When I entered the world of living with bipolar disorder it took me many years to learn about the illness. Sometimes the descriptions of the symptoms I would read about would not apply to me, so I never could really get a handle on how the illness was alive and well inside of my brain. I had a hard time determining how bipolar disorder was affecting my day-to-day living. Until it became so debilitating that it was hard to ignore the obvious.
This is the thing about mental illness—it is complex to diagnosis, difficult to live with, and hard to explain to other people who have no idea what it is like to live in the world when you struggle with a mental illness.
But some of us have a need and desire to educate the general population about various disorders. Yet we are sometimes afraid to talk about our mental illness for fear we will be discriminated against or thought less of because we live with these disorders. Wow! Is it any wonder that many of us live in isolation after we become ill? It’s just not fair.
I don’t know a great deal about other mental illnesses but I do know a fair amount about bipolar disorder. I have numerous experiences on both sides of the fence, as a caregiver and as a person who lives with the illness. I know enough to have gained a tremendous amount of respect for this mysterious illness that impacts my brain. It can bring me to my knees with emotional pain with a depressive episode or it can make me so manic I can’t sit still. Whatever end of the spectrum I am fighting I am always on the lookout for the next major episode. I don’t get a chance to relax and chalk up my limited amount of sleep to “too many things on my mind.” Instead I have to monitor myself and ask the question, “Am I getting manic again? Should I call my doctor?”
In between my hypervigilance I try to live a “normal” life. I take care of my new adopted puppy, cut the grass, go to the grocery store and work a part-time job.
I’m looking forward to an upcoming trip to Washington, D.C. where I will attend the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) national conference. When I go there I am planning on joining other members in a National Action Day. This is where we will go to Capitol Hill and tell our story to our congressional members and ask them to support mental health services. It is an opportunity to share in two minutes what has affected me my entire life. I hope I can articulate what it’s like to have a mental illness disrupt your life. Then I want to explain how with proper treatment and a lot of hard work how some of us can and do recover.
We never get “cured” but we go on and live our lives in spite of the enormous challenges we have been given. We move on and learn to live our lives in the world of mental illness. It’s not always full of pain and sorrow. Sometimes it simply becomes the “way it just is.” I think you just get used to the struggle.
I am slowly waking up from a bipolar depressive episode. I raise my head up, look at the calendar and ask, “Where has all the time gone?” I may have seemed like I was present the past few months, but I’ve really just been hanging in there fighting the depression symptoms.
When I start to feel better I often find myself tempted to ruminate about the past. Oh the days when life was so much better—the times when I had friends over for dinner—oh heck just the times when I had some friends to call. How lonely life can become when you struggle with a mental illness. Especially when you struggle with depression, an illness that causes you to isolate yourself from others.
I contemplated taking a walk today, but I haven’t gotten there yet. I don’t know what I’m waiting for other than the symptoms from my latest medication to “wear off.” I think the doctor got carried away with pushing the dose of the new medication and the side effects are starting to cause me to sleep longer. I am so frustrated, it’s as if I’m constantly beating my head against the wall wondering when the wall is gonna break yet knowing that is not possible.
I want relief. Relief from the loneliness. I want involvement and yet I don’t know if I can keep my commitments. I want friends. Yet I don’t know if I have anything to talk about except my illness struggles and my past successes. Who wants to sit around hearing old tales about the past? People live in the present. They have lives. I feel like I have an existence. I try hard to stay positive and look for opportunities to “live.” But in all actuality I am struggling day by day with lingering depressive symptoms.
Depression keeps me from living to my potential. Sometimes the best I can do is get out of bed in the morning and that’s a huge accomplishment. The fact that I am trying to write is success. What I write is not inspiring or hopeful like I want it to be. I write about the struggle and the pain. I wish it could be different. All I can do is keep trying, that’s what I would tell a friend with the same challenge.
On a positive note, I do work part-time. It makes me put on my make-up and get out of the house. It’s not my ideal job, but it serves a lot of purposes. I work a few hours every week. Nothing I can’t handle even in the midst of fighting depression. I think about working more, but I don’t think I can handle it. I question my ability to handle stressful situations without triggering my illness.
So, I read and I write. Hoping that somehow I’ll get a pearl of wisdom to jump off the page into my heart. I might feel something click and maybe I’ll smile. Maybe I can relate to someone just like me and in that moment I won’t feel as bad.
I have found one of the most difficult aspects of having a mental illness is the challenge in maintaining friendships. It is not that I stopped caring about other people—it is really because I got sick and was unable to maintain contact with people. It left me in a tough position with a whole bunch of connections yet few I had spoken to in years.
One could argue that people could have contacted me and that is true except my many manic episodes prompted me to change my phone number several times. Even if someone wanted to get in touch with me there’s a good chance they would not know my numbers.
I think that’s the good thing about social media. You can stay in touch as long as you don’t delete your Facebook page, Twitter account, or LinkedIn profile. Unfortunately, I’ve done that a couple of times too. But I have managed to keep most of my connections and this gives me the opportunity to keep up with old friends. It’s not like a good ole’ fashion phone conversation, but at least you know someone is thinking about you when they read your Facebook status and respond with a “like” or a “comment.”
One of the biggest problems with having a mental illness is the social isolation that comes from dealing with debilitating symptoms, like not being able to get out of bed. It could also be that you had an episode and ended up being hospitalized for a few weeks, which also equates to “falling off the face of the earth.” You just kind of disappear for a while until you get well enough to interact again. If people don’t know you’ve been sick or have an illness they wonder what happened to the friendship.
I had a friend who even knew I had bipolar disorder, but didn’t know I had been sick. He simply started thinking I didn’t value his friendship, which was not the truth. I’d gotten sick and there was know way he could know that until I was well enough to tell him. By then so much time had passed the friendship will never be the same again.
Friendships are hard to maintain even without a mental illness. Having one makes maintaining relationships a bit more challenging. I find myself more comfortable being open and honest with people and just letting them know I have bipolar disorder. Not to use it as an excuse but to let them know I might not always be well. I hope my friends understand and if they don’t I’ll have to deal with it.
There are times when I wish I could reach out and talk to someone from my past and explain to him or her why I stopped contacting them. The truth is to many years have passed and I am not sure I can overcome that amount of lost time. Instead I’ll keep focusing on the interaction I do have with social media and look forward to meeting new friends in the future. Hopefully I can stay healthy and not become so socially isolated.