Part 18 of the Surviving Bipolar Series.
Adjusting to life with bipolar disorder is never easy, and my journey had it’s rough points. This part tells how numbness, nightmares, and Neverland were all part of my experience.
Hook was my favorite movie. It came out a few years before I went to the hospital. I owned it on VHS (yep, I’m getting old) and watched it every chance I got.
I connected with Hook (sponsored) for two reasons. One, it was fantasy. I needed to escape the chaos in my mind, so I looked for all the fantasy I could find. Two, there was a part of me that thought I forgot who I was. I identified with Peter Banning because I knew had a similar story to his.
Watching the movie made me feel at home. Very few things made me feel so secure.
Only a few weeks had passed since I left the hospital. I was trying desperately to comprehend my new bipolar 1 disorder diagnosis. Every time I said the words out loud, it felt like a whispered secret. The label was a mystery and foreign to me. My brain struggled to make the connection between the words and what I felt. None of it felt real.
I was doing the right things, but still had so far to go. Here are the three biggest problems I was facing.
Surviving Bipolar is a monthly series about the early days after my bipolar disorder diagnosis. Read it from the beginning here.
I wanted to blame it on medicine, and maybe they were partly to blame, but I felt nothing most of the time. Even when I felt sad, I couldn’t feel the depth of the emotion. I wrote about adjusting to life with bipolar disorder in my journal:
“I wish I could cry. Lord knows, I feel like I need to. A few times today I tried. It didn’t work. As hard as I try, there is a stronger part of me that holds the tears inside.”
Even though I wanted to feel something, I also tried to suppress my feelings. I knew my night medications were supposed to make me sleep. When the numbness felt too heavy, I took my meds earlier in the evening.
Playing with my meds only led to other problems. Going to sleep early meant I woke up around 2:00 a.m. Then I was wide awake with no one to talk to. Those hours between when I woke up and when others were available were painfully dark and lonely. My only company was the voices running wild in my head. Each word they spoke only made me want to be more numb.
It took years for me to realize that numbness is part of having bipolar disorder. I most often experience numbness during depressive episodes, but it can also happen during a mixed episode.Start Today!
What’s it like to be numb?
Have you ever played the game where you sit on your hand for 5 minutes and then you try to pick up small objects? You feel oddly disconnected from your body when there’s no sensation in your touch.
Feeling numb with bipolar disorder is a lot like your numb hand. The difference is that instead of your hand, it’s your heart that has no feeling. The numbness can last for days or weeks.
After I lost my best friend, there were days I was so numb that I was willing to do anything to feel. That emptiness intensified my desire to self-harm. My goal was never to hurt myself. I just needed to feel something, anything. The pain was the only thing that cut through the numbness.
Self-harm is never the right answer. Not only is it damaging to your body, but it can even lead to deadly consequences. You can develop infections and sepsis from self-harm, both of which can kill you. No one wants that.
Back then, I didn’t know any other ways to feel. So when I was alone, I practiced self-harm because it was a comfortable space to be in. The pain was a familiar place when grief made everything else feel alien.
Self harm remained part of my life for the next several years. The unhealthy habit became a regular coping tool after my bipolar diagnosis. It was nearly 20 years later when I finally stopped. Now, I’m so glad I did. My last self-harm episode was over a decade ago.
Numbness was only one issue I faced while adjusting to life with bipolar disorder. Another was nightmares.
You will probably rarely see articles about bipolar disorder causing nightmares, but it’s a common symptom. The nightmares are often so intense and realistic that when you wake up, your mind tells you that you’re still living in the dream.
I had horrible dreams about people dying in front of me. Other times, I watched in horror as I killed someone, but had no control over what was happening. It felt like being strapped into a chair, forced to watch a terrifying movie, and yet you’re the main character.
I think nightmares were my mind’s way of processing the monster that lived in my brain. Part of me thought the beast was who I truly was.
Nightmares continued to plague me after I got out of the hospital. It likely influenced why Dr. Hateful kept adding antipsychotic drugs to my medication cocktail. She thought if she could keep me unconscious most of the day, the dreams would stop.
Unfortunately, even when I was sleeping 20 hours a day, the nightmares never stopped. The bad dreams were part of adjusting to life with bipolar disorder. The antipsychotics failed to be the solution Dr. Hateful said they would be.
Adjusting to Life With Bipolar Disorder With Therapy
In talk therapy a few years later, I finally learned the nightmares were the manifestation of the things I was running from. It was unhealthy to try to run away from bipolar disorder and pretend it didn’t exist. I had to face the dragon head on and attack it with every ounce of my being. It was hard work, and still is today. Yet, it’s a battle I fight every day. With time and experience, the fight has gotten easier with age.
Too often in life, you run away from the things you don’t want to face. You run thinking a new place will wipe away all the darkness inside. But it’s never true.
I get it. At age 20, I ran away from Wisconsin to Tennessee. I wanted to flee everything in my head and all the dark feelings haunting me. For a while, it felt like it worked, but then the darkness came back. It was inescapable, because it was an illness living inside my head.
When I finally learned to accept the illness for what it was, I finally began to grow. I learned how to cope with the symptoms, and how to prevent some episodes from happening. The more I learned about my illness and how to treat it, the less often I had the nightmares.
Now I only have a few terrible dreams per year. Most of those revolve around grief from losing my best friend. She is always with me, and when anniversaries come around, I hear her voice call to me throughout the night. She’s always just beyond the darkness, obscured by a thick fog. I run to her, but can never catch her. And since she’s gone, I never will. So those nightmares continue. But I’m happy to say that most of the other nightmares have gone.
When you do the right things every day, such as taking your meds, getting exercise, eating healthy foods, and getting enough rest, your mind will thank you. Sticking to healthy habits lessens your symptoms, and that includes decreasing the number of awful dreams you have. Yet another reason to take your meds today.
There was a third ghost haunting me in the weeks after my hospital, one I rarely talk about. It’s the fight to identify reality.
One of the toughest things to describe about having bipolar disorder is the battle inside between what is real and what’s not. The bipolar brain distorts so much of what we see and hear. It’s only natural that you start to distrust everything. In every moment, a part of you questions whether it’s real. Or at least that’s my experience.
Just a few weeks before, I walked out of the hospital doors for the last time, but already my brain was telling me the experience never happened. My mind whispered lies about how I never met the other patients who touched my heart while I was there. The evil chorus said the group therapy sessions and progress I made there were just a dream I imagined.
Even when I held my pill bottles in my hand, I still didn’t believe it was real. Nothing in my hospital memories felt any different from the nightmares I was having. How was I supposed to know which world was real?
Like most things with bipolar disorder, it took time and effort. Nearly 30 years have passed since my mental illness diagnosis. I would love to say the struggle with reality has gone away, except it hasn’t. I still grapple every day, and some days are harder than others.
When you struggle to identify reality, it’s a trial that feels impossible to explain. How do you tell someone with good mental health what it’s like to doubt everything you think, feel, see, and hear? How do you explain that life doesn’t feel real? What would they say if they knew you felt like you’re living in The Matrix just waiting to be unplugged?
Only people fighting a mental illness will ever fully understand. And that’s why it’s important to have people in your corner who can validate your feelings.
If you feel like you’re losing touch with reality while adjusting to life with bipolar disorder, seek help immediately. Medication and talk therapy helped me, but I still struggle with it on the worst days.
One way I cope is by turning to fantasy and science fiction. When I know the thing on the screen is complete fiction, it gives me a sense of control. I know the scenes on the screen can’t exist in the real world, and I find comfort in the clear boundary.
The other thing that keeps me out of Neverland is writing in my journal. On the good days, I describe all the positive things happening in my world and how I feel about them. Those are the entries I go back to on the hard days. Each journal entry reminds me of what’s real. I know I can trust the words because they’re written in my handwriting.
Trust is hard with bipolar disorder, so you need things in your life you can hold on to. For me, my journal is an anchor, and often the only thing that stops me from drifting back to Neverland.
After 30 years, I’m pretty sure I’m not Peter Pan, no matter how much I identified with him in Hook. A small part of me still thinks there’s a secret life hidden in the recesses of my mind, but a stronger part knows there’s not. I’ll hold on to that truth until Tinker Bell comes and tells me otherwise or I find my missing marbles. (I’ll always love you, Tootles!)
In the next part, I share how the story of two suicides affected me.
Until next time, keep fighting.