Today I am speaking at an event called Shattering Stigma. It’s a collection of personal stories about people living with mental illness. Below is the core of my brief talk.
Everyone wants to know what bipolar feels like.
It’s hard to put into words because there are two different experiences. I’ll do my best to tell you my experiences, but know that this illness manifests differently for different people.
There is not one homogeneous story of having bipolar. Each person’s personal story is going to look different, each life with the illness is unique. There are common traits, but never assume that you know someone’s story because you know what their diagnosis is.
So, my story. What bipolar is like for me.
For me, depression is what I see the most of. This isn’t just feeling blue or being sad for no reason. This is clinical depression. It’s the kind of depression that claws at my skin and swallows up my heart. It’s the kind of depression that leaves me lying on the floor, unable to get up for food, unable to turn on the TV for distraction. This is the depression that makes me want to sleep away my days because there is no point to living. This is the depression that brings about suicidal thoughts, thoughts of self-harm, and overall a sense of worthlessness that no amount of reassurance can combat.
This is irrational depression. With it comes irritability, hopelessness, the inability to do daily tasks, and dark, dark days. Before I was diagnosed at 28 I always attributed these awful days to spiritual warfare, saying the demons were dogging my steps. Either that or I was out of God’s will due to some sin or spiritual misstep. I didn’t understand that this was a chemical imbalance causing a physical reaction due to an illness. I didn’t know I was sick, so I looked for ways to understand these dark days. I didn’t understand that I feel things differently than other people. I didn’t understand that I was depressed.
Depression isn’t the only thing I experience with bipolar though. Mania, the opposite end of the spectrum, is the other side of the coin.
Mania is hard to express. It’s a destructive force that feels euphoric. Mania will send me out into the world full of over inflated self-worth, racing thoughts, and no impulse control. Mania is the time of my life when I am convinced I am the best in the world, that I am invincible, that my life is great. My thoughts jump from one topic to the next and I just keep on talking. I also spend money left and right.
Mania may feel amazing, but it is nothing but a destructive force in my world. It has caused questionable sexual choices, car wrecks, and maxing out credit cards. Mania is a fire that will burn my life to the ground while convincing me everything is amazing.
These are my extremes: the darkness of depression and the dazzling of mania.
Most of the time, I slide along this spectrum finding myself landing somewhere between depression and mania. It’s a constant shift of feelings, emotions, and thoughts. But bipolar isn’t always cut and dry. I get what are called mixed states: all the energy and racing thoughts of mania with the suicidal thoughts and low self-worth of depression. It’s a dangerous place to be.
So, how do I function? How do I raise a family, hold a job, live a “normal” life?
I’m still figuring that out.
My family knows about my illness. I mean, how could they not. Doesn’t make it easier when I’m having a bad day when I am irritable and grumpy, withdrawn and sullen. My family knows what it means for dad to have a hard time.
My wife gets it. She deals with severe anxiety and PTSD. She is unable to work and has her own bad days. Together, we are learning how to build a family. We are honest with our boys about our illnesses, and the 5-year-old understands as much as he can. Sometimes we can’t play with him. Some days we can’t go outside. Some days he gets to just watch TV and eat pizza all day because my wife and I just can’t function beyond that.
I don’t want to paint a bleak picture of our family. Most days, we function pretty well. Medications and counseling contribute to us living a normal life. And that is what we are trying to build with our children, a normal, healthy life, for their sake as much as ours. But the hard days are a part of our life.
Hard days affect our income as well. Earlier this year, there was about a month and a half that I couldn’t get to work because of my anxiety and depression. Luckily, I was in a job that gave FMLA for medical issues. Still, it doesn’t alter the loss of income. Thank God that somehow we have always been taken care of.
And we have been taken care of. Christian friends have lifted us up, bought us groceries, helped us pay rent. They have been the hands and feet of Christ. Truly without the care of our friends and people who care about us (some of whom we have only ever met online), I don’t know where we would be. But this is how God shows up, in the hands and feet of people who are committed to care.
I’m so grateful for the church congregation we are now a part of. It’s a place where it’s not taboo to talk about mental illness. It’s a place where people know each other’s stuff. I don’t have to hide my illness to be a respected part of the community. It’s not off limits to ask how someone is doing and to get an honest answer. It’s a good community, especially for me and my family.
It’s scary to get up and talk about my stories and experiences with bipolar. It’s scary to tell you about what it’s like to live with this illness, how it affects me and my family. It’s scary because there has been so much shame put out there on mental illness. It’s scary because I don’t know what you are going to think of me. It’s scary because this is my story, my life that I am sharing with you.
This is a small snapshot into what my life with bipolar looks like. Ask someone else with the disease and they will give you a different story. As I said, there is no one story for people with mental illness. Thank you for taking the time to hear mine.