*First published on thesewalkingblues.com, www.health-e.org.za & www.health24.com
My confession is this: I have bipolar. Two and a half years ago, at the age of 29, I was hospitalised while in the throes of what is known as a manic episode. It was my first, and will hopefully be my last. For those of you who are not familiar with the term, it is when someone suffering with bipolar disorder experiences a manic ‘high’, so to speak. I was never one of those teenagers who experimented with mind-altering substances, so I can make no comparison, but it is essentially a malfunctioning of the human mind.
Make no mistake, you are often unlikely to succeed in convincing someone who is behaving manically that they require medical attention. How can something that feels so incredible be bad for you? The sense of optimism and euphoria is overwhelming. The world suddenly reveals itself as a magnificent, kaleidoscopic tapestry, each thread undeniably connected to every other. Patterns and significances begin to emerge in places where before there was no meaning. If you were not deeply spiritual before, the universe now feels as if it is speaking to you directly. In fact, it is not uncommon for those experiencing a manic episode to show symptoms of a messianic complex. I myself began to believe that, on some level, I had mystical powers, that I was untouchable. I would happily wander the streets at night, invite strangers into my home, feeling no threat to my person. During this process, your creative mind is unleashed. You feel plugged in. There is that same sense of abandon that one had as a child and has missed ever since. It is liberating to say the least. But ultimately, you are like Icarus flying towards the sun on precarious wings of wax and feathers. It cannot last forever.
Your body has been surviving too long on little sustenance and a few hours of sleep a night. You are simply too human. Eventually you come tumbling down to earth and hit solid ground. It takes you back to its bosom and you enter the darker phase of your depression. Here you lie, and listen to the sounds of others outside living their lives, and you weep. And you weep. And then you weep some more. You long for your euphoria. You long to feel connected to your fellow human. You long to feel connected to a higher power. But there is only a void. Friends and family may try to enter the void, to pull you out of your despair, but it is a fleeting comfort. You take your medication daily because the good doctor tells you it will help. You wonder why it does not feel like it is helping. After time, you emerge.
This is the stage where you begin again. You try to converse with others. You try to feed yourself, to brush your teeth, to clean your hair. Now and again, you attempt social gatherings, still feeling unsettled, uncertain, insecure. Some days, you manage. Some days, you excuse yourself and return to your solitude. You are haunted by what others may think of you, if they know about your diagnosis, if they will treat you differently now that you have been labelled. But little by little you manage, and it gets easier, gradually but easier nonetheless. The next challenge you face is that you seldom feel alive. You are talking to someone, but you do not feel engaged. You are saddened by the death of a character in a novel you are reading and yet you have no tears. You cannot remember the last time you laughed spontaneously. You are surviving, but are you living? You cannot say for certain. Will it always be this way?
I would like to say that it will not always be this way. Of course, the mood stabiliser that I take every morning and every evening ensures that I do not experience extreme highs or lows. Over time, however, I am catching myself crying in a movie or laughing out loud at a YouTube video. I am no longer self-conscious when I talk to others. Instead, I feel deeply interested in what they have to say. I find myself enjoying music more. I have discovered love again. I may not be the person I used to be, but the person I am is no longer unrecognisable.
Now I admit there can be no singular approach to navigating this tricky terrain. We are each of us so unique that there can be no uniform prescription on how to live your life. But on the subject of living with bipolar, here are simply a few things that have helped me along the way:
- Allow for Time
While I was suffering with severe depression for six months, I read an old book by Thomas Moore called Care of the Soul. Some people visit churches and pray in their hours of need; my temple was my city’s main library. There I would sit for hours with something I had found on a shelf and this was one such gem. Through it I learnt not to be ashamed of depression, not to feel weak or lacking. Rather, I came to accept my depression as part of a natural process of self-discovery. It would take its course, and when the time came, I would be ready to start my life afresh.
- Appreciate Your Loved Ones and Don’t Fret the Rest
It is never easy to experience a psychotic episode. One of the first things you will learn is to distinguish between those who will be your loyal companions forever and those who will not. There are two reasons why I think you may lose many people in your life if this happens. One, we are not comfortable as a society dealing with that which is not considered the ‘norm’. While so many people today take anti-depressants or anti-anxiety tablets, we are not open about mental illness. We do not celebrate those who struggle with mental illness and live with it daily as we do those who beat cancer. So, simply put, former friends may be overwhelmed by your condition. Secondly, a manic episode alters your behaviour and your moods. Even if people have known you for years, what they think they know of you is suddenly challenged and they do not know how to separate the person from the mental illness. Nonetheless, if you are as lucky as I was, you will have a handful of people who visit you in hospital, who never lose sight of who you are. Cling to them, and forgive the rest for their shortcomings.
- Take Comfort in Routine
When I was at my most depressed, the things that I had once taken for granted suddenly became insurmountable tasks. The simple act of preparing a meal, or making my bed seemed all too much for me. Today, I take great pride in the fact that I am able to wake up every morning, feed my cats, make my bed, have a cup of coffee and get my day started. While mundane chores of daily living may seem tedious at times, take delight in the fact that you are fit and able. These small tasks may not seem like much but they help to add stability to our lives. So take an evening yoga class and try not to miss it. Rise early so you can walk the dog. It is by performing these little, seemingly insignificant tasks that I have found the confidence to tackle larger projects in life.
- Maintain a Healthy Body
When I had my manic episode, I was working late most evenings, relying on energy drinks and junk food during the day to sustain me. I had also allowed for an undue amount of stress and anxiety in my life. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle now is not something I do because it seems like a good idea. It is an imperative if I do not wish to be hospitalised again. This means that I drink in moderation, and when I do drink it is the occasional glass of light wine or a light beer (making sure that it is alcohol light and not simply low in calories). Except for the odd cheat or indulgence, I steer clear of unhealthy take-outs. I also watch my caffeine intake daily, allowing myself two cups of coffee in the morning while drinking black rooibos the rest of the day. Finally, of perhaps the greatest importance, is that I ensure I get eight hours of sleep a night. A lack of sleep is not only one of the symptoms of a manic episode but can also play a role in the onset of one.
- Be Accepting of Yourself
It is inevitable that a psychotic break will change you. I used to be the kind of person who was extremely vocal. I had opinions on everything and I wasn’t afraid to share them. As I began to branch out after my depression, I was still rather withdrawn and shied away from entering any heated debates (which was very uncharacteristic of who I used to be). At first, I worried that people might find me boring, that I no longer had anything to contribute to a roomful of people, that I had lost my spark. Over time, my confidence has come back. I now say something if I feel the need to contribute. But I am also quite content to sit back and let others take the helm. Some family members have lamented this, remarking that I am not myself anymore. That is true. I am different now. And that’s okay. Along the way, I have also gained a sense of peace in the world that I did not have before. Whatever shape it takes, accept your growth. Accept who you have become. To my mind, there is no greater happiness than this.
One of the many faces of bipolar (Or, the writer in her natural habitat)
Feature image by Vasily Kandinsky (For more on undeniably my favourite artist, click HERE)