10 Things Bipolar Disorder Is Not

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

I attended a dinner party the other night. Nothing fancy. I was a friend’s plus-one and was excited for free food and light conversation. The room was mostly filled with my friend’s co-workers, people who I’d met once or twice.

I’d found this particular group loved to gossip … and gossip they did. An uninvested audience to the venting and storytelling, I silently munched on cheese and crackers. Then, the focus shifted to someone they all knew, someone who’d been going through a tough time.

“Oh, her? She’s a complete mess.”

“Yeah, she’s off her meds again. Hahahaha.”

“Ugh. Right!”

They talked so much crap about this woman, highlighting her shortcomings as if they were all perfect and without fault.

More laughter. Knee slapping. Me feeling increasingly agitated. Whatever excitement I entered with had dwindled.

At some point, the topic of Kanye West came up. No one directly mentioned his diagnosis of bipolar disorder, but I gripped my chair tightly and slowed my breathing, bracing myself for the topic to arise, and for the rap superstar to be regarded as someone else ​off their meds​ ​again​.

I often coach myself to “toughen up,” or “let it go” when I’m at social events. I rarely go out much anymore now that I’m a stay-at-home dad. Also, a lot of my friendships burned down during my manic episode last year. I’m aware everyone isn’t actively fighting mental health stigma, but words can hurt. Sometimes, it doesn’t take much for a phrase or a story to snap us back into a negative feeling or down a shame spiral, especially if your life has been impacted by mental illness.

Back to the dinner party. A majority of the people dining that night knew all about my manic break last year because I shared so much of the experience in real time via social media. They’d never brought it up in my presence, but I couldn’t help but wonder: ​have they talked about me like this and the mess I am? Did they make me into a hated pariah when I was at the height of my episode, destroying everything in my path? Have they jokingly referred to me as being off my meds?

I found myself silently defending myself. I assumed no one would turn to me and flat-out ask me about my bipolar disorder, but what if they did? What would I tell them?

People say inaccurate things about mental illness all the time. We live in a world of armchair therapists. So for starters, I’d challenge the misconceptions around it. I still struggle with a lot of these lies about my illness, and you might, too. But, it’s important to face what we’re up against and name the places where we get stuck, the places where we believe things about ourselves that aren’t true.

Here are 10 lies about bipolar disorder we can stop believing.

Bipolar disorder is not:

1. An invitation for anyone to call you “crazy.”

​The word “crazy” is trite and dismissive. It’s a word that’s been used to other people and push them out. It invalidates your experience, and in turn, suggests you’re invalid.

2. How anyone gets to define you.​

I’ve opted to use people-first language as much as possible. For example, I wouldn’t call someone an anxious person. I’d say they’re someone living with anxiety. Saying someone lives with an illness gives them their power back, and allows you to regard them with dignity. People are complex. We’re multi-dimensional and layered. So, it doesn’t make sense to boil a person down to one trait they have, even if it might seem like their most salient quality.

3. An excuse for how you’ve hurt anyone in your life.​

For many people, mania has left a wake of hurt and destruction in its path. But, it’s not an excuse. It doesn’t absolve you of the pain you’ve caused. So, I’ve found it both liberating and important to apologize and take ownership for the things I’ve done that have negatively impacted the people in my life.

4. As an invitation to treat you badly.

Yes, your actions may have caused harm, but you are not a “bad” person. There’s a difference. Guilt says, “What I did was wrong.” Shame says, “I am wrong.”

5. Something that makes you undesirable.​

You can still date if you live with bipolar disorder. Swipe left. Swipe right. You still have qualities that people will find interesting, intriguing and awesome.

6. Something that makes you unlovable.​

You get to have the relationships you want in your life. People might take a long time to completely forgive you, but know that healing takes time. Still, I hope you’re able to open up to the people closest to you, and feel seen and heard.

7. Grounds to call you untrustworthy. ​

My therapist taught me a technique to use when I find myself buried in guilt. She told me to ask myself: “Is this true?” Someone recently told me a lot of people don’t trust me anymore. So, I asked myself if that was true (it wasn’t) and I realized a more powerful truth: I trust me. I take my meds. I go to therapy. I know I’m a reliable person.

8. Always easy to live with.​

Some days are better than others. Sometimes the meds don’t work or have adverse effects. Living with bipolar disorder can be a real struggle bus.

9. Widely spoken about in an accurate manner. ​

This is part of the reason it’s so hard to fight and end the stigma around bipolar disorder and mental illness in general. In addition, each person has a unique experience with bipolar disorder, even though some of the symptoms may be similar.

10. A sign your life is over.

​Keep showing up. We need you. You will get through this. I’ve found group therapy to find to be a helpful reminder that others face the same challenges I do.

As we continue to challenge the misconceptions around bipolar disorder, let’s also remember to rest and to set boundaries. Every battle doesn’t need to be your battle. And every fight doesn’t need to be your fight. You’ll never be able to change everyone’s mind about the illness you live with, but you can certainly work on unlearning your own false narratives. That’s what I’m working to do every day — even at dinner parties.

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5 Pieces of Advice for Anyone Recently Diagnosed With Bipolar Disorder

Photo by Samuel Austin on Unsplash

“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.

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