Beating the Bipolar “What If?” Blues

Last Updated: 31 Jan 2022
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I used to think, “If I didn’t have bipolar, my life would be better because…” That was self-destructive—celebrating my successes feels much better!

The Dangers of Ruminating

Do you ever allow yourself to indulge in playing the game of “What if?” You know, telling yourself, “If I didn’t have bipolar disorder, my life would be much better because…”?

I used to play that game frequently—especially in the midst of a severe depressive episode. I’d ruminate until I convinced myself that if I didn’t have bipolar, I would have attracted a much better first husband than the one I married. I fantasized that my first husband would have been super-wealthy, handsome, intelligent, and unbelievably kind and loving!

Judging Myself and Others Unfairly

The “What if?” game is so dangerous because it convinces us to believe, if not intellectually, at least emotionally, that those who don’t have bipolar disorder lead blissfully charmed lives. We imagine that they never suffer disappointment or heartbreak and are never afraid to take the next step in the journey of life.

I almost convinced myself I would never have had three husbands if I weren’t living with bipolar. I also told myself that I would have graduated from college, were it not for bipolar. At the time, it was impossible for me to understand that people who do not live with this diagnosis sometimes marry multiple times and also drop out of college.

I was sure that had I not been grappling with bipolar, I would have led a deliriously happy, outrageously successful life—a life free of pain, problems, heartbreak, and despair.

Overlooking My Successes and Skills

The fact of the matter is that no one, diagnosed with bipolar or not, gets a pass. Life isn’t easy for anyone. Unfortunately, we who share this diagnosis also have the added stress of trying to manage episodes of both mania and depression. The bias against mental illness is a very real part of all of our lives. This is true whether we choose to reveal our diagnosis or to keep it to ourselves. And these misbeliefs can cause us to focus on “being” or “having” bipolar, rather than on recognizing and using all of our unique talents and gifts! We endure the fallout from medication that doesn’t always work. We work hard to manage the mood episodes that can sometimes make holding a job and/or going to school nearly impossible! These are impressive efforts!

“Comparison Is the Thief of Joy”

Sometimes, in the middle of a severe depression, I have mentally beaten myself to pieces! It’s really difficult to watch my classmates from high school and college become doctors, attorneys, engineers, teachers, college professors, certified public accountants, etc. It’s especially hard when I discount all the positive things that I’ve achieved. I forget that some of my educational peers also live with substance-abuse problems, dysfunctional families, multiple divorces, gambling habits or addictions, and other difficulties that they don’t mention to anyone. To onlookers, their lives appear to be fantastic.

Learning What to Celebrate

I believe strongly that I have to celebrate every single achievement and victory that I’ve managed to accomplish, in spite of that “schoolyard bully” (my nickname for bipolar, especially bipolar depression). Each of us has special gifts and talents. Developing them is one strong antidote to the “What if?” blues. I didn’t bring this illness on myself. I certainly didn’t ask for it, but I have to manage it!

I had a particular talent for rumination, mulling over all of my failures! It never occurred to me to celebrate my successes. ​For instance, I have two books published and am working on my third and fourth ones! To achieve this, I told myself that absolutely anyone can write a book!

It doesn’t matter what your gifts or talents are: mathematical or scientific abilities; making speeches; writing; makeup artistry and/or hairstyling; dressing stylishly; helping people in distress; putting strangers at ease; being artistic; teaching; advanced computer skills, etc. The fact is that each and every one of us has skills and that we’re especially good at, naturally or because of practicing something we enjoy!

If we focus upon the things that we do well, ​it leaves little room to ask ourselves that unhelpful question, “What if I didn’t have bipolar…?” We can make our lives happier and feel proud of ourselves, regardless of what other people are doing (or what we think they are doing).


Originally published February 18, 2020

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.
26 Comments
  1. I do have a big “what if” out there in my life. And while I salute the author for offering a variety of powerful ways to deal with “what ifs” with bipolar, I am still coming to terms with this one.

    My “what if” is from taking lithium. I have bipolar 1. However for about 25 years I was diagnosed as clinically depressed, with my mania (mostly in my 50s and early 60s) mistakenly thought to be depression and overlooked (my father had been clinically depressed and it is quite possible the psychiatrists thought I was similar). Then three years ago I was correctly diagnosed as bipolar 1 and started taking only lithium. This simple pill has completely turned my life around — stabilized things, anchored me, allowed me to focus and be at peace with myself. I lack words to credit lithium fully.

    So my “what if” goes, “what if I had been correctly diagnosed and taken lithium for those 25 years, what then?”

    I think it is a powerful question and I am still sorting through various answers. Honestly, I am not bitter because I am so grateful for my well being now and positive outlook (and those 25 were some tough years!!). I know much of life is chance and perhaps I’ve had some ill luck, but many are in my shoes. Now I have luckily found lithium, gotten a second wind and intend to thrive.

    Moreover, it is a tremendous relief now to realize that it was not “a character flaw” in my nature but a chemical imbalance that I struggled with. In the past, taking anti-depressants with only poor results, I was never certain where medicine ended and psychology began. Now, though, the sea change wrought by lithium has released me from much undeserved guilt.

    And, as suggested by the author, surely I have developed important skills and coping mechanisms in those 25 years that will serve in coming decades. If nothing else, I can look around and be easier on others facing their challenges with, often, only incomplete knowledge.

    All of this helps in coming to terms with my “what if”.

  2. I was really good at my job as clinical laboratory science, but since I am unable to work anymore, I can’t think of anything else that I am good at. Don’t think this is just depression.

    1. Hi TL,
      That is really tough not being able to work anymore, I empathize with your situation. I hope you are able to find some support so that one day you can see the talents and gifts you bring to this world. I appreciate your vulnerability, that is a true gift.

  3. Thank you Valerie. I experienced a depressive cycle for over two years in 2014 through 2016! I felt like every day I woke up it was hell on earth! My inner dialogue was constantly one of “I’m useless and hopeless”. And, I didn’t see or talk to most everyone because I experience myself as such a failure. The only person I felt comfortable being with was my grandmother who was 92 years old and translated in late 2015. Now I realize I felt comfortable with her because I didn’t have anything to prove to her, ever! I sure do miss her. I was diagnosed, finally, in December of 2019 with Bipolar 1 Disorder. What a blessing to be properly diagnosed! I am doing well taking lithium daily, have an awesome support system and I lead a very organic, holistic lifestyle that supports me to be strong, healthy, balanced and well. Thanks for reading this. Take care. ??

  4. Thank you for this article Valerie! One thing that helped me personally get over the “what if” game, was realizing what if things didn’t work out if I chose that other thing? The best we can do is to learn from our mistakes and stay present and optimistic. I’m rooting for you Valerie!!

  5. Thanks for expressing or rather pointing out something that I have been struggling with since my last hospitalization (just before Christmas). I think I needed to be reminded of such things.
    Dave

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