Ten years ago, I sat in a doctor’s office completely lost and confused about the thoughts that had overcome me. I went into that office looking for an easy solution to my problem but I ended up leaving with a six-month plan including therapy and medication. Although I heard her say that bipolar disorder was a lifelong disease, there was a part of me that hoped in six months I would be better or even cured.
The plan was extended to a year and then that was extended to a focus of graduating high school. Once I had graduated, the new plan was focused on acceptance, coping and learning to live with my disorder.
This was the part of the plan that I had struggled with: what did it mean to live with bipolar disorder? It took years before I actually had the answer to that question and to be completely honest, 10 years later the answer is still changing.
There are days that sadness takes over my body in a way that even my medication can suppress; there are days that the voices in my head prevent me from hearing my own thoughts; there are days that my mania is so exacerbated that racing thoughts fuel the games my own mind plays on me. So yes, nothing has really changed when it comes to my symptoms. I would even say that my symptoms have increased and intensified but I have changed. And because of these changes I have made in my life, lifestyle and even relationships I have survived.
During the course of my ten-year journey, there are three main lessons I have learned: contentment, acceptance and realism. Life doesn’t always give us choices: I didn’t choose to be bipolar that was bestowed upon me but I did have the choice to decide how I was going to handle my disorder.
For the first three to four years, I choose to pretend it didn’t exist. That was one of the worst choices I have ever made; as a result my symptoms intensified. At that point I had a choice: accept my disorder and take care of myself or bury myself in misery and self-pity.
Acceptance has been my greatest gift. Accepting yourself, your flaws, weaknesses and capabilities allows you to be happy. Contentment works hand in hand with acceptance. Learning that life isn’t always perfect and that not every decision will make you happy allows you to be at peace. That is what contentment has taught me: inner peace, with my choices, decisions and most of all with my illness.
The hardest lesson has been realism. For years, I lived in a pretend, very naiive world. Being bipolar forced me to face reality; I was given no choices in this regard. I say often that it was reality that slapped me in the face on October 26, 2006. For months, maybe even years I knew something was wrong but I never wanted that to be my reality so I pretended. I thought, I would “fake it till I made it.” Each day, I bore a fake smile and a shared anecdote from a life that I imagined was mine, but it was never mine. My reality was hiding in my closet to shut out the voices in my head; my reality was paranoia, anxiety and sleepless nights. October 26, 2006 forced me to accept this reality and by doing so I have survived.
These ten years have been the worst and best of my life. I have graduated high school, college and graduate school but at the same token I have had to deal with the murder of my sister, suicide attempts and three hospitalizations. I have been forced to make difficult decisions, while trying to focus on my best interest. It hasn’t always been easy but I have gained a sense of confidence in myself as result.
There are some days that I absolutely hate my disorder. There are moments that I am so overwhelmed and upset that I still wonder, “why me?!” But then I remember, that I have survived, thus far and the only way that has been possible is because I have been given strength. This is when I remind myself that it has been my disorder that has given me strength.
[Read Related: Surviving Depression: Wishing for a “Manic Monday”]
Being bipolar has taught me strength, tenacity and perseverance. Had I not been bipolar, I don’t think I would have been able to survive the loss of my sister. But most of all, bipolar disorder has taught me the meaning of survival. I would be hesitant to say that I have conquered my disorder and that I am completely prepared for what is to come, but day by day I am surviving and if I have learned anything over the past 10 years is that survival is the first step.
I still worry about the years to come; I worry if I will grow weak; I worry if I will always be as high functioning as I am now; I worry about the uncertainties of life. I will always worry and who knows what will come in the next 10 years. But for now, I choose to live in the present, relish in my accomplishment and enjoy the journey.