Learning to Love Myself—and My Bipolar Disorder | NAMI

Learning to Love Myself—and My Bipolar Disorder

By Jenna Hall

I grew up unknowingly around mental illness. To me, it was the norm. I didn’t know any different; I thought the emotions inside of me and in those around me were just that intense. I thought life was just that unstable. I tried my hardest to overcome that instability by excelling in school, by being good at something. I tried to channel all those impossible emotions. It worked, for about 21 years. I was incredibly intelligent and driven and successful, but I was also tormented by my mind. When I was 16, my mom brought me to the family doctor who evaluated me for suicidal tendencies. I refused the antidepressants and outright dismissed any notion that there was anything wrong with me. My junior year of college, my mind finally imploded.

I went into a full-speed, head-on, no brakes mania. I dropped out of college with two semesters left in my physics degree. I moved across the U.S. I got hitched to a guy I met online weeks earlier. Speeding tickets and concerned parents and credit card bills were like annoying little gnats, barely infiltrating the hurricane that had become my soul.

I thought this was all just life. This was perfectly normal. I didn’t know mania existed, I didn’t know mental illness existed. I was along for the ride. But eventually the ride crashed and I ended up alone, bankrupt, and locked up in a psych ward for a suicide attempt. I was diagnosed with major depression and put on medication. I went home to live and recover with my parents. I didn’t like the meds, I didn’t think I needed them. I was fine. My dad agreed. My mom wanted to agree, wanted me to be okay. Everything was downplayed. I don’t blame myself or them for that; we just wanted everything to be “back to normal.” But six months later, I cycled into a medication fueled mania. I had been misdiagnosed, as is commonly the case for people with bipolar disorder and the antidepressants were actually making me worse, spiking my mood way too high.

I again moved cross-country, and again moved in with a man I had just met online. I went off my meds. I started back in school, but couldn’t maintain my grades. I was hectic and impulsive, burning out of control. The one day, I dropped right down into a black hole, into a very deep depression. I didn’t leave my bed. I kept a butcher knife under my pillow because there were people out there trying to get inside and harm me. I saw shadow people and flickers of demons and heard voices whispering my name over and over. I found myself in the Student Health Center, being emergency evaluated by a staff therapist. The next day I was in the psychiatrist’s office.

For the first time, someone sat down with me and took a detailed history of my family and my moods and my behaviors. I had never thought to examine them for a pattern. I was just living, spiraling out of control, but still thinking that’s just how life was. The psychiatrist saw right through me. He diagnosed me that day with Bipolar I Disorder and put me on a different medication. But it is not a fast-acting cure-all. The following week, I was back in a psych ward for suicidal thoughts. This time was different. This time something clicked. I had heard of bipolar disorder, but I had stigmatized, stereotypical ideas about what people with bipolar disorder were like. And up until that point, I definitely was not one of them. But on that day, October 4, 2011, I realized I was one of them. And the next four years were a whirlwind of trying to understand what that meant.

I took my meds. I always took my meds. I didn’t want this bipolar disorder. I wanted a cure, I wanted a fix. I wanted to pop a pill and be okay. I believed in the power of medicine. I read that therapy helped, too. I started therapy. I attended a support group. I joined a mental health awareness club at school. I devoured any information I could get my hands on. I read articles and books and testimonials and more articles. I thought to myself, “This is how I will get better.”

But I was naive. I was going through the motions, but I was not doing the real work of learning to live with a serious mental illness. I was jumping through hoops. How was I to know any better? Everyone and everything talked about this magical place called Stability. Stability was the goal, it could be achieved. It could be maintained. This terrible disease could go into remission. At least that’s what the world told me.

But what the hell was stability? How did it feel? My whole life up until this point had been a whirlwind of emotion, of ups and downs and ups and downs. How would I know when I was stable? Would I feel happy, or would that just be the beginnings of mania? Would I feel tired and stressed and kind of sad, or was that just depression? Would I feel nothing, like floating in a void? I started to search for it. To dissect every emotion. I kept charts, I kept records, I kept journals. I cognitive-behavioral-therapied my every thought and emotion. I was hyper-aware of my moods and obsessively analyzed them. Stability remained out of reach. Although I stayed on my medication and a litany of others for years, I could never get to a place where I felt like bipolar did not control my life. I over identified with it. I became my illness.

I lived that way for four years, trying different meds, talking in circles in therapy, reading the same kinds of articles, and having the same obsessive thoughts. I was in and out of psych wards. The medication was culling my manias but doing virtually nothing for my depressions. One year ago, I was in another hospital, suicidal and hopeless. This time, however, some things changed.

The hospital psychiatrist took me off of my medication and put me on a brand new one. I was on a very low dose, but improved, and was released to the care of my personal psychiatrist. I was also referred to an intensive outpatient therapy program, which was a first for me. I did the four weeks of therapy, acknowledging that I felt like I had learned new coping skills. I believed I was finally on the road to recovery. This time would be different. I could reach stability once and for all.

Nothing changed. I had maybe learned to be more aware of my mood cycles, maybe learned more about myself, maybe took a more successful medication, but it was still the same endless rat-race to the mythical stability. I still thought medication was the most important key to my return to normalcy. As my dosage slowly increased my mood lifted. I got up to the max dose, but the depression was stubborn. It wasn’t giving up. My mood plummeted in August. An antidepressant was added to my repertoire. I became suicidal. By now, I feared being hospitalized. I refused to go. I was helpless, hopeless. I was never getting better. My life would be endless pain and struggle, living in extremes and never finding a center. What was the point of living a life like that? I had tried everything and nothing worked. I gave up.

But my boyfriend wouldn’t let me give up and die. I am so thankful that I had someone in my life who took control when I wasn’t able to. He called every hospital in south Texas, searching for outpatient therapy programs, researching electro-convulsive therapy, getting me emergency appointments with my psychiatrist and therapist. I was the most terrified I had ever been in my life and I was utterly paralyzed by it.

I eventually agreed to go back and repeat the intensive outpatient therapy I had done in January after being released from the hospital. This time, though, something was different. I was despondent and hopeless at first. I didn’t participate, thinking it was all just a pointless sham. But I listened to the others in my group, and I related to them. I slowly opened up. The therapist was incredibly skilled at pinpointing emotions and issues and asking all the right questions. I had revelations over that month of therapy sessions. Revelations about my past, my relationships, myself. Revelations about bipolar disorder.

I am still processing these revelations. My therapist made me stop journaling and charting. I discovered I also have obsessive compulsive disorder and it likes to manifest as obsessive negative thoughts. I started anxiety medication and started dealing with it in therapy. For the first time I was becoming aware that I had been chasing smoke signals. There was no cure. There was no “stability.” This was my life. The ups and the downs, the anxiety. This is actually the most healing thing I have come to realize: I define my own version of self and what I can and cannot do. I am still wrapping my mind around this, so it is somewhat difficult for me to explain.

Within all those extremes, there exists millions of moments. Moments of joy, moments of pain. Moments of hope, and of hopelessness. Moments of being paralyzed by anxiety and fear, and moments of feeling like I can conquer the world. Endless, ever-changing moments. I realized everyone experiences these moments. The only thing that makes me different is that I experience them a little bit more fully, a little bit more intensely. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When I realized this, I stopped identifying as bipolar. I am not my disorder. It is just a convenient label attached to me for the convenience of my medical professionals.

I am just a person with emotions, albeit strong ones. I started focusing on how to react to these emotions, instead of just endlessly cataloging them. I started connecting the dots of my past and my present and my future and how it all affects my self-image and therefore my emotions. I started identifying my triggers, learning my warning signs. And most importantly, I learned to objectively and patiently sit with my emotions and moods. I realized that amidst all these moments was continual change. Nothing ever stays the same. I also learned that I really have no control over how I feel. Medication certainly helps dampen emotions, but does not erase them. What I can control is what I do with those feelings, and what I have learned to do is to sit with them and feel them wash over me and wait for the next feeling. It is overwhelming and terrible to sit through the bad feelings, but recognizing them and that they will change gives me power. At the same time, this patience allows me to really appreciate the good moments, and to truly feel contentment.

I’m a work in progress. I always will be. We all are. But now I am willing to do the real work, the internal work, on myself. A pill is not going to cure me. I have to cure myself. I feel empowered. I feel like I have grown as a person, into a better person, because of all this. My emotions will never go away and I no longer want them to. I experience thousands of emotions in a day, some are very strong and some are fleeting. But the difference now is this: I realize that this is stability. Not the absence of pain and chaos, but learning to accept it and live with it and incorporate it into my life. My mind will always be a whirlwind, and I will always be prone to falling off of precipices and flying into the clouds, but for the first time in my life I am okay with that and I am living.


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