My Unquiet Mind: Living with Bipolar Disorder
Illustration by Harry McLean
Everything around me makes me incredibly optimistic. I get that twilight feeling when everything in the world is a part of me and I am a part of it. At times I want to tell Fitzgerald to go fuck himself and his lost generation, and claim Gatsby’s green light all to myself. I forget who I am and fall into an endless love affair with life. I am so delightfully and unequivocally fascinated by everyone. I want to tear off my clothes. I want to write a novel. I want to clean the house attic to basement. I don’t sleep for days. When people start to notice they say I’m “just too much”. Then, I reach the tipping point—I am confused and agitated and angry. Why won’t they just keep up with me? Why can’t anyone keep up with me?
I feel nothing. Empty. Exhausted from the nothingness. I cry for hours and hours until I fall asleep. And then I continue to sleep. And sleep. Now it’s me who can’t keep up; life is moving too quickly. I lie in bed and retreat into myself. . When people start to notice I say, “I’m just tired”. The shame and guilt I feel does not compare to anything else I have ever experienced. Living is crushing, overwhelming, unbearable. Dreams of death and escape are more enticing than my own privileged existence. I am trapped in a deep, deep valley of hopelessness.
It never really occurred to me that this wasn’t normal.
Like most bipolar patients, I was initially diagnosed with major depressive disorder. The depressive state is the most common period for people to seek professional help. For me, it happened when I almost drank myself into hospitalisation. That was when I thought to myself that something might be wrong with me. Unlike depressive behaviour, mania can often be chalked up to simply being ‘high on life’—talking too much, being the life of the party, being enthusiastic and creative. It’s actually pretty great at first—like being on the best drug in the world.
That is, until a severe hypomanic or manic episode is triggered. It’s especially common while on antidepressants, as I was at the time. I was overseas, and I stopped sleeping for what seemed like weeks. I kept up the energy to keep bouncing from task to task. I exercised vigorously for at least two hours a day. But I wasn’t able to shake the feeling of agitation, insomnia and racing thoughts. I started hallucinating and I thought I was invincible. I made some terrible and admittedly, some brilliant life-changing decisions. I spent a ridiculous amount of money in a very short amount of time until my card was declined on the basis of ‘suspicious activity’. I was frightened.
What followed was a long and difficult road to recovery. Mental illness cannot be ‘cured’ by one magic pill or stint in a hospital—it takes trial and error to reach a correct diagnosis and an effective treatment plan. I ended up in the care of a psychiatrist. The cyclical nature and length of my manic and depressive symptoms confirmed a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Because of my insomnia and agitation, I was initially prescribed a drug called Ativan, which wasn’t effective. Worried that I might be hospitalised if I didn’t get some sleep, my doctor then prescribed Klonopin and Seroquel to help me sleep. While the drugs got me sleeping, I learned the hard way how complicated it is to treat bipolar disorder initially. Earlier, I’d been weaned off my antidepressants under my doctor’s supervision. But now the depression started to return even though I was still technically manic. I went into the throes of what is called a mixed episode. It was terrifying for both me and my family because I was depressed enough to be consumed with ‘suicidal ideation’, but still manic enough to have the motivation to try and act on these thoughts. I did some lasting damage to myself and ended up in hospital for some time.
Now I’m on lithium, which stabilises my mood. My illness doesn’t define me, but it is a part of me. I take a cocktail of pills every day, avoid alcohol, and am thankful that I have the support of those around me. If you’re concerned about someone, please, please encourage them to seek help. And if you’re worried about yourself, remember: you aren’t weak, and you aren’t alone. But you also can’t do it alone.