Updated: Aug 28, 2019
There are words that will rattle you to your bones; break our fragile, yet strong minds. There are moments where the time is stuck, caught in words that resound off the architecture of your brain. Your surroundings are no longer tangible, seemingly melting away in the moment.
“You have Bipolar with rapid cylcing mania and depression.”
Shock is a funny character. Even with the millions of thoughts flooding in, connections, and fears, I managed to simply nod with a firm smile while clutching onto the blue chair in my therapists’ office. I could not fathom the diagnosis. My initial reaction was to immediately reject it, because I did not want this to be apart of me. Bipolar is a beast, inhabitating the sacred parts of you. I knew that bipolar meant more intensive therapy, more medication, more extrenuating work. I knew it meant dying and dying over again and somehow managing to live, regardless. I have now embraced this -- The strength of breaking and molding myself back together. It will never get easier, but I have learned to pull myself out from the depths of hell time and time again.
Bipolar is characterized by cycles of mania and depression. In short, mania is an intense energy that usually comes wtih a lack of need for sleep, irrational decisions, impulsivity, and feeling extremely elevated. Needless to say, there are a lot of misconceptions about Bipolar disorder. Though I was a massive mental health advocate (and still am), I imagined that mania felt like feeling ecstatic, eccelerated, and thriled. Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t make the connection that my sleepless nights, scattered brain, starting multiple projects at 2 am, driving to the other side of the state with no sleep at 6 am tendencies, were apart of the disorder I couldn’t put a name to or begin to tame. My mania felt functional and it certainly felt better than being paralyzed in a dark room for months with dirty dishes piling up, days and days without showers, and an emptiness that destroyed me. But the mania always dissipated and I would always come down crashing back into the dark room and to the back of my eyelids because life certainly did not feel like living.
Coming to terms with my diagnosis was met with not only shock, but with dread knowing the kind of stigma that comes with it. Bipolar is a beast (That I have also learned is beautiful in it’s own way) and people are often terrified of the people that have it. When I told a couple of the people around me it was often met with the awkward silence and shifty eyes. The reality is that even the word “Bipolar,” had them turning away from me and dusting shame on their way out. I got the disturbed quiet, ‘“..Oh..” and the people telling me it wasn’t real and to just get over it. The diagnosis not only meant difficult medications and intensive therapy, but it was becoming evident to me that it included shame and isolation. The diagnosis had a host of issues but they never talk about how people will walk out on you based on your mental illness disorder.
The reality is that it is not curable. No amount of medication or cognitive behavior therapy will make it go away. Bipolar does not get better, but you do. Resilience is not a choice and even in the darkness of isolation, I knew that I owed it to myself to be an image of what it means to not only live, but thrive with bipolar disorder. I have Bipolar, but it does not mean that is what I am. I am an artist, a writer, a poet, a creative, a learner, an earth lover, star gazer, grass grazer, coffee enthusiast, human.
Coming to terms with my diagnosis was met with not only shock, but with dread knowing the kind of stigma that comes with it.
It is easier to shame and enable the darkness that Bipolar comes with. The diagnosis often feels like a death note and the statistics are not in favor of life. As many as one in five patients with bipolar will commit suicide. Bipolar patients have an expected a 9.2 years cutback on their lifespan. (https://www.dbsalliance.org/education/bipolar-disorder/bipolar-disorder-statistics/) Bipolar disorder is heartwrenching and heavy. But I deserve better than the statistics and shame. I deserve light, beauty, and community just as anyone else does. I have fought my way out of hell too many times to allow the stigma and misconceptions to define who I am.
In ‘An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness’ by Kay Refield Jamison, she recounts many, many intense episodes of her manic depressive disorder. Jamison was not diagnosed with her Bipolar disorder until later into her pusuit of becoming a clinical psychologist, unironically. Jamison explores her journey of harsh treament, lithium, loss, but most importantly, learning how to take care of the disorder and in a way makng the beast, beautiful.
“It was as if my father had given me, by way of temperament, an impossibly wild, dark, and unbroken horse. It was a horse without a name, and a horse with no experience of a bit between its teeth. My mother taught me to gentle it; gave me the discipline and love to break it; and- as Alexander had known so intuitively with Bucephalus- she understood, and taught me, that the beast was best handled by turning it toward the sun.”
“...the beast was best handled by turning it toward the sun…”
Bipolar is often a hereditary, a passed down illness, but being adopted can make things more questionable. There was no heads up, no hunches, no possible concerns that a young brown eyed, lively girl had that wrenching beast in her. There was no foreshadow for the dark circles around my eyes or the crippling depression that infested inside of me. You could not feel the beast sneaking up, until it came full force and charging into me.
The diagnosis was scary, and so was the beginning of treatment. Medication made it hard to even get out of bed. I was sleeping close to twenty hours a day and no matter what I did, I couldn’t shake the fatigue of the rapid cylcing between mania and depression. I cancelled classes and laid in bed close to month, regardless of the guilt. But ultimately, the diagnosis redemmed me and gave me an opportunity to take control of the narrative. I am learning to have grace for myself and patience as I continue to learn what works best to manage this beast. It’s a host of med adjustments, unstabilizing, restabilizing, cancelling classes, panic attacks, months laying in bed, months running around, and a list that could go on. But regardless, this disorder does not define me. It does not hold me hostage or decide who I am. It deos not disregard my humanness, my artistry, my love, my passion. Perhaps the beauty of bipolar is knowing an intesity of yes, pain, but of beauty too; knowing the darkness that can exist within me, but knowing the light that grows within me, harvesting the sacredity that lives in me.
I am learning to have grace and patience for myself as I continue to learn what works best to manage this beast.
I have no control over how people will continue to stigmatize and shame bipolar disorder. But even so, I refuse to hide in shame with my diagnosis. I am stronger because of it and will continue to shed light on an issue that so many would rather turn an eye to.
In the words of Kay Redfield Jamison, “ Chinese believe that before you can conquer a beast you first must make it beautiful. In some strange way, I have tried to do that with manic-depressive illness. It has been a fascinating, albeit deadly, enemy and companion; I have found it to be seductively complicated, a distillation both of what is finest in our natures, and of what is most dangerous.”
There is beauty in this mess, in manic depressive illness, in me, and I refuse to believe anything other than that.
Written by Sveta Petty
Photos by Jen Veloso