Coping with being bipolar

Sometimes, I feel like there’s a small, happy person (surprisingly genderless) inside me, being strangled by a bigger, equally genderless person.  A friend said ‘that’s exactly what it’s like’. Brilliant, just as long as I’m not horrible. Oh, wait.

Dear reader, I’m bipolar, and I can’t stop talking about it. Ever since I found out about two months ago it has been central, or a predetermined endpoint to every one of my sentences. ‘Found out’ makes it sound more like I accidentally birthed a child, it wasn’t like that, it was a slow process of diagnosis stretched over six years and sped along by one massive traumatic brain injury. Lots of hassle, and then at last, someone professional looking said something that made a lot of sense.

That quality of making a lot sense is all I can clinically contribute to this discussion of bipolarity. That’s the first thing an outsider should know: I know absolutely nothing, apart from what Wikipedia tells me. Every now and again I get terrified that I’m taking toxic levels of lithium (I’m very lazy with the blood tests) and frantically check the symptoms. Typically, I’m usually displaying most of them, but I’ll worry about it when it gets serious (the same reasoning that took me six years to get diagnosed).

Everyone wants to think that they’re normal, or not even that, that they can function like other people. I thought quite a while ago that maybe I wasn’t exactly like other people, but then I thought I was probably inventing that quality for my own dramatic amusement. This has always been the central tenant of my illness: I never actually think I’m ill, I think I’m putting it on, even to myself. I never quite feel one thing or the other exactly, just like I’m being a different person all the time. My major bipolar mistake was the long held misconception that the hyperactive crazed me was the ‘real’ desirable me.

But enough of my tragic pre-diagnosis days, I want to tell you a bit about being bipolar at Oxford and how it affects my everyday university life. First of all, I’m very unclear whether or not my tutors are aware. One of them does, because I got sent home by those professional types, which they like to do when they think you’re in particular danger of killing yourself. The following week she handed me back my essay and described it as ‘very bipolar’. I’d be offended if I wasn’t so aware how true that statement is.. The two tutors that are aware that I’m a liability are mostly very kind, at least my doctor/psychiatrist/counsellor army tell them to be kind. They still retain that inhuman-tutor lack of patience quality though. I’d say the first tutor I mentioned had sympathy for the diagnosis for about two weeks, and then it was an inconvenience to her and she smiled less.

As far as medical attention goes, I have a blood test each week, to check that lithium levels aren’t killing me, and an appointment at Warneford hospital for mental health every two weeks. These appointments involve me turning up, saying the medication isn’t working, and my psychiatrist prescribing more (sadly, this does have a limit). As well as lithium, I’m prescribed Quetiapine, which is an anti-psychotic that helps me sleep and be less anxious and on edge, whereas the lithium is a mood stabiliser. Basically, they’re trying to lower the highs and raise the lows, and hope that the medium is tolerable. Sadly, the medium is quite a flat, empty feeling, but kind of better than the extremes of before.

The extremes are what affect my everyday life. The first thing that makes describing being bipolar a bit difficult is explaining that whatever I feel, I basically always feel a foundation of crap. It’s massively unusual to wake up and feel just ‘normal’ (I know ‘normality’ is the holy grail of human existence that no one actually possesses, I think the achievement of ‘normality’ is not to be searching for ‘normality’). Then there are three qualities that make things difficult. Most people know bipolar as ‘manic depression’, and the title accurately describes the condition. I get massive highs and massive lows. Both are unpleasant. Massive lows mean not getting up and often not being able to do basic things like make food for myself and be presentable. It’s difficult to get across the exhaustion that depression causes, it makes the smallest tasks monumentally difficult. This obviously has serious practical difficulties, especially with the pressure of going to lectures, classes, and tutorials. Moods like this for the most part last a few days, but about once every two months I’ll have an extended low patch. Once in Michaelmas I stayed in my cupboard for two days. I think that’s quite funny, but not for a long time did I realise that that was abnormal behaviour.

Along with the low moods, there’s also something very characteristic called suicidal ideation, which for me means I think about death a lot. I think this has been one of the hardest parts of my diagnosis to come to terms with. It’s very difficult not to feel disgusted with yourself for not wanting to live anymore, and really wanting to give up on things.  Apart from how exhausting that is alone, it’s also very embarrassing and a source of social anxiety, because nobody wants to be the emo-cutter, especially when they’re twenty years old.

The anxiety-inducing part is the high moods, because honestly, they’re intense. Depression, for me, is very passive, but ultimately manageable, because I know I can sit it out. The high moods are very different, if you imagine the ‘voice of reason’, that’s what disappears when I get to an intense high-patch, so I might take drugs or drink more or sleep with someone I ordinarily wouldn’t, just because I can, in a wonderful, elated, exhilarated feeling of confidence and self-worth. They were really great, until I realised how out of control I felt, like someone else was holding the steering wheel. So although my medication makes me feel ultimately boring, I prefer the flatness to the craziness. With high-moods, there’s also a feeling of loss, because I’ll have forgotten a week or something as its slipped past me in a frenzy of acceleration.

So far I’ve explained being bipolar in a very one-dimensional way, because in reality it isn’t just me in my life, there are lots of people around me. I am very lucky in that I have a pair of the most supportive, albeit confused, parents, who since being diagnosed have made it their parental-mission to see me at least every two weeks, and call, and text, and do all the things they can to make me feel less alone. Because it’s quite a lonely experience. It’s a bit more difficult with the other people in my life. It feels humiliating to say it, but I’ve known lots of people, and I’ve known lots of people that have left.

I’m not an easy person to live with. I think the people that have been closest to me have for the most part, all disappeared, except for one who is exceptionally patient and kind. I have a nice window of perspective now that my medication has started to work, but the last five years have been terrifying. There have been times when I have genuinely lost touch with reality, and that is an absolute product of being bipolar. I can’t allow myself to say ‘I did bad things, because I was bipolar’ but I have a retrospective plea inside me that asks for, if not forgiveness, understanding for the reckless and hurtful things I did to the people in my life. The best thing that the diagnosis has given me is hope for the future