This is what it feels like to navigate the bewildering and dizzying highs and lows of living with the disorder.
As I write this, I’m riding the crest of an upswing, even as my bipolar disorder rides shotgun, blessedly idle for a moment. I’m feeling motivated, clear-headed, and—dare I say it—almost positive.
That feeling will likely ebb away as my dark passenger grows restless and chatty, like a wave just slipping from the shoreline. Other times, it’s abrupt, like a light switch. From there, I spend months in a dark, cold space, just trying to get from dawn to dusk relatively unscathed. Then, days, weeks, or months later, I wake up one morning, and someone has flipped the switch to “on,” and the world seems bright and hopeful again.
Even while I’m relishing this sun-on-my-face feeling of renewal and strength, there’s a pesky voice inside me whispering—it won’t last. My time in the sun is limited, and I have so much to get done before darkness falls.
That’s the cycle of my mental illness. It’s not the type of illness that you can “see” or “feel” when you look at me from outside my skin. But I assure you, it’s in there. And I fight. I fight to get from one day to another without crawling under the covers. Other times, it’s minute to minute.
Although I had signs of it in my preteens through college, I wasn’t diagnosed until my late 20s with “highly functioning” bipolar disorder. And I have spent the last 20 years trying to navigate it.
Inside the Empty
With the relatively recent high-profile deaths of celebrities like Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, and Kate Spade, I hear it time and time again: “We never saw it coming.” “He seemed so happy and successful.” “She had it all.”
I have it all.
I have a career. I have a beautiful family—a loving husband and two healthy, vibrant sons. I have wonderful friends who love me. I have a home and a career that I love. I am living someone’s dream. And some days, I can’t even feel.
Imagine being somewhere you love.… Be it the beach or a mountain top or a beautiful meadow—then someone turns off the lights. It’s not a gradual spiral down. I can’t feel it coming. One day, I wake up and I am blank.
I have two small children waiting for me to get them up and start our day. And I cannot bring myself to face them or what lies ahead: school drop off, playdates, sports practices, and socializing.
I am well aware of how that sounds. I know I am lucky to have two amazing, bright, able-bodied children who love life. But in those dark moments, I see them, but I struggle to connect. I have to pull myself out of bed and say: Put your face on and remember that you love these two beings. They are yours and you are theirs and today you are a mom. I look at my husband who sacrifices so much with his job to give our kids most of what they could ever want, and I think: Why are you here?
I haven’t had thoughts of actively ending my life in years. But there are days that I can’t imagine speaking and interacting with people. It feels physically and emotionally unattainable. So, I play a part. I play the mom I think I should be. I play the wife I know he deserves. I put on a mask of the employee I need to be. The daughter my parents want. The sibling my sisters are entitled to have in their lives. The aunt that my amazing nieces and nephews love. The friend, neighbor, and acquaintance that people have come to know and expect.
And I do love and respect all of these people in my life. I am eternally grateful for all that they are and the value, experiences, and qualities they bring to my life. But for 6-8 months out of the year, I can’t “feel” it.
Life in Hyperdrive
I plan, schedule, organize, and micromanage every piece of my life that I can touch. I journal, I write notes on stickies, I print out organizational charts and task lists, and I
pin motivational memes and read self-help books because I think, This time, I am going
to win. This time, the disorder won’t get me.
I have conquered it and I am going to prevail.
Only, this summer, it finally occurred to me: I won’t.
I’ve been through some emotional trauma in the last 14 years. I went through a brutal breakup of my first marriage, and although I like to say I am over that—it’s still a battle. Sometimes daily, sometimes weekly—some-times I don’t think about it for a couple of months before the weight of it hits me. To be clear: I am over the relationship, but I am not over the failure of that commitment and the fact that I couldn’t “love us through it.” Intellectually, I know that is ridiculous. But it’s like a scar. And when I least expect it to open, it does. And it bleeds and it takes me back to the feeling of desperation and abandonment and of being—not good enough.
I spiraled for the next 5 years. I struggled with disordered eating and self-harm—turning to alcohol as a coping mechanism and riding the roller-coaster of bipolar disorder. I was a mess. But in that mess, I found love. Love found me.
We married, and I was appropriately medicated for the first time in my life. Then, I got pregnant with my first son, and it rocked my world. I made the decision to stop taking my medication (not everyone can or should do this—you should work with your health care professionals to make the best decision for you). I panicked. What if I couldn’t love this baby? What if he didn’t love me? What if I passed this on to him? I hated being pregnant. I was lost and physically uncomfortable and guilty. But then he arrived, and the light switched on. All was right with the world for a little while.
When I had my second son, I could feel. And then, when I stopped breastfeeding, I was blank again. This time, instead of alcohol, I turned to food. I wanted to feel full. And I ate. And ate. Just to feel something. This winter, I had a bit of a health scare, and after I recovered from the shock, I looked myself in the face and said: You have to grab hold of your life again. And I have, for the moment.
I’m losing weight. I’m more active. I’m trying to love and connect.
My planner is going. I reorganized our pantries. I am desperate to finish renovating our bedroom. Because the power outage is coming soon. I’ll feel the blips start in mid-September, but it won’t turn off until the holidays. And it will be another 6 months before I can muster the strength to live again. To feel again. To step into the light.