“Bipolar disorder is one of the most common mental illnesses. It is characterized by mania and severe depression.” My psychology teacher goes on about odd behavior such as excessive purchases and belief in one’s ability to fly caused by severe cases of bipolar, eliciting laughter from the class. I felt sick to my stomach, hearing that a disorder I have no control over was an object of ridicule and fear. I could not bring myself to tell my classmates how it affected me so I just allowed the anger and hurt to simmer beneath the surface. 28 other faces continued to stare at the powerpoint, oblivious to the gravity of the situation. I walked 15 minutes out later feeling defeated, unable to muster up the courage to confront the teacher. Bipolar is not like having a physical illness because it carries far more stigma. It is something that is extremely taxing and others will make you ashamed of it.
Bipolar disorder affects roughly 2% of the population. That means roughly 40 students in our school suffer from this disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health characterizes manic episodes as feeling very elated, agitated, and irritable. People experiencing this often display little need for sleep and are likely to make impulsive or risky decisions. Depressive episodes are marked by feeling tired, unfocused, slow, and hopeless. There are a range of symptoms associated with bipolar disorder, which psychiatrists try to diagnose as one of two categories: bipolar I or bipolar II. It runs in families, but often only one identical twin will have bipolar even though they have the same genes. This proves that there are other causes, possibly abnormalities in brain structure or brain chemicals. Medical knowledge has come far, but no matter how much you or any MD learns about bipolar, you aren’t any closer to knowing the struggles people with bipolar face every day.
According to Mind Race, back in the 1800’s people could pay admission to mental hospitals so they could bang on the glass and taunt the residents like zoo animals. Though this obviously doesn’t occur currently, that sentiment remains in the public conscience to this day. There have been times when I informed someone of my diagnosis and saw their face contort with visible discomfort. To them I was no longer a person, I was a circus freak. It was clear in the coldness with which they addressed me after hearing. I avoid telling most people about my diagnosis for fear of being labeled “psycho” or “crazy”. Why should I tell someone who only knows about bipolar what they learned in school and risk them thinking worse of me because of it?
A friend of mine who struggles with bipolar said “it’s [bipolar] different for everyone, but for me, a manic state is when after the down swing, I tell myself that I’m alright and that everything isn’t just okay, it’s great. The reason that it doesn’t always last is that if your parade gets rained on, there’s a good chance you’ll come out drenched so to speak. It’s not necessarily a strong feeling of euphoria, but more a state of denial that anythings wrong. You feel good while it’s happening though. Being in a depressed state for me doesn’t last long, but when I am depressed, I have no motivation to do anything, I tell myself that it’s never going to get better and that I should just stop trying to make my life good. It varies in severity as it can be a feeling of ultimate despair, or just being melancholy.”
A huge part of the life many people with bipolar is medications. Mind Race says that the main categories of bipolar meds are mood stabilizers, anticonvulsants, antidepressants, and antipsychotics. The most common medication given for bipolar is the mood stabilizer lithium. People react differently to the same medications, and it often takes years of trial and error for a psychiatrist to prescribe the right set. I have had to visit a psychiatrist every three months for the past and have been prescribed my fair share of meds. There is also the very real possibility of experiencing adverse side effects. One medication I took caused severe muscle weakness, insomnia, and nausea. Another made me so drowsy I could rarely get through a day without taking an afternoon nap. The ever changing array of pills I had to take made me feel like a lab rat in a drug company’s test. My meds have been adjusted and work better now, but I still wish I didn’t have to take them.
Medication can be a blessing and a welcome relief, but it is a serious commitment that can feel enslaving. Once my family saw how much more even tempered I was on medication, I knew they no longer tolerated me as I used to be, they accepted a different version of myself on the medications. I wasn’t feeling as high or low anymore: I felt nothing. At the same time I dread feeling like I did before I started taking them. If I stopped taking the medications I may have more difficulty functioning “normally”. My friend told me “I Can’t live without my medication. If I stopped taking it, I would have to transition which would be incredibly tough, but I would act worse and be a different person altogether. I have no problem with taking medication. There were times where I was put on the wrong medication and I got put instantly into depression, or gained a lot of weight in a short time. Medication also has side effects, which are something you have to weigh when you’re decide if you want to stay on a certain prescription, or try something new.” Meds are a crutch and a burden that I and many others with bipolar will most likely bear for life.
I have certainly been hard to be around for my family, people with the best intentions but little understanding of the disorder. They have no way of knowing what I go through everyday. I used to be forbidden from spending alone time with my siblings for fear I would hurt them. I had never done so before, it was just a precaution based out of their fear of mental illness. When I was in 8th grade, my younger sister wasn’t allowed to stay home with me and she called from the balcony, “Your stupid bipolar disease ruined our family.” my mom corrected her, saying that it was a disorder. My sister just spat, “No, it’s a disease.” To this day I recall that and how I’ve been called scary by my mom and she has told me that I belong in a mental hospital. Hearing this just added to the damage bullies and rumors at the school had done. I already had all that turmoil in my brain; it was just too much for my family to turn on me. I thought that they were supposed to have my back.
Even when I was alone, I was tormented by self hatred and insecurity. I would spend hours in my room wasting time. I was too afraid to initiate spending time with people. After being crushed by rejection so many times, I did not have the courage to make myself vulnerable. I didn’t want them to call me crazy too. It took years of support from my friends and family for me to realize that I don’t have to be defined by negativity and I gradually built back my confidence and self image.
Having bipolar has also hindered me in other ways: there are times when I feel so glum I can barely find the will to get out of bed, much less carry out the tasks I have to do. My body feels leaden and my mind trudges along at the pace of a sloth. I cannot even focus on the conversations I have, much less difficult mathematical equations. At other times, thoughts flood my head, faster than I can express. I’m at the top of the world, unaware of my surroundings, talking a mile a minute about random topics that I freely associate but others can’t understand. Other people I know who have bipolar describe it similarly.
Either extreme makes it difficult to function in society, but I don’t let that hold me back. Bipolar disorder has been the biggest challenge I have faced, and while it has and continues to bring me pain and difficulty, I know that I am stronger because of it. I’ve been higher than high and lower than low, more than most people could ever know. I’ve learned to never back down in the face of adversity. I now know that I am good enough just as I am, and nothing anyone says or thinks can change that.