Inside a Bipolar Depressive Episode


The depressive episodes of bipolar disorder can be just as much of a nightmare as the manic ones. But, with depression, it feels like you’re falling into a black hole.

One morning about ten years ago, I woke up feeling absolutely terrible. My head hurt, and I ached all over. I did not want to get out of bed, but I did. As I dragged myself to the bathroom to shower, my body felt as if it weighed a thousand pounds. Although I usually enjoy taking a shower, this day the water felt like an assault on my poor body.

“What am I going to do today?” I asked myself. Getting dressed seemed to require too much effort. Instead of getting dressed and putting on makeup, as I usually do, I put on my ratty blue fleece bathrobe and parked myself in front of the television.

Daytime television is not very interesting. The shows are both boring and inane. So finally, I decided to have breakfast. The bacon tasted like lead and the eggs reminded me of sawdust. I am a good cook, but my depressive mindset made the food taste terrible! I wanted to go for a walk, but I simply could not force myself to get dressed. As I looked out the window, I saw the sun shining brightly in the brilliant, blue sky. Unfortunately, I could not appreciate it. For hours I sat at the kitchen window, staring out, wishing that I had a job or was going to school. I felt that everyone in the world was leading a real and purposeful life—except me.

You’re a failure. You’ll never amount to anything,” I told myself. None of my prior accomplishments seemed to matter. Getting accepted to four great universities, including the University of California at Berkeley, didn’t matter. Earning straight As in college didn’t matter. Holding any of my previous jobs didn’t matter. Instead, all I could think about was the things that I didn’t have. I had no husband (although I had already had three). No job or car. Not even a mortgage to pay. I berated myself for everything that I was not. I thought about my younger sister, who had a job as a quality control supervisor at a facility for emotionally disturbed children. She had attended college but did not graduate. I wondered why my sister had a decent job, but I did not.

The depressive episodes of bipolar disorder can be just as much of a nightmare as the manic ones. They are so all-encompassing. It doesn’t matter who or what you are in your regular, non-depressed state of being. Feelings of failure, hopelessness, negativity and general pessimism abound. I lacked the energy to do anything other than entertain negative thoughts and watch television. I overate to a fault, although my food did not taste that good. Even my taste buds were not functioning correctly. I almost never felt inclined to cook, so takeout—or better yet, delivery—was the order of the day, every day.

Talking to anyone, even my family or friends, was something I just didn’t want to do. I couldn’t think of anything to talk about, and I couldn’t imagine that they wanted to be bothered with me, although they called constantly. Feeling like a huge burden to anyone who was concerned about me, I did not want to “inflict” myself on anyone. Besides, who would be interested in someone who could not carry on a conversation, looked like hell and was unable to concentrate on anyone or anything? Sometimes I would answer the phone, then make an excuse to hang up. I always promised to call back, but never did. This caused the people who cared about me to worry constantly.

My sister even showed up, unannounced, one Saturday. She convinced me to bathe, get dressed and go out to lunch and shopping with her and my nephew. I did not disregard people due to meanness. I was just in a deep, depressive fog. Unfortunately, the inability to engage anyone, conversationally or otherwise, is one of the most severe symptoms of bipolar depression! On the worst days, I let the answering machine pick up my calls. I felt as if bipolar disorder was a big, schoolyard bully who had stomped on me until I was in a pile on the sidewalk.

Bipolar depressive episodes can make achieving happiness and living a full, productive life difficult. Depression can numb the mind, desensitizing it to nearly all stimuli. Sadness and apathy prevail. I am normally an attractive, carefully groomed woman, but during those horrific episodes, I did not care that my eyebrows were thick, furry and in dire need of grooming. It didn’t matter that there was at least an inch-thick layer of dust on my coffee table. The dirty dishes sat in the sink, waiting to be washed. Unfortunately, they did not wash themselves. When I did get dressed and leave the house (for medical appointments), I was barefaced, haphazardly groomed (if at all), and sometimes unwashed. I looked like a bag lady minus the shopping cart and bags.

Most mornings I woke up, bemoaning that I hadn’t died in my sleep. I often had suicidal ideation, but no real plan to carry out. I was too afraid of messing up and just severely injuring myself. The mental and emotional pain was unbearable. Although I knew, intellectually, that I was ill, emotionally I still felt that my depression was somehow my own fault.

I remained severely depressed for a year. It was like trying to crawl naked across a street littered with broken glass! My medication-management psychiatrist and I tried several medications during this period. I became increasingly discouraged with each new attempt. Some of the so-called “wonder drugs” did nothing for me but produce adverse side effects. Weight gain, excessive sleepiness, an uncomfortable “wired” feeling, insomnia, and hypervigilant paranoia were some of the awful side effects that I experienced. At the time, I had literally tried ninety-eight percent of them. My health insurance refused to cover the remaining two percent.

I still suffer periodic bouts of depression, but I refuse to give up hope. I know, both intellectually and emotionally, that they are temporary. My experience with bipolar depression, that “huge, schoolyard bully,” has taught me a few things. As long as I take hold of and maintain a positive mindset; don’t isolate myself from family and friends; have my medication adjusted if needed; have a spiritual connection; meditate; have fun; and continue to fight, I am winning. Regardless of the outcome of my efforts, I am victorious.

About the author
Valerie Harvey grew up in San Francisco. She attended parochial school from kindergarten through high school graduation. Ms. Harvey attended the University of Southern California and Berkeley City College. She has always loved writing, since the first grade. Some of her interests are: reading and writing good books; listening to great music; and attending concerts, poetry readings and book signings; and shopping for clothing and makeup, furniture, bedding, accent pieces, decorations and other home accessories.  Valerie is a published author with two books to her credit: "Love Lights The Way, a Book of Poetry About Love" and "The Problem With the Black Man Is…" which speaks to dating, marriage and relationships within the African-American community.
  1. I never knew that anyone felt this bad. It describes me perfectly on my bad days. Thank you for your honest article.

  2. I thought I was the only one who felt this way?! Thank you for purging your feelings and emotions. I now feel I am not alone in my personal struggle and there is a light at the end of that dark lonely tunnel. God Bless you and everyone who suffers from this.

    1. I feel like I could have written this myself. It’s an accurate, detailed, and eloquent description of severe depression. I feel increasingly isolated and lonely, despairing of ever leading any kind of meaningful life. Like the author, I once had a fulfilling and successful career as a college professor, a husband, a house, a nice car, lots of friends, etc. All gone die to mental illness. I feel sorry for myself frequently for not having those sources of contentment anymore, and I get envious of my friends who have all those things that are not available to me anymore. The fact that I have a PhD from a prestigious university doesn’t make me feel proud, but as a failure who once had it all and blew it. That’s very negative thinking and I am trying hard to learn to live in the present and enjoy the life I have right now. My present location is not my permanent destination. But I struggle every day. Thanks for sharing your moving story. You speak for thousands of us.

  3. Valerie, Thank you for your honesty and your welcome ability to capture in words the deep depressive state of bipolar. I explain my deep depression as depression so bad that it hurt. It feels like your brain is ripping from your skull. That’s basically because I have mixed mania – which is depression and mania mixed together. The ultimate way to drive a person mad. My mind is like a rubber band – If it’s just laying there I’m o.k.- equilibrium. As soon as it starts to stretch – both ends move. Depression begins to move one way and mania begins to move the other. Keep stretching depression gets worse and so does the mania. Keep stretch and both are affected (increased) in a bad way. So with mixed mania, they are not mutually exclusive. It sucks with a capital SUCK.

  4. “Trying to crawl naked across a street littered with broken glass”. Yes, that is the pain and the effort that’s the daily cost of this illness. Thank you for your wise words and determined hope. I continue reading, watching and learning about my bipolar so I know the struggle never ends. At least I’m finding a view of the rare lovely moments that make it worth fighting through this. And the people who are my support team deserve my daily gratitude.

  5. Thanks Valerie for sharing your story, a good deal of it reads like mine. I went through a nutrition program that was no less than miraculous for me in curbing the intensity of the highs and lows.

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