Challenges in Dealing with and Recovering from Bipolar Disorder
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
The year was 2018 and I was on a high. I applied for a Fulbright scholarship, penned essays that were published in the national newspaper, created a study that was published in a journal, developed a website for my employer, and received a graduate degree. I had so much energy, enthusiasm, and ambition, which was out of character for my normally reserved, introverted self. I even had delusions of grandeur, and told anyone who would listen that I wanted to be the Secretary of the Department of Education. My colleagues probably thought I was just being too idealistic, but in retrospect, I convinced myself that I could attain this impractical goal.
Then in December of that year, I plummeted. I locked myself in my room and had inexplicable crying spells. I felt incredibly useless and unmotivated. I languished, spending my days in bed. I minimized my responsibilities, such as a big seminar that I was supposed to organize and neglected to do so because of my mental-emotional state. I isolated myself, eating my meals alone for months. I lived with a person who would frequently one-up me in conversations and say unkind things to me, such as expressing disdain for my ambition to write, which exacerbated my sadness. I started binge eating to try to soothe my feelings of sadness, but I’d feel worse and incredibly guilty afterwards.
At some point, I was encouraged by a friend to see a psychiatrist, which I agreed to, because I knew that there was something objectively wrong with me. The doctor initially diagnosed me with depression and prescribed me with an antidepressant, which lifted my mood a bit, but not enough to get me out of the downward spiral I was in.
My condition was so bad that I started harming myself by cutting my arms. I felt embarrassed by this part of myself, as I saw self-injury as something that usually occurs among teenagers, and I was already in my late twenties. Looking back, I think I did it for attention. Speaking of drawing attention to myself, I practically told all of my friends and everyone at work that I was depressed. I don’t know why I did that. Maybe I was doing it to justify my crappy behavior. Maybe it was a further cry for help. Although I’m usually quiet by nature, I have this tendency to overshare, which may be part of my manic behavior. (Right now, as I write this essay, I may be oversharing, but I just want to tell my story, with the hope that someone can relate to it and be helped by it).
I became obsessed with the idea of running away. I scouted for cheap lodging, which ended with me touring a dingy place I was considering moving to. As I surveyed the dark and damp room I was planning to rent, I came to my senses and decided to stay where I was currently living. Still, I felt depressed and restless at the same time. I wanted to die. I was convinced that I was useless and unworthy of love. Many times, I thought about suicide by swallowing all my pills at once, but thankfully I never attempted it.
After my diagnosis, I had to see the psychiatrist weekly for my depression. Through psychotherapy, I described my erratic and impulsive behaviors to the doctor, who eventually diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. It was a painful discovery, but suddenly my past life made sense. My racing thoughts, my restless sleep, my fixation with productivity, my impulsive speech, my sudden fits of irritability and anger, my anxiety—it all made sense. And then, after mania, I would crash, become morose and isolate myself, lessening human contact. As many people with bipolar disorder have said before, my life was like an emotional roller coaster.
To be honest, I was also a bit relieved to hear about my diagnosis, because for a long time, I had attributed my unstable behavior to my lack of character. Before I was diagnosed and treated, during my manic episodes, I made so many stupid decisions, ruined friendships, strained familial relationships, and engaged in compulsive behavior, like binge eating. I recall another instance when, right after graduating from college, I made the spontaneous decision to move to another city where I had no relatives or friends, just because I felt like it. When people asked me why I did this, I could not give a satisfactory explanation; I just felt like I had to do it. In hindsight, I seemed to have the tendency to make impulsive decisions without stopping to reflect on why I was doing them. After knowing that I had a condition, perhaps from a chemical imbalance, I could see myself and my actions differently. Even if I shouldn’t be excused for my bad behavior, I was glad to know that there was an explanation for why I did what I did.
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Aside from antidepressants, I now had to take antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, and sleeping pills. With the help of my new medications, I have a clearer mind, which allows for more control over my actions. However, an unwelcome side effect at first was the weight gain. I am already a large person to begin with, but my medications caused further weight gain. Even as I tried to commit myself to regular exercise, I developed a more ravenous appetite and ate my feelings. I had to deal with comments about my size, even from people I hardly knew. I looked and felt like I was letting myself go. Until now, I have had a hard time losing the weight I gained from taking those medicines. As my clothes no longer fit and the number increased on the weighing scale, I became bitterly humorous about my situation—do I have to choose between mental stability and a healthy body?
My doctor prescribed me with a different antipsychotic, something that was more “weight-neutral.” I also had to take two mood stabilizers. Transitioning to a new medicine can be very difficult. I was hit by insomnia and restlessness. I had to take leaves at work because of my sleeplessness, which I felt guilty about, but at the same time I knew I could not function at my job properly without sleep. Thankfully, my employers understood my situation, and since then, my sleep has improved and I have tried to be more awake and functional at work. As time passed, the side effects tapered off and my weight plateaued, but I had a different problem to contend with: the expenses.
I work as a teacher with a small salary in a third world country, so a significant portion of my monthly income would go to psychiatric medication and psychotherapy. Two of the medicines I take every day are relatively expensive. I had to apply for a disability benefit to get discounts on therapy and medicine. I am very grateful and blessed to avail of mental healthcare, but not everyone has the same access. I live in the Philippines, where, despite millions having mental illnesses, mental health services are expensive and at times inaccessible. Moreover, there is a lot of stigma about those diagnosed with mental disorders.
Even with all the expenses and challenges of getting treated for bipolar disorder, I’d like to think that I’ve gotten better mentally and emotionally. With the help of therapy, practicing mindfulness and medication, I feel like I have more control over my racing thoughts. I engage in more healthy behavior like exercise and socializing with people. I am quicker to reject intrusive thoughts such as that of suicide. Because of therapy, I have learned to challenge my false thoughts of worthlessness and incapability (although I’m not always successful—I still call myself an idiot several times a day, but I’m trying to work on that).
I also turned to online resources about mental health, like the YouTube channels of Therapy in a Nutshell and Dr. Tracey Marks. Watching these videos helped me put into words what I was going through. I’ve learned to manage my social anxiety, my intrusive thoughts, and my tendency to ruminate. Recognizing these thoughts and behaviors was my first step towards dealing with them. The MyCBT Podcast by Dr. Julie Osborn is likewise helpful, and I always try to remember her mantra “Make decisions based on what’s best for you, not how you feel,” which I believe is good advice for anyone.
I became more empathetic towards other people with mental illnesses, because I can somewhat understand (though not completely) what they’re going through. I try to lend a nonjudgmental, listening ear to those who open up to me about their mental health. As a teacher, I try to be more understanding about the misbehavior of students because they may be going through something.
I now hardly remember the time before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and took psychiatric medications. My life has been colored with the lenses of my mental condition, but as I grow older, I realized I shouldn’t let it control my life. I may have less ambitions and goals than I had during my manic states, but now, I consider being alive and functional as a triumph in itself.
If you or someone you know may be in crisis or considering suicide, please call, text, or chat the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.