I met Jen Locke when we were freshman in college. We both shared a love of books, pop culture, cats, political discussion and writing. You best know her as a guest writer whose reviews and various opinions have been published at this very blog.
There is another thing Jen and I share, battles with mental illness. Jen has chosen to share her battle with bipolar disorder by writing this essay. Thank you Jen for sharing your store. You are a very brave woman.
It’s a full-time job in itself. That’s why I’m not working. Bipolar disorder is tough. There’s no finding the right medicinal cocktail and just leaving it. Every day is another self-assessment.
Am I feeling happy? Am I thinking faster than I can keep up? I know that doesn’t seem to make sense, but it’s a unique, surreal experience. Am I talking fast? Jumping from topic to topic? Is it the normal topic jumping or excessive topic jumping? Am I being inappropriately boisterous? Am I confident that I’m invincible? Am I seeking out risky situations? Am I aggressive? Am I getting angry easily? Do I think I have an unrealistic amount of power? Am I scaring others? Yes? No? To what degree? Is this just a one-off? Should I be worried?
Truth is, if I’m cognizant enough to ask those questions, I’m not fully manic yet. Chances are, though, that it feels too good in this state to want to attempt to rein it in. So even if the answers come up as yes, I won’t bother doing anything about it. I want to feel this way. This is feeling good. This is the me that people like. This is the me I like to present to people.
If I’m truly manic, I won’t be able to even consider the idea that I’m manic. Good luck trying to get me to look at my behavior. It’s not going to work. You’re going to have to coax me from that state into being calmer without me knowing it. You’re going to have to trick me into mellowing out. And then I might consider your suggestion that I might have been manic. Most likely, though, I’ll just keep going until I crash. I’ll survive without much sleep for weeks and become productive in ways you don’t think I can. I’ll feel like, and perhaps claim that, I can do anything.
When my medications are right and I’m doing well, I’m pretty even-tempered. I can laugh, cry, and feel much of what ‘normal’ people can. There’s a limit, though. I can’t find that elation that used to make me do leprechaun leaps on the sidewalk. I can’t feel the deep sorrow appropriate in tragic situations. The intensity of those emotions is dampened. It’s probably for the best. Feeling intensely up or down, even fleetingly, may be enough to trigger a coinciding episode. No matter how good the cocktail of drugs is, it can’t prevent episodes being triggered.
Sometimes I’ll be tired all the time for no reason. Sleeping 9 or more hours a day. Feeling unmotivated when I’m alone. I’ll have to be like this for a while before I notice that it’s happening. I’ll skip work. Or volunteering. Or social events. Yet often, to everyone else I seem fine. Sometimes someone will tell me how I appear, and I might listen. Sometimes they’ll ask me if I’m okay. I’ll brush it off the first 700 times. Keep asking if my behavior doesn’t change or gets worse. Please keep asking until I realize and open up. If I catch myself here and get a medication change to help, I can recover fairly quickly from the slight depression. By fairly quickly, I mean a month or two. If this goes unchecked, it will only get worse.
I’ll stop showering. I’ll stay home from everything. I’ll stop reading, knitting, playing with the pets, talking to people, listening to music, and doing anything that makes me feel good. I’ll skip cooking and only eat things I can eat straight out of the cabinet or fridge. I’ll stop going to bed and just sleep on the couch night after night, or day after day. Or I’ll stop getting out of bed and just spend all day, every day, in bed. I’ll think about how I’m a drain on everyone I know, that no one would really want to be associated with me if they knew who I really am. I’ll see my existence as a negative splotch on the Earth. I’ll consider different ways of dying. Ways to make it look accidental. Ways to be sure it won’t fail. Absurd ways that might at least make people laugh. Devastating ways to make other people understand the pain I feel every day. If I feel this bad, why shouldn’t everyone? I’ll hate myself, my life, and everything in existence. Ultimately, after contemplating all of this, I’ll be too depressed to kill myself. Suicide would be too much effort. But I’ll stop doing everything, so if left alone I’ll die of starvation or be forced into some sort of action. Luckily, I have people around me forcing me to stay alive when I’m in this state. As much as I may hate them when they’re doing that job.
I must keep tabs on my emotional state every day. Morning and night. Checking in with myself. Others asking about how I’m doing. If I notice something, keeping mental track of whether it continues (and for how long) or whether it changes. Trying to pinpoint a cause or trigger for a change. Trying to notice if there’s a pattern. If something is getting better. Or worse. Trying to figure out how to fix it. This takes up so much time. And sometimes the mental effort is overwhelming. And I want to do anything other than think about my mental state.
These states have cost me jobs. I’ve been fired and walked off jobs more than I can count. I’ve quit classes. I’ve lost friends because I say no too much. I’ve lost friends because they can’t take the rollercoaster. I don’t blame them.
The cycle happens. Treatment is reactive. It will keep happening. Coming out of a depression I won’t realize I’m getting better and keep taking the same meds. Then I’ll start heading into mania. And at first it feels good, so I won’t do anything about it. Sometimes it’ll break on its own. Sometimes it’ll escalate and send me into a full-blown episode. Then my meds change, and I’ll come down to normal. Maybe adjust my meds again. Then a trigger. Or the meds are heavy on downers and not heavy enough on antidepressants. And down I’ll go, into the deep tunnel of depression. And round and round we go. I’ll quit another job. And get fired from another. I’ll burn bridges like no tomorrow. Yet I will try oh so hard to keep those bridges intact. And balancing all of this becomes a full-time job. And it follows me around. It’s not something I can leave in the office. And then there are all the psychiatrist visits and the therapy sessions. And sorting through causes, learning to deal with them, learning new coping methods, creating new coping methods.
I think the biggest falsehood I have believed about it is that it can be controlled. That if I just learn enough techniques to cope and keep my medicine right, I’ll never have an episode again. But that’s not how it works. Again, treatment is reactive. And living with this is a full-time job. Everything else is a hobby. Maybe someday dealing with bipolar disorder will be a part-time job.