By Eleora Han, PhD
Sometimes life doesn’t turn out as you plan.
I learned this the hard way.
I was living a secure, comfortable life. Married and about to graduate with my doctoral degree, most of my thoughts were focused on the family we would start together. The baby we would have once I graduated.
Then, life happened. And with it, sleep deprivation. And mania.
An eventual bipolar diagnosis.
The diagnosis was a relief. But in many ways, it was only the beginning: it took time to heal and get back to a place where I felt like myself again. It took many months — years even — of medication and therapy before my sense of self and balance were restored.
Bipolar can bring with it many gifts, including artistic and emotional sensitivity and the confidence and vision to make art, dreams, and business plans come to life. But there is also a dark side — a side some of us know all too well.
For me, this dark side was so many things at once. It was sadness at all the truths it had unpeeled. It was guilt. It was shame. It was horror at the selfishness and destruction I had caused. It was grief. It was heartbreak from losing people I loved — the life and future I had built. It was a struggle for my life each day.
It took a lot of courage and hope each day, to wake up and look at myself in the mirror, with full knowledge of what I had done and what my life had become, of learning to live with actions I wasn’t proud of. It took my entire being to continue walking, when all I wanted to do was to die.
What was the hardest was that the pain all felt so deserved, that I had lost myself so fully, so deeply during my manic episode — when my mind wasn’t working the way it usually did and it became very difficult to discern up from down, North from South.
People recognize the strength it takes for individuals with serious health conditions to battle their illness. But I sometimes wonder if the strength it takes for some of us with mood conditions such as bipolar disorder and depression, are given the same recognition. This struggle is real, and it can be long, and it can be arduous, where you feel as if you are walking in a valley of a shadow of death.
And yet, as I struggled through the darkness, as I continued putting one foot in front of the other, something strange happened, something beautiful and real:
I found myself. And I found hope.
It was the smallest glimmer of it, but it was there. A faint voice calling me. But you haven’t yet written that book yet. You know, the one you’ve always wanted to.
No, it wasn’t some sort of deeply insightful voice and the reason it provided wasn’t profound. But it was sweet and it was gentle. It was kind. And so I went with it. I clung to it, followed it through the darkest of valleys.
And as I followed it, something strange happened. The hope grew. And I discovered that life could be worth living even with pain. That with darkness comes light. That sadness can coexist with joy. That life will give you second chances. And when they come, you can take them and live in that grace. And they can lead you to extraordinary places, as they have led me: alive and here. Writing to you.
I’ve made some horrible mistakes in my life. But I learned that life gives you second chances. That you can’t go back in time and change the past. But that you can transform it and create your own story.
This month is Suicide Prevention Month. And during this month, as a survivor of bipolar and the highs and lows it can bring — as a beneficiary of this community — my greatest wish is for you to know that life sometimes doesn’t work out the way you plan and that the resulting pain can be immense and can feel insurmountable. But it will be okay. No matter what has happened, no matter what you’ve done, you are loved. You are worthy.
It will take time. It won’t happen instantly. But slowly each day, you’ll heal. Not everyone will forgive you and not everyone will show you grace or love you. But in the process of working through those things, you’ll learn so much more about yourself and life — and you’ll find yourself growing and gaining a greater appreciation of the deepest things that life is about. You’ll learn to love yourself. You’ll learn about things like compassion, gratitude, and grace. And each day you are alive will bring with it a chance to use your pain and suffering and to transform it for goodness, for a greater purpose, for someone who may be struggling and need your experience to guide them through it.
So life will bring you second chances. And a third and fourth. That’s the beauty of it. Of all the pain and messiness, that through it all, there is strength and hope.