Author: Elizabeth Horner
Bipolar Disorder is a tricky illness, even when we think we have it mastered. Fine-tuning our medications, ensuring consistent sleep, eating well, therapy, and balancing stability at work and in our personal lives can feel like carefully setting up a complex Domino course and then praying that everything falls in its place. However, even with the best intensions, mental illness can reach into our most elaborate and well-thought-out plans and with one swipe, ruin our efforts that may have taken months or even years to create. After all, there’s only so much we can control. Life circumstances have their own agenda and sometimes it feels like stability gets washed away before our very eyes. We are suddenly left with half the number of Dominos and are trying to desperately recreate what we once had before another wave comes. So how do we navigate these waters? How do we maintain stability? And perhaps most importantly, how do we rebuild?
Shortly after having my 4th child, I began a new job. I had been stable for a long enough time that I no longer really considered my mental health to be an issue. It seemed to be maintaining itself, so to speak. However, starting a new job and returning to work after years of staying home with my children was a major life shift. I failed to give it the attention it deserved and made no adjustments to any aspect of my life in anticipation. After a few months I began sleeping less and less. My excitement for work reached a fever-pitch. I was signing up for project after project. My mind was constantly racing, my heart consistently felt like it was going to beat out of my chest. I developed an absolute euphoric love for life. At night I could hear the voice of an angel, which just further confirmed to me that I was on the right path. It never occurred to me to call my psychiatrist. If you had told me to consult a priest, that would have made more sense to me at the moment. As many of us know, the higher we fly into mania, the less likely we are to see that’s what it is. It wasn’t until my doctor started probing about my lack of sleep at our next appointment and my newfound interest in spiritual matters that my world came crashing down. I realized I was in the middle of an escalating episode. Thankfully, I managed to stay out of the hospital and we were able to manage this episode at home with medication changes, strict guidelines about sleep, and close monitoring. Nevertheless, it required me taking time off work and the whole experience left me feeling like a failure. I was shattered. My credibility had been damaged, I had the aftermath with my family to attend to, and was left to pick up each piece I had blown apart. Nobody who has gone through a manic episode can say they enjoy picking up the pieces. It’s flat out embarrassing. However, I refused to let my life be defined by my most recent episode so I picked up each piece. One at a time.
Sometimes it’s a quick comeback, as my previous example. Other times, the comeback takes many months or possibly years depending on the person and situation. A few years after that particular manic episode, I fell into a deep suicidal and psychotic depression. It was initially a slow spiral downward but like a coin spinning down a funnel, I fell into a deep, dark hole that had no light and no way out. I slept most of every day, stopped eating, stopped being able to care for my children, attend work, and thought that if I could just end my life, everybody around me would be alleviated from the burden of my existence. My thoughts began to lose their grip on reality and I ended up in the hospital. This was partly helpful, partly tortuous. The hardest part was having zero control over when I could leave. I wanted to see my children, but couldn’t. Each day felt like agony. My medications were increased, which helped but did not solve the issue. Eventually, they felt I was safe enough to return home but I had months and months of recovery ahead of me. It took nearly a year for me to regain my previous level of functioning and find happiness again. I had to leave my job, withdraw from grad school, and slowly rebuild everything that had slipped away from me.
I’ve had many of these manic and depressive phases since my diagnosis resulting in me finding, maintaining, and losing stability several times. I used to think that once stability was maintained, that would be the end – I would never decompensate. This naivety was the result of failing to see the bigger picture of what actually comprised mental health. It requires constant attention and finely tuned adjustments. Mental health, if we want to support it, also requires a healthy dose of self-awareness. Without recognizing our warning signs for when another episode is coming, we can fail to stop it in time. It also requires having trusted individuals who can speak up when they spot behavior that may go unnoticed by us. But even with the best of intentions and the most intricately laid out Dominos of self-care, mania and depression can still happen. I can safely say that the key to continuing on with life during these times is resiliency. The ability to keep showing up, getting back in the ring, picking up the pieces, and starting again is just a part of life for those of us who live with Bipolar Disorder. Have I had failed dreams? Yes, I’ve had many and while I grieve for what I’ve lost, I also keep moving forward and finding a new goal to set my sights on. Depression will tell you that it will never happen. Mania will tell you that you can manifest your deepest dreams with the blink of an eye. Stability tells us we can rebuild and move forward. It tells us we are capable of building meaningful lives. And even if the final picture may not be what we originally imagined, it’s no less beautiful.