I know what you may be thinking: she’s crazy to even suggest that bipolar disorder—or any other mental illness—could make me better. By definition, this is an illness … so that means it has made me worse, right?
You might say: bipolar disorder has prevented me from living the life I want to live. It’s knocked me on my ass, sent me spiraling into terrible highs and lows, jeopardized my relationships … how could any of these things be positive?
I used to feel the same way.
I thought my hospitalization, depressions, psychosis, medication—I thought all of this fell into the category of “the worst things that have ever happened to me.”
But fourteen years after my diagnosis, I’ve found relative stability. And I’ve managed to feel, much of the time, gratitude for this disease.
Because bipolar disorder has …
:led me to a deeper understanding of who I am.
I used to think I was just like any other girl who grew up in suburbia and went of to a good college to major in English.
I used to think that my feelings of being an outsider were simply neuroses. That the pit of anxiety and depression in my stomach followed a few days or weeks or months later by a sudden electric charge of happiness pulsating through my body were parts of me I would never be able to explain.
Being diagnosed with bipolar provided me with the validation that I wasn’t a freak of nature–that there was something going on with me that millions of others have experienced. Armed with this knowledge, I have been lucky enough to get the therapy and medication I needed to make a life for myself. But I never forget that this diagnosis–even on the days I don’t feel “bipolar”–is a part of me.
:taught me how to take care of myself.
When I started crying my senior year of high school and couldn’t stop for three days, or when I hyperventilated my freshman year of college because I couldn’t finish an essay—back then I didn’t have any resources or coping mechanisms.
I suffered with no end in sight.
Luckily, my mother was smart enough to insist I see a therapist in college, and it was there that I started to understand that, first and foremost, I needed help. I wouldn’t be able to graduate from school without the help of antidepressants. And as the medication did help me, I was OK with that new fact of life.
With treatment, I gained the energy I needed to go to the supermarket and shop for healthy food — to stop smoking and subsisting off processed foods— instead of wallowing in my misery. I read books like Andrew Weil’s 8 Weeks to Optimum Health, which led me to buy myself fresh flowers and practice deep breathing exercises. These tools made me a healthier person; had I not been struggling so terribly, I wouldn’t have found them.
:enhanced my creativity.
This is tricky statement because I don’t like to attribute my creativity to my illness. When I was hospitalized, I was incredibly creative: I wrote poems; I drew pictures; I made collages. I thought, at the time, that these were genius creations even though none of what I made while I lived in a state of psychosis was any good.
Over the following years, I figured out the medications that worked for me and became more balanced. Still, I often slip in and out of hypomanic states,when that the heavy curtain of my rational mind lifts to uncover whimsical possibilities I wouldn’t have access to in an un-elevated mood state.
Some of my most interesting creations have manifested during these bouts of hypomania.
This blog is a product of hypomania.
For this, I have to be grateful.
:heightened my empathy for others who are struggling.
If you’ve struggled in your life with any kind of illness, you’re able to put yourself into the shoes of someone who has shared a similar experience. So many of us—no matter what the diagnosis—share the burden of stigma and the loneliness of hiding our disease.
:connected me to a community of like-minded individuals.
This blog is my way of connecting with people who share similar experiences . I used to see it as a way to talk about how lonely and isolated I felt. But now I’ve realized that, ironically, the connection I’ve always longed may have been right here, on the internet, all along.
:forced me to prioritize my health over absolutely everything.
Because I know how sick I can get if my illness goes untreated, I take this thing seriously. Over the summer, I forgot my medication in New York City while on a trip to Fire Island. I skipped a day at the beach I’d looked forward to for weeks to ferry back to the mainland and get what I needed.
My ferry ride isn’t remarkable, but it is illustrative of how hard I work to stay healthy.
:taught me that depression can be defeated.
OK, so I’m obviously not suffering from depression at this very moment—if I were, I might have a different perspective on my disease. I know this (And maybe some day I will reread this post and feel completely disconnected from the part of myself that has access to gratitude right now).
If you are feeling depressed, it’s incredibly hard to see how a mood disorder could be anything but debilitating. What I try to do, when I slip into that dark place, is remember that I’ve come through it before. My suicidal ideations have lifted, and this knowledge that depression can be survived helps me through it.
:afforded me perspective.
Sometimes it happens at work when a colleague and I can’t see eye to eye. Or when I’m with my family and my sister says something unfair. Or, just waiting in line at the supermarket or in traffic overwhelmed with frustration. At these moments, were I someone else, I might lose my cool. But by virtue of having been tested by this disease over and again, my perspective has changed: whatever is happening in those difficult moments is not really that big of a deal compared to what I’ve been through.
And so I’m able to take a deep breath and move on.
:granted me permission to rest.
Even though I hate that I need nine hours of sleep at night, I also know all too well that, when I get less sleep, I start to unravel. My health depends on remembering how important medication and sleep are to my treatment plan.
So many people out there do live with sleep deprivation because they’re able to function on five hours. But experts say that this kind of deprivation can be dangerous—it’s not enough rest to restore our immune systems and keep our brain functioning as well as it should. When I need a nap, I am able to give myself permission to rest because I know sleep is crucial.
A final note:
I don’t want you to read this and think I don’t understand how difficult it is to live with bipolar disorder. I do. I’m just someone who has found treatment that works, and I hope my experience gives you a little insight into how —even if you’re struggling today—someday you may find yourself enlightened and encouraged by how much your suffering has changed you for the better.
I wish you that kind of peace.