Accepting my bipolar brain | Mental Health America

by B. Burke, MHA Public Education Content Manager

My life was out of control and I barely realized it.

I had just returned from a 3 mile run and was now lying face down on the floor of my room. I felt completely still, mentally and physically. Suddenly I had no motivation to do anything. My brain started saying things like “nothing matters” and “what’s the point of all this?” I stared into space until I finally had a shred of motivation to get up and go to the bathroom.

About an hour later, an idea came to me in an instant. I would train for a marathon! No, an ULTRA MARATHON! My thoughts were moving so fast I couldn’t sit still. I got ready to run another 3 mile race. This time I ran even harder and faster. I had some training to do for now!

When I returned to the co-op where I lived with my partner, I ended up where I started: face down, completely still, on the floor of my room. My partner knocked on the door. It took all my energy to say, “Go ahead.” They saw me lying there and knew I had already done two runs that day.

“God, this must be exhausting,” they said as they lay down next to me. It hadn’t occurred to me that my behavior might be abnormal until they said that. That’s when I realized that I was actually exhausted, confused, and very scared. “I need help,” I told my partner with tears in my eyes. Fortunately, they knew of the Triangle Program, a virtual outpatient mental health program specifically for queer people in the Boston area. I contacted Triangle to make sure my insurance would cover it, and a few days later I started the program.

He had completed two outpatient programs in the past and had already been hospitalized six times for mental health reasons. Part of me just didn’t see the point in doing another show. After these previous programs didn’t seem to make a difference, I decided I would take care of things on my own.

A friend recommended the book to me. “The miraculous morning” years before. He talked about the power of creating a healthy morning routine to transform your life. And this book transformed my life. I went from sleeping and watching TV as my main activities to meditating, journaling, running, and reading. I was living with my parents at the time because I was struggling a lot with my mental health. This morning routine, plus the support of my amazing mom, dad, sister, and friends, finally allowed me to be independent again.

I moved out of my parents’ house, started working as a teacher and met my partner. About a year and a half later, when I moved into the co-op, things started to seem more challenging. Or maybe they had always been defiant; I had finally slowed down enough to realize what was happening. My morning routine was no longer keeping me stable. I knew this wasn’t something I could overcome on my own.

It was during the Triangle Program that I began to consider that I might have bipolar disorder. My providers had already speculated that I was autistic and had ADHD. They thought that navigating a neurotypical world with a neurodivergent brain was probably why I struggled so much in the past. But now they agreed that something else was going on.

Honestly, I was very resistant to a bipolar diagnosis. Stigma told me that people with bipolar disorder are explosive, unreliable monsters. During my hospitalizations, I knew that people with bipolar disorder had to have their blood drawn frequently. I have a huge aversion to needles and the fact that they needed blood drawn made whatever they were dealing with seem really serious. Even though I had worked in mental health advocacy in the past and knew that these negative beliefs about bipolar disorder were incorrect, the stigma still hung over me. That was until I started hearing other people’s stories.

Once some people in Triangle opened up about how bipolar disorder felt to them, I began to have more compassion for myself. I realized that what they were going through seemed very difficult and did not deserve judgment. That meant I didn’t deserve judgment either.

Their stories also helped me identify some of the decisions I had made in the past that were likely motivated by mania. There was that $300 pair of Jordans that I didn’t need and couldn’t afford and bought anyway. Then there was the $1,000 book deal that I signed, convinced I was going to write a book about… something. Then there were the holes I had made in the wall of my parents’ house when I was completely unable to regulate my emotions.

For a long time I felt very ashamed of those actions. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t just “get on with it” and stop making mistakes. I now know that I was dealing with a mental health condition and can look back on those decisions with compassion and a little humor. (I don’t regret buying those Jordans so much anymore. They look amazing with my new suit!)

During Triangle, I learned the term “fast cycle.” This is a type of bipolar disorder in which people experience four or more manic, hypomanic, or depressive episodes in a year. If there are four mood swings in a month, it is called “ultrafast cycling.” Ultra-fast cycling can also be done over the course of a day.

Once I learn something new that I want to know more about, I go straight to YouTube. I found so many creators talking about ultra-fast bipolar cycling and I started to feel less alone and less scared. youtube channels like polar warriors and Dr. Tracey Marks It helped me realize that what I was facing was truly a challenge. I finally started to accept that trying a new medication might be the best next step.

I had tried dozens of psychiatric medications in the past, some of which had very challenging side effects. Even if they alleviated some of the paranoia, depression, and anxiety I was facing, I still found myself struggling. But after resisting for a long time, I finally accepted my psychiatrist’s recommendation to take lithium.

Once I started taking lithium, my life changed. Suddenly, I was able to sit for longer periods of time. I could pay attention to someone when they were talking to me because my thoughts weren’t racing. I was able to notice when my brain started telling me to make a big purchase or something impulsive, and I was able to stop myself before making that decision. I finally felt more balanced, more confident and more able to face the challenges that came my way.

Certainly, medication alone doesn’t make everything easier. I’ve made a lot of small changes to my lifestyle over time that I don’t always follow perfectly, but that help keep me stable:

I try to do yoga and running six days a week to stay regulated. I also take 15-minute breaks throughout the day to lift weights, skateboard, and play basketball. (I recognize that this amount of physical activity is not accessible or enjoyable for everyone, but it works for me.)

I do my best to eat a balanced diet and stay away from caffeine (although chocolate cake will always have my heart). I go to therapy once a week and make sure not to make too many social plans so as not to overstimulate myself. I do my best to keep my sleep schedule consistent. But most importantly, I work on accepting my bipolar disorder and giving myself grace as I imperfectly navigate life with it every day.

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