One winter, when my spontaneous laughter and general happy-go-lucky approach to life began to fade, deep down I knew something else was arising, and setting its feet in place. Although I didn’t know what it was at the time, I affirmed it to be new, and something for which I did not possess a vocabulary to describe. I slowly began to lose interest in things that not too long before had firmly held my attention. My joie de vivre would get replaced by sleep, endless sleep, a sense of being weighed down, a sense of disinterest, and apathy.
Metaphorically, my eyes were closing, and literally, I became slower at responding to routine tasks, as if my mind was shutting down. In short, a kind of cocooning was taking place. I would fill my own answering machine with messages, comprised of silent air, in order to make the inbox full so others could not possibly leave me a message. I missed classes and work. No one caught onto my behavior, not enough to intervene or take action, anyway.
These changes were subtle, I suppose. At the time when such strange feelings dictated my mind, I couldn’t articulate to anyone, let alone myself, what their origin was. But I felt different. I felt as if my vocal chords had been twisted and tossed aside. I lost the ability to express myself, something which I had clearly done well up until then. This change took place during the winter months of 2007-’08. It would be much later on when I’d realize that what I experienced that winter was my first real brush with depression.
When that dismal state of affairs tapered off in the spring months of 2008, I would rebound to a polar opposite that following summer. Subsequently, at the age of twenty-four, I would have my first encounter with mania, which when melded with depression is called bipolar disorder.
Now, ten years later, I can better perceive and visualize the trajectory of my illness. Most importantly, I have the insight in comprehending how my mind works alongside the disorder, and other everyday happenings, both big and small, that comprise my life. A decade of experience, mixed with knowledge and technical know-how that I have gained because of doctors, but also from my own explorations and research, have aided me greatly in coming to grips with this illness and how it affects me.
Like any mental illness, bipolar disorder can be complicated to grasp by someone who has no knowledge of the topic. Therefore, the patient — the one who’s dealing with the issue head-on — (or in a sense, suffering) finds it difficult to garner empathy from the observer (friend, co-worker, relative, or stranger) who has little to no comprehension of the matter at hand.
That is also what happened to me. At virtually every stage of the illness, the majority of people I would come across failed to empathize when it was crucial to do so. Mental illnesses like bipolar disorder have general symptoms that can be applied to anybody diagnosed with the illness. But the nuances vary greatly for each individual, as each person has different reactions based on their particular environment, and self.
When I was diagnosed, I had zero knowledge of the illness. I was in a state of mania, so naturally it was even more difficult to reason with me and get through to my real, and normal self. Time and experience have helped me understand why my illness surfaced in the first place. Bipolar disorder is inherited. Just like it has been for me, such disorders are passed from generation to generation. This is where one major problem arises.
In an ideal world, it should not be a transference of shame, and suffering, from one generation to another. Alas, stigma from within the family, being too ashamed to openly talk about the illness, prevails the world over. So even though, in my immediate family, both on my mother and father’s side, there were many people who had dealt with depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, even suicide, I had no idea of the struggles these people faced, because it was simply not talked about.
It was only after my own diagnosis, and in the years that followed, that the picture became a bit clearer to me.
I began to pose questions, and probed enough to get some answers.
Had I prior knowledge, at least I would’ve had some inkling about mental illness, and perhaps could’ve been better prepared, and more aware — aspects which would’ve been infinitely better than having my depression and mania escalate to the levels which they did. In essence, this illness was in my blood, waiting to pop out. In my case, my severe trauma happened when an individual with whom I was closely connected abruptly, left my life, affecting me, and changing the trajectory of my life, and also that of my family. I was devastated.
An illness which was in my system, dormant all those years, came to life when trauma materialized. I couldn’t bear the sudden shock of the occurrence, and I was struck in such deep ways, that unbeknownst to me, I first underwent depression, then mania, followed by a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
All along, I was misunderstood, and my behavior was ridiculed and scorned by co-workers, family, and the closest of friends, because they didn’t know any better. I am not ashamed to openly talk about having an illness that is hereditary — after all, it’s more common than most people often think — and for which I take a combination of medications in order to keep the chemical balance in my mental makeup in check.
All along, I was misunderstood, my behavior was ridiculed and scorned by co-workers, family, and the closest of friends, because they didn’t know any better.
People who are ignorant to the nature of the illness can do as they please, but I will always try hard to convey an experience that is unordinary — in the hopes that taboos are lifted.
Taking medications to help facilitate my bipolar disorder has always had physical side effects. Weight gain has been a prime one, along with extreme thirst and dehydration. Inevitably, my pregnancy was also high-risk, because of the medications that I was on, which were essential for me to take throughout the gestation period. My unborn daughter had the potential of having heart defect because of one particular medicine, Lithium Carbonate.
During my pregnancy, I had to regularly have blood work, x-rays, and checkups done, to ensure my daughter and I were safe. After I gave birth in July 2014, I would end up facing postpartum depression. Also, at various points throughout the last ten years, I have had trouble concentrating. I was once an avid reader, and as a journalist, I wrote quite a lot. My passions underwent a significant decline. I had trouble watching movies, reading books, and in general I could only stay interested for a short duration. My illness and the medications used to treat its symptoms made my ability to focus challenging.
For me though, the toughest repercussion of living with bipolar disorder is the amount of social discrimination I’ve faced from family, friends, co-workers. Life has its ebbs and flows, where people either strike relations with others they will stay connected with their whole lives, or conversely, people might meet by chance and have a short-lived acquaintance. I had all kinds of friends, as I had always been a social person, and made friends very regularly. I would end up making a wide variety of friends — the transient types, good friends, and the reliable, even life-long friends. But this illness altered me.
As I look back, I see just in how ways I changed as a person, in my thinking, in my attitude and personality, thus making me an undesirable friend. The tragic thing was I could not see or comprehend those negative changes.
I had lost all ability to look inward, and self-reflect, as each and every interaction and situation wound up being about me, and a reaction to something. I became a static individual, who seemed incapable of growing as a person. So, friends who knew me well before my diagnosis, began to decrease contact with me, and eventually left altogether.
My manic attacks were certainly not helpful, either. In those insane states of mind, I did incredibly harmful social acts, that shattered almost all of my friendships. There are dozens of examples from my manic spells, both actions and thoughts, that ignited destructive patterns of behavior without a will of my own and clearly under the cloud of mania. Anger and uncontrolled rage consumed any form of rationality.
Friends who had already deserted me due to terrible changes in my personality angered me greatly. So, in a manic state of response, I hurled abuses at each one of them, calling them out by name, and publishing my feelings on social media. This would prove to be an absolutely devastating action, something which the friends in question would end up confronting me about.
In hindsight those confrontations were bizarre, as it was clear I had lost my mind, and I could not have been reasoned with, but my friends’ actions demonstrated how little knowledge people possess when dealing with mental illness.
In a manic state of response, I hurled abuses at each one of them, calling them out by name, and publishing my feelings on social media.
Today, it is those interactions that I have had the most trouble reconciling. My second manic attack tapered off by late summer, 2017. I still undergo a great deal of stress when my mind wanders and begins to think about what transpired during that time. I am currently receiving therapy, precisely because of the anxiety and turbulent mood changes that spring up, that are affiliated with post traumatic stress-related thoughts. The therapy lasts for one year, and is followed up with another therapy, which further helps regulate emotions and neutralize triggers.
The erratic nature that my life had formed would continue for years. I would not see substantive change in me until I got a good psychiatric support system, after about nine years of having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Living in Toronto was definitely one of the reasons why my state of unrest kept getting prolonged. Since my diagnosis, I had never truly liked or respected any psychiatrist or family doctor I would come across in Toronto, something which changed when I got to the Bay Area in California.
The level of healthcare is vastly different in Toronto and California. In Canada, when I was initially diagnosed, I was assigned a psychiatrist, someone with whom I felt zero connection. But it was the nature of the system that he would end up being my doctor for a number of years, even though I disliked him. The trouble had already begun, but it worsened when I stopped seeing him, as it meant that family physicians were in charge of prescribing medications, which also implied that I would receive no therapy.
Each family physician I saw prescribed me medications with the exact dosages that had been given to me when I was initially diagnosed. With mental illness, medications change with time and circumstance and should never stay the same over long periods of time. The doctors would also overlook to do essential blood work pertaining to my medication regimen.
Moving to California changed this. I started to receive regular psychiatric help from a highly capable and well-trained psychiatrist, someone who I personally chose and directly paid for. This was unlike Toronto, where doctors were assigned to me and were covered under provincial health benefits.
My sessions in the Bay Area were complete with talk therapy and other types of therapy, such as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). The latter two therapies are designed to rehabilitate the ravaged post-manic mind, one which is in the throes of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), mainly stemming from reckless actions enacted during manic episodes.
My many years of drifting with no real focus in life simmered down when all therapies and medications worked in tandem, also allowing me to grasp the exact nature of how the illness had changed me, and understand why so many people had bowed out from my life. The trauma originating from manic and depressive episodes carried such an enormous weight, enough to rob me of my sleep and leave me in distress throughout the day, thus prompting a cycle that would extend to all hours of all days, complete with an utterly exacerbating and despairing state of mind.
My thoughts and traumas wouldn’t leave me alone, and would haunt me that I’d be driven to sadness, and experience such in-depth emotional irregularity. I said this once during my second manic attack: It’s hard to put oneself in the shoes of a monster. When a manic attack hits, and you lose all sense of reason, you put yourself in a very dangerously explosive zone. And I am no exception, as I have done destructive things in both of my manic attacks.
During one depressive episode, I attempted to kill myself by taking an entire bottle of Advil. At the time, I lived on the twenty-first floor, and my intention was to jump off the balcony — part and parcel of the erratic life of a person living with bipolar disorder.
The trauma originating from manic and depressive episodes carried such an enormous weight, enough to rob me of my sleep and leave me in distress throughout the day, thus prompting a cycle that would extend to all hours of all days, complete with an utterly exacerbating and despairing state of mind.
Although much has happened to me in the last decade, I have managed to become grateful. My fate changed when I got meaningful help, upon moving from Toronto to the Bay Area in California, a place that has helped me re-gain shattered self-esteem, and put to rest sad and cyclical memories. Now, I respect and cherish those individuals who to this day remain in my life as sincere, un-judging and constantly reliable relations. American novelist and essayist Flannery O’Connor was right: a good man is hard to find.
In this case, I learned lessons throughout every turn of my life since my disorder was diagnosed — that men, and women are tainted by prejudice and lack of knowledge about mental illness. The natural phenomena in this equation is that discrimination is at the helm of illnesses such as bipolar disorder, depression, OCD, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and other such difficult situations. Hopefully this changes. At the moment, though, it is not easy living such an illness, and it also is not easy for loved ones who choose to give unconditional support.
The actions that I have undertaken during both depressive and manic phases, I now realize (and thus forgive myself for), were made by an ill person, one whose chemical makeup was severely unbalanced. Having this knowledge means that I do not judge myself based solely upon having this illness. I am now cognizant that I am much more than an illness that I live with, one that I now manage so well.
I am someone who has a will, who is kind, who is a mother, wife, daughter, sister, and friend — and one who happens to have an ailment, like anyone else does, like diabetes or cancer. I am an individual who matters to me.
I took up painting abstract art around the time I got diagnosed, and have since held three exhibitions. I take particular care in how I dress, as having a keen sense of style, and putting on a fashionable outfits helps elevate my mood, if I ever feel down. I cook often for my family, and I’ve developed a keen interest in interior decor, and I especially love taking care of plants. I have now learned that I cannot let bipolar disorder define me. I have grown tremendously in the last ten years. I am happy where I have wound up. I am happy to be surrounded by love and good wishes.
Most importantly though, I am finally happy with myself.
Sana Ahmed is an artist and writer. She lives in California.