Illness Army: “On Encountering Bipolar Disorder”

I consider myself fortunate, blessed rather to have received an early diagnosis. At least I knew what was causing my symptoms. I’m sure I have issues that aren’t linked to my having bipolar disorder (BD) and it’s important to know the difference but that’s for another conversation.
There are people suffering with symptoms of mental illness who either don’t recognize them for what they are or have an inkling that it might be mental illness but remain in denial, not yet ready to face the likely stigma. Somewhat regrettably, I can’t readily identify with any of the above categories of persons. However, I think we all (including those without a mental illness) could benefit from mental illness prevention programs and anti-stigma interventions beginning at even the early childhood education level. Certainly there is much that could be done for prepubescence adolescents as it appears that mental illness often first manifests in the transition period between adolescence and young adulthood.
Although I am told I wasn’t an “easy” child and continue 30 years later to have recurrent sleeping issues, I first experienced- what I was told at the time “could be” BD- when I was 18. My family and I wouldn’t fully embrace the idea until about 5 years later, mainly because we didn’t have to. Following that first “episode” and after having seen a psychiatrist and taken a course of medication I left home to attend college abroad. I had recovered.
Now it would be remiss of me to not mention that the tragic death of a dear friend and primarily my having been a witness to his fatal car accident precipitated this first episode. I learned at the time that the shock of such an experience can cause one to have a breakdown even one involving psychosis as had mine. I also discovered that it might happen once and never again. As my mom put it in a conversation between her and me recently, we went with the idea of “it’s never happening again”.
Needless to say, it happened again and again and again and again.
There were roughly 2 years during my college life when I was well, I mean normal. I know you’re probably saying “who is normal anyway?” and I agree to an extent that normalcy is sort of relative and subjective even. However, there is something about losing all recognition of self which makes for a good definition of abnormality. Yes, I’ve been high on some intoxicating substance one or twice before but nothing to date could have compared with the combination of extraordinary thoughts, emotions and behaviour that would characterize my experience of insanity. This added to my complete inability in those times to exert any control over myself whatsoever I considered: not my normal. So for 2 years while in college, outside of being terribly homesick, I was normal.
By year #3, not so much; I began having mania again. Thank God I had a super-supportive social network both at home and in the US (where I was attending school). I survived without medication and minimal visits to the university health centre. By then, I had also met Jesus. I know now that His timing couldn’t have been better. I also know now that my journey with Him was in some ways just getting started.
Over the next 14 years I would endure grievous periods of depression and mania to incomprehensible degrees. Sometimes we assume that persons with bipolar disorder enjoy mania and it can be quite enjoyable. Mania for me has been easier to cope with than depression in the sense that I tend to feel better while it is happening at least at the beginning. When depressed, coupled with feelings of utter desolation comes an overwhelming desire to be non-existent with an increasing confidence that the world would indeed be better off for having been rid of me.
This is worrying to say the least. I’m still not sure, if I had to choose at which extreme to remain whether it would be depression or mania. After a certain point however, during mania, maybe around the time when delusions and hallucinations begin to centre stage along with irritability, restlessness and fear, it all becomes a downward spiral: a bad scene (as my sister would say).
Then, depending on how well I’ve learned to cope, there’s no telling when I’ll move from being rabidly manic to being depressed.
Now feelings/ emotions are only one part of the equation. With mental illness, thoughts (cognition and perception) and behaviour are all severely affected. Often times there are also physical manifestations that come as a result of being psychologically impaired. It can get pretty ugly and let me say here, stigma doesn’t help, whether it be that emanating from others or from within.
To date I have been less often depressed than I have been manic and most recently I’ve had more hypomania than anything else. Admittedly, that too I consider a blessing. In fact, my entire experience with bipolar disorder I consider to be much better than it would have been had I not been sharing the experience with some amazing people. My parents have been irrationally committed; my sister and her family: devotedly consistent; my other relatives: unchangingly present; my friendships: rewardingly sufficient; my psychiatrist: patient, effective and optimistic; my church family: relentlessly prayerful and loving; my academic community: entirely understanding and willing to help; my local bipolar support group members: genuine and consistent and the wider community of illness survivors: exemplary.
I don’t believe in coincidences. My having a relationship with God Himself has made all the difference. It has made me realize that despite all the pain, confusion, frustration and anger shrouded in the setbacks and losses associated with ill-health, I have an eternal supply of joy and hope. Through the relationships He has given me, rather than through the accomplishments I have made, I continue to thrive with mental illness.

The author of this post, Daina, is a 35 year old Jamaican Aunty, pursuing a Masters degree in Psychology and more often than not, loving her life in Christ. She is not yet married and resides with her parents and dog. Diana is looking forward to becoming more of an advocate for people living with mental illness through her blog through academic and vocational pursuits.

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