Until recently, I thought my bipolar meant I was made of glass, ready to shatter at the slightest jostle. But now I see that I didn’t triumph over catastrophe, trauma, and uncertainty just to lie down when faced with a crisis.
Delicate or Resilient Because of My Bipolar?
I’ll admit it, until recently, I worried I wouldn’t be able to handle a crisis. Because I have bipolar disorder, I’ve always seen myself as an emotionally delicate creature easily overwhelmed by the slightest trigger. Like many of us, I was recently confronted with adversity. Although I believed I’d be hit harder than people who don’t live with mental illness, I actually surprised myself. I realized I’m specially equipped to handle crises precisely because of my bipolar disorder. I’ve had to overcome incredible odds to make it to where I am today, and my journey to recovery is what has made me stronger.
My First Depressive Episode while Undiagnosed with Bipolar
In 2002, I was hit with my first major depressive episode, which was triggered by my dad’s passing. I cried nonstop for days. I couldn’t eat because I lost my appetite, and even my favorite foods tasted like cardboard. It felt like a tsunami of icy water had crashed over me, and I was drowning. I couldn’t listen to music, because it provoked painfully overwhelming emotions that were too much to handle. I was besieged by a combination of anxiety and depression. I couldn’t drive my car, because it felt too scary to get behind the wheel. I felt hopeless, and I wanted to give up. For months, my old life seemed gone forever. The scariest part was not knowing what was wrong, because I hadn’t been diagnosed yet. I dealt with grief, confusion, pain, and fear, all at once.
I saw a psychiatrist and received a diagnosis, and my anxiety lifted a bit, but my struggle toward healing wasn’t over yet. I began a months-long trial of different medications. I gained and lost weight, sleep, and hope as I swung back and forth on a pendulum of highs and lows. Some treatments worked, but the side effects were so bad, I’d have to try a new one. Some meds worked temporarily, only to fade in efficacy, so my doctor would up the dose repeatedly until it was no longer safe, so I’d have to switch again. My treatment team and I were constantly wondering which one would work for me. I dealt with change, uncertainty, and a gnawing feeling of dread that I’d never get back to “normal.” After what seemed like an eternity playing musical chairs with antidepressants, mood stabilizers, antiseizure, and antianxiety meds, I finally found a combination of medications for bipolar that balanced the tumult in my head, and it stuck. The fog in my brain cleared, and life began to return to some semblance of what I remembered before my breakdown.
I know what it’s like to deal with loss, sadness, pain, and fear. I know what it’s like to lose all sense of normality, routine, and stability. But stability isn’t always permanent. The other shoe could drop at any moment. Since 2002, I’ve experienced my fair share of manic and depressive episodes, but I fought my way back to the world every time. If I can rise like a phoenix from the flames of my illness, I can handle the next trauma, and I have proof that I will survive.
Living with bipolar disorder is like being an endurance athlete. Staying in recovery takes training and practice. I’ve dedicated myself to being vigilant and prepared. Maintaining stability takes work, and I never let my guard down. Thankfully, through my experiences, I’ve developed an arsenal of tools to help me cope with future hardships, no matter what they may be.
I see a therapist, and I journal to keep track of my inner dialogue. I take my medications as directed so I have a solid foundation upon which to build. I get enough sleep so my mind can recharge and function properly. I exercise and eat healthy vegan foods to nourish my body because mental and physical well-being are interdependent.
I’ve adopted specific preparatory behaviors that ensure I’m ready for the next emergency. Years before everyone was stocking up on toilet paper, I always stashed extras of everything from toothpaste to canned beans. I always have backup medications on hand in case something unexpected happens, whether it be a worldwide health crisis or a hospitalization. I share important information with a few trusted friends and family members, like passwords, bank account information, medication names and dosages, and doctors’ contact information.
I’ve been emotionally readying myself, too. I’ve had to learn to adjust to change, to life not being like it once was. I’ve been forced to cope with and overcome a range of emotions on both ends of the spectrum, and everywhere in between. I’ve faced instability and uncertainty while finding new, creative ways to adjust. And through it all, I have focused on physical and mental self-care.
When news the latest health crisis began surfacing, I, like many others, panicked at first. “How am I going to handle this?” I wondered. I had nightmares in the beginning, about the planet falling apart. Up until recently, I thought my bipolar disorder meant I was made of glass, ready to shatter at the slightest jostle. A global crisis seemed like an earthquake. How could I, with my mood disorder, ever hope to endure such seemingly insurmountable odds? I thought I was at a disadvantage because of my mental illness.
And then it hit me: I’ve been preparing for this my whole life because I live with a mood disorder. Making it through my depressive episode and managing my mood instability had already enhanced my resilience and adaptability. While I’ve watched other “normal” people wrestle with new emotions and fears they don’t recognize in themselves, I feel like an old pro. My brain has run the gauntlet. I’d argue that I’m better prepared to handle a crisis because disaster and collapse is nothing new to me. I know what it’s like to navigate anxiety, depression, triggers, traumas, negative thinking, rumination, hopelessness, and helplessness on a daily basis. I’m creating new neural pathways because I’m learning effective coping strategies along the way. I’m better prepared to handle what we’re all going through right now. And I’m handling it much better than I ever thought I could. I didn’t triumph over catastrophe, trauma, and death just to lie down when faced with a world crisis. I’ve adapted to tragedy beyond my control before. I didn’t fight my way out of the depths of despair just to let a new crisis get the best of me now. Those were dress rehearsals. So, raise that curtain, maestro, I’m ready step onstage and sing.
Carrie Cantwell is an Emmy-nominated film industry graphic designer with bipolar disorder. She grew up with a dad who had bipolar and whom she lost to suicide. She has written a book entitled Daddy Issues: A Bipolar Memoir, about how accepting her diagnosis taught her to forgive her dad and herself. Her blog is Darkness & Light.
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