“I was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder and I don’t know what to do.”
My inbox and timeline have been filled with messages like this over the past year. It’s heartbreaking. Being met with a new diagnosis, especially bipolar disorder, can be like getting hit by a train when you didn’t even know you were on its tracks.
I remember being diagnosed back in January. I begged my wife not to tell anyone. I begged my psychiatrist not to tell anyone. I was struck with fear and didn’t want to prove people right. A lot of my family, friends and followers thought I was acting manic (which I was) — and I was so resistant to their armchair diagnosis. I felt they were making me into an enemy and something to be hated. I felt pushed to the edges of society where other shamed and labeled people exist — convicts, murderers, felons, liars, thieves, all of them.
I reassured myself, “What others viewed as recklessness wasn’t actually recklessness, right?”
“I was acting from a place of being liberated, right?”
I was free. I was wrong. When I got my diagnosis, I was afraid.
For me, one of the most challenging things about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder is the weight of the stigma surrounding it. Oftentimes, it’s not something that’s talked about in the kindest of ways. A lot of othering takes place. Inaccurate statements are made and people living with this illness are often labeled as untrustworthy, unpredictable and incapable of ever making rational decisions again. What a terrible way to boil down a person’s entire existence!
Another thing that’s hard about hearing the words, “You have bipolar disorder” is the uncertainty that consumes your mind. You worry about the pills you’ll have to take, how you’ll break this news to friends and family and how you’ll feel about yourself in the coming days. It’s so overwhelming and so much to carry.
When I was diagnosed, it happened in the midst of me coming down from my mania. Depression was beginning to drown me and getting out of bed was a chore. So bearing the burden of living with this new information wasn’t something I felt equipped to do. I cried so many nights. I vented. I lamented. I found it hard to rest or feel relaxed. I had begrudgingly begun this new journey I never wanted to be on.
When someone reaches out to me because they just found out they have bipolar disorder, I’m already with them in their fear, their pain and their despair. No, I don’t know exactly how they feel but I readily tap into my suffering and see them fully. I share my suffering. I tell them that their feelings are valid. I invite them into my story. I share the hope I eventually found and let them know how dark things were and can still be for me.
There aren’t a lot of, “You got this!” or “You’re going to make it” in my initial responses because I know those messages might not land. Instead, I seek to be present to the story they’ve let me in on and just be with them in their moment.
If you’ve recently received a bipolar disorder diagnosis or if someone close to you has, I want to make a few things clear:
1. How you feel right now makes sense.
There’s really no right way to feel about something so life changing. And no one can tell you how to feel.
2. There’s no rush when it comes to healing.
Regardless of what anyone tells you, healing is your process. Will meds help? Maybe. Will support groups be effective? Maybe. Is journaling the best way to process your emotions? Maybe. But you don’t have to figure that out right now.
It’s OK for you to just sit with this new information and breathe. And I mean actually breathe. We often hold our breath when faced with impossible things that require us to be brave. So I invite you to do the brave thing of breathing.
3. Ask all the questions you need to.
There’s a great deal of research being done regarding bipolar disorder and so much has been discovered thus far. Still, you get to ask questions about what you can expect, what your new normal might be, what caused you to be manic in the first place or how your depression might impact your life. You get to ask about how the meds will affect you and what the common side effects are. Question as much as you’d like to.
I spent a lot of time asking my psychiatrist and therapist these same questions. I didn’t feel amazing when I heard their responses but I was able to rationalize some things and come up with plans of action to help me move forward.
Also, know that some questions won’t be answered. You might need to wait to see how different meds affect you. You might have to wait and see how seasons or different foods affect your moods. Uncertainty is part of this and knowing that can be helpful.
4. Try no to isolate yourself.
Personally, I burned down a lot of relationships since I was manic last fall. But I’ve held on tight to the people who have continued to fight for me and reach out to support me. Without them, I don’t know where I’d be.
On my own, my thoughts take over and I’m not in a good place at all. I hope you have at least one person you can bring your wounds and scars to, even if all you say is, “This is me right now. I don’t know what to do and I just needed to tell someone.”
5. Just do the next right thing.
I got that from author Glennon Doyle Melton. In her book, “Love Warrior,” she talks about the importance of showing up as best as we can to the little things that lie before us — especially when the pain of what we’re experiencing has become unbearable.
So think about it. Is eating lunch the next right thing? Maybe it’s showering. Perhaps it’s turning off the lights and resting for a moment or watching “The Office” on Netflix because it’s one of the greatest shows of all-time. Your next right thing is your next right thing and you get to do it — no matter how small it is.
Here’s to us doing the next right thing, even if the bigger picture looks bleak and impossible.