I have bipolar disorder.
This is something I never used to openly discuss, as it’s often met with fear, disgust, misunderstanding, and general uneasiness. Many people in my life have replaced the word “bipolar” with “psychotic” as though the words are fully interchangeable. Perhaps in some ways they are, but this is always said with disdain, and used to hurt. Sadly, this is a common reality for those who suffer from chronic and severe mental illnesses. Those who don’t understand it like to blame and hate, rather than learn and empathize.
So, what is bipolar disorder? I think most people know those with bipolar disorder fluctuate between periods of mania and depression, though there are a few different types of bipolar disorder, and their classifications can get confusing. I’ll admit to often “playing dumb” when it comes to bipolar disorder, because the second you sound educated on it, it’s pretty obvious you have it yourself. I tend to be slow to admit this, as it’s the equivalent of a scarlet letter. Something that makes you terribly undesirable to others. I’ve decided to be blaring and open, but please know everything I write here is my own personal experience, and doesn’t encapsulate all people with bipolar disorder. I am also not formally educated, so please seek the advice of a professional if you need assistance.
Rather than discuss the sometimes subtle or confusing distinctions between the different classifications of bipolar disorder, I’ll discuss what it’s like for me personally living with it. I have a rather severe form of bipolar disorder, in which I experience rapid cycling and what are referred to as “mixed episodes”. My symptoms are not subtle and are sometimes downright unmanageable. Though keep in mind, some people with bipolar disorder have somewhat mild cycles that are spread quite far apart. So, just because a person doesn’t have full blown manic episodes or extended periods of suicide ideation, it doesn’t mean they don’t have bipolar disorder. They may experience only hypomania, which is a milder form of mania, and moderate depressive episodes. These people will seem “moody”, but not particularly difficult to deal with. They are often bright, intelligent, creative, and productive when in the throes of hypomania, where those with more severe episodes of true mania will often seem “insane”. In a mixed episode, this can be even more extreme, and in my case, mania can also manifest as rage.
Let’s take a moment to discuss “mixed episodes”, and why they’re such a problem. A lot of people consider mixed episodes to be the worst feature of any bipolar disorder, and for good reason. This is because the person is experiencing the sensation of worthlessness and suicide ideation of a depressive episode while simultaneously experiencing the agitation, racing thoughts, and high energy of a manic episode. You can see how this creates a cocktail for extreme or reckless actions. Chiefly suicide. Those with bipolar disorder, but specifically with mixed episodes, have a much higher risk of suicide than any other group of people. That statistics are abysmal at best.
As I mentioned above, mixed episodes can also create intense rage, which I experience fairly often. Mania or hypomania are often highlighted by elevated mood or self-esteem, which I experience routinely as well, but in a mixed episode this doesn’t occur. The mood or self-esteem are not elevated. The person still feels worthless and hopeless, only with the energy and drive to do something to about it. They may experience vivid visualizations of their own death, ruthlessly insult themselves or others aloud, make drastic plans for life changes, harm themselves, throw objects, or even experience a “blackout”, where they won’t remember what occurred during the episode. This can create a terrifying situation, especially if other people are involved. Which leads me to the next topic I want to explore…
Bipolar Disorder and Relationships
I’ll refrain from going into immense, personal detail here, but I want to preface this by saying my experiences are only my own, and I’m not saying they will be the same for everyone. I speak only from my own personal reality. Still, no one would ever claim that living with or being romantically involved with someone who has bipolar disorder is easy or normal. If they do, I’d say they’re lying to themselves and their partner. Especially if the person has as severe a form of the disorder as I do. My partners all suffered because of it, especially the one who lived with me for an extended time. Obviously, this is difficult to talk about, but I’m doing so for the sake of others. I’m in a place now where I’ve accepted my situation, and no longer ache to change it. It cannot be changed, and I feel confident to speak on it, as it may help someone else.
For someone in a relationship with a bipolar person, life is often miserable, unpredictable, and even frightening depending on the particular behavior of the bipolar person. One day, their partner will be excitable, enthusiastic, and even funny, then the next they want to kill themselves, can’t get out of bed, or are going into a rage over a small mishap. These behaviors are never a choice on the bipolar person’s part, but they are no less frustrating and horrible for the person they’re with.
I understand my statements here might come across as harsh, and I know as a bipolar person reading this, it might even be hurtful, but it’s what I see as truth. Too many mentally ill people fail to grasp the idea that their behavior is an abnormality, and isn’t enjoyable to be around. It’s just a fact. I think some mentally ill people expect complete understanding and tolerance from their partners, which isn’t fair or realistic. No matter how well the person understands the disorder, it’s still inherently unpleasant to deal with the symptoms of any mental illness, but especially the extremes that often come with bipolar disorder.
In my particular case, my symptoms have always been so severe that I eventually decided that close, romantic relationships are not for me. It’s a matter of decency and empathy on my part, which I’m thankful to have. I don’t consider it a fair deal for any woman to have to put up with my disorder and the dreadful behaviors and outbursts that come with it. Yet even still, I have people who haven’t experienced it downplay it to me. Defending me. Saying, “It’s not so bad. Love conquers all.” Though these people are disillusioned. No woman on this earth can indefinitely tolerate a six foot three man throwing objects and screaming at them for absolutely no reason. They can’t endure the paranoia, intense jealousy, and depressive episodes that are so severe they have to question if he even loves them anymore. They can’t endure him staying up for days on end, not allowing them to sleep as he rants about nonsensical issues, gambles away his money, and repairs things in the home that aren’t even broken. They don’t want to live with the constant fear that he’ll kill himself. Though like with anything, people love to say it’s not a big deal until it happens to them. They love to say the person didn’t truly love the bipolar person if they left, which sometimes isn’t true at all. Sometimes, leaving is the only option. Sometimes, that love itself is the dagger that cuts the deepest.
Those who haven’t delved in deep with a person who is mentally ill can often be ignorant to how difficult it actually is being with them. Especially in a romantic relationship. I’ve been open about my disorder to every woman I’ve ever been romantically involved with, and I always told them before it became serious. Some of them knew the severity already and broke things off with me. Though the ones who stayed were the ones who didn’t know any better, and always ended up worse off after being with me. Though I never intentionally wanted to hurt anyone, it’s just inevitable. The one who was with me the longest ended up with PTSD, due to years of enduring my extreme episodes, and it honestly breaks my heart. I was incapable of changing or “curing” myself, even for a person I truly loved. A person who meant the world to me.
As such, I knew I was never going to put myself or anyone else through that again, and have held to that for over two years now. The temptation to break that decision can often be strong, however, especially with the hypersexuality that often accompanies bipolar disorder. Though I always remind myself that relationships, for me, are always romanticized in my head, and the reality isn’t even close to that fantasy. The reality is painful and ugly. For me, but more so for the person I’m with. It selfishness for me to be with anyone, and I’m far too old and experienced to justify being selfish.
What Causes Bipolar Disorder, and How Do You Treat It?
I had a very early onset of bipolar disorder, in my late teens, brought on by an intensely abusive and traumatic childhood. Though I was experiencing significant mental disturbance as early as eleven. At a young age, I also started abusing alcohol, and still am to this day. In addition to this, I also suspect – even though it was never confirmed – that my father also had bipolar disorder. These factors for me created the perfect cocktail for serious, incurable mental illness. For others, it may be one factor. Genetics. A single traumatic event. Chemical imbalance. Substance abuse. The causes vary greatly from person to person, as does the severity of the disorder itself. As such, treatments will vary as well.
Over the course of my life, I’ve been hospitalized numerous times and have taken various medications, but nothing did much to improve my condition. I tried numerous drugs as I aged, and found none of them effective or worth the side-effects. However, I have to stress that if you have bipolar disorder, do not shy from trying medication. Many of them are effective for many people. My specific case has just proven particularly resistant to treatment, and I tired of taking so many pills which didn’t seem to help me at all. They only made me feel worse in numerous ways. Some even made me more suicidal, which was the last thing I needed as a person who has pressed the barrel of a gun to my temple more than once.
For me, medication took away the intense episodes most of the time, but I was left a vacant shell and as I said, more suicidal, just without the will to act on it. I wasn’t writing. I wasn’t enjoying life. I was heavily medicated, so it worked to subdue me, but it was nothing more than a tiny, adhesive bandage over a gaping wound. I was often asleep, sick, or nearly catatonic. I have much higher levels of functioning off of medication, just with the downside of frequent and extreme episodes. As such, I’ve sworn off medication and just endure the symptoms when they arise.
With this being said, cognitive behavioral therapy is considered quite effective in treating bipolar disorder, though it can’t cure it. Cognitive behavioral therapy changes your thought patterns, and is useful for many different psychological disorders. I’ve dabbled in this myself, and it’s one of the only reasons I can maintain a steady job and function enough to live, but as an adult I haven’t sought treatment of that kind from a professional. Therapy is expensive and irritating to me, so I’ve done the wrong thing in avoiding it. Don’t be like me. See a professional. It might change your life.
I can vouch for how common it is for those with bipolar disorder to self-medicate to reduce their symptoms. For me, and I’m going to be awkwardly honest here, this self-medicating cycle typically consists of whiskey, cigarettes, porn, and poker (gambling). It’s an endless loop, with my main coping mechanisms being cigarettes and alcohol. I can’t imagine ever having to go without either one at this point, but drinking is one of the worst things you can do as a bipolar person. Especially if you suffer from severe depressive episodes like I do. Yet I do it anyway. Why? Because it’s one of the only ways I can sleep if I’m on the manic end of the spectrum. Alcohol is incredibly numbing, and eases any sort of pain I’m feeling. Physical and mental. Of course, the downside is frequent sickness and a significant worsening of the depression when I crash.
Cigarettes are one of my deepest comforts in life, obviously with the downside of possible lung cancer. For me, that’s not much of a price to pay and I don’t really care about that (again, please don’t be like me). Cigarettes help with my depression. Giving me a reason to get up and go outside. They’re also a stimulant. They make me feel more “alive” for a few minutes. Living without them at this point would be impossible and downright disastrous for me.
Porn is obviously nothing more than an outlet for sexual frustration, but the gambling has been at times, a serious hindrance. I’ve learned to control it for the most part, making sure my affairs are in order and that I’m not gambling money I don’t have. Yet this “rush” of losing money is another addiction and coping mechanism common to people with bipolar disorder. You can imagine a partner of a bipolar person coming to them about rent being paid, and finding out the money is gone from a single game of poker. Why that’s a problem needs no explanation and has to be regulated before the person destroys their life. I’ve come close to that plenty of times in the past, and honestly, it could spiral back to that at any time.
Self-medicating, in theory, is never the right choice. Professionals are trained to help people with their mental illnesses, but it doesn’t always work. This is why sometimes it takes a persistent loved one to find the right doctor for a mentally ill person. The mentally ill person will often resist treatment, not have the will to go to appointments, or forget to take their medication. This is a massive burden on another person, and having this responsibility for a fully grown adult is another thing that leads to the end of relationships. When I was religiously taking medication, it took my partner at the time to remind me, bring it to me, etc. Otherwise, I would never have taken it. I’m not saying every bipolar person is like that. Some care for themselves just fine, depending on the severity of the condition. Many bipolar people are quite responsible and follow their doctor’s instructions to the letter. I am not one of those people, and many others aren’t as well.
The Never-ending Roller Coaster
“You were so happy yesterday, what happened?” “You’re so angry and I didn’t do anything.” “Why are you so down on yourself? You weren’t last week.” “Is something wrong?” Questions like these are constant for someone with bipolar disorder. The fact is, there’s always “something wrong”. In my case, a permanent dysfunction of the brain. I can be content one moment, then hopeless the next. Humorous one hour, enraged the next. Vacant one second, overly aroused a moment later. Working on a project one night, then wanting to kill myself the following morning. It’s just the reality of serious rapid cycling, and it will never go away. Yet a person who doesn’t know what it feels like always wants to find a concrete reason for every mood, when there isn’t one. When there is a serious reason, the episode for me will sometimes be catastrophic, but bipolar people don’t need to be “triggered” to experience these shifts.
“Normal” people find that hard to grasp, because their brains function the way they’re supposed to. They experience moods based on stimuli or the lack thereof, and their bodies respond accordingly. This isn’t the reality for many people with severe bipolar disorder. We experience extreme moods with absolutely no cause, yet in my case, this is coupled with a persistent lack of emotion. That sounds like a contradiction, but it isn’t.
Sometimes bipolar people are assumed to be highly “emotional”, where I experience the opposite. I don’t normally experience immense sadness, excitement, fondness, fear, etc. The only emotion I frequently experience to extremes is anger. Most of the time, I’m either empty or irate, but when I’m graced with a period of feeling more stable, I experience whispers of various emotions. It reminds me of carbonated, flavored water. You get a hint of artificial strawberry, but it’s mostly water. Absolutely nothing like biting into a ripe strawberry. Yet cognitively, I know it’s a strawberry flavor. I know what it’s supposed to taste like. I just can’t experience it to its fullest.
This leads to more questions…
“How did that not make you cry?” Well, I know it should have. I recognize that it’s horrible. I sympathize with that. Yet my body doesn’t allow me to cry.
“We could have died, and you weren’t scared!?” No. I wasn’t. Simple as that.
“Do you even care about me?” Yes. Of course. I want to show you that I do, but I can only do so by being protective of you. By doing favors for you. By listening to you. I can’t be strident or terribly verbal with my affection.
“Why are you emotional in bed and nowhere else?” I’m not emotional there either. You confuse physical instinct and my unusually high sexual intensity with emotion, making them one in the same, when they aren’t. For me, arousal isn’t akin to emotion at all. It’s closer to a sensation like hunger.
“If you don’t feel the way I do, how can you love me?” Love is defined in countless ways. Some people would claim an unemotional person can’t love, because love is an emotion. I think this is myopic and false. The ability to “love” is closer to a drive and a choice than an emotion, and it depends on which areas of the brain are functioning normally and which ones aren’t. If the frontal lobe, for example, is significantly damaged, a person’s capacity for empathy is destroyed, thus rendering them incapable of “love”. Because what is love without the ability to put the needs of another above your own? People often confuse excitement, lust, and euphoria with love, when these sensations can be felt in so many other areas for so many other reasons, and they can be fleeting. Yet the ability to place importance in another person no matter what is going on outside of them is a clear demonstration of love, and it is a choice. When I love a woman, I choose to be her protector and provider. I choose to be with her and no other. In addition to that, my natural, instinctual drive to reproduce and preserve what I feel is mine compels me to put her on a pedestal above everything else in my life, and anything that gets in the way of that is subject to being eradicated. None of these things are dependent on intense emotion.
Drive. Choice. Instinct. To me, this defines a man’s ability to “love”. Not how excited, happy, or sad he can feel.
I’ve digressed, but I felt it needed to be said, that even an unemotional, bipolar person is indeed capable of “love”. Whether or not a person wants to subject themselves to their love and the intense, frustrating, and often painful wrapper it comes in is another story altogether.
How To Cope
I speak only for myself here. Keep that in mind.
For me, part of coping is being alone. I spent most of my life trying to get someone to “understand” me. I felt if they understood my nature I could maintain a lasting relationship, and that being with someone who understood me would make me “happy”. I was terribly wrong in that, and I learned everything in the hardest way imaginable. It’s still hard. I’ve recently been reminded, over and over, in different ways, how hard it truly is. Yet I would never lean on the feeble understanding of another towards me. I lean upon my own understanding of myself, because no one knows me the way I know myself. They never will. Experience is the greatest teacher, and to ignore experience in order to try to accomplish the same goal in the same way again and again, is the most foolish thing I can imagine.
For me, trying to be with someone is like two people mutually agreeing to cut each other. It doesn’t matter where you cut the flesh, what tool you use, it’s going to hurt, and it’s going to scar. No matter what you try to tell yourself or the other person.
I discussed self-medicating, but what about a healthy outlet? I think it’s incredibly important for any mentally ill person to have an outlet. I know this can be impossible to indulge in while in the throes of an episode, but when you can, it’s pivotal. This outlet could be anything. For me it’s writing. For another it could be music, art, fitness, reading, etc. Having a support animal can be helpful as well, but in my case, I’m not the type of person to have a pet. A mentally ill person needs this outlet even more than other people. They need something to focus on other than the turmoil they’re in most of the time, and they need to feel a sense of accomplishment. It’s essential to cope with life.
Even if a person isn’t a writer, I think journaling one’s thoughts is a valuable way to cope as well. For someone who is mentally ill, their feelings, thoughts, or expressions might seem bizarre, offensive, or shocking to others, so they tend to remain silent, bottling everything they feel. This only worsens the condition they’re suffering from. I know it does for me. I have a lot of angry, violent, and hateful thoughts (all directed at myself), and I can’t express these things to others. When I do, one of two things happens:
1. You get the typical, positive out-pour from the well meaning person: “No, you’re so wonderful and awesome, that’s not true!” They absolutely mean well. They believe that. Their perception is their own, and they hope to use it to change the other person’s perspective of themselves, and in vain. Self-worth comes from within. Nowhere else. These statements can even anger the mentally ill person and make them feel worse. They feel unheard and like their emotions are invalidated.
2. The negative reaction from the uneducated, apathetic person, which is more common. “Wow, you need help.” Any variation of that phrase or other abusive statements like, “So many people have it worse than you.” These people fail to understand that the brain is the cause of a mental illness. It’s not a choice. Mental illness rarely hinges solely on circumstance.
Only truly educated people respond in a rational way that is both empathetic and helpful. They relate the feelings to the person’s illness without robbing them of validation. “I understand you feel that way, and it’s horrible for you, but please remember this is your brain doing this to you. You can talk to me about it.” This is really the only appropriate way to respond to a mentally ill person (that has the capacity to understand they’re mentally ill, some cannot). It reminds the person they’re suffering from a disorder. They aren’t truly worthless. They don’t truly need to die. Their brain is attacking them the way the immune system attacks the body in an autoimmune disease. Many people can grasp that, and it can help ground them out of a self-hating or suicidal stint. I say this because it has helped me personally. Not every time, but it was probably one of the main reasons my last partner stayed so long. She could often snap me out of it by gently reminding me that I’m mentally ill.
Most people don’t have anyone to talk to, however. That’s why an outlet and writing one’s thoughts down can be crucial in maintaining some quality of life. Proper treatment and finding healthy ways to cope can greatly improve a mentally ill person’s life, but this can be more difficult to achieve than people think, especially if the person is alone. By choice or otherwise.
Life with bipolar disorder is never easy, though it doesn’t mean that a bipolar person can’t have a fulfilling existence in some ways. They’re often deep thinkers and talented creators. Their lives are just very different from those who don’t suffer from a mental illness. Their relationships are more challenging, when they’re possible at all. Their world is constantly fluctuating. Like an image routinely fading from vibrant color into an inverted grayscale. It’s disorienting, disheartening, and sometimes crushing. Yet a life is still carved from that fractured existence. One that can sometimes, due to their intensity, leave a massive impact on others. That’s why it’s important to make sure that impact is meaningful. Even beautiful.