Let’s get real for a moment. Living with bipolar disorder sucks. There’s no way to sugarcoat that fact. Occasionally there are positive aspects, like the manic days when you’re able to spring clean your whole house, but for the most part, every single day with the disease sucks. Surviving bipolar is a constant struggle.
I’m not looking for sympathy with this post. No, instead, I want you, dear reader, to understand some of the truths about living with the condition. Today, I’m going to share with you 11 things that are true for those of us that are surviving bipolar disorder.
I apologize in advance if this post sounds a little angry. I try to be a positive and optimistic person at all times. However, I do live every day with Bipolar I, so it’s only natural that it shows itself from time to time in my writing.
Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional. This blog shares my personal experiences of living with bipolar and chronic illness. If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms that could be related to a mental illness condition, please seek the appropriate help immediately.
11 Things: The Truth About Surviving Bipolar Disorder
1. A smile doesn’t mean I’m happy or healthy.
If you know me, you know that I am generally smiling. Well-intentioned people, and I have been told this on more than one occasion, will tell you that someone who is smiling is going to be just fine. I wish that were true.
A smile means nothing.
In fact, it takes less effort to smile than to frown. How many times have we heard this? It is even truer when you have bipolar disorder. A smile sometimes acts as a shield, my way of keeping you at a safe distance by not letting you know what’s going on in my mind or heart.
Ladies, please correct me if I am wrong, but I think this is especially true for men. Since we are already preprogrammed not to show weakness or emotions, men tend to smile through the emotional pain no matter how bad it feels. It’s why after something terrible happens, people will say, “I had no idea he felt that way.”
2. Sometimes showing up is the best I can do.
In a perfect world, I could control my bipolar episodes and make sure they didn’t conflict with any social activity. We don’t live in a perfect world.
When we are depressed, it is very hard to be around people. The depression can be emotionally crushing. If we manage to make it out of the house during a depressive episode, that might be as good as it gets. Telling me to buck up or to smile more isn’t helping. Telling me that I’m not making enough of an effort is tantamount to kicking me in the stomach.
If I have shown up for you, that might be the best I can do. Telling me that I’m not putting forth enough effort or not trying hard enough is a sure way to make sure I never show up again.
3. Depression is physically painful.
All of you with depression, whether it’s fueled by bipolar or not, know this simple truth. Depression is more than feeling down and unmotivated. Many times, if not most of the time, depression is painful. Yes, depression often brings with it physical pain.
Don’t believe me? Ask any mental health professional.
One of the conditions I live with is Familial Mediterranean Fever or FMF. FMF brings with it loads of physical pain, not unlike having body aches with the flu. However, recently when discussing the need for stronger pain medication with my doctor, he commented that likely I was depressed rather than experiencing more intense FMF pain.
I’m not entirely sure that he is correct, but it should give you some idea that depression pain is real. Headaches, backaches, stomach or chest pain and more can all be attributed to depression.
4. I’m not looking for attention.
No, I cannot speak for everyone here. No doubt a few people are exaggerating their symptoms in an attempt to get attention. Having lived with this disease for over 40 years, though, I have to believe that that number is very small and likely could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Coping with bipolar is not fun. If you see any glimpse into just how painful it is, generally that means that the bipolar person you know did not have the strength to hide the symptoms from you.
There are lots of positive ways to get attention. If I were feeling well, I might be inclined to seek out some of that attention. That said, if I am going through a manic or depressive episode, I’m not in control and attention is that last thing on my mind.
5. No, I don’t realize how fast I am talking.
Crazy eyes and fast talking are two of the top outward signs of a manic episode. For the patient, generally, neither symptom is recognizable. Any confusion found on the face of your listeners is typically missed.
In this case, please be patient. If you know the person with bipolar well enough, then it’s okay to say something, such as, “Do you realize how fast you are talking?” If not, just do your best to keep up and watch for other warning signs.
You can read more about helping others in the post What To Do When a Loved One Has a Mental Illness.
6. Fine rarely means fine.
This is true for most everyone whether they are a mental illness warrior or not. Fine rarely means fine. In fact, many people say that FINE means Frustrated Insecure Neurotic Emotional.
For me personally, if I tell you I’m fine, it typically means, “I am not fine, but I don’t have the mental strength today to tell you what’s going on,” or something similar. It’s usually not best to press the subject on those days.
7. Sometimes I can’t leave my house.
People with bipolar disorder want to spend their time with their family and friends, Really, they do. However, when the noise inside your head gets so loud that you can’t bear it, the thought of being around even more voices is a near impossibility. Just like any other illness, there are days that the bipolar person cannot go anywhere.
It doesn’t mean that they don’t love you or that they don’t want to spend time with you. They are doing what they can, and sometimes taking care of themselves is the only thing they can do.
With the combination of my bipolar and FMF, there are days when I can’t even get out of bed. Either the physical or mental (or both) pain is so bad that there is no way I can face the world. I hope my family and friends realize that I love them and want to be with them even when I can’t be.
8. Just because I don’t want to be near you doesn’t mean I don’t love you.
Continuing the last point, if you live with someone with bipolar, it may at times feel like a veritable minefield in your house. I empathize with you as there are no easy answers.
Someone with the condition can go from wanting to be held one moment to not wanting to be touched in the very next second. It’s confusing enough for us, so don’t be upset with yourself if you don’t understand.
Sadly, I have had relationships end because the people in my life didn’t understand this bipolar truth. Try to understand that it’s not always about you. It’s an internal struggle that most of us battle every day. Ironically, it’s often the fear of abandonment that most often forces us to push others away.
9. Thoughts of death are part of everyday life.
Okay, please don’t panic. Yes, I think about suicide and death every day. Almost every bipolar person I know is the same way. No doubt that is why suicide rates are so high amongst people with bipolar disorder.
However, just because I think about suicide doesn’t necessarily mean that I am suicidal. That’s confusing I know.
I must interject here, suicidal thoughts are not something to take lightly. If a family member or friend is talking about suicide, always err on the side of caution and tell someone. Only a mental health professional can adequately evaluate a situation.
The reason why I am including this thought is that want people to understand the mind of the bipolar warrior. Mentally healthy people rarely think about their own death. Those of us with mental illness often do. In fact, I cannot remember a time when I didn’t think about death, even as a young child. It’s part of the disease and a painful truth.
10. Telling me I look good doesn’t help.
Mental illness or the severity of symptoms can seldom be judged by the way someone looks on the outside. As was mentioned above, many warriors will keep a smile on their face even on the darkest days.
The thought that physical appearance can determine someone’s mental health status is ludicrous. It would be like saying you could judge someone’s blood sugar level by whether they had makeup on or their hair combed. The two are very rarely connected. When they are, they are generally at the negative end of the spectrum with hair that hasn’t been combed or clothing that is wrinkled or unclean.
For me, when someone says, “But you look so good,” it usually leads me to one of two conclusions. One, the person doesn’t believe that I really have an illness. Two, the person thinks I’m faking it on the days when I don’t look good.
Yes, both lines of reasoning are deeply flawed, but that is unfortunately how I feel.
11. Yes, it could be worse, but saying that doesn’t help.
If someone were to literally kick you in the stomach, the last thing you would want to hear at that moment was that things could be worse. Living with a mental illness is no different.
We are walking around with persistent gut-punches, the walking wounded so to speak. Telling us that things could be worse only worsens that pain.
Recently, I was described as being a narcissist because I am willing to talk about my mental illness. I know that is not true, but the words still took the wind out of me. I had to remind myself that the whole reason I started this blog was to help get the conversation started because far too many people are living in silence and many of them are not seeking proper treatment as a result.
So, I’m reminding myself today that that person does not really know me nor understand what it is really like to live with a mental health condition. As my grandmother would say, “If you can’t say something nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all.” I only hope that the person who said the cruel and ignorant words finds compassion and empathy when it comes his turn to deal with a difficult situation. In today’s world, it’s no longer a matter of if but when it will happen.
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