A sweet reader named Sam wrote to me recently and asked if I could write something about chronic illness and faith. I said I would and immediately started writing what follows. The trouble is that it took a very different turn from what I intended, and when I felt finished, I had not written much at all about chronic illness in general but just specifically about my own bipolar manic episode which is a story that needs telling for a number of reasons:
- I almost always write here super helpful, mostly actionable posts with numbered lists. I write numbered lists so often that I joke about numbered lists. This most certainly isn't that, and I hope that its uniqueness will be refreshing and interesting.
- This blog is, and always has been, about my life and my family, and what follows is a very real, honest, and authentic picture of what has recently happened in my life.
- I think there is a lot of stigma and misinformation floating around about bipolar disorder and specifically about mania, and I hope to dispel some of that below.
Living With a Chronic Mental Illness Like Bipolar Disorder
When I think of someone who is disabled or has a chronic illness, I might think of a family member who has lost a limb or who deals with chronic pain, but I would never, ever think of myself. I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but I don't think of it as a disability or something I "deal with" on a day to day basis. I did have a major manic episode about eight years ago that landed me in the hospital for many weeks, but that is a thing of the past. I take my meds faithfully now, and so I don't have any symptoms.
I can't find where I wrote it now, but I very recently published somewhere that, while I am technically bipolar, it actually has very little impact on my day to day life.
It's times like this, when I think I have everything figured out, when I have the conscious thought, I've got this! that I think God takes a step back and says, Oh my poor, sweet child. You have gotten so very far off track. It's time that you come back and realize whose you are and what you can really do on your own.
It's a hard lesson that I've had to learn many, many, many times in my almost 40 years and that I suspect I will have to learn many, many, many more times in the next 40.
When The Manic Episode Began
See, several weeks ago, I felt great. I mean, really really great. I have a couple of good friends who I could talk to (and did, very often, even on the phone which I normally hate), my relationship with Joe was amazing, and I felt like the best mom in the world. I've written before about how I've become optimistic and positive in my general outlook, and I was totally on top of all that.
I had an idea – a great, big, amazing idea – and it turned into a passion project that quickly enveloped everything else. I stopped working on grad school and missed several key assignments. I stopped spending time with Joe. I stopped giving my children any of my time and attention. I didn't work on or post on my blog (some posts had been pre-scheduled, so you probably didn't notice), and I didn't walk as much because my passion project was always calling.
I stopped eating, but I was never hungry so it wasn't a problem. I didn't exercise much, but I didn't notice that anything was wrong because I. felt. amazing. I was uber productive and had lots of great ideas and felt invincible.
One afternoon, I said to Joe, "I have so many ideas that I don't know what to do first. My business is going to EXPLODE!" And then, I sent an email to my entire list (almost 6,000 people) offering a free product in exchange for the promise of a product review (fewer than 10% of people who committed followed through on the review, if you're wondering).
My thoughts by this time were like bubbles in a boiling pot. They were constant and rolling and popping up when I wasn't expecting them. I would have dozens of interesting and exciting and full of potential ideas every minute, and I couldn't act on them fast enough.
If you know anything about bipolar disorder, you have probably already recognized that I was having a manic episode, but I still didn't recognize it, even after the fourth night in a row when I got less than 4 hours of sleep. I woke up every morning, usually before 3, always before 4, feeling wide awake, well rested, and ready to be productive, I thought, hmm. This is strange. I am so excited about this project that I can't sleep. As soon as I get it finished, I'll be able to sleep again.
But then I got up, got dressed, sat down on the couch, and worked on my passion project which, by this time, had grown to about 45 pages full of text and graphics and printables. I worked for almost 5 hours and then ate breakfast and went to my home office to begin my full-time job which I did for about 9 hours, and then I went back to the couch and worked on the passion project for another 5 or 6 hours until I went to bed.
The next morning, I woke up just a few minutes after 2. TWO IN THE MORNING. I have a friend who's a night owl who wasn't even in bed yet, and I had already gone to sleep, slept "through the night" and was wide awake for the next day. This time, I worked feverishly for almost 6 hours before heading into my home office for a day of work.
Recognizing Mania in Myself
By the time this routine reached a week, I had a new thought. I realized that, while I was feeling dull and slow and empty and brain dead in the afternoons, I was not feeling tired. Ever. The thought finally crossed my mind that I might be having a bipolar episode. Then, right that moment, before 3 a.m., I called my psychiatrist's office and left his nurse a rambling, five-minute long message in which I don't think I took a single breath.
Then I waited. Or, more accurately, I worked tirelessly on my passion project and obsessed over when the doctor's office would call back and if I would lose my mojo once he adjusted my medicine.
The nurse did finally call back, almost at 7 pm, to say that I needed to double the dose of one of my bipolar meds and call her back in a week with an update. I take this pill at bedtime, so I was able to start that night with the double dose.
Getting Back to Bipolar Normal
I went to bed like normal, and I didn't wake up until after 6, a full night of sleep for the first time in 8 days. It was almost more sleep than I'd had in the sum total of the last week, and all in one night! I felt awake and alert and still not at all tired, but I slept so well and being rested made a lot of sense.
Over the next week or so, my moods began to regulate which really sucked. I felt constantly depressed and on the verge of tears which I suppose is normal because I had felt such an exhilarating high when I was manic and there was nowhere to go but down. I can empathize a little with addicts who are obsessed with feeling good and staying high as much as possible because coming down is really, really hard.
Normal has fortunately equalized quite a bit since then, and I don't feel so bad anymore.
I think I didn't recognize my manic episode because my only other manic episode was furious. That time, I hated Joe and was ambivalent about my girls and everything single little thing irritated me like a sharp pebble in my shoe. I didn't want to see or talk to or touch anyone for any reason, and I was completely miserable. It went on for weeks and weeks (because I hadn't been diagnosed yet and didn't know what was happening), and I eventually became suicidal and was hospitalized and diagnosed and prescribed all manner of psychotropic medication.
After I realized what was happening and started working on getting back to normal, I could see a lot of patterns in my recent history. I got 3 new tattoos in 2 weeks. I considered ditching my grad school group to get a new tattoo, and I actually joined one of my team's group meetings from the tattoo shop. I talked constantly, always quickly and excitedly, and I had big ideas that I knew wouldn't, couldn't, fail. Fortunately, I didn't do anything too risky or crazy, but I did impact my grades this semester.
When the teaching assistant for the grad class that was most affected asked what happened and why I hadn't submitted my assignments, I told her that I'd had an episode and explained. She was very gracious and understanding and told me that her mom suffered from bipolar disorder. She gave me a link to a student services organization that deals with people with disabilities.
As I said in the beginning of this post, I have never considered myself to have a disability, but for the first time in my life, I sucked it up and sent a request through the disabilities office. I don't know whether they'll approve my request and allow me to make up the work that I missed, but simply admitting that I do have an illness that impacts my life in a real way was a big step for me.
So that's what my manic episode was like. It lasted between two and three weeks before I figured it out, and I have been recovering for about a week now.
I am a wee bit concerned because I woke up yesterday morning at 4:30, a full ninety minutes before my alarm went off, and I hope that doesn't mean it's coming back. Only time will tell.
I married into a family where many deal with bipolar disorder. My youngest son (who is now 31) deals with it. For the most part, he is able to keep everything ok. He takes care of our disabled Howie (Dachshund) which is good therapy for him. Thank you for telling your story. May God abundantly bless you!
Tara Ziegmont says
Thank you Cher. I will say a prayer for your son, that his illness will be well controlled and he will be successful in everything he does.
Thank you for sharing your experience. I deal with bipolar disorder as well. Your recent experiences are helping me to self-check.