I’ve lived with Bipolar Disorder for more or less my entire life. Even though the symptoms didn’t develop until late teens, even my early years were marked with issues and problems. Yet, I’ve made it 52 years and counting. Lately I’ve been thinking… how have I managed over all these years? How do you live with being bipolar?
Until my diagnosis a couple of years ago, I couldn’t always live with it. There was more than one time where I attempted suicide. It started with the Lithium overdose when I was in my early thirties. That first attempt was very close to being successful too. By the time I made it to the hospital my blood level was 3.15. For those who know about the therapeutic range of Lithium you’ll know just how toxic this is. That attempt cost me a month in a mental hospital, and as a result I can’t tolerate Lithium to this day. There was another attempt a few years later, but I really don’t remember much about it. I have no idea what I took, or how much, and I have no memory about being in the emergency room or even being transported back to the mental hospital. I only have a vague memory of the unpleasant results of ingesting charcoal. I wrecked my car twice. During those times, not knowing what was wrong with me I was looking for a way out of the misery. Yet, despite of my best efforts, I survived.
It’s been different since my diagnosis. Sure, there have been plenty of times where what I was going through has been too much; but even then, in the back of my head there is an understanding that it was coming from the illness that it would pass got me through it. There are those that believe my overdose last summer was another attempt, but I still maintain that it was accidental… consciously anyway. And now I seem to have found the right combination of medications, therapy, and lifestyle that the worst of the illness is under control.
It’s under control, but still there.
So having to live with this is something I’m going to have to deal with the rest of my life.
It goes without saying that I’ll be on medication until the day I die. My therapist tells me that as you age, the illness can improve on its own. I’m already in my 50’s though, and if there’s a difference, I can’t see it. Like most bipolar people, there’s the thought that when things are going well, I don’t need the medication anymore. I start to question if I’m really bipolar after all, and think that the medications aren’t needed anymore. But now I know better. No matter how I feel, the meds are essential.
Therapy is also something I’ll have to continue indefinitely too. I’ve decreased the frequency from once a week to every other week, but I can’t imagine not going at all. She helps keep me grounded, and we’re always working on developing tools and reinforcing my successes.
I’m always on my guard. I’ve learned many signs that indicate a mood change, and I also know certain environments and behaviors can trigger a swing. Keeping an eye on all of these helps me anticipate a problem and take steps to prevent it. If I don’t catch it early, it can get out of control in a hurry.
But I think the most important way to live is to be aware, accepting, and completely honest with myself. Remembering that I’ve got this lifelong disease keeps the focus and awareness that I have to constantly be actively in control. And I’ve learned that if I honestly look at my feelings and behaviors, and reacting to them keeps me from deceiving myself and getting into trouble.
But that’s me. Everybody has their own ways; or not.
Through hospitalizations and support groups I’ve met an awful lot of fellow sufferers. And I’ve seen many different ways that people react. Some of the people I’ve met just wallow in their disease. In most, depression is the predominant feature, and I’ve know those who just embrace that misery. Then there are those who ignore it altogether, and doom themselves to constant cycling. Like myself up until a few years ago, they may not even be aware that the have this illness, just that they are unhappy and constantly are in trouble.
There are those who choose to die.
There is no judgment with how anyone deals with this disease. We all do the best we can with what we have. If it’s ignored, it could very well just one of the symptoms. This is a very strong disease, and can manipulate thoughts and feelings beyond control. But I know that there are those too who actively choose to ignore it, especially when dealing with the mania. In many cases, mania can be fun and exciting. It’s easy to give in and enjoy the ride.
But there’s another side to this. How do you live with someone who is bipolar?
I’ll admit, I have no real basis to understand how anyone does this. I have been involved with others who are bipolar, but even then, it’s not the same as how someone without the illness has to cope. I have empathy and understanding that can only come from living with the disease yourself. I can only surmise, and honestly, I know that my thinking is colored by how I’d like to be treated.
That being said; I think that there are some things that are obvious to me that come into play. Even if there is an acceptance from both people who are involved, it doesn’t always take away the effects and the consequences. Acceptance doesn’t always mean control. There can still be constant crisis, drama, and recovery from the results of an episode. Uncontrolled, it never stops. In spite of understanding and sympathy of the unaffected person, it has to wear them down eventually. In my opinion, it takes a very exceptional individual who can have the patience and stamina to deal with this long term.
Often times no one knows exactly what they’re dealing with. Like all those years when I either didn’t know of my disease, I just struggled through the symptoms without any clue as to what was going on. I can only imagine how difficult that must have been to accept. I was just crazy.
And what of those who through denial, or ignorance, or active choice make no attempt to get better? That has to be the most frustrating of all. You know what is wrong, and that it can often be controlled and managed, yet it doesn’t get any better. And it doesn’t get any better because the person just doesn’t put the effort into accepting and fighting the disease. It’s a lame analogy, but I think about someone having a toothache, but refusing to go to the dentist to have it fixed. They moan and groan, complain about the pain, and just let themselves miserable even though it can be resolved. After just a little while, it’s very difficult to be sympathetic.
I’m not saying it can’t be done. In all circumstances there are those who remain supportive and patient for year after year. Honestly, I don’t know how anyone does this. I’m a fairly patient guy, but I know I have my own limits. But they do. And God bless them. It’s a very luck individual who has someone like that in their life; whether friends, family, significant other or spouse. It’s a blessing.
And then there are those who can’t deal with it. It is a heavy burden to bear, and often more than can be carried. It may not have anything to do with how much love there is, or the level of sympathy and understanding; it can just be too much.
I think that how everybody ends up living with this illness, whether sufferers or caregivers, it is as unique as they are. I don’t believe there is a right or wrong way. Personalities, history, severity, and environment all feed into the reactions and tolerance. We are all different, and we can only do the best we can.
How do you live with bipolar disorder? You just do.
Or you don’t.