Part one in a three-part series of posts about Bipolar Disorder.
When I first started to write about my experiences, I thought it would be easy. I would write down what my symptoms were like, describe some instances in my life, and then I would be done. But I was wrong. Each anecdote would remind me of a previous one, until I found myself back at the beginning. Then, I decided to write down as many anecdotes as I could remember, but that wound up taking several pages.
I have rewritten this several times now, trying to narrow down my words, what I wanted to say, and what would best help people to understand what being Bipolar 1 is like. I have been on medication for five years now, and with my sober mind (yes, I did say sober), I can look back into my life and realize just how much being Bipolar 1 has affected me.
I will start with the word, sober. I say, sober, because being in a state of extreme mania is being higher than any drug can ever make someone. I have been to raves, and having never been on drugs, have had more fun than the partiers who were high. They were trying to figure out what drugs I was on that made me feel so great and gave me so much energy to dance for hours. There were no drugs, just an extreme bout of mania.
Conversely, I have been so depressed that I felt I was disconnected from everything, and I do mean everything. It was as if all my senses had been turned off. I was an almost non-existent ghost. I could see and hear things around me, but taste, smell, and touch had been dulled to the point of being non-existent. I would look at my hands, my body, and my room, and it felt like I was looking at something ghostly, something that was beginning to fade away into nothingness. I felt as if I was alone in a void of nothingness.
My bipolar symptoms started around the age of 5. At that time, my aunt and my grandma would say that I was just having a bout of melancholy. It wasn’t serious. It was just this lifeless, listless feeling that would cling to me for a few days to a week. I didn’t understand it. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, I had toys to play with, it’s just that I didn’t feel motivated. I think a more relatable way to say it is, I had a case of the blah’s. What finally pulled me out of these moods was my dad bringing home some paper and a Crayola watercolor set. He told me to paint how I felt, and I did. There was something about painting that seemed to chase away the blah’s. Not completely, but it did lift my mood and made me want to function again. Painting became my happy place, and I went through a lot of watercolor sets. Eventually he bought me crayons because those lasted longer.
I had my first true manic experience at age 8. I can still remember it vividly. I was walking outside on a cloudy day, when all of a sudden, everything brightened around me. The gray clouds were shimmering silver and gold, and I had such an overwhelming feeling of elation that I thought I was going to burst. I felt like that for days.
Art became my best friend. I would paint or color how I would feel, or what was going on that day, and it would be like a soothing balm for me in the dark times. Unfortunately, I was a victim of childhood trauma. My abuser took away my paints and melted my crayons, so that I would be unable to tell anyone what was going on. I learned to doodle, and hide secrets in the doodles.
During these dark times, my mania, when it appeared, was increasing radically. I had risky behavior which would increase drastically the longer I was manic. I equated this behavior with fun, completely unaware of the dangers or consequences of my actions. Only when I had burned through my mania, could I look at what I had done and would wonder, ‘what was I thinking?’. Later in life, it would become, ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’.
When my depression came upon me, it also came down a lot harder, deeper, and darker. It was as if the depression was getting revenge on me for being so happy. I had many dark days that I couldn’t pull out of, and I was in a lot of physical pain. When people tell you depression hurts, it really does. It’s not only your mind that feels it, but your skin, your bones, and if it’s bad enough, every cell in your body. It is a horrible ache of mental and physical pain. For me, I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t do homework, and at times it felt as if I couldn’t breathe. No amount of sunlight or music could stop the darkness that enveloped me. I was willing to do anything to make the darkness and pain go away. Eventually, it lead me to try suicide. I didn’t succeed, but it was far from my last time trying.
I eventually was able to leave home, but the stress brought on by trauma had triggered my bipolar deeply, it was like the stress had given it the green light to run rampant in any way it wanted to, and it did. If I had a nickel for every manic risky behavior I did, I would be a millionaire a few times over. Basically, it was like the bipolar told my brain, “Here, hold my beer”, and then ran amuck while dragging me along. The depression got worse, too. There were months when I could barely function, holding on to myself by a thin string. Ironically, while my mania went through a no-holds-barred-lets-do-anything type of phase, responsibility was what kept me getting out of bed, getting dressed, and functioning throughout the day. Having a job and knowing that people were depending on my put some kind of guilt trip on my depression, and it allowed me to get out of the house and do what I had to do because others were depending on me. I had a lot of dark days at work, but I did the job that I was hired to do. I functioned like this for decades.
I lived in Texas for many years, and at some point, the new hiring craze of hiring temporary workers came into existence. Temps are a lot cheaper. There is no need for vacation pay, sick pay, insurance, or any of those other pesky things employers used to provide for employees. You would be hired to work anywhere from three months, to six months, to eighteen months, and then let go when your services were no longer needed. Basically, we were a disposable workforce. This did not help my bipolar moods at all. When I wasn’t working and the depression hit, it came back with a vengeance because there was nothing to balance it out. I had nothing to do, nothing to be responsible for, nothing to focus on, and the depression felt like it was eating me alive. At some point, I started doing drawings again. The art helped me to pull through. It leveled out the depression somewhat, and I could function as a semi-normal human being.
The biggest crash came when employment hit a downturn. Layoffs were happening all over, and it wasn’t just for temp employees, but permanent workers, too. The stress and lack of money for basic needs like rent, utilities, and groceries ramped up my depression, and being Bipolar 1, that was just like putting a tanker of gasoline on a fire. My suicide attempts increased, and with each failure, I got more depressed, but I also got more creative with my suicide attempts. Luckily, they all failed. At some point, my mania kicked back in. It was enough to make me realize that I needed to leave Texas and come back home to New Mexico. Texas was killing me, and if I had to die, I wanted it to be in my homeland.
I wound up in Santa Fe, and very thankfully, I was able to get help. That was a bit of a bumpy road, but I knew I wouldn’t last much longer with my brain going on roller coaster rides that would lead to erratic behavior that I thought was fun at the time, then to the darkest depths of depression to where I would rather die than feel that type of mental and physical pain anymore.
Medication was the answer. It took four different tries to get the right combination for my mania to mellow out, and there were some very uncomfortable side effects with the first ones, but to have my brain calm, it was worth it. The mania and depression still come, but it is much more manageable now. I also had therapy, which helped me deal with my childhood trauma by acknowledging it, processing it, and allowing me to let go and move on. I also had a few sessions of EMDR which tamed the pain of events so that they could no longer mentally hurt me. Therapy also gave me a toolbox with which to monitor my symptoms, and a list of things I could do (which I keep on my refrigerator) to help alleviate stress and depression symptoms if they were becoming strong and needed something to balance them out.
I haven’t felt suicidal in a few years now, and I haven’t cut either. Being out of that darkness is such a great relief, and such a happy feeling. I actually look forward to living now.
This is my experience with being Bipolar 1.