelve electroconvulsive therapy treatments and I lost most of my memory from those months. 

It took years for my husband to talk to me about what happened because it had been so traumatic for him–he was the one to stop me both times. 

When I was finally released from my third hospitalization I had an experience that changed everything. One sunny morning a few weeks later I was watching my children play. My daughter was 4 and my son was 2. I was looking at my daughter and had a very clear thought come into my mind, “if you ever succeed in ending your life it will ruin hers. Your daughter will believe it was her fault and she will spend the rest of her life blaming herself.” I was shocked! I had come to thoroughly believe the lies my mind had told me, that my children would be better off if I was gone. 

As soon as I had the thought, I knew it was true, she would believe it was her fault and it would ruin her life. That day I made the commitment that I would survive for my children. 

If that was the best I could do, I would do it.

I loved them more than my own life and I would do anything for them. 

The Decision

From that point on I decided that I would not let the thoughts of death or suicide stay in my mind unchallenged. I would ask for help if I was having those thoughts and not let myself feel shame or embarrassment anymore. 

This was the first time in over a decade after my diagnosis that I truly, proactively, took responsibility for my mind. I thought I had before. I had diligently gone to psychiatric appointments and tried to take my medication, but I didn’t feel like I had any control over my mind. I felt for years like my bipolar disorder was in the driver’s seat and I was just along for the ride. But I now realized that I couldn’t let my bipolar be in charge anymore: it was trying to kill me and I wasn’t going to let it.

When you have bipolar disorder, it feels like there are so many things working against you.  You have a disorder that really is all in your head. When you have those horrible, intrusive thoughts while you are floundering in the dark heaviness of depression, it is so easy to believe they are true because they correlate with what you are feeling. 

I didn’t understand that I shouldn’t believe every thought that came into my mind. I didn’t know that it was possible to separate myself from my thoughts and challenge them. 

With bipolar disorder it is embarrassing, discouraging, and yes, unfair, to keep making mistakes or poor decisions because of the mood cycles, especially mania, and then have to deal with the consequences for your decisions. Each time you give into impulses that are bad or make decisions based on irrational thoughts it’s humiliating to have to deal with the aftermath. This naturally results in feeling insecure and makes it easy to believe that everyone would be better off without you.

It can also feel like your life is not worth living because you spend so mucheffort just trying to manage your disorder and don’t feel like you have anything to offer beyond that. 

The Plan

The wonderful thing is that:

  • you can learn to separate yourself from your thoughts, decide which ones to believe and dismiss the bad ones, 
  • you can learn to manage your disorder so that you don’t keep making the same mistakes and poor decisions, and;
  • you absolutely have so much to offer because you have infinite value and purpose well beyond your disorder. 

It is possible to learn to manage your bipolar well and live a healthy, balanced, productive life. 

The first step is to create a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan (ERP). An ERP will help you to take responsibility for your mood cycles so that you lessen the impact on you and your family and shorten the duration of the cycle. One very important piece of your plan will be your Emergency Response Team

If you are having thoughts of self-harm or death decide who you will talk to or what you will do when you have those thoughts. This was a really important piece for me. It was important to have someone to talk to when I was having intrusive, negative thoughts because there were times when it was too much for me to manage on my own. 

Think of those thoughts like having an intruder in your home that wants to harm you. If that happened you would call for help, you wouldn’t allow that threat to remain unchallenged. Do not allow those thoughts to stay in your mind. Identify them and challenge them. This is something that is especially important to discuss with your therapist. Create a plan ahead of time so that you will know what to do when it happens.

Second, you need to develop a self-care plan that helps you begin to effectively treat your bipolar disorder. There are several important tools that will help. 

  1. Finding effective medication/supplements
  2. Proactively seeking treatment with a good therapist
  3. Learning to practice mindfulness meditation–this is an especially important tool for identifying and challenging intrusive thoughts
  4. Additional self-care tools like yoga, exercise and simplifying your life.
  • If you would like additional guidance on how to effectively manage your bipolar disorder you can join the monthly membership program that guides you through the steps & tools necessary to manage your bipolar disorder well. For more information click here.

Finally, seek support from others who understand what you’re going through. Having bipolar disorder can be very lonely and isolating. It is hard to not feel broken and flawed. Seeking positive, encouraging support from others who are struggling with the same disorder will lighten your load and lift you up. You’ll gain strength to live well while managing your disorder.  For moms with bipolar disorder you can join my free Facebook group Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well.

If you have thoughts of harming yourself or thoughts of dying, please reach out for help. Life with bipolar disorder can feel hard and overwhelming. Your mind might tell you that everyone would be better off if you weren’t here, BUT THAT IS A LIE! Challenge those thoughts. DO NOT BELIEVE THEM!

You are irreplaceable. You can manage your bipolar disorder well and live a healthy, balanced, productive life. 

There is hope and there is help!

If you are having thoughts of self-harm please contact 911 (or your local emergency services) or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255 (in the USA).

Bipolar Disorder: The Journey to Wellness

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day. She asked me what I would say to someone about how to live well with bipolar disorder? As I began to answer I realized that my answer would be slightly different depending on where they were on the journey to wellness with bipolar. 

In the first decade after my diagnosis with bipolar disorder I developed the false belief that the ultimate goal with bipolar disorder was to learn how to suffer well with it. I diligently took all the medications that were prescribed to me and went to counseling, but nothing was working. I felt alone and isolated because no one understood what was going on with me, least of all me. I didn’t understand what was happening in my mind and I began to feel hopeless.

I thought I was doing my best, and in some ways I was, but I was suffering, and so were my husband and children. I usually felt out of control with mania or hopelessly depressed. I would go through periods of angry belligerence when I felt it was unfair that I had to suffer this way, so everyone else would have to just learn to deal with it, too.

It can be really difficult to learn how to take responsibility for yourself with bipolar disorder when you don’t understand what that looks like, or how to do it. Having a disorder that is “all in your head” can be challenging to treat because the symptoms of your disorder feel normal to you, even though they are unhealthy and often self-destructive. 

Accepting Your Diagnosis

Accepting responsibility for yourself and being proactive in learning to live well with bipolar disorder require you to first accept that you have bipolar disorder and that there currently is no cure for it. This is not something to become discouraged about. There is no cure for type 1 diabetes and yet people live well with it all the time. They learn the tools necessary to manage their disorder. It is the same for living with bipolar disorder. 

You can learn how to manage your bipolar effectively so that you are able to live a healthy, balanced, productive life. But you have to be willing to:

  1. accept that you have the disorder, and 
  2. accept that you are responsible for learning and applying the tools to manage it.

Mindset Shift

Accepting that you have bipolar disorder and that you have a responsibility for managing it effectively requires a mindset shift.

Process Your Grief

First, you need to allow yourself to grieve. “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.” (Bipolar Disorder: The Stages of Grief)

Stop Comparing 

Second, you need to not compare yourself and your life to others who don’t have bipolar disorder. “You cannot stop having bipolar disorder, [and]  comparing yourself to who you were in the past, or who you think you should be will prevent you from progressing to wellness and becoming the best version of yourself.” 

“It is especially damaging, when you have bipolar disorder, to compare yourself to others because it creates a stumbling block to becoming well. Your mind is already prone to negative self-talk. Comparing yourself to others who don’t have bipolar disorder is like pouring gasoline on the fire.” 

“When you are focused on the gap between where you are and who you think others are, it causes discouragement, depression and despair. You begin to define yourself by what you lack and by your bipolar disorder, instead of your unique qualities and gifts that make you special.” (Bipolar Disorder: You are not broken!)

The Path to Wellness is Not Linear

Third, it is critical to understand what learning to live well with bipolar disorder looks like. I used to think that it was like trying to climb a mountain and when I got to the top I would be better.  

“That analogy is counterproductive at best, and damaging at worst. The idea of climbing a mountain is a linear path, which means that if you get manic or depressed while you are working to learn to live well, you get knocked back down to the bottom. It reminds me of the game Chutes and Ladders where if you are unlucky enough to land on the wrong square you slide backwards on the board, sometimes to the very beginning.” (Bipolar Disorder: The Recovery Cycle)

Learning to live well with bipolar disorder follows the same pattern as the addiction recovery cycle. “Understanding the stages of the recovery cycle will help you better understand your disorder and have a healthier outlook on your personal responsibility for self-care. Learning how to apply the recovery cycle to yourself will help you to stop feeling like you have failed when you have manic or depressive episodes and choose to accept more responsibility for yourself and your disorder.” (Bipolar Disorder: The Recovery Cycle)

Taking Responsibility

Once you accept your diagnosis and your responsibility to learn to manage it you have taken your first step on the path to wellness. The next step is to develop a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan for yourself. This plan helps you accept responsibility for your mood cycles and create a plan to manage them more effectively to minimize the impact on you and your loved ones and shorten the duration of the cycle. To get your free guide to create your Response Plan click here.

You then need to work to learn and apply the tools necessary to live a healthy, balanced, productive life. 

Support on Your Journey

Learning and applying the tools necessary to live well with bipolar is a process that requires patient, persistent effort. Make sure you surround yourself with people who will support and encourage you in this journey. 

“While you are working through this process it is so important to have encouraging support. You need professional support–psychiatrist and/or a good therapist. If you are married or in a serious relationship you need the support and encouragement of your partner. And you need support from others who know what you are going through.”

“I started a Facebook Group to provide positive, encouraging support for moms trying to learn to live well with bipolar disorder. Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well is a group of women who are ready to take responsibility for themselves and who are willing to do the work to learn how to live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar disorder. If you are ready and willing, join us!” (Bipolar Disorder: The Rollercoaster)

Where are you on the journey?

Determine where you are on the journey to living well with bipolar disorder. Do you still need to work on your mindset? If so, start with the posts on mindset.

  1. Bipolar Disorder: You are not broken!
  2. Bipolar Disorder: The Stages of Grief
  3. Bipolar Disorder: The Recovery Cycle

Have you accepted your diagnosis and you are ready to take responsibility and learn to proactively manage your bipolar? Then get your free guide to create your Mental Health Emergency Response Plan

It is possible to live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar disorder. There is hope and there is help!

Bipolar Disorder: Monitoring Your Mood

When you have bipolar disorder it can feel like your disorder is in the driver’s seat of your mind and you are just along for the ride. It can create a helpless, hopeless feeling when you feel like your mood cycles are happening unpredictably and you don’t have any control over them. That helpless feeling can make you feel like your life is not really yours. You are being “lived” by your disorder. 

Like Diabetes?

Years ago I had a doctor try to help me with accepting and understanding my bipolar disorder by comparing it to type 1 diabetes. It was a helpful analogy because diabetes is a straightforward, clear cut disorder with an easy to understand issue–your body is unable to regulate its blood sugar naturally and so you have to help your body. 

As I have learned more about diabetes from friends who have it I have been amazed at how similar the experience of learning to manage diabetes is to learning to manage bipolar disorder.

Monitoring Blood Sugar

When someone is diagnosed with type 1 diabetes she is informed by her doctor that she has a disorder in her body that makes it impossible for it to naturally regulate its blood sugar. She is instructed that she will need to give her body assistance by monitoring her blood sugar multiple times a day, every day, for the rest of her life. The information she gains from monitoring her blood sugar level will help her know if her body needs insulin or additional sugar to keep her blood sugar within a safe range.

She also learns that she has to be careful about food choices to make sure her body doesn’t get overloaded by too much sugar and cause a serious overcorrection that can be dangerous. She might have a small piece of cake, but remove the frosting, or if she’s at a restaurant and orders lasagna she might take half of the piece of lasagna home to avoid eating too many carbohydrates at once. The doctor can teach her some of the basics of how to make safe food choices, but most of it is learned by experience.

She will learn that there are other factors that can impact her blood sugar level. Stressors can have an impact, in either direction up or down. Sleep, the amount and quality, can impact her blood sugar. A friend of mine once told me that there are over 45 different factors that can affect your blood sugar level. 

Each person is different and it is important for them to learn to proactively identify which factors impact their blood sugar and manage those factors by making choices or setting boundaries that help them proactively care for their disorder more effectively.

It’s Not Fair!

Someone with diabetes might feel like it is unfair that they have to be so vigilant in  monitoring and managing their blood sugar all the time. I would agree with them, it isn’t fair. But fair has nothing to do with the reality of their situation. 

A friend of mine who has diabetes also has a son with diabetes. She told me that he hated having diabetes as a boy. He just wanted to be “normal” so once when he went to a scout camp for a week he didn’t monitor his blood sugar and didn’t use insulin. As a result he ended up in the hospital in critical condition.

Fair or not, someone with diabetes has a choice. She can choose to monitor her blood sugar proactively, actively working to keep it balanced so she can live a healthy life. She can also choose to deal reactively with her diabetes, neglecting to monitor and manage her blood sugar and end up being forced to face the consequences of getting sick and ending up in the hospital. She has a choice to make every day.

How to Monitor Your Mood Balance

This comparison helped me understand my disorder better because they are so similar. With bipolar disorder my brain is unable to regulate my moods and emotions in a healthy way and I need to give it help with medication/supplementation, counseling, self-care and managing stressors. 

One challenge I had, however, was how to “monitor” my mood, or check my “chemical balance.” I remember telling my uncle one day back when I was in college that I wish there was a way to analyze my brain chemicals to identify what was out of balance. Unfortunately that technology doesn’t exist yet. 

Over the years I have discovered a way to monitor your mood simply and effectively using a mood tracking app. 

I use the Bearable app. This is not a sponsored post, and I don’t receive any benefit–financial or otherwise–for recommending the app. I recommend it because it is the best mood tracking app I have used. 

Using a mood tracking app helps you to begin to identify your mood cycles, symptoms and triggers so you can “monitor” your mood balance and learn how to treat it effectively. Similar to diabetes, you should track your mood balance multiple times a day, regardless of how you are feeling, so that you are able to create a more accurate picture for yourself, your doctor and your therapist.

With Bearable you are able to track:

  • Mood
  • Symptoms
  • Factors that can impact your mood (i.e., places, social interactions, activity level, menstrual cycle, personal care, productivity, appointments, social media, weather, etc.)
  • Sleep 
  • Energy level
  • Medication and/or supplements
  • Nutrition 
  • Health
  • and more…

You can customize almost anything within each category. That list may look like a lot and seem overwhelming, but it is very easy and quick to input the information by simply tapping the relevant items. It only takes me a few minutes each time I “check my mood.” You can also set up reminders for yourself throughout the day. 

There are a number of benefits to using a mood tracking app consistently to monitor your mood cycles. 

  • Bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses are diagnosed based on symptoms and the more information you can provide to your doctor the more accurately he or she can be in your diagnosis and treatment. 
  • You are able to learn to identify what the symptoms are that indicate you are either entering or in a manic or depressive state. 
  • You can identify triggers that may cause mood cycles. 
  • You can see more clearly how effective your medications are and track any side-effects you might be having–both the frequency and severity. 
  • You can also identify how things like sleep, nutrition and menstrual cycle affect your mood cycles.

Using a mood tracking app you are able to understand your bipolar disorder better–learning to recognize what your manic and depressive episodes are saying. You are also able to provide a gold mine of information to your doctor and therapist so you can proactively seek more effective treatment.

What Do You Choose?

With bipolar disorder you have a choice. You can choose to be reactive and allow yourself to be “lived” by your disorder and face the consequences of becoming more unbalanced, or you can choose to be proactive and use tools like a mood tracking app to “monitor” your mood balance, helping you live a healthier, more balanced, more productive life with your bipolar.

It is possible to live well with bipolar disorder. There is hope and there is help!

If you are a mom with bipolar disorder and you want to learn to live well with it, join our free Facebook group Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well.

Check out my Better with Bearable Mood Tracking Challenge starting April 12th! Click HERE to register.

Bipolar Disorder: What’s Your Depression Saying?

One of my favorite animated children’s films is Inside Out by Disney. It makes you laugh, cry and is a genuinely wonderful movie. But more than that, it is extremely insightful and teaches some powerful lessons, even for adults.

One of the messages of the film is that feelings aren’t good, or bad, they just are. And not only that, they have a purpose. Learning to understand the purpose of the feelings is a powerful thing. Instead of feeling bad that you are experiencing certain feelings, and shaming yourself for those feelings, you can learn to feel your feelings, understand what those feelings are telling you, and then decide what action you should take based on what you are experiencing.

In the film Inside Out, the main character Joy, gives a breakdown of what each feeling’s purpose is: Fear is “good at keeping Riley safe,” Disgust “basically keeps Riley from being poisoned, physically and socially,” Anger “cares very deeply about things being fair,” Joy’s job is to keep Riley happy, and Joy doesn’t understand what Sadness is supposed to do, and keeps trying to prevent Sadness from having any influence on Riley.

As the film goes on it becomes apparent that Sadness has a very important role to play for Riley. When Joy finally understands Sadness’s purpose, she encourages Sadness to play her part. With the help of Sadness, Riley is able to get the help she needs to adjust to the changes and challenges she is facing in her life.

When the brain is functioning in a healthy balanced way, feelings are produced by experiences. For example, in the movie fear is caused by Riley encountering dangerous situations, disgust is caused by encountering unappealing food or social situations, and anger is brought on by perceived unfairness.

What If Your Emotions Are “Misfiring”?

What do you do when your emotions are misfiring because of a chemical imbalance or unhealed trauma? If emotions are occurring because the chemicals in your brain are out of balance and not necessarily because of normal outside stimuli, are they no longer valid or useful? Should you label your emotions as bad, or not listen to them when you are experiencing a mood cycle?

Not necessarily.

One of the challenges I faced when I was first diagnosed was that I didn’t know how to trust my feelings anymore. For the years that I went undiagnosed I had listened to the feelings that I was having and tried to interpret them according to what I had been taught by others. 

When I felt the intense, euphoric exhilaration of mania I believed that all the irrational thoughts that were in my head were not only rational, but inspired. I made sweeping changes because of those thoughts and feelings and I told everyone. It all felt right and real.

When I crashed into depression I believed all of the negative, self-destructive thoughts that were in my head because they matched the negative, self-destructive feelings I was having. I hid myself from the world and tried to numb my brain by binge-watching television and movies.

I develop irrational thought and behavior patterns based on this cycle and by the time I was diagnosed those patterns seemed normal to me. This continued for years after my diagnosis because even though I was trying to find the right combination of medications to balance my brain and working with a therapist nothing seemed to help and I just felt broken and hopeless.

How do you live a healthy life if you don’t know if you can trust your own mind and feelings? It can make you feel insecure and unsure of yourself. Or you may feel belligerent and angry and decide that you should be able to just live on the rollercoaster because that is the way you were made and everyone else will have to just deal with it (see my post Bipolar Disorder: The Rollercoaster).

One important tool to develop when you are trying to learn to live well with bipolar disorder is to learn how to recognize when feelings are produced by the chemical imbalance. You need to learn to identify the signs that you are manic or depressed and then understand what those mood imbalances are trying to tell you. 

The feelings produced by a mood imbalance can serve a purpose. It is like they are speaking a different language and if you learn to interpret them correctly you can then understand how to respond in a way that is healthy, even if your brain isn’t healthy at the time.

How Do You Identify Signs of a Mood Cycle? 

In the beginning it may be difficult to distinguish between healthy emotional responses and unhealthy ones, because it all feels normal to you. For this reason it is critical to begin tracking your moods and symptoms. Tracking your mood and symptoms will begin to help you create a more accurate picture of what is happening in your mind and identify when you are experiencing a mood cycle, what the associated symptoms of your mood cycles are and even what may have triggered it.

There are a number of ways to accomplish this. You could use a journal, a spreadsheet, or an app. My favorite tool is the Bearable app. (I DO NOT receive any benefit or compensation from recommending Bearable, I recommend it because I love it!) 

Photo by Ivan Samkov from Pexels

I struggled with using a mood journal because it required me to think and often I couldn’t think clearly enough to put what I was feeling into words. I also struggled with remembering to write things down frequently enough to create an accurate picture. Another issue I struggled with is how to convey what I had written to my doctor and therapist. Weeks and pages of journal entries can be difficult to condense and quantify, and that can make it challenging to see patterns and connections.

The Bearable App is fantastic because it is very user friendly. It allows you to keep track of your mood, different factors that could trigger cycles, medications, sleep, and other helpful information. The app is very easy to use and you can set reminders for yourself to input your information each day. It is very customizable, and it gives you a way to view insights to see trends and connections.

When you discover the symptoms of your mood cycle you can learn to understand what your depression or mania is trying to tell you and you can then respond to it in a healthy way.

Learning How to Respond to a Mood Cycle

Some of the ways you might respond are:

  1. Discussing a medication or supplement change with your doctor or customer support. If the mood cycle is being caused by medication or supplements not doing their job you may need to adjust or change them. Always work with your doctor if you are on medication or customer support if you are taking supplements. DO NOT make these changes on your own as it can be dangerous.
  2. Working with a therapist. A good therapist can help you learn to identify if your emotional responses to things are healthy or unhealthy and how to handle the unhealthy responses in a healthy, balanced way. Your therapist can also help you identify if your mood cycle is triggered by unhealed trauma, unhealthy thought or behavior habits, or unhealthy boundaries. 
  3. Learning to practice mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is a very effective tool to help you learn to separate yourself from your thoughts and feelings in a way to look at them more objectively and determine if those thoughts or feelings are healthy or unhealthy. Mindfulness is an important tool to learn if you want to learn how to live well with bipolar disorder.
  4. Developing a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan. Your plan will help you learn how to take responsibility for your mood cycles and manage them more effectively–lessening the impact of the cycle on you and your family and shortening the duration of the cycle.

Just like Joy learned that Sadness served an important purpose in Riley’s mind, you can learn to understand what your mania and depression are telling you and learn to respond in a healthy way, even if your mind is unhealthy at the time. Taking responsibility for your mood cycles, instead of giving into them or fighting them will help you progress on your journey to learn how to live well with bipolar disorder.

If you are a mother with bipolar disorder and you are looking for support in your effort to live well with it please join our free Facebook group Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well.

Bipolar Disorder: When Medication Doesn’t Work

Before you read further I need to make two things VERY clear. 

First, I am not a mental health professional. Everything I am sharing is based on my personal experience. I encourage you to do your own research, as I did, to find what is right for you. Some people respond well to medication and the side-effects are manageable. If that is the case, wonderful, the first piece of your puzzle is solved!

Second, if you do decide to try the supplements that I use, I strongly encourage you to do so under the care of a mental health professional–your psychiatrist, or a licensed psychologist. DO NOT EVER go off of psychotropic medications cold turkey or on your own. They are very dangerous and can have severe, sometimes life threatening withdrawal symptoms. 

If you are feeling that you may cause harm to yourself or someone else, please seek immediate professional assistance.

Photo by David Garrison from Pexels

When the chemicals are out of balance

Have you ever heard anyone say something like, “Just snap out of it, it’s all in your head”? While the quip is meant to dismiss what is happening in the brain as something within your control, there is a lot of truth in the second part of that statement. It really is all in your head.

Your brain controls everything, it tells you how to feel, act, etc. and when your chemicals are out of balance you can have overwhelming emotions and intrusive thoughts that either have no outside cause, or are excessive and out of proportion responses to outside stimuli. It causes confusion, anxiety, stress and insecurity when you don’t feel like you can trust your own mind.

Chemical imbalances are like diabetes

One doctor that I had helped me to understand what was happening in my brain the best when he told me that my bipolar disorder was like having diabetes

In diabetes a person’s body is not producing insulin, the hormone responsible for regulating glucose in the blood. When this occurs it causes all kinds of problems in a person’s body, from fatigue and irritability, to loss of sight, limbs and even life. It is not the person’s fault that they have this condition, they have no control over whether their body produces insulin or not. But they can live a healthy, productive life if they learn how to monitor their blood sugar, give their body insulin shots when needed, manage their diet, lifestyle, etc. Without the outside intervention of insulin, however, any hope of a normal, healthy life is non-existent. 

My doctor told me that living with bipolar is similar to living with diabetes. There is a chemical imbalance in the brain that affects the function of the moods, thoughts, emotions, etc. If we could figure out how to balance the chemicals in my brain I would have a chance at living a healthy, productive life. This analogy really helped me to understand my disorder in concrete terms. It is hard when it is “all in your head” to know if it is real. Here was a doctor telling me the chaos in my head wasn’t my fault and that there was a way to manage it. So I persevered in my quest to find the right medication combination.

Image by Gino Crescoli from Pixabay

My Life Before Diagnosis

Although I had exhibited symptoms of bipolar for years starting in early adolescence (I have clear memories of suicidal thoughts in junior high) I didn’t start to experience the full effects of the illness until age 20, which was brought on by severe trauma from my first marriage. I still wouldn’t be diagnosed until four years later, one month before I graduated from college. 

The first people to recognize that there was something wrong with me were my aunt and uncle. I lived with them off and on over a four year period in college and I worked for my uncle my junior year. The time they spent with me helped them to see the patterns–the dramatic mood swings, the hypomania and severe depression–and they could see that it was increasing in severity. They called my parents to let them know they suspected a chemical imbalance

My parents knew something was wrong, but they didn’t know what it was. They wouldn’t hear from me for weeks, and then when they did I had a new life plan all mapped out–I was going to Russia to study Russian and I would then become a diplomat, or I was going to get my PhD in math and become a math professor, or I was going to China, to learn Chinese and study foreign policy. Each time I was so sure THIS was the right path and I was often so convincing that they believed me. 

My senior year was the worst. I would be depressed for weeks at a time, not attending classes, watching television or sleeping, and then I would get manic and stay up for days, writing papers, taking tests, and ace my classes–I was even on the dean's list. 

I knew something was wrong, but I felt embarrassed because I thought I was making excuses for myself. I was sure that I could fix it if I just had more self discipline. I remember the day I called my parents crying and told them I knew something was wrong with me and I needed help. It was so hard to do, but I felt like I was drowning and if I didn’t get help I was going to die. 

Initial Diagnosis and Treatment

My aunt went with me to my intake appointment with the psychiatrist. I was severely depressed at the time and she had to supply a lot of the answers to the doctor. Unfortunately because these illnesses are diagnosed based on symptoms I was misdiagnosed initially with depression and anxiety disorders, given a prescription for an antidepressant and sent home. 

By the time I had titrated up to the full dose of the medication and it had built up in my system enough to cause the mania I had moved home to my parents’ house in a different state. I found a new practitioner who, after her intake with me in my manic state, changed my diagnosis to Bipolar II and put me on Lithium. 

I remember shortly after I started the Lithium I was taking the bus to work and as I sat on the bus I felt like I could feel each of the billions of neurons in my brain disconnecting and I was sure I was going crazy. I called my mom from work crying because I felt insane. I was having a bad reaction to the Lithium and was advised to discontinue it immediately. 

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Playing Guess and Check with Medication

I didn’t tolerate medication very well, for the first three years being on my initial antidepressant I was exhausted constantly. No matter how much sleep I got I was always tired, and I could fall asleep anywhere, and sometimes did.

When my doctor finally changed my medication the withdrawal symptoms were scary. I was so dizzy for a couple weeks that I often couldn’t stand and I even passed out on the sidewalk of a busy city street walking home one day. I was terrified.  

I struggled trying to find a mood-stabilizer that would work. I didn’t tolerate any of them in a therapeutic dosage, so my doctors were constantly fiddling with combinations, add a little here, remove a little there. And the side effects were intolerable

The most common issue was excessive fatigue, but often I would feel dull or dead inside, some gave me stomach problems and digestive issues, and the worst ones caused my heart to race and my anxiety to go through the roof. I was always stressed when I would have to go have liver function tests. I knew that in my effort to keep from being crazy I was destroying my liver–robbing Peter to pay Paul as the saying goes. In the end nothing really worked. I continued to cycle, and the cycles were getting worse along with my symptoms.

Over a decade I worked diligently with my doctors to try and find something to help. I believed that like the doctor said, this was like diabetes. I just needed to find a way to balance the chemicals in my brain. However, unlike diabetes, the cause of the imbalance was a mystery. Medication wasn’t actually treating the root cause of the problem, but treating the symptoms, and then adding additional medications to deal with the side effects.. 

Working with psychotropic medications is like playing guess and check with your brain, the doctors tried one cocktail after another. At one point I was on 7 different medications, and I felt like a zombie–mindless, dull and dead inside–nothing really worked. I continued to cycle and my illness got worse. I was starting to feel hopeless.

This is Part 1 in a 2 Part Series. To read Part 2 See Bipolar Disorder: An Alternative to Medication