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Surviving the Storms Within: My Journey with Bipolar Disorder

living with bipolar disorder

Surviving the Storms Within: My Journey with Bipolar Disorder

“I am not “bipolar”; I have bipolar disorder – there’s a difference.”

I read an article about this recently, and it has taken me a few weeks to process it. But I want to share this journey during Mental Health Awareness Month.

I have had bipolar disorder since I was a child, but no one really told me that the things I thought and felt were not normal.  It didn’t occur to me that my mother’s desperation to get me into therapy was because there was something wrong with me, and my therapist never told me what it was. Now, I should explain “not normal”.  When I was in middle school, I fantasized about killing other students. Dreamed about it vividly. ‘Carrie” was my shero.  But then, my Catholic school teaching would kick in and I would know that killing someone was a sin, and I would go to hell. I didn’t want to go to hell, but I couldn’t let go of the fantasy of killing my classmates. I often cried myself to sleep.

When I was 17, I overdosed on aspirin. It was the craziest thing. I had a crush on a man -another story – who made some lewd suggestions while I was talking to him on the phone. My mother told me to get off the phone. So, I sat down on a bench in the hallway and began popping aspirin in my mouth. Calm as you please. My sister asked me what I was doing, and I said, “Taking aspirin.  I don’t feel well.”  They took me to the hospital and pumped my stomach. A cop came in and told me that if I did it again, I would be arrested. I tried to explain that I was just taking aspirin.  I’m sure he thought I was crazy.

When  I was 18 and in college, I went on the Pill. Not knowing that I was bipolar, I didn’t know that the Pill would exacerbate my mood swings. However, when I started crying uncontrollably and tried to jump out the window, my boyfriend took the pills and flushed them down the toilet. Condoms became my friend, much to the chagrin of many men.

I have heard that people with bipolar disorder turn to all kinds of extreme behaviors. Some get caught up in drugs. For me, it was sex.  That Catholic school upbringing had me stating that I planned to wait until marriage, but my actions didn’t fit my words. I was a promiscuous flirt. I sucked bananas for fun. And one day, something very bad happened. As a result, I felt as though Pandora had opened a box. I would never be a virgin again, so I may as well be as sexually active as possible. I had boyfriends, I had lovers, I had friends with benefits, I had one-night stands.  I had girlfriends who talked about reclaiming their virginity and abstaining, but I could barely go without sex for a week. I claimed to be choosy, after all, most men don’t say no, so it was just a matter of selecting them. This deep desire/need for sex lasted up until I started taking very strong bipolar medicine. Coinciding with my marriage.  I have considered cutting back, but the result is always the same – a strong desire to commit suicide.

I call them my “suicidal episodes”; even with the strong medication I take, they still happen a few times a year. It starts with a wave of depression, almost physical, like a weight pulling me down into an abyss, and after a few hours, I simply want to die.  I am so used to it now that I have developed methods for waiting it out. It usually lasts about 8 hours, and I cry myself to sleep – screaming, raging, fits of crying – and then in the morning, it is gone.  I am happy to say that it mainly happens in the evening, but I am always afraid that it will happen while I’m at work.  It happened recently. A good psychologist friend gave me some physical strategies for fighting it. Splashing my face with water, jumping up and down and swinging my arms to get my blood pumping, taking deep breaths. All in the bathroom, a safe place to hide when the episode is upon me. I didn’t cry. I functioned. And I was very proud of myself.

Nobody talks about the homicidal tendencies of people with bipolar disorder. But they are real. Somehow, I grew up with no experience of fighting. Never got into a fight. Don’t know how to swing a punch. And yet, I have threatened people. I have rushed my husband with a knife.   I told my sister I wanted to kill her, and we didn’t see each other for a few years because she thought I was serious. Since becoming an adult, its been extremely rare to have these feelings. In 30 years, it’s only happened 3 times. But knowing that it’s a possibility does not make me happy.

And then there are the highs. When I was 17, I began chanting, and if I chanted for an hour or two or three or four, I would experience a state of euphoria. And it never occurred to me that this wasn’t how everyone else experienced chanting. But I chased that high, and continued chanting long after I should have stopped.  As a child, I also had lucid dreams. I would dream that I was flying. It would start with the feeling that I was rising out of my body and looking down at myself while I was sleeping. And then I would go out the window and fly around the neighborhood, recognizing different places from an aerial view. I had these dreams for many years, and always asked others if they had similar dreams. Most people said no.

The highs also manifested in an extreme belief that I could take on gargantuan tasks. This feeling would last for about a week, and then I would crash, and all the tasks would crash with me. I let a lot of people down when things crashed, but it didn’t occur to me that this was part of my disorder.

The other manifestation of my highs was writing short stories.  To say that it was a mania is an understatement. Some random day for no earthly reason, I would envision a story, and I would be overwhelmed with the need to write it down. I would stop everything I was doing, no matter what it was, and I would write. For several hours, until the story was complete, or I was spent. But the high would last for a few days, and I would run around bugging people to read my wonderful story. When I say that everything stopped, it is quite an understatement. No work got done.  I was fortunate enough to be good at my job, and if things slid for a few days, I could make up for it.    I stopped writing short stories after my psychiatrist increased my drug cocktail.  It was actually very, very painful. Coming down from the high was like losing a friend. When I was manic, I felt that I had a Muse that was guiding my writing, and when the high ended, I could feel her slip away, and there was nothing I could do to get her back. Sometimes I cried.  The sadness would last about a week; it was a period of mourning.

I was not actually diagnosed with bipolar disorder until I was 40.  I had been diagnosed with depression and put on Paxil when I was 30, but it did nothing for me, so I stopped.  When I turned 40, I had been seeing a marriage counselor who was concerned about me and I was referred to a very young psychiatrist who asked me all the wrong questions. He asked me if I had delusions. I didn’t know what delusions were. But I knew I was disillusioned with the president. To say that he put me on the wrong drugs was an understatement. I was completely non-functional for several days as I took them, and as I got myself off them. I found another psychiatrist, and she put me on another set of drugs, not just one, but two.  And I was “managed”. But then I moved. And didn’t find another psychiatrist. When I ran out of drugs, I ended up in a psychiatric ward – the Funny Farm as I call it.  They set me up with a wonderful psychiatrist, who forced me to get a therapist. After a few mismatches, I found a woman who helped me manage the social behavioral aspects of being bipolar. Like “not doing harm”.   That was 20 years ago. She retired and I tried going without. My psychiatrist, semi-retired, pushed hard and I eventually found a good match.  And it started with a very important conversation about my suicidal episodes. You see, by law, a therapist is supposed to call the police if someone is suicidal.   And I think that makes sense for people who are emotionally suicidal because of some event in their lives. But for me, it’s just annoying. I have my strategy and I’m still here, so obviously it works. This is not to say that my suicidal episodes aren’t debilitating. They are. I envision committing suicide; I figure out how I will commit suicide. It would be lethal to have guns in the house.  But at the same time, I push a mantra through my head. “It’s the disorder, it’s temporary, you can get through it, it will be over soon.”  I cling to that mantra as I ride the wave of depression. Then it’s over and life continues.  A misguided social worker called the police because I made the mistake of saying that if she kept pushing me, I’d kill myself. I really shouldn’t have used those words. Police showed up at my job. Looking for me. I went out to the parking lot and had a long talk with them. They left. But it left a lasting memory not to play with words, not to miscommunicate… and to never call a therapist when I was going through a suicidal episode. What they would do would not help me, and it could put a real cramp in my life.

However, I have been back to the funny farm. My brother-in-law died, my husband disappeared,  I was taking care of my niece, and it all came crashing down. I decided that I would jump out of a window. My sister came and talked me through part of it, but when I went to work the next day, I exploded into a crying fit and my boss took me to the hospital.  It was a very calming place to be, and I think I needed it. I had had an overwhelming number of responsibilities and for 4 days, I ignored them all.

But I don’t think I need to go back any time soon. Hence the talk with my new therapist. I had a suicidal episode a few months ago – I told her after the fact. And explained that I was fine, that it was over, that the police were not needed.  Stressed it repeatedly. It’s over, I’m fine, the police are not needed. She got the point. But I also told my psychiatrist. He was very alarmed and said that I should call him if it happened. So, we discussed “the police”. I got him to promise that he would let me make the decision about whether to call them. That’s what having a doctor for 20 years will do for you. I will be heartbroken when he retires.

All that to say, I “have” bipolar disorder. And it has a major effect on my life. It is quite possible that I would have had a completely different life if it wasn’t for the disorder.  I might have gone farther with my career, I might have married sooner, I wouldn’t have been so sexually promiscuous, I might not have had my abortions… and I might not have written my short stories.  But I am not the disorder. It is something that I have. I am a wife, an aunt, and a sister. I am an engineer, an author, and a blogger. My bipolar disorder is part of me but not the sum.

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Comments (4)

  • Mike Reply

    Thanks for sharing. Interesting read

    May 11, 2024 at 6:42 pm
    • Lauren Wilson Reply

      You’re welcome.

      May 13, 2024 at 5:24 pm
  • Harriette Matthews Reply

    Thank you for sharing.. It is compelling, and riveting. I learned a lot.

    May 12, 2024 at 1:30 pm
    • Lauren Wilson Reply

      Thanks, Harriette.

      May 13, 2024 at 5:24 pm

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