18 Lessons About Bipolar I’ve Learned So Far
In honor of World Bipolar Day.
World Bipolar Day is March 30. I was diagnosed with bipolar 2 disorder in March 2017 at the age of 21. It’s only been two years since my diagnosis, but my symptoms began in childhood and became overwhelming in college.
Bipolar 2 means I experience depression and hypomania. Hypomania — or “under” mania — means I don’t experience full-blown mania.
Hypomania for me includes insomnia for a few days, racing thoughts, jumping from one project to the next or spending hours fixated on one thing. I don’t sit still and everything irritates me, especially sound.
My impulse control diminishes. I’ll shop. A lot. As in maxed out two credits cards in a short time. Hypomania can be both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes I get a lot done. I feel incredibly alive, which can be a relief when you spend a lot of time depressed. But it can also cause a lot of damage — on my wallet and in my life.
Most of my mood episodes are depression-related, though. It can be the lowest of the lows. Other times, it’s just lurking in the background of my mind, reminding me what it can do.
In honor of World Bipolar Day, which aims to raise awareness about the disorder, I’ve decided to share lessons, realizations and other tidbits I’ve gained along the way.
Disclaimer: No two people are the same. My experiences with bipolar will not be the same as another’s. These are my experiences and takeaways.
1. I feel emotions more intensely.
People with bipolar disorder feel emotions more intensely. Our lows feel lower and our highs feel higher. I can be overwhelmed with emotion.
Experiencing intense emotions has its upsides and downsides. While the negatives are unspeakably bad, I feel love, excitement, and happiness in their purest forms.
I know what it’s like to feel emotions that are almost tangible. On the flip side, I’ve learned how to mask my emotions (namely the negative ones). My emotional wall is made of concrete, steel, and poisonous thorns that is a bitch to break down. I wrote about this in “5 Hard Lessons Therapy Taught Me.”
2. Not every upbeat mood is (hypo)mania; not every bad mood is depression.
Everyone has a spectrum of emotions. No one feels content or happy all the time. I will have bad days but not every bad day is because of bipolar. Sometimes it means I need more sleep, or I’m a bit stressed with work.
Hypomania is a bit trickier to identify. Frankly, I don’t even worry about identifying hypomania unless it’s clearly going to be a problem. Who doesn’t want a few days of amazing productivity and euphoria?
Sometimes I’m just excited or motivated. I think happiness and motivation feel more intense for me because I spend so much time depressed and without either. This doesn’t necessarily make it hypomania.
3. My moods may be unreliable, but I’m not.
As a person, I make lists and fill out planners. I deliver on my work and am always trying to improve. I care immensely for my writing and work. I’d never let something intentionally slip.
As a person with bipolar disorder, I sometimes don’t care to get out of bed, let alone do something. I can’t rely on my memory because my brain is mush, and I can’t keep track of time.
When I’m hypomanic, I might get a lot done and then people expect that level of work from me all the time, which is an impossible level to keep myself at. Hypomania might also cause me to hyper-fixate on a research paper I’m reading. Hours will go by and it’ll feel like five minutes. There’s also the other side when I can’t focus on one thing, but everything is exciting and I spew multiple ideas that I can’t possibly follow through with all at once.
4. I don’t have to believe every thought I have.
It took a while for me to understand that our thoughts are not us. Sounds impossible, right? What we think, believe, say and do are the basis of who we are.
The thing is, the brain is really effing weird. Most of us experience intrusive thoughts — those thoughts that have you thinking, “Why did I just think that? That’s so weird/messed up/etc.”
Thoughts can also be irrational. Do I really believe if I don’t tap four times on the outside of the plane door before I board that we’ll all plummet to our deaths? No. Am I going to skip tapping on the door on my next flight? Also no.
I’m not a horrible person. I’m not worthless. Not everyone hates me or thinks I’m annoying. These are things my depression tell me.
I’m not being monitored (more than any other American). People can’t read my thoughts. These are thoughts my hypomania tell me.
5. Misdiagnosis is incredibly common.
I was first diagnosed with major depression. Misdiagnosis can happen to anyone, but it’s especially common for people with bipolar to first be diagnosed with depression. In my case, the hypomania wasn’t nearly as noticeable as the depression at first. It first seemed like good motivation and random happiness. It wasn’t until the other more troubling symptoms appeared that I was diagnosed.
6. Meds can make things worse.
The first medication I took did not help whatsoever. In fact, it was the worse thing for me. My doctor kept me on this antidepressant for a year, despite me telling her I felt worse and thought I needed to try something else. Her response each time was, “It’ll get better,” and “Give it time.”
I can’t say if the medication led to my suicide attempt, but I believe it was a factor. Antidepressants can ironically increase suicidal thoughts in people, especially young people.
Each time I told my doctor I didn’t feel any better, she’d increase my dosage. Eventually, the increase led to a hypomanic episode and my diagnosis changed from major depression to bipolar 2. I had experienced hypomania before but didn’t have a name for it. It only became extreme when the medication was increased.
7. Meds can make things so much better.
Though my first exposure to psychiatric medications was not a pleasant one, I have finally found a couple of meds that keep my highs a little less high and my lows a little less low.
I’ve gone through an antidepressant, a mood stabilizer, an antipsychotic, and a few meds for sleep and anxiety.
Sure, I’ve had to tweak my doses because of my latest depressive episode and physical side effects, but I currently feel like my medications are truly helping. I’m taking an antidepressant and mood stabilizer now. I also have an as-needed sleep medication.
When I finally got my meds figured out, everything got brighter. Literally. I could see vibrancy in life again. I was happy and content. My thoughts were not dark or suicidal. I felt like myself again after a year and a half.
8. I have to advocate for myself, especially with doctors.
Like mentioned in number 6, I had a doctor who did not listen to me. She made things worse, and I felt completely ignored. I lost more of myself each day while she just scheduled me for monthly appointments.
Through that experience, I’ve learned to take a stand. Doctors are authority figures, but it’s my body. I ask questions. I say no if I don’t agree with a medication change. If I feel like I’m not being heard, I let my doctor know. If I have to, I find a new doctor. They see me for 15 minutes. I live with myself 24/7.
9. Moving between episodes is extremely exhausting.
Depression is exhausting. Coming down from hypomania is exhausting. Honestly, exhaustion and fatigue are kind of my thing.
Brain fog is both hilarious and awful. I mean, when you circle gas pumps for a solid five minutes because you can’t figure out how to get your car to face the right way to pump gas, you have to laugh.
When you forget your phone number or PIN you have to make light of it in front of the cashier. I had to have my friend buy my groceries once because I couldn’t remember my PIN.
Fatigue is a part of depression, but when you shift between having all the energy in the world to no energy at all, there’s a whole other level to exhaustion.
10. Bipolar is more than highs and lows.
Depression and mania are the hallmarks of bipolar disorder, but there are hypomania and mixed episodes, too. Each mood state comes with its symptoms.
One of the symptoms people don’t usually connect to bipolar is paranoia. I’ve had paranoid thoughts, but I wouldn’t say it’s led to delusions. Bipolar disorder can also include psychotic symptoms like delusions and hallucinations. These symptoms are typically associated with bipolar type 1 because they’re more common in full-blown mania than hypomania.
11. Mixed episodes are a special kind of hell.
Mixed episodes are what they sound like: you’re given a mix of depressive symptoms with hypomanic or manic symptoms. It’s like the Vodka Redbull of mental illness. You get both the downer and the upper.
You experience the various symptoms all at once or in very rapid succession. It’s hard to explain what a mixed state feels like. For me, it feels like my skin is crawling. All I want to do is scream. It’s a lot of energy and no energy.
One night I texted my friend multiple times telling her I was coming to visit her in Kansas City. KC was two and a half hours from Columbia, Missouri, where I went to school.
It was already after 8, but I asked if I could visit. She said yes, and I became ecstatic and began packing for the weekend. Two minutes later I laid on my bed, feeling as if someone punched me in the stomach. I was too depressed to move. I texted her that I wasn’t coming after all. Two minutes later I was packing again and asking my roommate if he’d watch my dog. This went on for hours. I couldn’t get comfortable in my mind or body.
12. There’s intense fear about having an episode.
Bipolar is technically a chronic illness. This means that, for the rest of my life, I will fluctuate between depression, euthymia (stable mood), and hypomania. Medications can help. Therapy can help.
The first time I felt sad for a couple of days after spending over a year depressed, I freaked out. I feared those couple of days were the start of another lengthy depression. Turns out it wasn’t, but I will always harbor the fear of an episode.
Once you live through the worst of depression, it’s hard not to fear that again. It’s easy to think you couldn’t handle going through that again.
13. It’s possible to go months without an episode.
Before my last depressive episode, I had seven months without any issues. I felt like my true self again. I made strides in my professional and personal life. It seemed like the worst was behind me, but that’s the thing about bipolar, it comes and goes.
I was “unstable” for about a year and a half, shifting between depression and hypomania. Everything was a battle — getting to class or even getting out of bed, working, eating, breathing. Then one day, my mind became quieter, and I felt like myself again.
14. It’s possible to lessen the intensity of mood swings.
This ain’t easy, believe me. Many things help prevent mood swings for me. I talk to friends. I go to therapy. I journal and track my moods. I workout (kind of) and take my medications. Routines are important because predictability in my life is important when my moods aren’t.
Therapy and tracking my moods can help me notice when an episode may be coming. Then, I can be proactive with self-care and coping skills to lessen the impact.
I could be better at doing these things, but adulting on its own is hard enough without the added responsibility of mental illness.
15. Not every mood swing can be lessened.
While it is possible to smooth out the highs and lows at some points, it isn’t always going to work. Sometimes your brain and its chemicals are going to do what they want, no matter what you do or what meds you take. Maybe it means you have to change a medication or dosage, which I’ve done countless times.
Coping skills may help lessen the intensity, but sometimes coping skills become survival skills. It may take all my energy to keep my head above the water during an episode.
16. I don’t always feel like “myself.”
Depression takes me away from me. At my core, I am curious, determined, and passionate. Depression steals these away from me. I become a shell of who I am, and it’s like I’m living as two different people. I go from living and making strides in my life and career to treading water to survive.
17. People don’t understand bipolar.
It wouldn’t be a mental illness if it didn’t come with a heaping pile of stigma. People think you “snap” and become angry or depressed in a moment’s notice. In reality, most mood episodes last days, weeks or even months.
People try to understand, and it’s important that they do. But unless you’ve felt this, it’s impossible to get it completely.
18. I am not “bipolar.”
I have bipolar disorder. It is a part of me, but it isn’t me. Like anything we experience, bipolar has had its influence on who I am.
There are many negatives about living with bipolar disorder, but there are also lessons I’ve learned by having it. Without it, I probably wouldn’t have become passionate about mental health and advocacy. I’m also more compassionate and understanding because of it.