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UP/DOWN: my experience living with bipolar disorder

Aug. 10, 2018
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What goes up, must come down. Most of us are familiar with this saying that alludes to the law of gravity. Less than a year ago, these were just words that held no meaning  to me, other than the simple fact that this idea was what kept my feet on the ground and my body upright. What I didn’t know was that these words would become the law that governed my life after symptoms of bipolar disorder began to emerge. Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. More simply put: something happens then the opposite happens. My life with bipolar disorder is a lot like the third law of motion—for every episode of depression, there is an alternate episode of hypomania. 

For me, having bipolar disorder is synonymous with being forced to ride a roller coaster and never being allowed to get off. Each time I am thrust up to the high of hypomania, I will inevitably and agonizingly come plummeting back down to the throes of depression. Hypomania, a lesser degree of mania, feels incredible when I’m experiencing it. It causes me to have an abundance of energy and a lack of need or desire to sleep. It heightens my self-esteem and confidence, oftentimes giving me thoughts of I’m great at everything and everyone loves me. Hypomania makes me extremely talkative—it sends my social anxiety packing and tells me that the only thoughts people are having about me are positive and loving ones. Everyone admires me and wants to be me, I excitedly convince myself. With racing thoughts, my mind becomes bombarded with new ideas and plans. With all of this excitement and energy, I end up taking on too many projects and agree to too many tasks all at once, unaware that my high won’t last, and I’ll lose all motivation to complete them once I’m depressed again. When I’m having a hypomanic episode, I feel like I’m on cloud nine with no chance of ever coming down. But I always do. Except I don’t just come down, I crash down, and it hurts like hell. 

The name “bipolar disorder” refers to the opposite ends (like Newton’s third law of motion!) of the emotional spectrum: the highs of mania and the lows of depression. Originally, bipolar was referred to as “manic depression,” an idea that dated back to ancient Greece. It wasn’t until the 1950s that a German psychiatrist by the name of Karl Leonhard coined the term “bipolar” as a means of expressing that there is a difference between major depressive disorder (sometimes referred to as unipolar depression) and bipolar depression. It wasn’t until 1980 that the name “manic depression” for the disorder was officially changed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, more commonly known as the DSM, which is essentially the bible of psychology. 

From my personal experience, psychiatrists typically don’t like to go outside of the box in terms of diagnosis. Instead, they choose to adhere to the qualifications for disorders as laid out by the DSM. This has been a challenging matter for me, because my symptoms don’t necessarily meet the criteria in the DSM for typical bipolar disorder. To put it simply, my disorder is messy when it comes to pinpointing it with a specific diagnosis. During recent years, I learned the importance of spectrums. We see them used when it comes to gender identity, sexuality, and even with disorders like autism. When I first received my diagnosis for bipolar disorder, I felt relief. I finally had an answer. This would later be invalidated by other psychiatrists who weren’t so sure about this diagnosis. The symptoms I was experiencing fell in line with that of bipolar disorder—they just weren’t sustained for periods of time, a requirement for diagnosing bipolar disorder in the DSM. I felt invalidated until I finally found a psychiatrist who was willing to go outside of the DSM to diagnose me. He told me that it was possible that my version of bipolar disorder was simply on the bipolar spectrum. This new sense of validation instilled motivation in me. Now that my psychiatrist and I knew what the problem was, we were able to head in the right direction with treating it.

In “Yikes,” a song off his new album ye, Kanye West refers to bipolar disorder as a superpower rather than a disability. I obviously have no clue what he was experiencing when he wrote this, but in my personal experience, I feel this way when I’m hypomanic. During hypomania, I feel unstoppable. My ego is totally out of check. My self-esteem is through the roof. I feel elated. Euphoric. I can do anything and everything, and nothing can stop me. Hypomania is my superpower too. When I come crashing back down to depression, the word superpower couldn’t be further from the truth. My depression is debilitating and absolutely feels like a disability. While depressed, I feel envious of everyone who doesn’t suffer in the way I suffer. I feel disabled. I feel useless. The fact that Kanye acknowledged that bipolar can feel like a superpower made sense to me, but I’ve found that the disorder can be both a disability and a superpower, not just one or the other. That seems sort of inherent to bipolar, actually, seeing as the Dictionary.com definition of bipolar is “characterized by opposite extremes.” Both sides of the disorder are opposing yet true—the disorder itself is a dialectic. 

July 14th: I woke up with the Kanye West lyric “Today I thought about killing myself” on repeat in my head. I remembered that the night before I had the thought of killing myself. I knew I wouldn’t do it, but the thought was there. I thought, what if? As painful as it was, the lyric resonated with me. I couldn’t remember the rest of the lyrics as I was lying in bed, but that specific line struck a chord with me and circled around my head over and over. When the album came out on June 1st, I remember feeling annoyed when I saw the album artwork that said, “I hate being Bi-Polar it’s awesome.” My immediate reaction was that of frustration because of how frequently the word bipolar is used in our everyday language. I naively assumed that Kanye was just using it to get attention, or maybe just didn’t understand the seriousness or difficulty of actually living with bipolar disorder. However, upon a quick Google search, I learned that he did in fact have bipolar disorder. I realized Kanye and I had something in common and immediately felt a sense of guilt for assuming the worst of him. That being said, I have mixed opinions about Kanye and have found myself frequently criticizing his actions and words—except this time, I found myself feeling impressed, thankful even. Kanye West “coming out” as bipolar was really important to me. I imagine it was important for others struggling with the disorder as well. 

In general, mental illness can be extremely isolating. I have found myself feeling crazy and alone in regards to the things I’ve dealt with in being bipolar. When I first received my diagnosis, I didn’t know anyone else with bipolar disorder; I only knew the depiction of it in the media. Immediately, I felt the weight of stigma. In recent years, and especially in recent months, we as a culture have become more open in talking about mental illness, helping to eliminate the stigma associated with it. However, I’ve noticed that the disorders that we talk about are mostly depression and anxiety, likely because they are the most prevalent mental illnesses. I find the conversations we’re having extremely beneficial because in normalizing these disorders, it helps those experiencing them feel less alone and more likely to share their struggles. Having this open dialogue allows people to be more honest about their experiences and get the help they need to treat them. I believe that talking about depression and anxiety is necessary; however, I think in leaving other mood and anxiety disorders out of the equation, those with these disorders likely feel more ashamed of their conditions. It’s difficult enough to deal with these disorders on their own. Adding the shame of society deeming them “crazy” makes the struggle significantly more difficult. Typically, rather than telling people that I have bipolar disorder, I will say I simply struggle with depression. It makes my mental illness more digestible. I wish I didn’t have to do this, but each time I share about having bipolar disorder, I fear what less-informed people will think of me. I’m terrified of people judging and thinking differently of me just because of the bad reputation that my mood disorder has earned and been perpetuated in our society for decades. Kanye West’s album took some of that fear away from me. It allowed me to create space to accept both myself and the disorder.

The truth is—and I feel somewhat embarrassed to admit this—I pitched this essay topic several weeks ago, when I was in a hypomanic state. I know I shouldn’t feel embarrassment about admitting that my disorder allowed me the ideas and burst of energy to create, but the stigma of having bipolar disorder is enough to keep me silent, even about the positive aspects. For this reason, I try to actively work against the thoughts in my mind that tell me I should be embarrassed about symptoms of bipolar, because experiencing hypomania is part of my life, and oftentimes it can be helpful. In this case, it was. My mind was flooded with ideas, and I couldn’t even write fast enough to get them out of my head. However, sometimes bipolar disorder can impact my life in really negative ways. After that first stint of hypomanic writing, I had continued to try to write about my reality of living with bipolar disorder for weeks, but each time I would sit down to write, there was one thing getting in my way: the depressive aspect of my bipolar disorder. Much like regular depression, or Major Depressive Disorder, bipolar depression can include symptoms such as extreme sadness, feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, lethargy and exhaustion, loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, changes in appetite, ability to concentrate, loss of confidence, withdrawing socially, and crying spells. I imagine that anyone who has ever experienced depression knows just how difficult it can be to find the motivation to complete tasks, hence the reason it has taken me weeks to write this essay. I feel embarrassed about this too. 

The embarrassment I feel in talking about my highs and lows is exactly why I feel the need to talk about them. I need to convince myself that it isn’t shameful to have these experiences, in order to convince others of the same. While experiencing the symptoms of bipolar disorder can feel terrible at times, having the disorder does not make you terrible. I am slowly unlearning this idea that I am terrible for something I have no control over. I am unlearning the shame and embarrassment I feel in being bipolar. I am learning acceptance.

Cover image by Lydia Ortiz.