31 days of bipolar|day 7: not to be defined…

…by your weakest moments even though you are…

I’m returning to this blog prompt jawn and hope to complete it.

A friend recently stated that it (use to) irk them when someone used their diagnosis as an adjective. I’m in that same mindset. It use to bother me quite a bit, but I’ve learned to let it go easier without jumping straight to getting defensive. Yet there are days when I get really irritated at people when they use the term “bipolar” as an adjective. I’ve learned to soften my approach and be more on the education side instead of anger.

We all hear it in conversation, often daily: “The weather is so bipolar!”, “I’m just a little bipolar!”, “She/he/they are really bipolar! One minute they’re happy, the next they punch a wall!”. All of that. When someone acts up and expresses human emotion, they get labeled as “being bipolar”. Or the weather… I live in Pennsylvania, and we have 6 seasons here; Spring, Summer, Winter, Autumn, Rain, and Construction. Sometimes, Rain and Construction overlap everything else. Sometimes, it’s snowing one day and t-shirt weather the next, only to be 35 and raining the next. Seasons are only a general outline and they happen here. Several times a week, I hear someone describe our normal weather pattern as “being bipolar” Yes, that is offensive. I liken it to slurs like “tranny” or “faggot” and the like. But it’s not a term I want to “reclaim”. I live with bipolar disorder. It’s a fact of my life, just like I am a transgender man and ethnically Hellenic.

What are the worst things someone can say to somebody who has bipolar?

 

Living with bipolar disorder isn’t like the weather changing rapidly. It’s more like a rollercoaster that stalls at the bottom for months or breaks down at the top for weeks knowing that a drop will happen yet not knowing when. It’s about acknowledging that medication will cushion that crash and dampen that high enough to function.

So now that we’ve got that language part out of the way… some other bad things to say to someone living with bipolar disorder. There are many!

-My least favorites are usually centered around depressive episodes.-

  • Just snap out of it!

I’ve been told to just “snap out of it” so many times, like I am able to wave a magic wand and be ok. Depression feels like I have a giant boulder affixed to my chest and I’m just unable to lift it. It feels like walking neck-deep through a swamp without a flashlight, damp and struggling to breathe for months. Help, in the professional sense, often helps lift that doom momentarily, but not quite the boulder. It’s not quite the sadness that everyone generally feels at some point that goes away. It’s much stronger and lasts for months and months and doesn’t go away easily — I can’t will my way out of it. I become a prisoner to my mind. It takes me hours to be able to be anything but horizontal. I usually stop showering and doing basic ADLs like brushing my teeth or eating or other personal care because those basic needs take more energy than I can exert. Everything feels exhausting and like monumental tasks. I tend to have suicidal ideation and really dark thoughts, including paranoid, irrational fears. My OCD goes into overdrive and those thoughts become obsessions. Fears become magnified and I will dwell on those fears. I live in fear of succumbing to my own mind. If I could just snap out of it, I would.

  • You’re (being) lazy!

Again, basic needs become exhausting, monumental tasks. After I do manage to take a shower, I end up sleeping for the next 12 hours because that shower took away all the energy I had for the next two days. If I need to be in public, I end up having constant anxiety attacks because the obsessions and rituals become more pronounced.

  • Have you tried… 

Exercise? A nice meal? Listening to happy music? A bath? You name it, I’ve had it suggested ad infinitum. Yes, I’ve tried it. All. Many times. It only prolongs the episode, without fail. The amount of energy it takes to do any of those self-care happy things is too overwhelming. And they generally don’t lift the depression. Food just tastes different, and unappetizing. Baths make it harder to breathe and usually give me anxiety attacks. Actually, everything gives me an anxiety attack. Music is my livelihood, on the other hand. It becomes much more academic when I’m crashed. I don’t have the energy to be creative and have to focus much more. Bipolar depression is often deeper and more prolonged than people who have unipolar depression (that is, depression without mania).

  • But you have nothing to worry/be sad about! | You have every reason to be happy!

That’s a personal favorite. Everything could be going perfectly around me, I’m just not usually aware of it. And if I am? I start feeling guilty about it all. I’ve been conditioned, as a female-assigned Greek, to feel guilt about feelings and just not show them. The rhetoric is always be brave! Be seen, not heard! My brain just won’t allow me to feel that joy or pleasure. There’s no amount of trying, so I’ve gotten good at acting.

-On the manic side….-

  • Mania sounds awesome!

I wish!

Mania is scary.

Mania is not just being really happy for a few days, like the stereotype makes our society believe. It’s an over-consuming feeling of being on one of those Music Express-style carnival rides…for weeks. That ride that spins around really fast and feels like it alters gravity and often causes nausea. And, for me, a month-long blackout where I have no control of my actions. Yes, there’s some benefits, I guess. I’m more productive. I have seemingly endless energy. I use to look forward to it because it was a break from the crippling depression that consumes me a majority of the time. But in reality? It’s when I’m my sickest. My head races and won’t stop. I’m compulsive and do often dangerous and stupid things on a whim. I’ll blow my entire savings (when I was able to work and actually had savings) — once on a really expensive instrument, and not realize it. Everything is in excess. I don’t sleep for days and feel like I don’t need it. When I was driving, I’d be reckless — blow throw lights and stop signs, excessive speed, cutting off everyone — and not even realize it. Now that I’m not driving, 15 miles on foot in a day without realizing how I even got from point A to B. I’ll have lots of unprotected sex. I don’t gamble, but gambling seems like a great idea when I have no control. I’ll double and triple-book myself and just say yes to all. the. work, without remembering that when I crash it won’t be possible. Then there’s the dangerous risks. Since I’m not aware of my surroundings, as they’re just spinning past, I’ll walk in the middle of traffic or get dangerously close to a train. By the end of the episode, it usually turns to delusion, anger, paranoia. Remember, I’ve gone 5+ days without much/any sleep at this point. Even if I felt like I didn’t need it, I’m still human. Human bodies need sleep. I start having a short fuse and I use to use a lot of drugs to stop that uncomfortable feeling of being trapped in a train that’s about to derail off a cliff.

  • Have you tried…

Ahh… another one of these unhelpful statements. Melatonin? Check, makes me more paranoid. Sleeping pills? Check, I’m on a shit-ton of mood stabilizers that are supposed to make me sleep. Exercise? I use to swim competitively and taught water aerobics for a few years. A nice warm bath? Praying? (hahahahahaha why do people always tell open atheists to pray?) Deep breathing? Wives’ tale remedies? Homeopathic pseudoscience?

It’s so insulting to make these kinds of statements. I’ve been around the sun a few decades. Mania is caused by a chemical imbalance in my brain. Snake oil won’t cure it.

  • You’re being dramatic!

Hun, I’m a musician. It’s my job to be dramatic. Chances are, I won’t remember two seconds later what absurd action I had just performed.

-On the general… especially when revealing a bipolar diagnosis.-

  • Are you sure? 

Yes.

  • Isn’t that something teenagers say they have for attention?

I was diagnosed in my late-20s. I denied it for close to a year. If I could control it, I would. I’m pretty sure this isn’t just a phase at this point… it’s just something I’m learning to live with and manage productively.

  • You’re over-reacting!

Well… I’m mentally ill. My brain plays tricks on me and I can be a bit irrational as a result.

  • Have you been taking your meds? | Have you talked to your doctor/psychiatrist?

Ughhhh… Meds are a cushion — not a cure. I will never be “cured” of my mental illness. And yes, I see my psychiatrist every 3 weeks. I respect him and his judgement in guiding me towards stability. I’ve learned to especially remember my meds when I’m on the top of the rollercoaster because, again, I’m not cured if I feel good.

  • You’re too smart/educated/talented to have bipolar!

This shit don’t discriminate. Almost not surprisingly, people in the arts tend to live with bipolar disorder at a higher rate than the general population. While it’s not a pre-requisite for being in the arts, we tend to be diagnosed more.

  • Don’t take it all so personally!

I’m living with something that’s actively trying to kill me, only that thing is my own brain. I do believe that my mental illness makes me react in an atypical way sometimes. It’s not an excuse, but it’s my reality.

 

To end this more positively… Here are some things and actions that are ok to say to someone living with bipolar disorder or mental illness in general.

  • “I’m here for you.”
  • “I may not fully understand, but I can empathize.”
  • Don’t be an asshole. I feel like this is my mantra. Show respect and compassion.
  • Educate yourself! International Bipolar Foundation,  Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, and the National Institute of Mental Health are some good places to start.
  • Don’t throw blame at the person.
  • Listen. Let them guide the conversation if it is about their illness.
  • Ask questions, and be ok if the individual doesn’t want to disclose anything.
  • As with your LGBT friends, don’t “out” someone with mental illness unless given consent. Just don’t.
  • Ask if they need help getting to appointments or support.
  • Yes, it’s a scary diagnosis. But support is important.
  • If they have a WRAP Plan (I do), follow it if they’ve disclosed any of it to you. If someone has disclosed “warning signs” that something is shifting to you, check in with them. There’s a few folx in my life that have the number to my preferred hospital saved in their phones and many that have the number to the local psych line.
  • Hospitalizations happen. It’s ok. Be there for the person. If they’re at that point, offer to help them get there safely and checked in. When it gets that bad, I’m no longer in control of the situation. My support system has been essential in crisis.
  • Don’t make assumptions. No two people with bipolar disorder have the same symptoms at all times. Just because so-and-so lives with bipolar disorder and shows some symptoms, don’t assume that another person has the same set.

At the end of the day, we’re human and all make mistakes. If someone trusts you enough to reveal such a stigmatizing diagnosis, treat that information with respect. Be a good friend. Be kind and compassionate. And don’t forget that language matters.

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