I’m having trouble today.
I have bipolar disorder. Type Two. I’m reluctant to type this out, to share it with the world, because I don’t want it to define me. But today it most certainly is.
What exactly is Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar disorder is a brain disorder that causes changes in a person's mood, energy, and ability to function. People with bipolar disorder experience intense emotional states that typically occur during distinct periods of days to weeks, called mood episodes. 1
And what is Type Two?
Defined by a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes, but not the full-blown manic episodes that are typical of Bipolar I Disorder.2
Mine isn’t a bright and shiny Hollywood-ready example of what the disease is. It’s quiet and insidious right now. I have a lot of projects in the works at the moment. I’m supposed to be working on my second book for Penguin Random House. I need to create content for social media and increase my engagement. I have personal and family responsibilities that require and rightly deserve my attention and energy. But what am I doing instead? Struggling to accomplish anything at all and getting mad at myself for my lack of productivity and drive. I had to take two naps today before 12:15pm. That fact makes me feel like a failure. Like I’m lazy, like I’m not trying hard enough. Logically, I know those things aren’t true – thanks to a lot of work with my therapist. But they feel true.
There’s a logical reason that I’m struggling.
About two weeks ago, I started having racing thoughts and fast speech. I didn’t notice at first because I was fixated on the details of a move we’re planning for this summer. And because I live in a bilingual household and usually communicate in a hybrid of English and French, the speed at which I speak is slowed down, quite simply from having to call up the right word or phrase, instead of having it at the ready the second the thought appears. My father noticed the fast speech when I was on the phone with him, speaking my native language. Sometimes my husband notices it, but this time he didn’t.
Then came the difficulty sleeping. Usually, I’m out within less than five minutes of my head hitting the pillow. Now, I was stuck, lying in bed, mentally popping from one subject to another for an hour before sleep began to creep in. And I started snapping awake at random times like 3 a.m. Not a gradual wake up, it’s like a switch flips and I go from being completely unconscious to one-hundred percent awake. If I trusted how my body feels, I’d think it was 9 a.m.
The thoughts, the speech, the sleep disturbances – these are signs of the beginning of a hypomanic episode. (for me at least. These are common to people with bipolar disorder, but not everyone might experience them the way that I do.)
So what to do? One very, very frustrating part of this chronic illness is that there can be “benefits” to having it. Particularly if you are a creative person. The increase in energy can be directed to new projects. You can be productive on much less sleep. You can think (what feels) more quickly and sharply, you get new ideas to follow. And after having made it through the opposite pole of bipolar (the depression), this energy is so welcome. Not only does it feel like a release, it feels like the opportunity to make up for lost time. If only there was some way to bottle it. To harness it and use it to reach your goals. But no, it can’t truly be managed, so you have to stop it before it gets out of control and you find yourself cheating on your significant other or spending loads of money you don’t have, or tearing your entire life down to move halfway around the world on a whim.
During a manic period, people with bipolar disorder often have impaired judgment and act recklessly. People with bipolar disorder often do not recognize just how ill they are (a condition known as anosognosia) and may blame their problems on outside factors.3
Once I recognized what was happening, I took the medication that has worked to “slow me down” in the past. It does a wonderful job of giving me my sleep back. Too good of a job. So even if I take it several hours before going to bed, I’m sleep hungover the next morning. I can wake up enough to take care of my morning responsibilities, but then I’m a zombie for hours. Coffee does nothing to help. All I need is more sleep.
However, it’s morning. It’s time to work on those projects, to start checking things off that list. But I can’t. Right now, I physically cannot. I have to sleep.
Back to the Hospital?
This afternoon, it occurred to me that maybe I should start acting like I’m in the hospital again. I’ve been hospitalized three times in my life (for my mental health). Each time has been for suicidal depression. Only the last time was it understood to be in the context of bipolar disorder and not unipolar depression. This is a common experience. Bipolar patients are misdiagnosed at least 1/3 of the time. And not treating bipolar disorder correctly greatly increases the chance of committing suicide
The point of my time in the hospital was to get my mood balanced, primarily by determining the best medications for me. I live in France, where healthcare is taken seriously, so the last time I was hospitalized, it was for four weeks. They stabilized me, then we worked through several medication cocktails to figure out what was best.
So what does that mean today?
Maybe, instead of beating myself up for not being as productive or as “efficient” as I “need” to be right now, I could accept this as a healing time. Of course, that’s much easier said than done. None of my responsibilities are going away. But maybe, in between them, it’s okay for me to let myself rest. I’ll have to chew on that thought for a while.
My bipolar disorder is a chronic illness. There are periods where it is controlled, and for whatever reason, from whatever trigger, periods where it simply is not. In that way, I think I can relate to people with other chronic disorders, which may be physical rather than mental. And it certainly gives me empathy for those suffering with things that I am not.
It’s hard for us. There’s the basic stigma of our illnesses, the fear or confusion surrounding them. But on top are the expectations we have of ourselves. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: Be kind to others. You never know what someone’s going thorough. And extend that same kindness to yourself.