Dare to Share! My Bipolar Disorder Mood Swing Success Story
By Julie A. Fast
I’ve only been introduced to myself over the past few years. Up until then, it was a daily struggle to keep my constant, chronic, overwhelming and downright vicious bipolar disorder under control. From my diagnosis of ultradian rapid cycling bipolar 2 with psychotic features at age 31 in 1995, through my medication tribulation and triumphs, through 13 bilateral ECT treatments (it’s not shock therapy!) and writing six books about bipolar disorder and depression, my bipolar disorder simply wouldn’t let me know who I was outside of the illness.
I knew I was in there. I saw glimpses of myself in the hours I was able to just sit and do something without my brain telling me what to think, do and say, but they were hard fought accomplishments instead of moments of ease. I had 312 mood swings in 2012 and despite my daily goal of being stable when I went to bed every night, the mood swings were relentless. I was consistently depressed while sleeping and often woke up crying in the middle of the night. I feared for my safety. Then it all changed.
Today, 20 years after my diagnosis and over 30 years since my first hypomanic episode in Europe at age 17, I know who I am. Bipolar disorder is under control.I have to repeat that sentence. My bipolar disorder is under control and has been for two years. I still have mood swings and am more vigilant with my management plan than I have ever been, but it’s child’s play compared to the trauma I experienced for over 20 years. My motto to TREAT BIPOLAR DISORDER FIRST has not changed. But wow, it’s so much easier now that I know what this illness looks like, what works and what doesn’t work and who I can and can’t let into my life. I’m getting to know myself. I had no idea what I was like outside of the illness. It has certainly been fascinating to see how I react to life now that I get to choose my emotions instead of having them dictated to me by an ill brain.
I was suicidal a few weeks ago and amazingly was able to separate myself from the episode and observe what had triggered the suicidal symptoms and how the bipolar disorder was reacting to the situation. I said to myself, ‘What does Julie want to do about this situation?’ and I made a decision from that person and not the scared, suicidal, crying, hopeless person I could see in the chair. I was so sick in that moment I tried to hide my face from the world with a blanket. The episode lasted a few hours and then (after using my management skills), IT WAS GONE. The mood swings that once lasted years now appear and then leave because I know what to do when I get sick. This is the only way to live and I want it for all people with bipolar disorder. If it can happen to me, it can happen to you. Stigma keeps us from sharing our stories.
I remember when I was first diagnosed- the year after my then partner Ivan was diagnosed with bipolar one. (My book Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder is about how we managed Ivan’s and ultimately my bipolar disorder together.) I thought, if all of the people in the WORLD who have bipolar disorder simply stood up at once, we would no longer be ashamed because the world would shake from so many people standing up at the same time! Maybe it will still happen one day. 😉 Stigma Fighters shares this dream. We are so much stronger when we share our stories with humor, pain and honesty and then explain that even though it’s a struggle and it takes a lot of work and support, we do eventually get to meet our real selves and experience the world from a place of joy and stability.
We can do it together!
Bonus! I’d like to share the #1 strategy that eventually tipped me into the stability world- a place I never thought I would even get to visit! This example relates to bipolar disorder, but it works with any mental health disorder.
1. MICRO MANAGE YOUR MOOD SWINGS: Learn the smallest signs of a mood swing, write them down, memorize them, share the information with others and make a promise to yourself that you will micro manage the heck out of bipolar disorder for the rest of your life. This illness is tricky, sneaky, cruel and devastating, but it’s not complicated. Mania, depression, anxiety, ADD symptoms and psychosis all have a pattern and once you learn YOUR pattern from the moment your symptoms start, you can stop the mood swings before they go too far. My bipolar disorder got better year by year because I paid attention to the minutiae of my mood swings and learned the signs that I was getting sick. I then taught every person in my life how to help me notice the signs and speak up when it was obvious I was in the grips of a mood swing and couldn’t see I was sick. This took me out of crisis control and put me in the manager’s seat.
All of my work is based off of this simple concept. Here’s an example. My hypomania tends to be euphoric and it’s very, very seductive when it starts. Before I taught myself to recognize the beginning signs of a mood swing, I never realized I was sick until AFTER the money was spent, the stranger was slept with, the relationship was left or the herpes had been contracted. Now, I can often tell the moment the mania starts because my vision clears and colors become heightened. It’s subtle, but it’s very obvious now that I know what to look for. I also feel a tingling sensation all over my body as though my cells are shimmering. If my mania progresses, I have the thought, ‘I’m not manic. This is the real me!’ as my brain tries to talk me out of taking care of myself. This is ALWAYS a sign that I’m manic as is my urge to tell people to shut up and stop ruining my fun who point out that I’m talking a little fast and I seem a little over excited about my new set of Sharpies and the huge mind map I just made for the renovation of my web pages. Ha!
If you have bipolar disorder or any other mental health disorder where you need to manage your moods, you can make a very simple list of the first symptoms you experience when a mood change begins. To continue with the euphoric mania example, you can write down the physical changes you experience when euphoric mania is starting. Notice your eyes, how you hold your shoulders, the shine of your hair and the gloss of your skin- it’s not a coincidence that people in a euphoric manic episode can basically get anyone interested in them just by walking into the room. As my friend Dr. Jay Carter taught me, euphoric mania switches off the frontal lobes that constantly tell us we are not good enough, handsome enough, smart enough or rich enough and as a consequence, we walk into situations in our full physical glory and conquer the world. These start as subtle signs- the skin that looked gray and old when you were depressed suddenly seems pink, healthy and covered in glitter when you look into the mirror.
Clothes hang differently on your body and there is a spring in your step- literally. It’s so, so easy to miss these physical signs of mania as they feel so good and have such a positive effect at the beginning that you can’t imagine how they could be dangerous. Learning to stop the mania during these beginning symptoms changed my life. It doesn’t always work. I still get caught by this illness and often realize I’m manic after I have a brand new set of metallic Sharpies, but it’s much more rare than it used to be. Sharing my symptoms also gave control to the people who care about me as they can quickly figure out why I’m acting so oddly and tell me that I need to manage the bipolar immediately. They also know I will ALWAYS say, I’m not manic! and will then go into my room and face the painful reality that it’s back again.
Teaching myself to manage this illness took time- getting used to what bipolar disorder does to me and coming to terms with the reality that it’s not going away any time soon helped me get my life back.
I wish the same for you! Julie
Julie A. Fast is a six time bestselling mental health author, speaker and coach who lives with bipolar disorder. Her books include Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder: Understanding and Helping Your Partner, Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder: A Four Step Plan for You and Your Loved Ones to Manage the Illness and Create Lasting Stability, Get it Done When You’re Depressed: 50 Strategies for Keeping Your Life on Track and the Kindle eBook Bipolar Happens! She speaks regularly for major mental health organizations, appears on radio and television especially during mental health crises around the world, received the Eli Lilly Reintegration Award for her work in bipolar disorder management, blogs and writes an award winning column for BP Magazine for which she won the Mental Health America excellence in journalism award, is on the expert registry of People Magazine, offers expert mental health advice on the Oprah and Dr. Oz website ShareCare.com and was the original consultant for the Claire Danes character on Homeland. Julie is also a board member for ASHA International (www.MyAHSA.org) and works as a coach for family members and partners of people with mental health disorders. She stresses the importance of medications when needed, with a primary focus on the comprehensive management of the illness and believes stability is a realistic goal for all. For more information, please visit www.JulieFast.com, www.BipolarHappens.com, her blog www.BipolarHappens.com/bhblog, at Julie A. Fast on Facebook and @JulieBipolar on Twitter.