Mental health is complicated. It can be difficult to comprehend how challenging mental health issues are to navigate through everyday life.
Luckily, there are simple ways to help improve the lives of those who may be struggling with some of these issues such as Bipolar Disorder. Hopefully sharing my story can help.
This is my personal journey living with Bipolar Disorder…
PART ONE: THE PROBLEM
Post College Jitters
Graduating from college is an exciting moment for anyone. Having the opportunity to do whatever you want with your life feels exhilarating, nothing can possibly get in the way of your future success.
When I graduated from college, I moved out of state. Everything was going well at my new job but something seemed off within me. One day my boss and I took a coffee break and drove around talking about life. Told her something just didn’t feel right. I wasn’t sure what was wrong with me, probably some post-college jitters.
One day was worse than most, I didn’t get out of bed and called out of work sick. Winter had arrived so I cranked up the heat and stayed inside. Figured I was just homesick and needed to be back in Massachusetts to spend time with those I was closest with.
Talked to my boss the next day and although she wanted me to stay at my job, I told her I simply did not want to feel homesick anymore. I put in my two-week notice and left to move back home to spend more time with those who knew me the best.
The Journey Begins
I still had my whole life in front of me, so it would be helpful to have a therapist guide me through my thoughts. At my first therapy session, I successfully sorted through some important things within my own mind. I would get back to feeling like myself again in no time.
I figured what I had been going through was seasonal depression since I began to struggle with my mental health right around daylight savings time. It was winter in New England and the days were shorter, a likely case of seasonal blues. I researched seasonal affective disorder and began working out more often and taking vitamin-D to help me get through the dreary New England winter.
The therapist had told me "you could be bipolar," but I just shrugged it off. It was a disorder that I knew very little about but figured if I was bipolar, everyone else would’ve noticed all along. I’m not one of those ‘freaks’ in the mental hospitals bouncing off padded walls wearing a straitjacket. I’ve always been a happy person and always will be, so no way I could be bipolar.
"Without Your Mental Health, You Have Nothing"
Once I arrived back home to Massachusetts, everything was back on track. Improving my physical health could help minimize a minor mental issue triggered by shorter days lacking sunlight. Getting my blood flowing through exercise would increase the endorphins to help ward off this depression. I made it through winter and once spring arrived felt a lot better. Life would be much easier next winter since I found a job at a sports club where I would be able to exercise a lot more.
I was very happy at my job and made a lot of great connections with the members, families, and my co-workers at the sports club. All my hard work paid off and I received a promotion. Life was good; I had figured myself out and put the past behind me, or so I thought.
Next winter arrived and once again took a toll on me. In my own mind, this just confirmed that whatever I was going through was definitively seasonal depression. As soon as the days became shorter, I would just stay in bed all day. The thought of even getting up to go to work became extremely overwhelming. I was back to lying around all day, cranking up the heat, and eating non-stop.
I’m not lazy, I was one of the hardest working people at that sports club. I even had a second job on top of that I really enjoyed. I knew I would be able to get beyond this depression eventually, it was only a matter of time. I had a strong understanding of my condition and figured it would help to open up to my boss about seasonal depression.
He got straight to the point, ‘Chris,’ he said, ‘without your mental health, you have nothing.’ He told me to take as much time as I needed to figure everything out. Along with my job, he would always be there for me no matter what.
Kids Need Someone Like You
After taking some time to reflect I determined that although my job was great, I wanted to ultimately find a career where I could make an even greater impact on others. There was a moment when a member at the sports club who was a school administrator pulled me aside, "Do me a favor, you should consider teaching. You’d be great at it, kids need someone like you."
I took his advice and decided to pursue my graduate degree in education. I would become a teacher, it was my destiny. In spite of my seasonal depression, I now had my future career path figured out so it was only a matter of time before everything else would fall into place with my mental health too.
I had discovered my life calling and was very motivated to make a positive impact on children living in the inner-city who could use the biggest boost in life. I was accepted into graduate school and everything was going well. It was stressful at times but that was to be expected.
I was used to working in the suburbs, so when I showed up for my first day of student-teaching in the ‘hood, things weren’t what I expected. Instead of table work, the morning routine consisted of rough housing with a few choice words sprinkled in. Unfortunately, pencils were used for much more dangerous things than writing. How to Break Up a Fight 101 was not offered as part of my graduate work but probably should have been.
Grad School Stress
Even though I was extremely frustrated at times, I remained internally motivated to make a difference in kids’ lives who needed it the most. Towards the end of the semester I was getting very little sleep and the students were testing my patience. I made it through the semester while still struggling with my own emotions.
I shared some of my struggles with my academic advisor. We had gotten to know each other when I volunteered to speak at school events. She suggested I see a counselor on campus to help me work through my issues.
The counseling sessions were helpful but the stress of the next semester once again hit me like a brick wall. My advisor created a plan to help me. She assured me that my professors would be flexible with due dates for assignments so that I could make mental health a top priority at this critical juncture in my life. This plan allowed me to get better so that I could continue to help others. Little did I know how seriously I just needed to help myself.
What’s Wrong With Me?!?!?!
Things were getting even worse than usual with my mental health; something was very off, but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was. It certainly wasn’t seasonal depression anymore; it was now spring and the days were longer. While walking around campus, everything started to become a little blurry. I immediately went to the emergency room and voluntarily checked myself in. All tests came back normal; the doctor told me it was probably a panic attack triggered by stress.
I clearly needed more professional assistance for my own well-being to figure out exactly what was going on with me mentally. Life should not have to be this difficult and medical assistance could provide me with the answers I so desperately needed to improve my quality of life. I immediately found a therapist, she wanted me to see my physician to discuss medications to help take the ‘edge’ off.
The physician diagnosed me with generalized anxiety/depression and prescribed Zoloft. With just one little pill I could improve my brain chemistry that had been holding me back for so long. While taking the medication, I would continue to see the therapist once a week. I had finally discovered the right solution, it felt as though my mental health crisis was coming to an end.
Although there were side effects of going on the medication like gaining weight and feeling tired, they were worth it to me. Even though I felt groggy and a little spacey at times, it would enable me to live a normal life and that’s what mattered the most. Being able to take that ‘edge’ off was well worth it. I also had found the right professional to talk with regularly to reassure me that everything was going to be alright. Four years with no setbacks in life led to a lot of good things.
Brick By Brick
The medication allowed me to be the closest version of myself. Maybe a little more zoned out than usual, but overall it was the right decision. I wouldn’t let any of the side effects slow me down… I could fight through it- work out a little more in the morning to give me that greatly needed energy boost and take a midday nap when I needed to. A couple coffees a day wouldn’t kill me either. Everything in life has trade-offs and the side effects were just something that I would need to learn how to manage over the years.
Life was good but I was still a little too tired from the medication and that bothered me. I began to question whether continuing to take Zoloft was still worth the trade-off of exhaustion and weight gain. Maybe I didn’t need the medication anymore and it was just a life stage that I had been going through. It was time to talk to my therapist and physician about all of this. I was taking the necessary steps that would lead to positive solutions for a better quality of life.
Full Speed Ahead
I initially consulted with my therapist about the possibility of coming off medication and was encouraged to discuss my options with the physician. The physician told me that it would be fine to stop taking Zoloft since it was the lowest possible therapeutic dosage, only 50mg. Since I was satisfied with my life and how I was feeling, he gave me permission to completely dispose of the medication if I felt ready to do so.
When I informed my therapist of the physician’s permission to stop taking the medication, she encouraged me to wean off of it. This would give my brain chemistry the necessary time to adjust to its new sense of normalcy as it was withdrawing from a small dosage of a medication it had become accustomed to over the past four years.
Although my physician had given me permission to stop taking the medication completely, I followed the therapist’s suggestion and spent about a seven-week period taking 25 mg of Zoloft before disposing the medication completely. From my perspective, this weaning off period followed by no longer taking the medication had worked perfectly.
I felt invincible, as if I was on top of the world. Maybe, I thought to myself, my brain never needed any medication in the first place. Maybe I had just been figuring myself out during my 20s like every person does. Maybe I should have never had to feel so tired and groggy all these years.
I was thinking "who needs that much sleep anyways" since this was the most alive I had ever felt. It was almost as if I could do anything, it felt absolutely amazing.
Best I’ve Ever Been
Without the medication I felt like Superman, absolutely nothing could get in my way. I was now my own man and it felt like the real me had finally emerged.
I was doing things I had never done before. Running 13 miles and then sprinting up hills afterwards. Lifting excessively, more than I was ever able to. I suddenly became the person I wished I had been all these years if I had not been so exhausted from the medication.
I was driving everywhere and telling everyone my life story, the hit of the party wherever I would go. I was talking non-stop, announcing to anyone willing to listen that this was the best I had ever been.
These were all signs of mania. When you’re manic, you don’t realize you are. And in my own mind, anybody who questioned me was wrong.
Who wouldn’t want to be at their very best? Who wouldn’t want to feel on top of the world? Since I’m so happy, why would anybody ever want to question my happiness? Nobody ever really knew me in the first place.
Turns out it was a manic episode.
I have Bipolar Disorder.
How It All Went Down
The symptoms of Bipolar Disorder become more noticeable in your late teens to early 20s, for a lot of people they become the most noticeable around your mid-20s. This is exactly the age I was when I started taking medication for anxiety and depression.
Turns out I was actually on the wrong medication all along, it had masked the disorder all these years. The day I submitted myself to the ER when I was 25 was an onset of mania. The mania was basically been delayed for four years as my brain chemistry adjusted to Zoloft. As soon as I started weaning off the medication, the manic symptoms re-emerged.
I’m far from a medical expert and never will be, but my understanding is that the average levels of dopamine are not always getting to certain parts of my brain. Managing Bipolar Disorder is something I will be able to do for the remainder of my life. It’s a disorder I may have been born but no longer affects my daily life. It took a lot of time and hardships to be able to get to this point, but I’m proud of myself for everything I’ve accomplished in my life in spite of the disorder.
A Manic Mind
Since mania is one of the symptoms of Bipolar Disorder, here is a glimpse inside the mind of someone who is manic:
Listening to any song feels like you’re at a live concert. You crank the music as loud as it can go and feel like it’s a part of you. Working out is the most amazing experience imaginable. You easily lose track of time because everything is happening so fast. You feel as though you can run for an endless amount of time and lift more than you ever have before.
Everything is extreme and in some cases, you desire more. To work out harder. To work out faster. To run further. It’s all or nothing and before you know it, you are suddenly sprinting through life.
Becoming aware that you even have a problem in the first place is the most challenging part. The key is to finally be aware of the mania. Just having the awareness to turn down the volume while driving seems like no big deal to anybody who isn’t manic, but finally being able to do so is a monumental accomplishment. You need to gain a sense of how you can slow yourself down, both literally and figuratively, to be able to find the right mental balance.
The good news is once you figure out that you have a disorder and discover the right medication for your system, you become fully functional and always will be. Some people are simply born with slightly less dopamine in certain regions of their brain that can easily be fixed with both medical and alternative methods. Those living with Bipolar Disorder are regular people and it’s important to help them feel that way.
PART TWO: THE SOLUTIONS
How To End Mania
When you are manic, you become extremely goal-oriented. Everything happens quickly as your mind processes information like it never has before. To end mania, just focus on one goal and one goal only…don’t be manic. When you feel really good, keep yourself centered and calm by relaxing or meditation. When you are feeling down, bring yourself back up with exercise or a quick power nap. Pretty basic stuff that a lot of people do anyways, but very important strategies for those with Bipolar Disorder.
When you are manic, for instance, you may want to workout more and sleep less. To combat this, force yourself to workout less and sleep more. While manic you may become impulsive and desire to write down or tell all the information racing through your mind. Staying up the entire night writing may even seem perfectly logical. But you have to find a way to try and stop this type of worrisome pattern so that the lack of sleep does not negatively alter your brain chemistry.
Here’s what you can do: set your alarm for a certain time to remind yourself to go to sleep. This is a concrete way to re-train your brain to rest so it does not have to spend the entire night in an active state. While manic, at times when you typically sleep, you may prefer to perhaps utilize an unbelievable burst of energy. Instead force yourself to stay in bed. Even if you have racing thoughts and it takes a while to fall asleep, you have to chill. Just like a cell phone needs to be recharged every night to avoid running out of power, so does your brain.
One night of uninterrupted sleep can make all the difference in the world. It’s actually a huge step in the right direction of training your brain how to not be manic anymore. Making not being manic your only goal will be surprisingly easy since you are likely to be extremely goal oriented during mania.
Choose Your Words Carefully
The biggest challenge of figuring out I indeed had Bipolar Disorder was overcoming my own mental hurdles associated with the actual word "bipolar." Now that I know a lot more about the disorder, it’s not even that big of a deal. Due to my own propensity to think in extremes, I assumed that being bipolar would be the end of the world. I was wrong, it’s simply a mood disorder. Before I even started taking medication back in my mid-20s, none of my family or friends ever speculated that I had Bipolar Disorder.
Within society, the terminology for any type of mental health condition needs to change. There are terms that should be eliminated from conversations altogether. Many of the words used regarding any sort of mental health issue need to be selected carefully. Those wackos… crazies…psycho…going postal…split personalities…falling off the tracks…mentally unstable…all of these terms need to be completely eliminated from our vocabulary. They serve no purpose whatsoever and only add to the stigma.
To change things and help those in need, first accept that regardless of whether a person struggles with their mental health or not, we are all normal people. Some of us could just use a lot more help than others.
Positive Communication Patterns
Excessive communication could be a sign of the beginning stages of a manic episode. For me, I couldn’t stop writing and would send emails at odd hours of the night. I made a lot of mistakes with my communication patterns and have tried my best to fix those mistakes as best I can. My one major takeaway is just how much positive communication truly matters.
For those living with Bipolar Disorder, everything is seen in extremes. You are either with them or you are against them. So the type of communication you use with your loved ones who may be suffering from this disorder matters a lot: keep it simple, don’t take anything personally, and do your best to guide someone who you speculate may be struggling with a mental health disorder towards getting help. These three easy steps can begin to guide someone with Bipolar Disorder towards the professional assistance they desperately deserve.
How You Can Help Those Who Need You
"Without your mental health, you have nothing" is so true. Countless individuals have mental health disorders that are either unrecognized or misdiagnosed; their lives could be forever altered because of it.
Nowadays very few people talk about mental health openly because of the stigma associated with it. It’s complicated and everybody has their own stress to deal with. It’s all just a part of life.
If reading about my struggles gives you a better idea of what people are up against who struggle with their mental health, please do your part to help them. Just reach out to one person with something as simple as a text message. Tell them you are thinking about them and let them know you care. When you have the time, maybe call somebody you haven’t spoken to in a long time to see how they are doing.
There are many people out there who have faced lifelong challenges and could use a boost. Encourage them to talk about their struggles. Guide them towards professional assistance. Please help them as best you can.
If you speculate that you are living with Bipolar Disorder or any other mental health issue for that matter, please do your part to get the help you need. It may have been a nine-year journey for my diagnosis, but the most important part is I got there eventually. All because nine years ago I realized something didn’t seem right within me and immediately pursued professional help.
The biggest mistake I made was keeping these personal struggles to myself over the years, there really was no need to hide anything. I rarely even shared what was going on with my parents. They had no clue what I had been going through all these years because I hadn’t told them that much.
If you are not in a position where you are able to get help, reach out to others who may be able to help you. Just flat out tell them you need them. There’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. The only thing to be ashamed of is hiding from your own truth and never getting the help that you deserve.
Solutions for People with Disabilities
While completing a job application online, I was asked if I was an American with a disability. I have always left this particular section blank before clicking the "next" button and submitting my application. Right before I clicked submit, I noticed something: an empty box next to Bipolar Disorder.
As a society, we need to all do more to help those living with disabilities. It doesn’t matter what the disability may be, what does matter is how we all come together and find solutions to support those in need. Plenty of people with disabilities need support, most of them probably a lot more than I do. Just like me they can’t control their genetics, they were born that way.
Little changes to how we view and discuss mental health can make a big difference. For example, always adding the word "disorder" after the word "bipolar" truly matters. Speaking from personal experience, my education, career, and life have always had a lot of order. But the lack of dopamine in certain regions of my brain has created a dis-order that I have been able to, and will continue to, overcome.
Please do your part to find ways to help those struggling with mental health issues. Let them know you care, help them realize they are not alone.
Finding ways to help those with Bipolar Disorder improve the quality of their lives will lead to a more productive workforce, fewer crimes, and a much lower suicide rate.
Help those in need. Never give up.
We are all in this together.