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How I live with bipolar disorder

I haven’t written for too long, my insides are on the verge of explosion. I mean, I’ve been writing every day - about the three stabbings last week, the dozens of civilians killed in Ukraine, and how most bike accidents happen in spring - but I haven’t written for myself.

I haven’t touched my diary in weeks. I don’t blame myself - my life has been busy and I’ve been focusing on keeping myself alive - but I can feel it.

Writing is my coping mechanism. Now that I’m out of therapy (yay! for now), I need to use the tools I have to make sure I stay on the rails. And if I forget, or if I stop paying attention to my mental health for a minute, it often goes down quite quickly.

An incurable disorder

“Bipolar disorder, or manic depression, has no known cure,” the internet tells me. “It is a chronic health condition that requires lifetime management.”

But even when the sick are incurable, they are never untreatable.

"When treated, plenty of people with this condition do well; they have families and jobs and live normal lives."

That’s the gist of it. Two years ago, I wrote about what living with bipolar is like. That piece explains the disorder and my intense experience with it. It was just months after I was hospitalised and diagnosed.

Two years later, I am living, what some would call, a normal life. I have a job I love and do well at, I have a dog I take care of as much as he takes care of me, and I am generally quite stable and functioning for a 22-year-old.

I’ve spent years in therapy, which has helped me immensely, and I am on antipsychotics and antidepressants that make the mood swings a lot more bearable. The lows are less low and the highs are less high than before I was diagnosed, and they don't last nearly as long.

But that doesn’t mean my bipolar is cured, or that I don’t deal with it on a near-daily basis.

My moods still swing. I use an app to track my moods daily, and it is usually all over the place. If you hit all the moods in a week, you get a notification: "What a rollercoaster!" Damn right, what a rollercoaster.

Little Easter breakdown

Yesterday, I took a train from Brussels to Amsterdam. It’s the Easter weekend, so I figured I would spend some time in the Netherlands with my family.

But I had the biggest breakdown I had since Christmas, and I didn’t think I was worth a dime when I woke up three hours after the train I booked had already left the country. It took me all the strength I had to still drag myself out of bed, pack my things, and somehow carry myself and my dog to the train station with three bags and no will to live.

I did it, and I’m glad I did, but it’s an example of how mental illness still affects my life.

Don't go with the flow

I no longer have three-month-long manic episodes or depression that lasts for a year, and I haven’t been anywhere close to a psychosis since my last one, but my moods swing around uncontrollably, and it’s up to me to deal with that as well as I can.

In a way, it’s about accepting what is happening to you and sitting with your feelings - though “going with the flow” is not an option for bipolar.

If I would give in to my moods, whether the euphoric hypomania or the paralysing depression, I would be off the rails again in no time.

It is counter-intuitive to constantly do the opposite of what you want to do. When I get a few days of hypomania, I want to go out, meet people, sleep little, and spend lots. But as soon as I give in to that urge, it will only get worse. The last time I did, I started hallucinating voices and visions after a month of little to no sleep.

When I’m going through paralysing depression, the only thing I can think of is hiding in bed until it leaves. But hiding in bed doesn’t make it leave at all. It’s going outside and forcing myself to do things I do not feel like, like meeting people and moving my body, that cures depression.

Just like I couldn’t imagine myself getting on the train yesterday, yet somehow here I am, in my tiny hometown in the Netherlands. And while it was, in that moment, the last thing I wanted to do, somewhere deep down I knew it would be good for me if I went.

Living with an unpredictable mind is tough because you never know what is good for you. Going out to meet friends can get you out of a bad mood, but if you go and realise that there’s nothing more you want than to leave again, it only makes you feel worse.

When I’m feeling good, I’ll have the urge to spend a lot, drink a lot, go out a lot, and meet as many people as possible. The more I do that, and the less I eat, sleep and take care of myself, the worse the crash afterwards becomes.

As boring and annoying as it is, it is best to not give in to those urges and drink a cup of chamomile tea instead. The last time I just “went with it” I ended up in a psych ward.

Planning ahead - responsibly

Living with bipolar is also about planning, and making the most out of the good times in a healthy and responsible way. I make grandiose and brave plans for my future when I’m manic - often things I don’t want to do at all when I’m depressed.

But when it comes to it, and you’ve made the plans, and you’ve paid the price, I often still tell myself to follow along - because why not. And often, it helps me get out of that hellhole.

For instance, I remember how I spent weeks planning and organising my exchange to Melbourne a year before I went. Just two months before it was actually about to happen, I went through a horrible depressive episode.

I had been down for months on end and nothing seemed to be able to change that - not my therapist, not my (first-ever) antidepressants, not my friends being there for me. My mum wondered whether it would be a good idea to fly to the other side of the planet by myself in that state of mind.

But I did, and my god, am I happy I did. Three years have passed and that exchange semester and the summer afterwards are still the best time of my life. It got me into a whole new world, which was apparently enough to drag me out of the darkness of depression.

An unpredictable journey

It’s not always like that. Right after my semester in Australia and months of scuba diving in Asia, I went on an Erasmus exchange in Lyon. It was the worst thing for my mind. While the city was great, I found really amazing friends, and the weather was perfect, I spent my two months in the city uncontrollably crying and wishing I was dead.

Depression feels like being a heavy ghost inside of a human body, not being able to do anything “normal” people do, yet somehow having to fit in the functioning world that you feel you don’t belong in. It is the heaviest feeling, and once you’re in it, your mind tells you there is no way out.

In a way, I’m “lucky” that I have bipolar, and not only depression. I shouldn’t say that, because mania isn’t fun and can actually be a lot more dangerous than depression, as you become reckless rather than paralysed, but it’s true. Because at least I know there are times where I have felt and will feel extreme joy - and that is something to hold on to.

It’s a journey. That’s what it is. Because I couldn’t have said any of this a year or two ago, and I’m still learning as I go. I’ve learnt to trust the tiny tiny voice of sanity in the back of my mind that tells me there will be better times when I am depressed. And I usually know when to stop the recklessness when I’m feeling too great and excited.

It’s a lot, living with mental illness.

It might not seem that way because thanks to therapy and medication, I found my way out of the worst depths and heights of the disorder, and that has absolutely saved my life on several occasions. I have my coping mechanisms, my support network (though not in Brussels), my dog and my job. I am doing fine.

But bipolar cannot be cured, it can only be dealt with. Learning to live with it still is my main goal and focus in life, because I know I am nowhere without mental health. It’s tough, but I manage. Somehow I manage.



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