How can I unlearn this toxic lesson when it’s so deeply embedded in our everyday lives?
I'm a singer and a pianist. I like writing, painting, DIYing, and crafting handmade gifts for my friends and family. I'm in a serious relationship with a person I love very much, have a Bachelor's degree, and work full time in ad sales as well as part time as a voice instructor. I have a full, rich life with plenty of people who love me in it. I also have Bipolar Disorder.
Every day, I hear demeaning stereotypes about bipolar disorder, like "Yeah, my ex was batsh*t crazy, pretty sure she was bipolar." And I'm sick of it. There are millions of perfectly functioning, vibrant people out there who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Not only that, but we often go to great lengths to NOT make our loved ones suffer due to our illness. The vast majority of us live our lives with grace, passion and a whole lot of love to give to the ones around us.
I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder II right after my 19th birthday. Initially, I didn't want to believe it. I didn't want to come to terms with the fact that I'd just been told I had something that will follow me for the rest of my life. Bipolar can't be cured, it can only be managed.
I had been forced to take the semester off school due to the severe depression that had settled in inexplicably and with a force and finality I couldn't see a way out of. Four months later, I went in to my weekly therapist appointment and told her I'd never felt better. I felt back to myself again, and it seemed to happen overnight. That's when she knew.
The next few months were a blur of parties, odd jobs that I couldn't keep for more than a few weeks, and casual hookups I had no business partaking in. It was a mania-fueled denial phase that many bipolar disorder patients experience after first being diagnosed.
By the time I made it back to school for Spring semester, I was back to a depression, or "low" phase. I started seeing a great guy and loved spending time with him, and I felt understood by him -- but I couldn't bring myself to tell him of my recent diagnosis. I thought for sure he'd run for the hills once he learned I wasn't the normal girl I'd tried so hard to show him I was.
So I broke up with him and didn't give him any real reason why. In hindsight, that was unfair to him, and unfair to me. I just wasn't ready, and wasn't comfortable enough with myself to allow someone else to be comfortable with me -- all of me.
The next few years of my college experience were characterized by a series of highs and lows. During high phases (known as mania), I was extremely productive, made good grades, had tons of energy to not only get to most of my classes but also party most nights of the week. This is what bipolar patients love about the disorder -- but it's a double edged sword. You come to realize that with every high there is going to be a low that follows it. And the lows suck.
Every bipolar person is different. No two "cycle" in the same way. I dated a guy in college who also had bipolar disorder and he had his cycle down to a science. Every two weeks he would go up, then back down again. Others cycle in and out of mania and depression within days or hours, and I can only imagine how utterly exhausting that is.
My cycles usually last months at a time, where I'll be even-keeled in mood with a few punches (2-4 days) of mania. But, eventually that is followed by a few weeks of lows, or depression. I'll become very tired all the time, disinterested in spending time with friends, cry far more than usual, and just generally feel unlike myself.
However in recent years, I've leveled out quite a bit. I've finally found a very effective combo of meds (with the help of my wonderful psychiatrist) that keep both the too-highs and too-lows at bay. For the most part I feel "normal." Once every few weeks, I may get a punch of lows or highs.
When I graduated college and entered the workforce (and my first post-grad job was in customer service), I had to immediately learn to temper the flood of emotions and adrenaline that come along with a differently-working brain. Having indignant customers yelling in my face and insulting me in front of my peers really gave me a crash course in the amount of control I had to develop in order to exist in the corporate American workforce. And it's an extreme self control that I'll never get credit for, despite how much I might deserve it.
No job I have ever worked at has been aware of my disorder. For those people that make the choice to do so, I applaud them. The stigma of mental illness is still so great that I seriously question whether it's worth it to "come out" to employers. While mental illness is technically covered under the ADA and it is therefore illegal to terminate an employee solely based on them having it, what's to stop employers who just don't want the perceived "liability" of an "emotionally unstable" employee? If you've ever worked at a full time job you know that if they want to get rid of you, they'll find a way to.
So what about in love? How does my disorder impact my love life? I am going to go out on a limb here and say I'm a pretty great girlfriend. I do the little things, I ask how his day is going, I care about his happiness more than anything else, and I'm generous of heart and spirit. But when I'm in a low phase, some of those things change. When I'm low, all I can think about is how I'm going to make it through the next task I need to complete that day. It feels like the world is caving in around me and I have to use all my strength to keep it from collapsing. So admittedly, our interactions become all about me during those times. And I hate that.
Ultimately relationships are about give and take. Being there for one another through life's ups and downs, and being each other's biggest supporter. And he does that for me, and when he needs it, I do it for him. This is the healthiest relationship I've ever been in, and it's taken a long time for us to get here, but we are in such an honest and loving place that it feels like there's nothing we can't tackle together.
Five years ago, when I was first diagnosed, I would never have thought I could find that. Five years ago I felt so lost, I couldn't see a life for myself that involved having a steady job, friends, family AND a loving partner. And being financially independent, to boot. But right now, on the heels of my 25th birthday, I have all that. I go to work every morning, come home and teach a voice lesson or two depending on the day, watch some Netflix and cuddle with my pup and then Skype my boyfriend who lives two hours away. Some days I need reminding of all that I have, of all I've overcome and continue to work hard everyday to keep.
If you have bipolar disorder, what I want you to take away from this is that you're not alone. There are so many people out there just like you that defy the stereotype of bipolar people being "crazy" or "unstable." We're here, we're just quiet. I didn't want to be quiet any longer. We have nothing to be ashamed of, nothing we should feel we have to hide.
If you don't have bipolar disorder or any other mental illness, I hope I helped shed some light on just how "normal" we are. There is a very good possibility that someone you see on a daily or weekly basis IS suffering from this, and you just don't know it. So show some compassion, some understanding when you see someone is in need of it. You never know what inner battle they're fighting and what a huge difference a kind word can make.