I’ve had a mental illness since the day I was born. And I’ll have it when I die. I am bipolar. I know that officially, onset is generally in the late teens or early twenties. There is some truth to that I think. I suppose that the first documented episode probably doesn’t happen until you approach adulthood. But I can tell you, it’s not something that just happens at a certain time in life. You don’t just wake up one morning and find you are mentally ill. No, I believe it’s just something you’re born with.
I’ve pondered before about had difficult it was growing up. Initially, I didn’t really realize that I was different, but as I became more aware of my surroundings and my interactions with others, I knew that something wasn’t right. I may not have been having major depressive episodes, or been in a full blown mania, but even then my moods were more extreme than my peers. Especially depression; I remember being sad almost all the time. Now, for over 50 years, I’ve had this illness that has been a part of my life.
I wonder: what’s it like to not live with a mental illness?
Sometimes it’s more evident than others. Other times it’s almost possible to forget about it. When I’m in the very depths of a depression or high as a kite with mania, I don’t really think about having an illness at all. The intensity of the mood completely overwhelms the awareness of the cause. It’s when I’m coming out of one of the extremes that I think I’m most aware. The memory of the episode is fresh, and I hate my disease for causing so much pain. I believe that’s why most suicides occur either just before or just after an episode; primarily depression. When it’s really bad, for me anyway I just done have the energy to make any decision, much less a life or death one. It’s when I know it’s coming, or I can be aware of just how bad it’s been is when I’m most likely to take that step.
It’s not always that way though. Prior to my diagnoses I would have long periods of time where I felt normal. I wasn’t of course, but being in complete denial I just didn’t know that my behaviors weren’t like everyone else. Even when I went through a bad time, I just believed that it was just that; a bad time. There was always an excuse to justify my actions, or the way that I felt. Since I accepted my illness though, what was driving my personality and behaviors became obvious. Now I knew. What controlled my life became front and center.
I’ve been doing really well for some time now. It’s been almost two years since my last episode, and even my mood swings have become very appropriate. There are long periods of time where I don’t even think about being bipolar. When I’m out with friends, at work, or spending time with my girlfriend I am just living. Since my behaviors are not so extreme anymore, I’m just ‘one of the guys’. I feel normal. Typically though when I’m alone is when I remember; I’m mentally ill. And I think that even when I’m in that normal stage, in the back of my mind it’s always there. I’m constantly monitoring my moods and my reactions and interactions; looking for signs or warnings that I’m losing control. I actively use relaxation skills and other coping mechanisms t hat I’ve learned in therapy on a daily basis. I get upset at work? I sit back, breathe deeply, and visualize my happy place. Likewise when the stress gets overwhelming or there’s too much pressure. I step away from the situation and focus on the goodness, and everything around me; the taste of the apple I’m eating; the warmth of my coffee cup; all the sounds and sights of my surroundings. Then I can go back to whatever I’m doing with renewed energy and attitude. No, that’s not because I’m bipolar, but it’s a byproduct of living with it. Even as an abstract, the illness is impacting my day to day living.
Bipolar Personality Disorder is a lifelong illness, and there is no cure. Through proper medication and therapy it can be managed, and there are times where it doesn’t seem to be a problem at all.. But it never really goes away. Whether or not I was cognizant of why I do the things I do, this illness has ruled every aspect of my life. I know that I’m not alone, and bipolar personality disorder isn’t even near the top of the list of life altering conditions. But it’s at the top of my list and has created the man I am, for better or worse. Yes, there are people born blind or deaf. Poverty can create a living environment that can be incomprehensible to others more fortunate. Other illness such as Multiple Sclerosis or Epilepsy can completely alter a life in ways that can’t be fathomed. But normal is the vast majority statistically. In a mental hospital, it’s normal to be crazy. But in the world normal are just people dealing with the common everyday. There are mortgages and rent to pay, difficulties with work, family crisis, marriages and divorces, and death. These are things we all deal with just being humans. I deal with all that as well, just like everybody else has to. But this disease I was born with changes and shape all these things and make them not normal. Not knowing what it’s like to live without being bipolar I can only imagine what it’s like to live without it. I’ve learned to live with all the ups and downs, avoid getting involved in situations that will hurt others, and become very adept at cleaning up messes I create. My goal has been to be normal. Being bipolar is my normal.
And I can live with that.