Bipolar Disorder Isn't Just a Kanye West Accessory
illustrated by helena goddard
Disclaimer: This article is solely for the purpose of informing people of the writer's personal experience with Bipolar Disorder, and in no way adheres to the population of people with Bipolar Disorder as a whole. These are their thoughts and opinions. Trigger warning regarding self harm and suicidal ideations.
I think everybody has at least one moment in their life that changes a part of them forever; a moment that brings something deep inside of their psyche to the surface. My first moment was when I was seventeen. It was the summer, it was hot as fuck, and I was starving. I wanted McDonald’s so badly and was epically hangry. My friends and I were hanging out at the beach and I kept begging them to come with me to get food since I was the only one with a car and couldn’t leave them stranded. My one friend turned around, gave me the dirtiest look and asked, “Why are you being such a cunt?” I fucking lost it. Nobody had ever called me a cunt before. I beelined straight to my car and sped away like a fucking NASCAR driver with such rage I blacked out for a few seconds. Once I was coherent again, a really morbid and intentional thought popped into my head: I’m going to drive my car into a fucking tree and kill myself.
That was the beginning of it all. My first suicidal thought and first wish to die. From that moment on, I felt this sort of change inside of my body that is hard to describe. My moods started to dramatically fluctuate every few months. For certain periods of time I would live with this constant anger where my blood was always boiling. During these months I was always irritated, insanely energetic, super distracted, and didn’t sleep as often as I previously had. The tiniest things would piss me off: our wi-fi not working, my mom forgetting to buy Goldfish, my brother closing my door “the wrong way.” My irrational anger from these annoyances would lead me to beating the shit out of my body at the gym for three hours to calm myself down. I also couldn’t focus on my schoolwork. I would miss assignments, and deliberately didn’t do my homework out of spite. After those periods of time passed, I’d crash and burn. I became reclusive after school and I would go to sleep on a Friday night and not leave my bed until Monday morning. I couldn’t eat, exercise, shower, or hold a conversation during the weekends either.
I’d also turn into a shitty person and ignore my friends (sorry guys) by completely disregarding my phone or canceling on plans. Then I would eventually feel better and end a cycle with a moderately drastic change to my life… ranging from piercings, to dying my hair an extreme color, to starting new projects, to developing new and ridiculous “life prophecies” i.e. I will be a backup dancer for Lil’ Wayne because he came to me in my dream and told me so. (I know that doesn’t seem like a lot, but it will make sense eventually).
My life continued to go on like this throughout the rest of high school and the beginning of college, but I thought it was “normal.” Society told me that I was just being a moody teenager and going through the “normal”, but intense, emotions that people my age go through. But in reality I was dealing with a lot more than that. My parents got divorced when I was twelve and would fight like assholes, so I was in a constant state of sadness watching my parent’s relationship disintegrate. Their fighting also got worse with time, and it seemed like I got worse along with it… my misery always matched theirs.
I was also in a shitty abusive relationship during this time which only added to the pain and confusion that was always trolling my mind. We had a tumultuous and volatile relationship that made my mood fluctuations worse and left me feeling like I was being suffocated every day of my life. We would fight, he would hit me, I would try and break up with him, he would threaten suicide, and I would succumb to his “apologies”. This would not only make me hate myself more, but made me think that suicide was a common thought in everyone’s brains which also led me to believe that my thoughts weren’t anything to be worried about. Obviously not the worst, but as a wise professor once said to me, “It isn’t the experience that shapes a person, but their interpretation of those experiences.” So yeah, some people in this world could have handled my experiences without crashing and burning, but I couldn’t.
After high school I started college in New York City, which I hated. I don’t even know why, I just didn’t feel ready for school and was pissed I rushed into something so serious. Then I transferred to another school, enjoyed it at first, but then hated it for the same reasons. I had no money, I had no direction, and I had no feelings. I felt nothing. Constantly numb, and I was still rapidly cycling through periods of intense moods that were out of my control. The only positive thing that happened during this part of my life was that I became strong enough to end the abusive relationship which lifted a huge weight off of my shoulders, but unfortunately stayed to haunt me. As soon as I began to see the light at the end of the tunnel, I was triggered from a horrible sexual experience when I was twenty, which lead to the utmost hatred of myself rising to the surface. I felt disgusting, stupid, worthless and took those feelings out on myself by beginning to self harm.
Now this is a touchy subject that is very hard to put into words, but I think it’s important to share to break the stigma. It started with burning. I was too afraid to actually cut my skin so I would boil water and pour it on myself. When that didn’t suffice, I began using a knife to scratch my skin just enough to draw a small amount of blood. Then it turned to full blown cutting using a razor… a "Schick Quattro For Women" to be exact. On the outside, I looked completely “normal” and happy, but underneath my clothes were a dozen cuts that would turn to permanent scars under huge bandaids.
It was so fucked up how I could leave my friends at a bar, go home, cut myself, go to bed, wake up and act like nothing happened. There were so many times where I’d be with my friends and family having a lot of fun, feeling so happy and grateful, when I would stop and think. I am sitting here with a great life, surrounded by amazing people, and I have over thirty cuts on my body that they have no idea about. I felt insanely guilty and selfish. Guilty, because I had a great life but hated it and hated myself so much that I always contemplated ending it. Selfish, because I hid things from the people I loved and the people who loved me. But I couldn’t fathom the embarrassment and pain in admitting the truth. One of the biggest misconceptions or stigmas behind cutting, is thinking that a person who cuts wants attention or wants to kill themselves. Sometimes that’s the case, and sometimes it isn’t.
I wasn’t cutting for attention or as a desperate cry for help, but to give myself a reason to seclude myself out of fear of someone seeing my cuts. I wasn’t cutting with the intention of committing suicide, but with the desire to feel something by punishing myself. I had separate thoughts of ending my life, but luckily those were just thoughts. I had the urge to cut to feel and had the urge to commit suicide to end the overwhelming pressure to meaningfully exist in this world.
Unfortunately I got a lot worse before I began to get better, and after my cutting became consistent I went into a brief psychosis. Google defines (bipolar) psychosis as “[the] inability to recognize what is real in the world around you.” I was going through an intense period of being hyperactive but not sleeping whatsoever. I was going to the gym three times a day, every day, and sleeping two to three hours without feeling the least bit tired. I read thirteen books, cleaned my apartment excessively and barely ate. After ten days of these symptoms I was so exhausted that I started to break from reality and was unable to differentiate between what was real and what wasn’t.
I was walking home from a Planet Fitness in Brooklyn and thought I was in a dream, and attempted to step in front of a car to “wake myself up”, which was a subconscious attempt to kill myself. All I remember is putting my jacket on in the locker room, the cold late night April air hitting my face when I walked outside, and then my whole body going numb. I felt like Jello, like somebody else was controlling and moving my body for me. I felt uncomfortable, something just didn’t feel right, so I stepped in front of the car in order to kill myself in the dream which would shock me enough to wake me up. The driver slammed on their horn which made me snap out of it. I walked home hysterically crying for the first time in a year and decided it was time to call a fucking psychiatrist.
That phone call was hard, but it wasn’t just for me anymore. The things that I did affected both me and the people who surrounded and supported me. It was harder to tell my best friends that I cut myself than to put the actual razor blade to my skin. It was harder to look my siblings in the eye as I explained to them how sometimes I wanted to die rather than contemplating my actual suicide attempt. It was harder to see my mom cry when I told her how I felt, than to actually feel the feelings themselves. I think I had already recognized that I had Bipolar Disorder, with it being present in my family and having textbook symptoms. But seeing a doctor would make it real, and I was not good at dealing with reality. I suppressed it mercilessly.
On June 16, 2016 I walked into my soon to be psychiatrist's office, filled out all the paperwork, and explained to her all of my symptoms. Within two seconds of me shutting my mouth she said, “You have the classic symptoms and I am giving you the diagnosis of Bipolar I Disorder. We will start you on 25mg of Lamictal right away.”
I was mad, I was sad, but I just wanted these horrible feelings and symptoms to leave my brain. My diagnosis came with other aspects. Bipolar Disorder isn’t curable, I’d probably have to be on medication for the rest of my life (except during pregnancy if that were to happen), and it would take awhile until my doctor and I found a combination of medications that worked for my brain and my body. It would be a tough road ahead, but I was ready to stop dwelling in my misery and become mentally stable for both myself and the people that I love. Until that phone call I enjoyed being miserable, I enjoyed feeling worthless, and I enjoyed the pain because it was the only thing I could feel. It was the only way to feel that I had ever known.
I am not writing this to tell you a sad story or to gain sympathy. I am writing this with the intention to spread awareness and knowledge of what Bipolar Disorder is because it isn’t a mental illness that’s talked about too often, at least in my experience. All of the following clinical info I talk about comes straight from the fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). There are two types of Bipolar Disorder: Bipolar I and Bipolar II with Bipolar I being the more severe of the two since it involves psychosis while II does not. The main aspect of having this disorder is that you have fluctuating moods lasting a few days or more of mania, which is an extremely elevated mood, and depression, which consists of extreme lows. Ever since my diagnosis two years ago, I have become more aware of people’s conceptions of mental illness. I have heard people say “they are so bipolar”, referring to someone who has been “moody” all day. Bipolar Disorder is not when somebody is moody during the day, it’s elongated cycles of manic or depressed moods that disrupt people’s daily functions. I just hope people know deep down those things are very serious. It sucks because I feel like it diminishes my feelings when I try to explain to someone that I actually am bipolar. I actually have written most of this during a major depressive episode, and it has taken me almost three months to write. When I am depressed I am not sad - I cannot get out of bed, eat, or hold a conversation. When I used to say I want to kill myself, I actually wanted to. Keep on saying those things, but just remember where they came from. And finally, I just want to remind everyone that statistically there are quite a few people around them with a mental illness and they are just as valid as someone with a physical illness. They are in pain, they are hurting, and they are sick. I cannot tell you how many people I have had conversations with that think mental illness does not exist. Goodbye! Matt Haig wrote in one of my favorite books, Reasons to Stay Alive, “To other people, it sometimes seems like nothing at all. You are walking around with your head on fire and no one can see the flames.” Just because you can’t see Bipolar Disorder doesn’t mean I don’t have it. After the flames burn out, with the right mix of medication and therapy, I have been able to integrate myself back into my life with a good head on my shoulders. I will never be able to fully explain my thoughts and feelings to anyone but myself, but I am able to live a more normal life. I am right next to you taking a shot of tequila at the bar. I am right next to you sitting on the 2 train heading uptown. I am right next to you in a lot of emotional pain. And I am right next to you trying to live my best fucking life.
If you, or someone you know, is experiencing moments of self harm or suicidal ideations, please do not hesitate. Below are a list of organizations to reach out to, if talking to a parent or a friend isn't enough.