No. I wasn’t always OK with being bipolar. What’s more, the shame of living with such a disease, propelled to do ridiculous actions that your mania compels you to do, the guilt of feeling depressed when that logical side of your tore-up brain knows there is so much you should be grateful for—I have to say, those two feelings may never go away. But one day, maybe not today, tomorrow, or even five years down the line, but one day, (not necessarily with the accompaniment of clouds parting and a chorus of angels singing your glory), but one day, you will be OK with having bipolar disorder, or any other mental illness for that matter. Please. Trust me on this one.
As humans, we often find ourselves, (most of the time subconsciously), on the hunt for normalcy, absolutely convinced that such a thing actually exists, and that it looks the same for everyone, when in reality, it doesn’t. It couldn’t.
Normalcy is merely a perception of the way in which we lead our lives–the chase to meet the expectations and standards set by a society filled with other humans with unique perspectives, values, and histories. To be “normal” in a world of seven billion humans striving to be their own society’s idea of “normal”. Who are we kidding?
As a teenage girl who daydreamed about finding that perfect man, getting married one day, and having three kids and a house with a pool, I truly believed I was envisioning the exact definition of normalcy. And it didn’t stop at tangible objects. Normalcy was surviving high school, enjoying your
senior year, graduating in the summer and spending that fall blissfully immersed in everything big and grand that college had to offer.
It was not hearing voices wherever I went. Walking around with a head full of intrusive, nuclear atomic thoughts and rampant paranoia telling me that everyone in the entire world except for me was in on some joke to which I was the punchline. It wasn’t slipping from a 4.5 GPA down to a report card riddled with D’s and F’s, convinced you were only graduating because the faculty felt sorry for you, giving you a pass because you had been such an outstanding student up until that point–the point where you had lost your mind.
But you didn’t dare mention it to anyone on that high school campus because your mania had reached a point where you had forgotten the wallflower that you were all three years prior and took on the bold and brazen persona of someone no one recognized, but were gracious enough not to comment on. You were pulled out of school for three months during your senior year and when friends called to see how you were, you say you’re “sick” but don’t dare to elaborate on what kind of sickness. Because at that point, you yourself don’t know what the hell kind of sickness you have.
And, yes, you did walk the platform at graduation, but instead of starting your freshman year of college three months later, you were involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital while your peers cozied up in their dorms. No, as a 17-year-old in 2002, that was not my vision of “normal”.
But as I grew older and after almost 23 years of living with the crippling illness of Bipolar 1 Disorder, I learned that my kind of normal differed from everyone else’s. And that was okay. After being released from the psychiatric hospital at 18, after the haze faded away and I was reintroduced into the world, I can remember staring at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, wondering, who in the hell was I? But I think even greater than that, (inspecting my desiccated lips, my rough, dull skin, dim, tired eyes and hair that looked like it hadn’t seen a brush for days)– was the probing question, who would want me, now? I felt broken. Damaged. The ugliest I had ever been. There was a boy once, but those days seemed decades away. I was certain I would never be the happy, optimistic girl I was before bipolar disorder pushed its way into my life. Love would never come. And I’d die an old, lonely woman who was once committed to a mental institution. Might as well have that stapled to my forehead and all my baggage loaded up into a giant red knapsack that would forever burden my back.
But I found love. Twice. The first didn’t last, but the second, well, only about three weeks ago, I vowed to spend the rest of my life with him. And for someone who is constantly worrying, whose own mind can sabotage the joy of an entire day, as I walked towards my then fiancé, the years I spent tripping over my own obsessions, tip-of-the-head deep in the cushiony folds of my comforter, attempting to drown out the voices swarming about in my head, (the voices that I wasn’t good enough, that no one would ever take me as I am), my anxiety high and my hope for a better tomorrow somewhere there in the grimy gutter–I have to say all that horseshit was the furthest thing from my
There were no mountains to climb. No oceans to rigorously cross (or drown in, in my case, since I don’t know how to swim). There was only him. Waiting. At the top of the aisle. For me. There was the rest of our lives waiting for us, ready to begin. Evolving from the at times, rocky, but every-moment- worth-it times that were now behind us. As I walked towards my then fiancé, I can with certainty say that no obstacles stood in my way. And when you live with a mental illness, your mind is your greatest obstacle.
Of course, this confidence in us, my husband and I, did not come overnight. We have been together for 15 years and four months, give or take.
Like any other couple or any other relationship, we had our hardships, our tumultuous waves. On my part, much of it was getting out of my own way to actually come to the faith that this man would actually choose to love me. To stay with me. I constantly doubted my own worth. What value did I bring to the relationship? Each time I had a meltdown. Each time my brain exploded with anxiety. Each time that all I wanted to do was hide under the covers and not face the world. I did call myself crazy. I knew what I was capable of because I had seen what my illness had done to me in the past.
I have been struggling with Bipolar 1 Disorder, anxiety disorder, (and later to come, OCD), since I was sixteen. What did I know about the world at 16, other than it fucking hurts like hell when you lose your dad at 15? And then, to lose your mind? To find yourself staring not at a glass mirror, but a reflective pan made of metal, to be stripped of your shoestrings, all sharp things and your dignity, to run around a 15 x 15 foot cement block and fantasize about scaling that forty-foot fence, to be part of the laughter on the other side, and in reality, never see the origins of that divine sound.
Why would anyone agree to live your life with you? Maybe if the past was the past. But my illness is my past, my present, and my future. It will always be there. It is not curable. But thanks to God, it is not terminal either, unless I lose the fight.
When I was 27 in 2012, four years into my relationship with my husband, I had the second (or was it third?) major breakdown in my life. You would think 11 years after my first breakdown, I would have it all figured out. I would know that those voices summoning me in the dark of the night weren’t real. That this pain I felt, deep within my gut, the same pain spearing a rod through my heart, rattling my
brain and any logic within it, the pain coursing through my entire body for months, would one day cease to exist. And when I was forced to rejoin the human race, my mind in one place and my body in another, I had already learned how to smile through the pain, appear cognizant when my mind was a field of mud and fog, to laugh aloud when every part of me is dying inside. By this point, I was skilled at pretending–so much so, it became second nature. “Are you okay?” Smile. “I’m fine.”
Throughout my relationship with Richard, as good as it was, as happy as he made me, no matter how much love he showed me, I would doubt. Would this last? Could this last? What will I do to screw it up because I know I will. What will be the last straw? What will send him packing? It is hard to trust people when you don’t trust yourself. Funny thing is, when my breakdown—(a psychotic break if you
really want to get technical)—occurred in the summer of 2012, he was the one I trusted the most, more than my family, more than my childhood friends. I can’t tell you why I trusted him. I just did. When I believed with every fiber of my being that people were talking about me—(auditory hallucinations are an absolute mind…trip), his was the only one whose mouth wasn’t moving. When we sat together, my head was swirling but my heart was calm.
And for those entire six or seven months, he didn’t move an inch. He stayed by my side. Came to my house every day after work to be with me. To simply sit with me and hold my hand. To assure me the outside world was not talking about me–that none of that was real. If anything was real, he told me, it was our love.
In any relationship, especially if you live with a mental health condition, you have to learn to open up. As painful and hard as that may be. And you don’t have to unload all your baggage at once. You can do it in baby steps. But you have to talk. And trust that your significant other will listen. It will be
difficult letting go of control. The more crap they know about you, the more they can hold it against you, and you can never take, “I was in a psychiatric institution when I was 17,” back. You just have to say it, and pray your bedroom door doesn’t have a human-shaped hole in it five seconds later. But even if it does?
That doesn’t mean they won’t come around. That they won’t come back. It’s a lot to digest. The presence of a mental illness. The reality that these things actually exist. Especially when that other
person doesn’t even know what the hell it all means or what is to come. You simply have to trust that
they care enough about you to want to learn more about it so they can truly come to know you and love you–all of you. You are a package deal–you and your illness. Sorry, but it is true. But you don’t have to be a victim.
It is so important to know that when things go wrong, when you’re spiraling or you’re triggered, neck-deep in those dark days, you are not the problem. The problem is your illness, and you cannot be faulted for that. We forget that Bipolar 1 is the product of a chemical imbalance in the brain. I forget sometimes.
Fifteen years. Yes, he stayed through all of it. He’s seen me in my ugliest times. He’s loved me at my worst. The other day, I came to him and plainly said, “I have anxiety.” He dropped everything and came and sat with me. No questions asked. No judgment. Just his presence. In other words, he “showed up”. Oh, how essential it is for us to have our partners “show up” for us. To drop everything to be there for us. That is what we need. That is what it takes. It is a lot to ask. I’m not oblivious of that. But it’s the truth. I’m simply lucky that I got one of the good ones. Maybe the best. I am blessed.
He doesn’t always get it, 70% of the time. Maybe not even 20% of the time. Hell, doctors are still studying and deconstructing what Bipolar Disorder really is and all its variations. After all these years, they haven’t dissected it entirely. But effort and an empathetic ear go a long way. It gave us fifteen years and four months, give or take. It will give us decades more.
And I had the greatest conversation with my psychiatrist a couple of days ago. The one who has seen me since I was 16. As I said at the start of this long-winded story, I always dreamed of having kids.My psychiatrist told me that they have found that sometimes (not all the time but in many instances), a woman with bipolar, who is pregnant, actually does not need medication during the pregnancy. Somehow, the hormones balance themselves out. (I imagine the joy stemming from the knowledge of growing a real human being inside of you has something to do with that injection of dopamine into your bloodstream.) Just about the greatest news I’d heard in a long time.
I don’t need meds while I’m pregnant? Oh, hell yes. I mean, yes, of course, take it with a big ole grain of salt because each case is different. But I’ve been on the road of tapering off my medication since last August and though it has made me physically miserable, (withdrawal is a bitch), at times, it was entirely doable. It is doable. Have faith. You can do it, too. And if you can’t? There are other ways.
Of course, he said, postpartum depression is a very real possibility, but (and this is a very big but–it’s great news numero dos), I am not at a higher risk of getting postpartum depression than any other woman simply because I am bipolar. Let me say this again. I am not at a higher risk of getting postpartum depression than any other woman simply because I am bipolar. Why? Plainly put, all women are susceptible to postpartum depression. I mean, can you imagine how many doors opened up in my mind when he told me this?
Perhaps, I’m not so damaged after all. Maybe drugs–(prescribed, psychotropic drugs–not coke and heroin, people)–did fix me once, but I put in the mother-f-in, excuse my language, work all these years to get better, to maintain my illness, and most of all, to thrive. 23 years. 23 years of battling this thing. No, I’m not going to take a bow, but I think I’ve earned some ounce of credibility. Don’t you think?
I am 38. I am married. I have a college degree. A place I call home with a roof and four walls. I have a job that pays fairly well. But above all that, I am happy.
Even if I wasn’t married. Even without a college degree or a good-paying job. I am happy. And I have hope, for my future, our future. And no, it didn’t happen overnight. A loss of an adored father at 15, four mental breakdowns, a relapse here and there, millions of chemicals encased in pale yellow and blue pills, three heartbreaks from romantic relationships, and dd a rumble and five billion tumbles later, and I am still here. Standing. Dancing, really.
I’m beginning to think that sometimes, it doesn’t even start with hope. But awe, or wonder.
Sometimes shifting the focus from something inward to something outside of ourselves helps. Maybe wonder IS the key. To shift your focus from what is going on inside of you and gaze upon a night sky, for example, and wonder what is out there. What is beyond what my naked eye can see? To be in awe as you stare up at a velvety black blanket of stars shining so brightly millions of light years away, burning for several billions of years. How can you be tired of this life when there is so much more to discover? Other solar systems, and comets, other life forms, black holes and parallel universes even. It makes you feel small, but in a way that makes your problems seem small, too.
On my wedding day, I knew a million things could go wrong, but when I walked down the aisle towards the man that I love, my illness and all those million little things were the furthest things from my mind. It would be grand if every day could be like that. Of course, it won’t be. But you could very well be happy consistently. In this life.
So, go ahead and wonder. “Imagine the possibilities.” Go gaze up at the stars. Take a breath, or five million. This is your journey. Your road to feeling OK, then, better than OK, and eventually, freaking fantastic. Go on now. Have your dance.
Crystal is a Southern California native with a deep passion for both writing and mental health advocacy. She has been with Breaking Taboo for nearly four years, helping manage the team of talented writers and educating others about mental health and suicide prevention. She is also a certified speaker for NAMI, and having lived with Bipolar 1 Disorder since she was 16, she truly believes happiness is in everybody’s path. It’s only a matter of getting there.