Prior to my diagnosis of bipolar, my life was marked by constant change that elated and destroyed me over and over again. With treatment and hard work, I’ve learned how to manage my moods and find stability. It’s about time, I think, to recognize how far I’ve come.
I love a good whodunit. The second season of Unsolved Mysteries was recently released on Netflix, and the first episode caught my attention. It centers on the high-profile death of White House aide and Washington insider Jack Wheeler, who was described as intense, driven, and dedicated. An investigative journalist says Wheeler “accomplished so much, and he did it all with the equivalent of a piano strapped to his back, because he had bipolar disorder.”
Stable Doesn’t Mean Smooth Sailing
I sometimes forget that I’m a lot like Jack Wheeler. I, too, have had to overcome odds with a weight on my shoulders. Just because I’m stable now doesn’t mean my life has been smooth sailing up to this point. But when I’m feeling good, it’s easy to forget everything I’ve struggled through. I must remember to give myself credit for conquering the obstacles I’ve had to face.
I’ve experienced debilitating and destructive depressive and manic episodes that have wreaked havoc. But even when not in a full-blown episode, day-to-day life has posed unique challenges. Simply living a stable, routine existence has been harder for me in a lot of ways, so I’ve had to work extra diligently to survive, let alone succeed.
Difficulties Prior to Bipolar Diagnosis
I wasn’t diagnosed with bipolar until I was twenty-eight years old. Before I got adequate treatment, life wasn’t easy. I felt like I had to strain every cell in my brain to keep up with everyone else, and I was barely staying afloat.
I—like everyone with bipolar disorder—have always needed a lot of sleep. When I was in high school, I stayed up way too late watching MTV (if that doesn’t date me, I don’t know what will) and chatting on the phone. But I still had to wake up and be fully functioning by 6 A.M. to make it to class. Sleep deprivation made school difficult. I battled with concentration and memory problems. I had to work longer hours to get the same grades in classes where I watched others sail through with ease.
Puberty added more instability to my life. While my friends were experiencing normal ups and downs, my hormonal changes caused wild mood swings in all directions, on a daily basis. It was like their pendulums swung back and forth, but mine spun 360 degrees.
University classes were tough. I was undiagnosed, unmedicated, and unhinged. I had discovered drinking, and, like many college kids, I did my fair share of partying. This lifestyle didn’t do any favors for my mental health.
Overachieving & Compensating for Constant Change
I felt like my life was an uphill battle against myself. I felt everything—both highs and lows—at an intensity level that could be unbearable at times. My life was marked by constant change that elated and destroyed me over and over again.
I got married at twenty and I was divorced within a year. My first job would have been a normal stress level for many, but it was impossible for me to tolerate. I left after a few months. I started and quit jobs and relationships like I was changing my shoes.
But I was determined to thrive. I overcompensated by becoming obsessively organized. I pushed myself forward with dogged determination. I fell down repeatedly, and I just kept getting back up again. I planned ahead. I tried to predict and mitigate risks. I knew I had to put an extraordinary amount of effort into everything, so I did. I became an overachiever.
Diagnosis, Medication, & Mood Management
Once diagnosed, I had to accept my bipolar disorder, and the fact that I’d need medication every day for the rest of my life, if I wanted to recover. The first few meds I tried didn’t work. Others were effective, but they caused sleep and weight gain and loss, and more mood swings. But I didn’t give up. I tried antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and antianxiety medications until I finally found a combination of medications that worked for me with an acceptable level of side effects.
I had to learn how to handle my heightened sensitivity to life changes, so I saw a therapist and developed coping strategies. I learned that maintaining a regular sleep schedule gave me a solid foundation, so I adjusted my social activities accordingly. Balance required effort, so I buckled down and did the work.
That’s how I got to where I am today.
I will always live with bipolar disorder. It’s a part of who I am. For the moment, I’m lucky enough to have a treatment plan that’s kept me healthy. I’m in recovery, and I’ve been stable for years. I’ve actually grown accustomed to a calm, secure existence.
Today’s Calm Stability Took Hard Work
It’s easy to forget pain. Even though I write about living with bipolar disorder, it wasn’t until I watched the show about Jack Wheeler that I realized I take for granted what I’ve busted my butt to achieve. It all seems so far behind me, but I’ve had to overcome adversity to live the life I enjoy.
There’s no telling what the future holds. With everything that’s going on now, there are no guarantees. I could have another episode.
But, by acknowledging how far I’ve come, I can appreciate what I’m capable of. I can draw on that strength again if I need to. I’ve saved myself before, and I can do it again.
So, I’m taking a moment to stop and thank myself for all my hard work. I’ve accomplished a lot, and I should give myself credit. I think I deserve it.
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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