What I Wish People Knew About Bipolar I Disorder

What I Wish People Knew About Bipolar I Disorder

It’s definitely not easy living with bipolar I, but here are some things I’ve learned throughout my struggle. If you also have bipolar I, you may want to consider sharing these points with your own friends and family to help them understand what you are dealing with.

“Manic-depression distorts moods and thoughts, incites dreadful behaviors, destroys the basis of rational thought, and too often erodes the desire and will to live. It is an illness that is biological in its origins, yet one that feels psychological in the experience of it, an illness that is unique in conferring advantage and pleasure, yet one that brings in its wake almost unendurable suffering and, not infrequently, suicide.”

Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

My bipolar journey started when I was very young – 11 years old. By that age I tried to take my life for the first time by suffocating myself with a pillow. Described as a mercurial child since birth, I was in a lot of pain emotionally from a very young age. There was no abuse or trauma that triggered these symptoms in me – it’s just the way I’m put together. For a year and a half before this suicide attempt, I had been living with the first depressive cycle of my life. It took almost five years after my first attempted suicide for this depressive cycle to reach its end. By then I was only 16 years old, at the cusp of my life, but constantly willing it to end.

There would be periods of light in my life, but it felt like the dark always far outweighed the light. Yes, we all have ups and downs and breakups that cause periods of sadness. We get fired, people close to us pass away or we lose things and ones we love. It was just that my downs never seemed to fade and go away. When I was finally diagnosed with bipolar I disorder in 2020 at the age of 35 after a manic episode that caused hospitalisation, everything started to make sense. I also had a name for the insanity I regularly experienced in short bursts: mania. It took me most of my life getting lost in the darkest parts of my major depression, and many subsequent suicide attempts later, before I started to make positive changes to my life. Here is what I wish more people knew about living with bipolar I disorder:

My depressive cycles are the worst parts of me.

It’s hard to be your best self when you’re feeling at your worst, right? My depressive cycles always include my worst aspects. I am the worst version of myself when I am depressed. Depressive cycles can last for weeks, months and (in my case) even years. My longest one so far lasted eight years. Resultingly, I have always been misdiagnosed with major depressive disorder. When I am depressed, I tend to hide from the outside world. I don’t want to see or talk to anyone, and I always turn my phone off. I am very likely to shut people out or say things that hurt others during these times. Communication is tough for me when I am like this. It is also difficult to maintain healthy friendships and relationships when I’m depressed. I’m not concerned with basic hygiene: brushing my teeth and showering is just too much – who’s going to care anyway, right? It feels like dying is the easiest way to ge rid of the pain on the inside.

Bipolar depression is like being in a warzone.

Living with bipolar depression is like fighting a never-ending battle in a warzone. For those of us living with bipolar I disorder, the war of the mind is something we will fight for weeks, months, and even years at a time. We will always be fighting battles in our minds. It is how we limit these battles that matters; proverbially choosing which battles to fight. Over the years, I have learnt that I cannot fight these battles alone, and that I need to ask for help when I feel the burden is too heavy. I have found it exceedingly difficult to share my “bipolar burden”, but doing so has made all the difference. Those closest to me know that asking for help is difficult for me, but over the years, I have learnt to trust and believe them when they say: “backup is here and ready to take over”.

Bipolar I sufferers live a life of extremes.

Extreme mood swings is a symptom of both bipolar depression and mania. For me, the key has been to identify early signs of approaching depressive or manic episodes, and what I can do in response. For example, I prefer dark rooms and settings when a depressive episode is imminent – I will not draw my bedroom’s curtains to let light in, and will avoid going outside into the sunlight (if I get up at all). I have learnt to recognise this behaviour as a primary signal that I am falling into a depression. The response would be to draw the curtains open and force myself out into the light. Similarly with mania, my primary trigger is not sleeping, closely followed by disturbances to my routine. The response would be to ensure I do all I can to sleep well, even if it means getting medical help to do so, and returning my routine to normal asap.

Bipolar illness is a constant battle for control over mind and body.

Sometimes, bipolar I sufferers can instantly switch between mania and depression. This rapid cycling can cause moments of peace, followed by being unable to get out of bed, or feelings of energetic grandiosity in quick succession. Sufferers are unable to control these swings. Mania is almost always a medical emergency, as the severe impulsive and irrational behaviour of sufferers is often at great physical and financial risk. When I am manic, I don’t sleep, sometimes for weeks on end. Although I am rarely sleeping when I’m manic, I have boundless energy and it feels as if I can conquer the world. I have manic-induced impulses that often involve purchasing live pet animals such as dogs, cats, birds and fish. The impulse and urge will not be satisfied until I have completed it, and it is totally beyond my control. It feels like the world will not continue to exist unless I fulfill my urge. My creativity spikes and I am bubbly and outgoing. When my mania has run its course, it most often results in a feeling of “normalcy” for a while. Reality strikes and I become aware of my manic actions. Sometimes I feel guilty over what I’ve done. I then cycle back to the lows of depression and the pattern repeats. I tend to feel like a failure whenever depression comes.

Bipolar I disorder increases the risk of suicide and self-harm.

Suicidal thoughts and resorting to self-harm is part-and-parcel of living with bipolar disorder. For me, it has always been easier to deal with physical pain than emotional pain. It was only when I finally found a mood-stabilising medication that worked for me, that my constant suicidal ideation stopped. Suicide and self-harm is preventable and manageable with the right treatment, care and support. With the help of a mental health professional, those of us suffering from bipolar disorder can start taking steps towards limiting our own depressive cycles and finding healthy ways to cope with symptoms.

Medication forms a huge part of treatment.

It sometimes takes a couple of tries to find the right combination of medications. And the reality is that the side-effects of these medications can be harsh. It really helps when those nearest to me do not judge or question the amount of medication I need and take. For me, these meds are my only lifeline. I have had to make peace with the fact that I will be on psychiatric medication for the rest of my life. Some medications have serious long term effects, and others may require regular bloodwork to be done to determine if I have enough (or too much) in my system. It is important to be open and honest with your doctor about any symptoms and side-effects, both positive and negative, that you are experiencing. There is also nothing wrong with seeking a second opinion if you are not happy with your treatment or doctor.

I am not defined by my illness.

Bipolar I disorder is for life. By accepting the reality that I will have bipolar I for the rest of my life, I am making peace with the “black dog” that’s always by my side. But that does not mean it defines my every waking moment. Yes, I will always have the extreme ups and downs of mania and depression. But the process of learning how to manage these cycles has completely changed my outlook on life.

I am not ashamed of having a mental illness. I have a mental illness, and I am living with it.

If you are reading this and it feels like there is no way out of the deep, dark pit of despair and pain you are in, STOP. It may not seem like it now, but everything is going to be ok. You are ok, and you are enough and you are so worthy of happiness. Turning to suicide is not the answer. Recognise that you need help and accept it when it comes. Believe in that help. Never stop fighting. It is worth it. Because YOU are worth it.

Dedicated to AB. My best friend, confidant and safety net. I wouldn’t be here today without you.

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