Written by Tochi Onyebuchi.
Let me begin with a disclaimer. Bipolar disorder, like every mental illness, adapts to its host. While people may share enough symptoms to be categorized as suffering from, say Bipolar I or Bipolar II, it is a unique experience for everyone who receives that diagnosis. Every time I read someone’s testimonial about dealing with bipolar disorder or I talk with someone who shares my condition, I’m always subconsciously comparing notes. Do they have bipolar I or do they have bipolar II like me? How does their experience differ from mine? What do we have in common? How did they make it this far? How do they keep going? How can I do the same?
Many myths and stereotypes surround bipolar. Its depiction in television or in film describes a condition of nothing but extremes, of reckless abandon and immense artistic ability on the one hand and emotional paralysis and self-injury on the other. The reality of bipolar disorder is often more mundane than this. Every person’s treatment regimen is different. It means medication, if taken, must be calibrated. It means building a support network if one is not already in place. It means trying to work out if comorbid conditions are present, such as eating disorders or substance abuse or anxiety disorders. And it means identifying coping mechanisms that work for you.
I – Diagnosis
Bipolar I involves both depressive episodes and at least one full manic episode. Bipolar II involves multiple and extreme depressive episodes but, instead of full mania, is characterized by hypomania, a less extreme form of mania. Because hypomania is harder to detect, bipolar II is often misdiagnosed as depression alone. Hypomania often looks like nothing more than high functionality. For me, this meant that I wrote. A lot. And I spent all of high school thinking that it was completely normal to write entire books over the course of a single school year while maintaining a full courseload and playing sports. Because I didn’t recognize my hypomanic symptoms, I spent many years misdiagnosed with depression. When I finally received the correct diagnosis, things suddenly made sense. The mood swings, the productivity, the frequent depressive episodes. It was as though someone had switched a light on.
II – Triggers
Noting triggers can be helpful. It can help to monitor your moods in a concrete way. This can look like writing in a journal or marking dates on a calendar. If you find that depressive episodes tend to last between 1 week and 2 and are preceded or followed immediately by a manic or hypomanic episode, the illness becomes easier to track and to treat. Also, it can help to note if there are any particular stressors on the horizon, an upcoming exam or performance, a family gathering, a rough relationship. If I go for too long without getting enough sleep, that is sometimes enough to trigger symptoms. These things may also be interacting with medications. Seeing a doctor during these times may help stabilize things.
III – Support
As with all mental health conditions, talking helps. Whether it is with a therapist or with a close friend or with family (or with all three), the very act of talking can help alleviate the most intense parts of depression. It can also help one recognize hypomanic symptoms. Elements of bipolar disorder can force isolation, but it doesn’t have to be something one deals with alone. Sharing often feels like a burden. Letting people in can feel like imposing a difficulty on them whose weight they may not know or realize. And while they may never truly understand what it is like to live with what you are living with, you may find that there are others more than willing to help you through it in their own way.
IV – Outlets
Physical exercise that gets someone outside can be beneficial. I box, but often, when I can’t bring myself to move, I go to the movies. (Although, one time, during an especially bad stretch, I made the mistake of watching “The Revenant” instead of “The Big Short” and had a particularly rough train ride home.) Music always helps, not necessarily to make me feel good but to take my mind off aloneness. One semester, I enrolled in a program my school had that let non-music majors learn an instrument and perform at a concert by the end of the semester. I decided I wanted to learn jazz piano because I loved it, and the whole enterprise of learning something new helped me in ways I could not even begin to imagine. But what has most reliably helped me has been writing. It does all the things that going to the movies does, or listening to music, or reading. But it also helps me express what is going on inside me. When I can’t talk with anyone else, either because no one is available or I can’t bring myself to involve another person, I can at least have this very necessary conversation with myself. And, usually, by the end, I’m reminded, most importantly, that there’s light in all of this.
V – A Way of Experiencing the World.
Bipolar disorder is a disability but it is also a way of experiencing the world. I often seek out artists who suffered from it and listen to their music, read their poems, and watch their awards acceptance speeches. It gives me hope that one day I can produce art like they did. It also shows me that mental illness doesn’t just limit one’s experience of the world. It can also expand it.