True Story: I’m Bi-Polar

This is one of my True Story interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/challenging/amazing things. This is the story of Angela, a lovely wife and mother who struggled with bi-polar disorder.Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I grew up in a small town on the coast of Washington State. My parents divorced when I was 6 and my older sister and I went to live with our mom. Things were tough because my mom has bipolar disorder. She was diagnosed after a suicide attempt when I was 9. She rejected her diagnosis and didn’t stay on the Lithium they prescribed her. Her side of the family is riddled with addiction, alcoholism, depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. I knew my dad had serious anger issues, but I mostly chalked it up to his rough childhood. He’s admitted to me that he may be bipolar, but he was never diagnosed. His side of the family also has a long history of alcoholism, depression, and bipolar disorder.

For those of us who don’t know, could you tell us a bit about bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder, like major depression, but mania is involved. There is full-blown mania, which is characterized by irritability, bouts of rage, racing thoughts, and in severe cases, psychosis (you stop feeling “crazy” and start acting “crazy”). There is also hypomania, which is marked by increased levels of energy, poor judgment, delusions, grandiosity, euphoria, and feelings of being “special” or “chosen.” Bipolar disorder is heritable through genetics, but also the actual brain structure of a bipolar person is different from a typical person’s. Bipolar disorder is a physical disease that can be terminal without proper treatment, like cancer or diabetes.

What are some of the most common misconceptions about bipolar disorder?
The most common one is that bipolar disorder makes you artistic/creative. There have been some parallels drawn between some artists and bipolar disorder, but they could be coincidental. Because of this misconception, a new trend is growing: some people want to be bipolar. This disturbs and offends me. This misconception is akin to saying something like, “Being African-American makes you good at sports.” One of the most damaging misconceptions about bipolar disorder is that getting treatment makes you feel emotionally numb. If medications make you feel emotionally numb, you’re on the wrong medications, or the wrong doses. Discuss this with your psychiatrist.

How old were you when you realized that you experienced life and emotions different than other people?
When I was diagnosed and looking back at my life. For instance, when I was in kindergarten, my teacher had two favorite students, and would always tell them how sweet and smart they were. I remember consciously thinking, “Those kids think they’re so smart, but the things they know aren’t important things. The things I know are important, and I’ll show them when I grow up.” I was delusional. Sadly, I continued to feel this way until I was diagnosed. I really thought I was destined for amazing things, even after being a teenage mom, having 3 kids with 3 different dads, not continuing my education, working at Wal-Mart, and making all kinds of bad choices (I have some horrible tattoos).

How old were you when you were diagnosed?
I was diagnosed when I was 24. January 20, 2004. I’d been married for 2 years. Our sons were 4 and 2, and our daughter was 3 months old. After I had our daughter, I started experiencing uncontrollable bouts of rage. I was scary, destructive, and felt capable of inflicting great harm. One day, my husband accidentally startled me. I exploded and said the most vicious things. My mind was screaming, “STOP! YOU CAN NEVER UNSAY THESE THINGS!” yet I didn’t stop until I was completely empty. That was the moment I decided to get help.

My objective was to enroll in anger management. I know that anger management is usually reserved for those compelled by a court of law, but I was desperate. I went to my appointment, and was asked a series of oddly-specific questions. I felt like we were getting somewhere…I was actually excited. I say that only to say this: some people read about bipolar disorder, and are prepared for/expect their diagnosis, whereas I had no fucking clue that there was something seriously amiss. I left that office with a prescription for Lithium, and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder type 1.

What sort of treatments where you prescribed? How did those treatments effect you?
I started seeing a counselor weekly, and I started taking Lithium. I had a lot of side effects: nausea, tremors, headaches–and most strangely–my teeth felt loose. I don’t know if it wasn’t working or if my expectations were too high, but I felt the side effects of the Lithium outweighed the benefits.

I did something that is very classic of a bipolar person: I went off my medication. Two months later, I became depressed. My priorities were ordered: sleep, kids, husband, hiding my filthy house, work, personal hygiene. I had a breakdown in March 2004, and landed in the psych ward. I tried a bunch of medications for a few months, but I was losing my cognition. At times, I couldn’t remember how old I was. I decided to try to control my bipolar med-free . I’d still see my therapist. I found out at my next appointment, however, that if I didn’t take my medication, my therapist wouldn’t see me. I went my own way.

How did you manage after you stopped treatment?
After I ended treatment in June 2004, I became increasingly manic and was having hallucinations. I was not at all alarmed by these things–that, my friends, is a bad sign. I was totally delusional. I quit my job and was paranoid that my husband was going to leave me and take the kids. I couldn’t turn my mind off, so I stopped sleeping. I had disturbing thoughts that played in a horrific loop; things like slamming my fingers in car doors or putting screws in my mouth and chewing on them, breaking all my teeth. I stopped cooking, cleaning, and bathing. I had zero impulse control and went on online shopping sprees. Occasionally, the psychosis was interrupted by moments of clarity, and during one such moment, I realized I was no mom to my kids; no wife to my husband. I was a burden and I couldn’t do that to them anymore. I was almost lost. I was hospitalized for 2 weeks. I vowed never to get off my meds again.

How does being bi-polar effect your life on a daily basis?
Honestly, because I’m on the right medications and the right doses for me, bipolar disorder doesn’t affect my daily life much. And if you didn’t know me before, the fact that I suffer from a severe mental illness would never cross your mind. People who see me everyday are going to read this and think, “Wha…?” because I’m a mild-mannered, doting mom and wife of 8 years, who works with kids and lives a totally average suburban life.

What advice would you give to someone who thinks they might be bi polar?
Please see a mental health professional. If you don’t have insurance, many mental facilities have sliding-scale fees or grants they use specifically to provide you with therapy and medications for free. Diagnosis can be helpful in the event that you have a major mood episode. You will have a place where people “know” you so you can get help immediately. Also, it’s good to know the name of your problem. You will be taken more seriously by doctors and other people with Bipolar Disorder if you get an official diagnosis, opposed to self-diagnosis.

And what advice would you give to those of us interacting with a friend or family member that is bi polar?
I asked my loving husband to help me with this one. I hope you don’t mind. Aaron says, “The number one thing you need to do is educate yourself on bipolar disorder; read everything you can find. The number two thing is be able to communicate. This doesn’t mean just be able to talk and listen. This means be able to talk about and listen to some really horrible shit. Other than that, be patient. A lot of the time, I can see Ang’s cycles before she can, but if I say something, it never goes over well (until she sees it for herself). Don’t let them use their disease as an excuse. Be willing to shoulder the load, because they’re not always going to be able to. Don’t give up on them.”

Have any of you struggled with bi-polar disorder? Any questions for Angela?

19 Comments

mrs.j

i agree with angela about the misconceptions people have with bipolar disorder…i've heard people say "i'm a little bipolar" when they're talking about their mood swings, but until you've actually lived with it or loved someone who has it, you have no idea what the disease is actually like.
thank you so much for sharing, angela!

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Jess

I've got bipolar disorder, too. Experiences vary, depending on the makeup of your brain chemistry. Despite every attempt to stabilise the disorder within all its depth and width, they haven't been able to restore my mood to what can be considered a "normal" level. I was 30 at the time of diagnosis and had been depressed on and off (mostly on) for 4 years. First onset of bipolar disorder was when I was 15, then depressions ran concurrently with a slight euphoria, knows as mixed episodes.
Now, I have bipolar disorder type 2. It's the variant where you are mostly depressive but have some hypomania. I started taking an antiseizure medication when I was diagnosed, Lamictal. It was as if the sky cleared! I didn't notice it at first, my family did.
I, too, come from a loooong range of family that battle bipolar disorder, depressions, suicide, alcoholism. One of my parents has it, too.
I do well on Lamictal + an antidepressive but we've tried everything (but Lithium because my kidneys don't function well). It's called therapy refractory. Not that I do badly but my mood just can't be restored to normal level. I get hits of depression and anxiety even on medication. I've been on online shopping sprees, I've had so much energy that I haven't slept for a week. At that point I became psychotic.

I AM very creative. Whether bipolar disorder is involved or not is impossible to say but if creativity is a positive side to bipolarity, I'll take it. I've never quit taking the medicine(s), but am fully aware of that some people do prefer the altered state of euphoria. They don't want that effect of essentially being high on your own brain chemistry, "numbed". I feel it's irresponsible, especially if you've got family. You can do alot of damage both during depressive and manic episodes. I only know how bad it affected me growing up with a person with bipolar disorder that went off medicine all the time. Any hint of stability and peace that there was could be gone in a minute. And because, in the manic state, you are just high on your own biochemistry. It's not a god-sent state of being, you are just plain ill.
I wish the stigma of bipolar disorder (or any mental disorder really) would yield if only just a little bit. At least to be seen as any other condition. No one would question the need for insulin in someone who's diabetic. Yet frequently someone that's bipolar will get that suggestion: all will be better without medicine. Well, who'll sweep the pieces of me when I fall apart without them? No one seems to be able to answer that counter question.

Anyway, thanks for sharing! I get, obviously, very animated over bipolar disorder and related questions.

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Katherine

This is a really good post. I dated and lived with somone for three years that was bi polar. He wasn't diagnosed until the last year of our relationship and it was really, really hard. We broke up about a year after he was diagnosed because our relationship wasn't healthy for me (in ways that are largely unrelated to the fact that he is bipolar). Hearing this story makes me feel better. There are so many similarties, reading this entry has been theraputic.

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Hello =)

I have bipolar disorder too. I was prescribed lamictal, though. It also offends me when people diagnose themselves and say things like "and then I felt a little sad but I was happy before, I must be a little bipolar".

I went off medication several times, too, mostly because of wishful thinking ("Hey, I'm feeling great, I don't actually need to take this!") or because I felt like I wasn't being myself.

I'm in art, though. I think it has to do with risk-taking, more than creativity. And It also helps A LOT, at least in my experiencie. Drawing is awesome =)

I agree with Jess a lot. Mostly because we do well on Lamictal, and long story but when my brother was little he was once prescribed Lithium and my mom refused because of kidney damage. It wouldn't be my first alternative.

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Sarah

I have a family member who we think is bipolar. But she's so irrationaly and ragefull we can't get her help. I know she needs it and I've heared it's a common problem with people who suffer from bipolar that they can't see it in themselves. She has a lot of the same simptoms as you and if you have any advice please let me know!

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Win

Euforilla: Hugs back atcha! Thanks so much!

mrs.j: The "little bit bipolar" thing pisses me off, frankly, but you're exactly correct: until you have lived with bipolar in some way, you just can't grasp the reality of the situation. Thanks for understanding.

Amy: No, thank you. 🙂

Jess: Thanks for sharing a bit about your experiences, too. While I understand that many people who have bipolar disorder suffer from it in many ways unique to themselves, I can also appreciate the brand of suffering that is familiar to all people who have bipolar disorder. That specific suffering is what makes is possible to reach out to one another.

Katherine: I'm sorry that you had to go through that. I'm glad you got something out of this interview.

Caiti: Thank you for that link. It made me cry. :')

Hello =): Thank you for your thoughts. It offends me when people self-diagnose, too, and that is why I mentioned that diagnosis by a mental health care professional will help other people with bipolar disorder take you seriously–because we often need one another, and sorry…it's hard for me to take someone seriously when they got their diagnosis from WebMD, because serious disorders require serious attention from serious doctors who are seriously trained in this field.

Sarah: I really want to help you help her. But NO ONE can help her until she wants it. If she is not suicidal/homicidal, you cannot have her admitted (in most states), either. Sometimes, as painful as it it, you just have to let them self-destruct until it's no longer working out for them (aka rock-bottom). I wish it wasn't that way, but clearly, SHE doesn't think she has a problem, but you have your eye on her, and that's all I could have ever asked for before I was really struggling…much more and my family would have alienated me. I'm sorry your loved one is struggling, and I'm sorry that you are, too. My knee-jerk reaction to this was, "Tough love her," but helping someone with bipolar disorder takes some finesse. Maybe there is a therapist near you that you could speak to about tactics to support her until she's ready to get help.

– Angela

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Sarah girl

My husband has diagnosed bipolar disorder, type 2. Originally he was diagnosed with major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic disorder and was on wellbutrin plus ativan. The wellbutrin helped with the depression but he became really irritable and energetic and impulsive.

Now that he's on lamictal, he's a new person. He still has his moments of cycling, but it's nothing like before. And best of all, he's still himself on this med. His self-awareness has improved, but I too notice his cycles sooner than he. Luckily, he listens when I voice my observations, but won't seek out his therapist until he notices changes for himself. Overall, it's well-managed though.

I wish the stigma of mental illness would go away. I'm a nurse, and still we've only told a handful of people about his diagnoses. My husband reached a point where he realized that labeling the condition doesn't matter, he's just happy that he's on a med that works well for him. But he is still hesitant to bring it up to others. Unfortunately, until more people speak out, most people with mental illnesses will remain "closeted" so to speak. What a catch-22.

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A Frazzled Mommy

I think it's important to remember that there are both manic and depressive phases in this disorder. I was diagnosed 15 years ago and struggled up until 10 years ago, when I finally found the pdoc who I'm still with. He looked through my history in amazement. Did you know that there are only certain antidepressants that are safe to prescribe bipolar patients? Many antidepressants will push a bipolar person into a manic phase. This is why it is so dangerous to give an undiagnosed bipolar person an antidepressant, and why many undiagnosed bipolars aren't diagnosed until that manic phase is found from that medicated push.

I also believe that every bipolar person struggles differently. For myself, anyone could tell from the time I was just little that something wasn't right. However, it wasn't until the extreme manic phases and the at least once-a-year hospitalizations that I was looked at as something being seriously wrong. Some people don't get to that point. And there are brain scans out there of bipolar patients showing that their brains are different.

I once had a psychiatrist tell me to never have children because I could pass bipolar disorder on to them. Well, my son doesn't have bipolar disorder, but he does have an undiagnosed psychotic disorder. And because of how I've lived and how my husband has been able to help me, we were able to recognize it early in him and get him the help he needs. Don't ever let anyone tell you something so stupid. Research is coming along farther everyday. Bipolar disorder is not a death sentence. It's just an occasional pain in the butt.

Amanda

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Jess

In the don't self-diagnose area comes depression. Oh I'm feeling blue because A B C or D has happened. Well maybe not so strange that you are feeling down, you are normal. Today we are going to excess on trying to medicalise being human. Sadness, bummed out, oh I'm depressed. Not that you can't be clinically depressed from serious life events but people use the word depressed like it is no big deal.

You can go manic on any of the antidepressants. I've gone into a state of combining depressive traits with low grade mania.
It took them far too long to discover that I was as bipolar as you can be but without getting the actual mania. It was picked up during a particularly deep depression and not by my regular doctor but another one. My family physician had loooong suspected that I was bipolar but had little success in being heard when all echoed depression. But years came and went, and depression became a new depression, became another. Somewhere along the line you'd think someone would react and say that we're not getting anywhere, why is that? Someone did, eventually, but I was a mess after years with ongoing depression.

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A Frazzled Mommy

I never knew that irritability and anger were symptoms of mania until mid-2008. That was 13 years after I was diagnosed, 3 months after I had 6 treatments of ECT, and the first time I ever showed symptoms of mania in that way. I think it's wonderful that it was mentioned in the article that it can happen that way. Most people hear mania or manic and think of over-happy and bouncing off the walls. I know I was shocked to find out my constant irritable bitchiness was mania. I am thankful for Lithium.

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Jess

I went bonkers on zoloft (for real!) but am doing totally fine with the one I take now. Really well.
Lithium was never even considered in my case, I was recovering from kidney failure (un-related), so Lamictal it was. And when the panicky bluesy raging furious and overly happy inside finally started to settle, it was like finally being able to breathe.
During a recent bout with hypomania I was, unfortunately, bouncy happy. I didn't care about much. It wasn't until it started to clear that I called my psychiatrist.

We're all different so if lithium works, as Lamictal plus a small dose of an antidepressant does for me, then all the more power to it :)! If it provides relief and makes you able to do what you want in life, I'm not going to argue over the medicine ;). After a month or so on Lamictal, I could suddenly clean, eat, do all sorts of (everyday) things that I had stopped doing. It's a sensation I'll never forget. And I will cherish the sense of calm achieved forever.

I am, however, still learning on allowing myself to be happy without immediately thinking that oh here we go with another mania. Happy can be just happy. It's strange that you can forget how somewhat normal emotions actually feels like.

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Lorra Fae

My boyfriend is severely bipolar – it's really difficult, because he keeps a lot of his thoughts private. It's really tough sometimes, and I am his first girlfriend in 8 years – strangely enough he is the boyfriend I have had the longest.
It requires a boatolad of patience, which I usually have little of.
He is classic bipolar in that he goes off and on his meds. He doesn't have bouts of rage, he is very kind and sweet but really crazy and immature for his age (40) and his sex drive is almost non-existent.
It's sad. I adore him, I wish I could help more.

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A Frazzled Mommy

Jess, I hate when I don't make myself clear enough. I was just reading over these posts again when it really hit me. Yes, any antidepressant can push a person into mania. What I was trying to say (not so well, I guess) is that there are a few certain ones that psychiatrists prefer to use because they have less tendency to provide that extra push. But, just like any medication, they are all different for every person.

I'm currently being switched over to Lamictal now and being weaned off/taken off Lithium. The side effects were pretty extreme. I'm interested in knowing how long it took for Lamictal to "kick in" for others.

Lorra, I'm sorry you're feeling this way. Communication is important in any relationship. I hope you guys are able to work on it.

Amanda

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Jessika

I hope you get this comment at this late date. It took me 3 months before I noticed the change. My family noticed at 2 months. What it did early was to take away the slight euphoria but the depression lifted. It was an amazing feeling.

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isa

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS!
My mom has been recently diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. I'm afraid I might have it too, but my mom doesn't want me to get checked or doesn't take me seriously. Do you think I could have it?
Thank you!

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Hope Johnson

Hey Isa,

I don't know your situation at all, but I feel that you already know that the right thing to do is to get it checked if you think you have been experiencing symptoms. It could be that the stress you feel with your Mum being sick right now is what is making you feel this way or it could be something else. Either way, you have nothing to lose talking to someone and everything to gain. One thing I didn't know about bipolar was that you can develop it later in life, so this is something to be aware of too when it runs in your family.

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