by Catherine Hogan
Bi is the root for two, as in the two phases that a person with bipolar disorder tends to experience– depression and mania. This is also the reason why it is sometimes called “manic depression.”
Actor Charlie Sheen is bipolar, or as he likes to call it, “by winning.” When I was growing up, the media’s portrayal of him negatively shaped my view of what it meant to have bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder was something that celebrities were diagnosed with because they were, of course, “crazy.”
Frank Sinatra and Demi Lovato have also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I like to think that now people are more accepting of mental illness, but I know that there will probably always be a stigma.
During my freshman year of college at the University of Delaware, I found myself diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the psychiatrist’s office of a crisis center. Of course, I handled hearing the diagnosis very well. I cried.
It made sense though, I had high energy and was unable to sleep as of late. It was partially due to sleeping in a new environment, but mostly was mania creeping in. I would find myself leaving the dorm at 4 or 5 in the morning and walking around; then, I’d continue my day without falling back asleep. I also talked to people in my dorm a lot and very quickly. I wanted so badly for people to like me and to make friends. I hoped that others admired my confidence, even when it led me to say borderline inappropriate things.
When I have a manic episode, it is like drinking a shot of espresso and staying up all night. It made me feel jittery. I talked and moved quickly, so much so that people didn’t understand what I was saying. I was excited about everything and had lots of energy. I felt hyper-productive and like I could take on anything that got in my way. There were a million projects that I had in my mind, and I simply had to complete them all at once.
I was so energetic that I wouldn’t be able to sleep or could only fall asleep for a couple of hours only to wake up feeling like I got a full 8 hours. I felt like my body was ready for sleep, but my mind was wide awake.
On other days, I would sink into a deep depression. It would be hard for me to get up every morning. I had intrusive thoughts that even sleep couldn’t push away, and I couldn’t stop crying. I felt that I wasn’t perfect and that I was messing things up in my life. I also felt lonely even though there were people all around me. These reasons drove my suicidal thoughts. I was watching everyone live their lives being happy and social while mine remained stagnant.
I fell into a particular case of depression on a Sunday. It was a severe case of the Sunday scaries. I called my mother and aunt, and they urgently took me out to lunch, knowing something was wrong. We ate pizza, and I talked about my stress in living in the dorms. I was anxious and sad. Being at the same school that my deceased brother had been at shortly before me was a trigger, and I couldn’t stop thinking about him. Seeing his friends at school helped but also exacerbated my grief.
I felt a little better after lunch, and my mom dropped me off at my dorm. While outside the dorm, I said hello to one of my floor neighbors. He didn’t say anything. I noticed a police car outside and walked up the stairs to get to my room. A police officer approached me, and I immediately asked if everything was ok. He asked me if I was Catherine Hogan and said they were looking for me. I was extremely confused and knew right away that my RA had called the police on me for manic behavior and possible suicidal ideation.
I had confided in some people in the dorms, and at the time, felt that they had outed me. I felt betrayed, but also said that I was glad that my floormates cared about me, even though I knew they didn’t and had responded to my manic behavior by alienating me. I felt that I didn’t belong and that I had no one.
I walked onto my floor with the officer and into my room. The hallway was cleared out. Everyone was gone. He opened the door to my room, and I sat down on my bed. He brashly asked me if I had ever considered killing myself, and I said yes. He asked me how and I responded, reflecting on my suicide attempts from my sophomore year of high school.
My mother was brought into the dorm and was confused. I’d never seen her so scared and upset for me. I surrendered my room key to the police.
I was taken into a police car to the RI crisis center in Newark. The windows were boarded up almost like a taxi, but worse. I was silent the whole ride.
My mom took a separate car to the center. We met and sat in an office with a man and woman. They asked my mother for my story. She was distraught, and in my calmest voice, I explained my situation, surprised at my own sober demeanor. I explained that my father died from ALS, and my family watched him suffer and that my brother died shortly after when he killed himself.
They looked at me with sympathetic eyes. They knew I didn’t want to be here, but that at the same time, I needed to heal.
I was then asked to take off my clothes so that the woman could inspect my body for self-harm scars. Scared and anxious, I asked if I could keep my underwear on, and the woman looked at me with pity and said yes, providing me with an iota of dignity.
I stayed at the center from Sunday to Wednesday. Oddly enough, I made friends and even felt a sense of comfort there even though I was confined to a large fluorescent room. There were people with so many different stories. Every time someone new would come into the center, they would ask what my story was. In a weird way, it felt like a prison.
From my understanding at the time after my diagnosis, I felt that bipolar disorder was a weakness. It meant that something else was wrong with me; it was more than my typical bouts of anxiety and depression. My capacity to feel was so strong that it needed to be controlled. I would bounce back and forth between feeling extremely happy to overwhelmingly sad. It was a constant pendulum.
Once I got out of the center, I felt free but also scared to re-enter the world. I was sheltered in the crisis center, and as much as I hated having eyes on me the entire time, even when I was sleeping, I felt a sense of safety there.
Now, as a rising junior at the university, I am doing much better. Shortly after my initial diagnosis, I was able to receive proper treatment and have the support of a great psychiatrist and therapist. Just the right doses of medicine and taking time to talk out my feelings with my therapist worked on healing me. I was no longer broken.
I’ve learned a lot about balance since receiving treatment. There can’t be too much of one emotion. If you’re too happy, you can’t sleep, and if you’re too sad, you sleep too much. The hardest part of having mania is that at the moment, I didn’t realize how bad it was. I thought that I was doing just fine, even better than fine. I felt like I was my best self and that I could conquer the world. There was nothing that could stop me.
I also felt a rush of euphoria, I was literally high off of life. I think back to those episodes now and realize just how exhausting they were, which is why I would fall off the edge and slip into a depression shortly after.
I haven’t had a manic or depressive episode in a long time, and while it’s always possible, I am more conscientious about the warning signs. I know that an episode is coming on when I have trouble sleeping and have extreme bouts of energy. My family and friends are especially helpful in letting me know when my behavior seems off. I don’t know what I would do without their support.
Though I don’t see bipolar disorder as a weakness anymore, I don’t see it as a strength either. It still is a hurdle for me, and I am reminded that I am afflicted with it every morning when I have to take my medication. Yet, my journey has been a learning experience. There are ups and downs in life, mine are just more extreme than others’ may be. I know that my life is far from perfect, and that I will always live in the fear of falling into a manic or depressive episode again. This anxiety makes life difficult, but I’m learning to take things one day at a time. I have a better understanding of what it means to have bipolar disorder, and overall, what it means to be human.
For those who know someone with bipolar disorder, it’s important to remain calm when their loved one is experiencing a manic episode. The initial reaction is often confusion, because when someone is talking quickly it can be overwhelming but having a calm demeanor can be helpful.
Showing a lot of confusion can make the person frustrated and cause them to act even more manic. Mania feels like a racing track of thoughts, but the person doesn’t realize it, so it’s best to tell them to stop and take a breath, even if they try to convince you that they are fine.
As for depressive episodes, one can help by asking what the person needs and making sure that they have food and water, even though they may refuse. Depression can feel like a weight on one’s chest, so it may be hard for them to move. Understand that as much as you try to motivate them, they won’t be able to get up, but if you can get them moving try to do some light walking.
Resources for Bipolar disorder:
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
Bipolar disorder resources list
This. Is. So. Important.