It’s taken me awhile to get here. I’m not even 100% sure that I AM here yet, but I’m going to go ahead and be here anyway in hopes that this might speak to someone and help them get through this.
When I was in high school, I was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder (among a few other mental prognoses). We tried a few different medications to try to alleviate the stress of bipolar mood swings, but none of them really helped. Part of me really did feel like that diagnosis was true and real, but part of me thought that I was just messed up from my parents’ divorce and the terrible relationship that I had with my biological father. At that time, having a mental illness was not something that was openly talked about. There were no mental illness “remove the stigma” movements. People still thought that when you were diagnosed with a mental illness that it was “all in your head.” And overall I’m a bit fuzzy on what exactly was going on at that time in my life, but I know it wasn’t good.
What I CAN tell you is that for years I have been managing my bipolar disorder without the help of medications or therapy of any kind. But it’s not all roses.
One of my biggest issues is that I don’t really acknowledge it. I don’t talk about it with anyone. And I never use it as a rationalization for why I may act so bonkers some days. I never want it to be an excuse for my shitty behavior. I’d rather just apologize and hope that the person forgives me.
So I continue to practice MANAGING. Notice I’m not telling you that I’ve mastered it. This isn’t a story of how I have won over bipolar disorder without the use of medications. I don’t think I’ll EVER be able to say that. The truth is that it is a disease, a chemical imbalance in the brain, and it doesn’t just GO AWAY or STOP or SELF-SATISFY, even if you pretend it doesn’t exist.
The reason that I am choosing to open up about it now is that these past couple of months have been rough for me, and a fog lifted a few days ago and I realized that I was in a down swing. I realized that when I’m not busy, I feel SAD. HEAVY. HOPELESS. I didn’t realize that this was what was happening because I don’t talk about it. I just go into it.
Part of the reason why this swing was so bad had everything to do with a convergence of a few high-intensity and stressful moments, one of which was the passing of my cat, Hallie.
Prior to that, I had been on a manic high, talking to people and being turbo productive. When Hallie got sick and died within a week, it all came crashing down, FAST. I mourned for a day, and then I got up and went to work and pushed it down. It was only when I was alone, and still, that I could feel the weight of the sadness. It rested on me like a soft blanket.
See, people with bipolar disorder may not always realize when they’re in a swing. I’ve been lucky, as my swings have been mild, and short-lived, for the most part. Sometimes they are over in a manner of minutes. But the swings can last a long time, and if the people around you don’t KNOW that you have bipolar disorder, they may not notice that much is different.
In fact, when I opened up to someone I’m close to about the realization that I had about my most recent down swing, someone who didn’t know that I have bipolar disorder, her response was, “I knew something was up but wasn’t really sure what.” That’s pretty typical.
I feel like people my age have a hard time with mental illness. It was still so new, and so taboo, when we were being diagnosed and treated. People to this day use phrases like, “You’re acting bipolar” or “She’s so bipolar” to describe someone who is displaying erratic behaviors for whatever reason, and it makes me cringe. It makes me feel all icky to this day to call it an “illness”. I don’t want anyone to feel bad for me. And I don’t want to be judged because of it. I’d rather shove it all of the way down deep within myself than tell anyone how I feel. But that’s not helpful.
When I had Jane and Emma, I had to check a box that said that I had been diagnosed with a mental illness when I went into the hospital. I was put on watch for postpartum depression, and monitored closely. The PPD ended up descending on me long after I walked out of that hospital, but still wasn’t something that I shared with others. I just sat on it, and cried a lot, and felt like the world was going to come crashing down around me any day. I’ve never felt so alone.
I guess that I feel like saying that I have a mental disorder makes me look weak, and I’ve never wanted to be weak in anyone’s eyes. Never wanted people to feel bad for me because of my parents’ divorce, or the fact that we moved around so much, or for my mental struggles. On the other hand, I feel like if people were at least AWARE of my bipolar disorder, it would explain so much, and my confrontations with people would decrease. That’s not to say that people with mental disorders are weak. If you know ME then you know that to be the complete opposite. People struggling with any kind of mental issues are the strongest people I know.
It’s a catch 22.
What I am going to say next is from personal experience only. I am not a doctor, and I don’t currently see a professional about any of this. I’m no expert. That being said, bipolar disorder is not a self-diagnosis for me. I would recommend speaking to a professional immediately if you feel as though any of this applies to you.
Some things that you may notice about someone who is experiencing bipolar disorder include manic episodes of either highs or lows. Periods of extreme productivity and positivity. Extroverted behaviors. And then on the flip side the person may seem withdrawn, easily upset, sad, angry, negative, and introverted. There may or may not be triggers for these feelings. There are other behaviors that may also accompany bipolar disorder. I personally can be obsessive compulsive and extremely impulsive.
Now I say that you MAY notice these things. Bipolar disorder has become so mainstream in terms of explaining away erratic behaviors in our society that I believe that it is difficult to just look at a person’s actions and say, “That person has bipolar disorder.” Also, I know personally that I am a great actress. Only the people closest to me truly know if I’m experiencing a swing, and even then I can still hide it sometimes. And we NEVER talk about it.
Some things that I’ve found help dramatically with the symptoms of bipolar disorder are staying away from alcohol, eating well, working out, and engaging in activities that are calming, like yoga, reading, and writing. Again, I’m no doctor, so I have no idea, but I can only imagine that these activities help with the chemical balances in the brain. It also helps to practice self-awareness, and to frequently take inventory of your feelings, especially in stressful or traumatic situations.
Ways that you can support someone who is struggling with bipolar disorder are to just be understanding, and try not to take things personally. I know that it can be difficult, especially when a negative manic episode appears to be aimed directly at you. However, it is important to understand that the person is experiencing something outside of his or her control, and it has absolutely nothing to do with you. My husband is great at calming me down, and saying to me, “You’re acting bipolar.” That sounds harsh and extreme, but it WORKS for me. FOR ME. It helps me to go inside of myself and take an inventory of my feelings. There are times, though, that I am just suffering alone, and putting on a brave face to the outside world. Again, that’s a ME thing. But I assure you that there are others out there experiencing the same thing.
So, why am I opening up about this now? Part of it has to do with acknowledging and accepting myself completely. There are still people around me who don’t believe that I suffer from this disorder. There are people around me who see the brave face, and they think that the bipolar disorder is an act, or that I can control it.
The other thing is this — I know that if I’m going through it, there are others out there going through it, too. It can be so lonely to feel misunderstood, or worse, not understood at all. If we can’t support one another in this world, and embrace each others’ differences, and learn about the differences in order to be accepting, then what are we doing here? Misinformation breeds ignorance, which breeds hate, which makes this world an ugly place to live. I want there to be beauty in my world. I want there to be love and honesty. But we need to be brave in order to do that.
Our children deserve that.
Originally published at www.jessicagroff.com.