What It's Like To Have Bipolar Disorder

Glenna Gill

How I’m learning to live with mental illness.


Every three or four weeks, I’ll have a morning where I wake up energized, happy, and serene. I might even say something to my husband about it.

“You know what? I feel really good today.”

He doesn’t say much, just nods his head. I like to think it gives him relief, knowing that my bipolar disorder is going into a positive cycle. There are too many days where the opposite is true.

I start making lists of things I want to get done while I’m slightly manic (usually for a few days before I crash). My official diagnosis is bipolar type II, which means my mania is less intense than in people with bipolar I. I may talk a little more than usual or do some impulse buying at the store. I’m grateful I don’t have bipolar I that causes risky and dangerous behavior or leads people to spend an exorbitant amount of money. Still, before I knew what was wrong with me, I caused a lot of damage, mostly to myself.

When I feel stable or slightly manic, I may clean out all the closets or get all the way caught up on laundry. I definitely want to write much more and can sometimes get out four articles a week. That’s much better than the two or three I write on average. I bust my butt all day long, feeling super productive and in a great mood. I get as much done as I possibly can. This is because I don’t know how long the calm is going to last before the next wave of mental illness swallows me.

There is no rhyme or reason to these cycles I go through. Nothing bad has usually happened in my life when the downside occurs. It’s almost like turning a light switch on and off, the difference between being paralyzed by mental illness and feeling “normal.” When I sink down into depression, I can’t move or gather my thoughts clearly. Random negative thoughts go through my head. I’d never believe mean things about myself in an “up” cycle, but when the bad times come I’m just not sure they are lies.

My most debilitating symptom is anxiety that happens no matter what my mood is doing. I can actually feel the adrenaline flooding my body in a fight-or-flight response. The only thing I can compare it to is leaning back in a chair and that moment you feel yourself slip before you fall. The slip itself is where the anxiety stays, right when you’re flailing and not sure you can steady yourself. I feel like this nearly all the time.

There are times when I have scary flashbacks of things from my past, leaving me to shake, shiver, and hide. Everything is dark, and I’m afraid the light will never come back. I try to tell myself that the light will come back like it always does, but I don’t listen. I don’t feel I can trust myself anymore.

The depression end of the illness is heartbreakingly severe at times. I’m stuck in bed crying. Work is impossible even though I work from home. I’m lucky if I can do a couple of dishes. Hate and anger bubble up inside of me, all directed at myself. I fear I’m setting a bad example for my daughter, and I’m scared my husband will get tired of living with this illness all the time and split, even though he’s never said anything remotely like that.

Then, just when I think I can’t take it anymore, the fog lifts, and I can see the bright light again.

Sometimes I feel like bipolar disorder has hijacked the majority of my life. While I’m grateful to still have good times when I feel at peace, it’s hard not to resent what this disease has stolen from me. It’s taken my money, gotten me fired from jobs, crushed my relationships with loved ones, and affected my ability to manage my life in a meaningful way. It’s like flipping a coin and never knowing which side will turn up. I’m fully at its mercy.

I know bipolar disorder just means the chemicals don’t work right in my brain. Even when I use every tool I have to settle them down, sometimes it just doesn’t help. Accepting that has been the hard part. It’s not enough to just live with it. I just want to fix it in the worst way. I have a great therapist and take my medication every day, but the bad times come no matter what I do. However, there are a few things I do to get through the rough spots and make them more bearable.

I started charting my mood every day using a 0/5 scale for my anxiety. I don’t have enough information yet to be sure, but I’m hoping to recognize a pattern between the good weeks and the bad weeks and plan for them accordingly. I make a note if something exceptional (good or bad) happened because I want to know how much of my depression stems from bipolar disorder or reacting to things around me.

If there is a distinct pattern over time, I hope that will make it easier to plan things around my good moods like appointments and such. It’s so hard to get out of the house during depressive and/or anxiety episodes, so anything I can do to lessen those trips when I feel sick would be helpful.

Having bipolar disorder is often frustrating, but doing self-care when I’m feeling well does help later when I’m stuck weeping on the couch. I’m trying to accept that this is the way my brain works while at the same time making life more comfortable to live in.

If I’m armed with knowledge and the willingness to fight, maybe I’ll remember that my illness always comes and goes, much like everything in life. I just have to be willing to go with the flow.

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I write about lifestyle issues, including such topics as parenting, mental illness, family, substance abuse, marriage/divorce, and inspiration. My hope is that these stories will help people suffering from similar issues by reading about other's experiences.

West Palm Beach, FL

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