Content warning: Suicidal Ideation, Bipolar Disorder, Mania
In a society where mental illness is demonised, I decided it was time to clarify exactly what having Bipolar Disorder can really feel like. For all its ups and downs (pun intended), I have written this account as honestly as I could face. It is also important to note that everyone’s experience with Bipolar Disorder is different. This may not be how everyone experiences their Bipolar Disorder, but the message stays the same. I never like to use the word ‘illness’ when I talk about my experiences, because I don’t feel ill. I think that Bipolar Disorder has given me a gift in so many different ways. I hope to show that throughout this piece. I am going to try and explain what the different stages of Bipolar Disorder feels like, and conclude with how I think having Bipolar Disorder has been a positive part of my life, and something that I am glad is a part of who I am.
Mania can be the most exciting and the most frightening experience. It feels like you have the answers to the universe, that you can feel every molecule in the atmosphere. All the colours are brighter, every noise is distinct and every song that’s ever been written has been written just for you. Every emotion you feel bursts from every pore in your body and all of your ideas are going to change the world. Because you matter, you’re special, you’re important. But it also clouds your judgement. Sometimes those ideas put you at risk. Sometimes those sounds are the cars that are around you, but you can’t see them because you’re too busy thinking about just how blue the sky is. Those thoughts can be twelve paces ahead of your body, so what you are thinking and what you are doing aren’t always in tandem. You feel euphoric but you haven’t slept in four days, you can’t remember the last time you ate, and you aren’t sure where you’ve been during that time. Your friends want to help, but you don’t need help – you’re superhuman. What could possibly be wrong with that? So you push them away, without a care that you might be hurting them almost as much as you are hurting yourself.
Mania doesn’t last forever. Eventually you burn out. You can’t remember what has happened and you are ashamed that you let yourself get that out of control. You have to get the control back. You have to get yourself back to the person you were before. But suddenly, life has lost its edge. You miss the euphoria, and yet you crave normality. Sometimes you do level out, and your life goes back to the way it was before for a while. Once you’ve apologised to all the people you hurt. Once you’ve bandaged up the emotional wounds of everyone around you. You’ve paid off the credit card debt and you’ve worked out a routine of eating and sleeping. You go back to work, hoping that they never noticed how ill you were. You use all those coping mechanisms you’ve learned throughout the years of therapy and you pretend like everything is okay, when in reality you are just waiting for the next cycle to begin.
Sometimes it doesn’t level out at all. Sometimes you swing into full depression straight out of the mania. You’ve pushed everybody away, and you are alone. You are in a room full of people and yet you are the loneliest person on the planet. You don’t deserve the sleep you need. You don’t deserve the food you want. You push away the help that people try to give you because you’re a burden. You are making everything worse by being there. Every decision you make is making everything worse. It feels as though you are inside a tunnel that has no end, and you can’t see past the sides of the tunnel walls. Just make it end. They won’t miss you. You have no worth anyway. Just do it. Make it stop. Make it stop for them. It’s not fair that you make other people deal with you. Make it stop. Just do it …
But just like the mania, the depression doesn’t last forever. Eventually, the light does appear at the end of the tunnel. You’re still ashamed that you let things get the way that they did, but now you can see the person that you used to be. Normality feels like a blessing. Your life is finally back to the way it was before. You apologise again to your friends, knowing that you have put them in a whole other kind of terrifying situation. You go back to work, hoping that they never noticed how ill you were. You use all those coping mechanisms you’ve learned throughout the years of therapy and you pretend like everything is okay, when in reality you are just waiting for the next cycle to begin.
I have seen the beauty in the mundane where others see boredom. I have an appreciation for normality few will ever be able to empathise with. I have experienced the full duality of human existence. And I have survived. Those who have stood by me throughout my journey are my heroes. The bonds I have with those are stronger than anything that Bipolar will ever throw at me. I believe that my experiences have allowed me to find some of the best people, and I have the privilege of them being my friends. But in return, Bipolar has given me the gift of being able to read people. It lets me see through people’s masks and to understand the people they are, how they feel behind the pretence, and be their support when they need it. I truly think that Bipolar has given me the understanding to be a better person, and a better friend.
I’m not here to pretend that Bipolar Disorder is always a pleasant experience. But it is an experience. It is something to embrace, and to know that it is part of what makes you who you are. That person, whoever it may be, is a good person. A person of worth, a person of value, and a person with something to contribute. Our system prevails to project an air of fear and negativity around mental illness. I believe that if we embrace the positive aspects of our ‘abnormality’, seeing it as a gift rather than a curse, we strive towards the society of inclusivity we aspire to become.