I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year or so writing about life with bipolar disorder. I know the road that brought me here by heart. Familial predisposition for mental illness, trauma, natural personality traits, and family dynamics left little room for a different outcome. Things unfolded for me the same remarkable/unremarkable way they do for most people. I began to show symptoms long before I (or anyone) acknowledged there was a problem. Over time, my life became a predictable pattern of extreme emotional instability and a lot of damage control. It wasn’t until my external life began to reflect my internal chaos that someone spoke up. For me, it was an unfamiliar doctor at a beat-up community health clinic. He asked if anyone had ever talked to me about bipolar disorder. They had, of course, but at a time when I still thought I could pull my shit together on my own. On that day, in that office, staring into his eyes, a seed landed and began to grow roots. Yes, bipolar disorder explained so much. A name, an actual name, meant there was a treatment. That was comforting and terrifying. The year that followed my diagnosis was a blur of new medications, sleeping too much (or not enough) and crying; a whole lot of crying.
For me, being sick was easy; terribly painful but easy. Getting well was where the work began. I found the right psychiatrist and therapist, but not on the first try. I found the right medication(s) but that also involved some trial and error. I learned to be compliant, which is easier for some than others. I identified my triggers (and continue to try to avoid them.) I began to assemble a hodge-podge support system of a few family members, a few friends and, unexpectedly, an occasional stranger. Finally, I began the challenging process of learning to ask for help and willing accepting it, with gratitude and humility. That last part, asking for and receiving help, is a little more uncomfortable than I expected, but it is integral to the process. Shame often makes me hesitant to admit I need help and pride makes it hard to accept. For me, an important part of wellness has been surrendering to the process. After white-knuckling my way through life, it was hard to let someone else take the wheel.
Over the last 9 years, my mental illness has taken me to quite a few places. In addition to mania and depression, there have also been intense bouts of agoraphobia, debilitating anxiety, and panic attacks. Add an eating disorder (Binge Eating Disorder – BED) and I’ve had to ask for a lot of help. I tried to make a list of all the ways my support system has, well, supported me, and it’s impossible. I’d be like one of those celebrities at the Oscars getting played off the stage.
All this introspection brings me to my current place in the process: autonomy. Some of the people in my support system have become as accustomed to my illness as I have. They’ve spent years planning their calendars around my needs. Over the last year or so, I’ve experienced a bit of stability. Every day isn’t a perfect mental health day, but that’s probably true for everyone. Some days, I’m not great. On those days, I know who to call and when to call them. Some days, I wake up feeling restless and ready to move. Those are the days I look forward to. On those days, I want to go to the gardening center and buy flowers. I want to drive myself to the doctor and then stop and eat lunch alone. I want to hop in the car after dark and drive to the corner store. These are small things but they are also things I might not have done last year.
Making choices, even small, silly ones, is a necessary step in gaining agency. I am learning how not to ask for help. This means those who love me have to wait for me to ask before stepping in. It’s not an easy transition. I’ve had to sit in my car in the supermarket parking lot and cry because my anxiety was so high, but I still went in. I checked “No Freeways or Interstates” on my GPS, even though it adds thirty minutes to every trip. I am deciding as I go. Each time I swallow the fear and step out of the car, I don’t know exactly what will happen. So far, I’ve stepped out anyway. Things may change tomorrow, or they may not. I won’t know until I try. The truth of it is, I’m constantly afraid that I’m not well enough and I suspect sometimes the people who love me are afraid, too. Fear can be contagious so I have to be careful. I suppose that’s something we’ll negotiate as we go. All of this is to say: mental illness doesn’t mean a complete lack of wellness. I live with bipolar disorder but I do still live. I’m still afraid that tomorrow might be a bad day, but instead of climbing back into bed, I’m trying to make the most of each moment. Fingers crossed tomorrow is a good day.