I wasn’t looking for real happiness. With bipolar disorder, why would I? I’m a rational guy and I know that based on my entire life, happiness comes in fleeting moments—seconds and minutes. Every smile, every laugh, feels forced. I’m use to stretching the truth, for lack of a better term, to fit in. I guess we all do it—our clothes, makeup, hair, strategically-designed Instagram photos. All in an attempt to fit in and appear normal. So, I don’t look at my faking happiness any different. It’s easier than explaining my irrational disease and how it manifests itself.
The only real downside of it all is that I honestly feel guilty for not being happy at the times I have no reason not to be. I should giggle constantly with my daughter, or smile at the sunrise or be able to laugh at a funny joke. Instead, it’s all a lot of work and effort. I can still feel a warm and fuzzy feeling deep down inside me that makes my heart smile, but it’s trapped and weighted down. I have, as the song says, become comfortably numb. And I was okay with that. Until recently.
I am still trying to wrap my head around it. How was I authentically happy for two weeks without any downside? Of course, my first thought was mania. Usually my mania comes with a list of undesirable side effects that are hard to miss. But my recent mania, prior to this alleged extended happy state of mind, was a bit different. I brought on the mania myself by not sleeping much for a few days (this is not a recommendation!). I know the behavior only brings a few days of productivity before it backfires, but it was worth it. Sleeping a few hours a night lets me catch up on work, and life. After a couple days, though, it manifests as a true manic episode starting euphorically, but always ending in an anxious, dysphoric mode.
It so happens this manic episode was right up against my two weeks of happiness. But when I arrived at my destination in Mexico, I had a couple days to induce sleep and catch up on rest. Within a few days, my mania had subsided and I was back to my normal self. After a day or two on an adventure with 14 other solo travelers from around the world, I couldn’t quite grasp how I was feeling. It felt a bit familiar like mania, but more pleasant and lacking undesirable side effects. I was sleeping, and eating too.
It took me a week to figure it out. I was happy! I had never felt this happy for more than a few hours, if that, ever. I was laughing and smiling. Jokes were funny, smiles were contagious, landscapes were breathtaking, and I didn’t hurt inside. Peculiar if you know bipolar. I wondered, is this what people feel all the time? I wasn’t deliriously happy where negative emotions or experiences bounced off me. I still felt them. But everything was just…. easier. I felt good.
So, I panicked at first because I didn’t want to let the feeling go. I actually brought on one of my epic migraines just thinking about it. That’s also when I realized: I hadn’t had a migraine since the beginning of my trip. Another curious characteristic of this entire experience. Could it be that stress is what is brining on my multi-migraine weeks? Hmmm. That at least made more sense than the abundance of happiness!
So, I’m back now. It’s been about two weeks. My old bipolar self from a decade or two ago would have told me this: “Move to Mexico! You will be happy forever!” It would also probably throw in: “And live with those 14 people you traveled with!” Luckily, over many years with bipolar, I rarely even hear that irrational voice anymore. That’s definitely a good thing as I think inviting these 14 people to live with me in Mexico would be a big red flag against any chances of friendship, and set fighting the stigma against mental illness back about a decade. People expect to hear “crazy” things from the mentally ill.
Reflecting on these happy two weeks, I walked through life how I imagine most people without a mental illness do. Easily roused to laugh, smiling from a place deep down inside at the easiest of prompts, and enjoying every second of life—while also finding ways to cope with negative experiences, conversations or feelings as they come in. I couldn’t help but try to find the formula that made me feel so good during this time. Here’s what I deducted: The environment definitely helped to sustain the feeling: waterfalls, jungles, hikes, phenomenal ancient ruins, salsa dancing, indulgent local food, and clear blue waters that I never imagined really existed. So, was Mexico and the stunning landscape the fuel for my sustained happiness? Well, it sure as hell helped! But that wasn’t the driving motivation for this near dreamlike happiness. The people were.
I traveled with 14 unique people with 14 very distinct personalities during this 10-day adventure. On the contrary, I spend most of my time alone at home, and by choice. I like to work a lot, spend time with my daughter, and the rest of the time I fill with solo activities, which I enjoy. I do see friends sometimes for a meal or coffee here and there. But have learned to love time to myself. And I thought that I was okay with that. I knew if I kept to myself, I wouldn’t have to explain bipolar to people or burden them with details. It was just easier. But for some reason it was this particular trip at this certain time in my life that made me realize that it was the energy of each of these people that I spent my trip with that was fueling my true happiness.
Do I want to see each and every one of these 14 people again in hopes for a repeat of the laughs? Yes! Why wouldn’t I? But I also know that they specifically are not the source to my sustainable happiness. As I was settling in to home after this trip, the real solution came to me. I expected to come home and be back to normal with forced laughs and fake smiles. Then one night, I was reading a book with my daughter and came across a really funny line. I burst out into the loudest roar of real laughter. I couldn’t help it! Normally, I would have just smiled to myself. But this roar triggered my little one into the most contagious laughter as well! The look on her face was clear she wasn’t expecting this laughter from her traditionally-calm dad. The feeling of happiness had not left me.
I have avoided being social for fear of heartbreaking dates, negative influences and friends that don’t understand the way I walk through life. But people ARE the answer. The reason authentic happiness found me is because I let these people in. All day, every day, I was energized by their crazy, funny, diverse personalities. We didn’t all walk through life the same way, but we chose that specific adventure individually which brought us together with a common interest. While I would love to explore the world with these remarkable people, and I know that I will have future adventures with some of them, I think the sustainable solution to ignite my personal happiness is to surround myself with people; positive, energized, thoughtful people; people that share my common interest in exploring the planet, and taking care of it as well.
Life is not a constant bubble of joy since my return to my everyday life. But life does feel a bit easier, and I don’t feel like this feeling is slipping away. I have given extra effort into redesigning my life to be how I want it, without fear. Now that my body and mind experienced a prolonged period of happiness without stress, it is reprogramming itself. Do I think I am cured? Hmmm. No. But I do think I have found a new way to live that I thought was not possible. I don’t feel like I need to hide away and keep to myself all the time anymore.
We are constantly told that bipolar is not something that can be cured. And that may definitely be true. But what we need to start telling each other is that there is a better way to live with it. Whether it comes in waves of hours, weeks, or months. We are the only ones in charge of taking care of ourselves. We can eat right, sleep, exercise, be kind to others and maybe just this self-care piece of this all will open the door wide enough to let people in along with authentic laughs and smiles that can ripple through our entire lives. No matter how brief the window is for what some consider the average experience of joy in their lives, what I experienced was enough to change my life moving forward.