So, no matter how much I learn and experience with bipolar, there’s always something else waiting to catch me off guard; it makes me realize how much this mental illness affects so many areas of my life besides ‘just’ mood.
I’m reading a classic book called: “An Unquiet Mind” by Kay Redfield Jamison and this is my 2nd time through it. The first time I read it I was so moved by the story of Kay and the development and her life with bipolar, but this time I’m really slowing down and taking it in. I started dog-earing pages (it’s OK…I own the book) that were pertinent to my own experiences but after a while, the book got so thick with these bent corners, I stopped doing it because every page spoke to me on such a personal level.
We all know the classic symptoms of bipolar, right? Manic highs, depressive lows, and all of the goodies that go along with these (please take a look-see at this…it took me 20 minutes to get it right 🙄):
Anyhoot, there are so many other issues that go along with having bipolar as well and most people don’t realize how severe they can be. Reading memoirs and other material helps me remember I’m not alone in experiencing these problems and that’s a comfort to me.
Memory is a biggie. When I’m manic, I don’t have time to remember. Hello! I’m so freaking busy painting, sewing, mowing, running, hiking, shopping (!), cleaning, yacking and yacking and yacking, and moving around from task to task with my mind speeding along so fast, how in the world is my brain supposed to retain anything? When I was manic last summer, I painted almost every single piece of furniture I own along with 3 rooms, but I barely remember doing it! Seriously! When I’m manic, I lose chunks of time. Everyday last summer I walked a minimum of 8-10 miles and have no memory of the majority of these jaunts and the routes I took. You know, it’s scary when your mind loses time like this. It’s like it’s going on auto-pilot and you are caught up in the vortex. I’ve done crafts/art when I’m manic, and after I cycle back down, I have no idea how to do what I’ve already created. It’s spooky.
I have a lot of trouble talking as well (I know, I know…that’s extremely hard to imagine and ma, I know you’re rolling your eyes right now) when I’m manic, I talk so loud and fast that it’s overwhelming for people to listen, but frustrating for me. I’ll hear “slow down” or “hold on…I can’t keep up” but I am simply unable to do that. I have so much to say with my mouth already not keeping up with my brain that telling me to slow down is like telling a wild horse ‘whoa’ before he’s been ‘broken.’ (Actually there is a term for manic speech called pressured speech).
Sometimes I’ll even lose words. I have so much to get out but my mind is racing forward so fast that I can’t find the words I want to use. I’ve even made up some to compensate. And my ideas? Well hells bells, I can basically invent anything…figure out the mysteries of the universe…and brainstorm solutions to any of the world’s ills. If there’s no one to listen to this grandiosity? That’s OK…I’ll just talk out loud to myself (or Eddie and Dottie who think I’m absolutely brilliant).
Now, the flip side is this: when I’m in a depression (and by the way, women with bipolar have more depression than men) I don’t want to talk, and actually having a conversation can be exhausting. I think this can be explained two-fold…my mind is slowed down so much there’s not much in there but feelings of darkness, and I’m so fatigued mentally (and physically), it’s just too much effort to express much of anything.
This is tough. I know when I’m cycling through a depression, ‘keeping busy’ and doing stuff I normally like would be a good idea. But the kicker is this: I don’t like to do anything when I’m down. What I normally love is pushed aside. Running is known to help mood (any cardiovascular exercise) but I’ll get my shoes laced up and my tights on, but will either balk at going outside to start, or will stop after a block and walk home, panicky, until I get through the safety of my door again. Even reading isn’t pleasurable to me during these times. I might start 5 books, read a few pages, and then just put it down with no interest whatsoever. And art? Nope. No original ideas out all…or strength to even get supplies out and ready to use.
So then guilt takes over, and those of us with bipolar have tons of it. People will say: “Take a walk!” “Get out and about!” “Paint!” but I can’t. Literally, physically, mentally I can’t. And then I feel guilty that the advice I’m given is impossible to do, or because I don’t have the ability to will myself back up to a better mood again.
Self-esteem is an issue too. When I’m manic, oh my gosh…I can conquer the world! I have so much confidence in everything I do and I know I’m the most interesting, engaging, wonderful, awesome person ever, doing stuff no one else is doing (right…no one else walks or runs everyday… 🙄)! I can do anything and when someone asks me for something? The answer is YES before they can even finish their sentence. And by golly, I get it done everytime…usually right away.
Then the darkness comes in and I feel like shit about myself. No confidence, hating what I see in the mirror, shying away from any requests because I feel like I’ll fuck them up if I even have the energy to do them (sorry ma, but that’s the only way I can describe it.) If I’ve made a commitment during a manic phase and then am depressed when I need to follow through, I feel tons of guilt if I can’t and I know it’s hard for others to understand this. “Hey, you promised a couple of months ago you’d do this.” Yes, I realize that (well not really, because who the hell remembers), but I can’t even wash my hair today, so…there you go. And then? I feel even more horrible about myself than ever.
Fear is another big concern. I have fairly ‘normal times’ (which aren’t really ‘normal’ per se…just not full hypomania or full depression) but know another cycle will eventually rear it’s ugly head. I’m ecstatic when it’s mania…actually, it’s fun in a way. To have that much energy is intoxicating, but will I be able to reign it in when I teach…interact with students…interact with my colleagues? Or, maybe depression is what I’ll cycle into. Will I have the ability to teach…to not cry at school…to even get up to start my day? It’s despairing to have this fear and dread be a part of your everyday existence.
These doubts and the inability to handle things ‘normally’ when I’m cycling forces me to wear masks. As much as I’m trying to be genuine and authentic, my life compels me to put some of those masks back on so I can function as expected. As we all now know from wearing real face masks for the last 6 months, these proverbial masks are just as constricting and uncomfortable, but we can’t necessarily rip them off when they become too much.
Another fear is what the mania and depression do to me physically. Regardless of what mood I’ve cycled into, I often have stomach issues (I do have a pesky ulcer that tends to come back periodically) and diarrhea (so much fun 😐) is common for me as is a constant feeling of ‘ick’ in my belly (I think the medical term nausea is more often used, but ‘ick’ describes it better for me). Whether I’m manic or depressed, I get a racing heart at times (which is scary as hell) and hyperventilate, or I’ll break out in a sweat that soaks my entire bod. Headaches are common and muscles aches happen too. The physical side of bipolar is the least talked about (at least in my experience) but these can be just as scary as the moods. Sometimes even more so.
I also find myself having a lack of affect (emotional expression) or inappropriate affect (to say the least). When I’m manic, it’s almost impossible for me to cry or show any negative feelings, so I’ll hear something tragic, but can’t react with the right empathy. I know it’s sad and I feel bad about it…but my brain is ‘on fire’ (to borrow that term from Susannah Cahalan’s memoir) and it can’t slow down to really process the situation. On the flip side? When I’m down, everything gets to me. Ma will tell me something ‘good’ and I’ll start to bawl. I mean really sob like it’s the end of the world. Watching a movie during this time is hellish at best, because even my normally fave comedies like “What About Bob?” make me weep because I read so much angst in the characters. Poor Bob, he’s so freaking lonely and misunderstood.
Then, there’s a constant feeling of disappointment. Last summer I was manic and happy and energetic and the world was a wonderful place with rainbows and sunshine. I’m not there right now. I’m still cycling through a depression that’s lifting somewhat, but still hanging on (like a sloth on a freaking tree). I want to be up again…I’m so so sick of being down still. This depression has held of for over 7 months now, and I want it over. I want to feel better. I want to be happy again. I was hoping and praying and wishing spring would magically take this away, and it’s chipping at it piece by piece, but I’m not there yet. I don’t want a full-blown manic phase, but getting rid of this dark tunnel would be just ducky.
Medications help these moods, but only to an extent. Mood stabilizers can lessen the severity of the cycles, but doesn’t ‘treat’ them to where they disappear. It’s like using Tylenol for a migraine. It might lessen the pain so it’s a bit more bearable, but some (often a lot) pain still exists. In fact, that’s another disappointment I think all people with mental illness experience: we want our meds to be the fairy godmother that waves her magic wand and rids of us of our sickness. But as we all know, there ain’t too many of those around. And then when people say: “Are you taking your meds?” when you’re experiencing these ups and downs, we feel guilt again when they aren’t working perfectly.
Another thing I have to deal with is anger and whether I’ll be able to reign it in or not. Whether I’m up or down, there’s an anger boiling inside of me all of the time and it’s such an unwelcome ‘guest’ and I want to kick it out the door and turn the key. Little things can set me off, and this anger can be so so disproportionate to the trigger. It’s horrifying when this explodes. I can hear myself saying terrible things or acting hatefully and it’s like I’m watching someone else doing it. I want it to stop…but once again, the control is in the part of the bipolar brain I don’t have much access too.
Probably the most terrifying aspect is the recurring thoughts of suicide. Yes, when you are in a depression, suicidal thoughts often abound for so many. But I have them during manic stages too when my impulsivity and inability to really think about the consequences of my actions take over. If I’m upset during mania, my bipolar brain will think: “Oh…you’d be sorry if I killed myself and everyone will be at my funeral!” Maybe that’s why 20-60% of people with bipolar will attempt suicide and up to 19% will succeed. It’s never fully out of our minds.
And talk about understanding…how in the hell do you tell people about these reactions and moods and guilt and self-esteem and physical issues when you really can’t grasp them yourself? How do you apologize for things you blurted out when manic? Promises not kept? Emotional reactions that were often flippant? Explosions of fury? Look, it’s harder than fuck when your mind takes you over as opposed to you being able to control it yourself and I think that’s the hardest thing for others to understand who don’t have a mood disorder. It’s like we’re just the train car following where ever the engine want to take us. We don’t have the brakes. The ability to take another route. The wherewithal to slow down or speed up. And when we try to apologize, how can it ever be enough? And then BINGO, here’s comes the guilt and the tummy aches and the lowered self-esteem, and life continues in this bipolar way.
You know, having insight into this disorder is difficult enough, and just when you think you have a handle on it, BAM! …something else pops up. It really helps to read books and articles about other peoples struggles, because it’s normalizes this abnormal world for me. It’s lets me know I’m not alone. and others are in the same boat. And peeps, that’s what I hope I do for you. Let you know you aren’t alone in any struggles you have, and that you’re in good company always. ❤