Last week one of my students called me out. “Mrs. Dunn. Why you in such good mood today? Last week, you seem tired. Today you are hyper. Why you so happy?” (I teach students who speak English as a second or third language).
“I’m in a good mood because it’s Friday,” I told him. “I’m excited for the weekend. Believe it or not, teachers love the weekend.” I was surprised by how perceptive my student was. The truth was that I was in a good mood because finally (finally!) the heavy fog of depression had lifted for longer than a few hours or even one good day, and I felt hope and energy and excitement that I had not felt in nearly three months.
In truth, I was in a short burst of hypomania that often comes just after a depression for me. I am Type II Bipolar which means I never experience full-blown mania with psychosis or delusional beliefs and reckless behavior, but sometimes experience a milder form of elevated mood called hypomania. My bipolar disorder is marked by very regular periods of moderate to severe depression and occasional bursts of high energy/activity accompanied by high adrenaline and impulsivity. For me, hypomania is subtle enough that it can easily be taken for just a very good mood, though it’s often accompanied by spending sprees, new tattoos, sleeping less, trying to do ALL THE THINGS, and being increasingly social or chatty. Hypomania isn’t necessarily a bad thing for me (it ‘s sort of like what I imagine being on speed would be like) as long as I can be aware that I am experiencing an elevated mood and can keep my impulsivity in check.
Over the last nine months I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make sense of the last 12-15 years of my life. There is still so much I do not know, but here are a few things I’ve learned.
• I might never be “healed” and that is OK. Along with the “You don’t seem bipolar” comments, another common response I receive from well-meaning friends and family members is something along the lines of hoping that I will get better or believing that God can heal me. These are beautiful thoughts, and I don’t want to make light of them. I also believe in a powerful God. But it is not helpful for me to think of my illness as a condition I might suddenly be healed from. The nature of bipolar depression is that I go through seasons of depression and seasons of stability, with occasional bouts of hypomania in between. Learning that I am bipolar and that I am likely to experience bouts of depression chronically for the rest of my life has actually given me an incredible sense of hope. The best way I can describe this is that it is like having seasonal allergies. People who suffer with allergies can treat them, but there is rarely a permanent cure, so they are also not surprised when they flare up. Before I knew I was bipolar, I still experienced depression. Every time depression lifted I believed it was gone forever, and every time it came back, I believed I had failed in some cosmic way. Knowing that depression is likely to recur makes me feel intense gratitude for the stable times. It keeps me from believing that the depression is somehow my fault, and it also gives me hope when I am in those seasons because I know that they will end. In the past calendar year I had two long bouts of depression lasting a total of about 5 months. During the first depression, before I knew about being bipolar, I truly thought it might never end, and but during this most recent season, which lasted nearly three months, I knew that one day I would feel better.
• Having bipolar depression has taught me to show greater compassion, to others and to myself. I try to live believing that everyone around me is doing the best that they can. Because 98% of the time I am doing the best I can. Often it is not the right thing and it is not good enough, but I really am giving everything I’ve got. It’s not up to me to judge how hard someone else is trying based on their performance. I have no idea what’s going on inside their minds or in their personal lives, so I choose to believe that they are doing their best, just as I am doing my best. As part of self-compassion, I am learning to celebrate small victories in times when small things are taking all of my energy. I have a few encouraging pep talks for this.
o For example, “You are so awesome! You got out of bed and then you put on a shirt AND PANTS! PANTS! You could have just given up and stayed in bed all day, but instead, you are doing the thing. You even brushed your teeth. You should write that on your To-Do List and then cross it off. Cause you did that. Cause you can do things. You overachiever, you.”
• Some of the things I like most about myself are directly related to bipolar disorder. I am deeply empathetic. While I don’t get my own feelings hurt easily, I cry easily and often when I sense someone else hurting, even if that person is an actor in a commercial. It is this intense empathy that makes me good at my job and (I think?) is one of the things that my friends appreciate about me. It is also one of the things that is likely to spark depression. Often, depression begins when I have reached a level of empathy saturation I can no longer sustain. I am constantly absorbing the feelings of people around me, especially of those suffering all over the world. While that isn’t necessarily a good thing, I firmly believe that the empathy is a gift. Basically, I like to think of it as a superpower—like Dr. Charles Xavier’s except less useful.
• “I have a condition!”is a magical phrase for explaining to your husband why you have gone completely limp and are requiring him to physically drag you into the bedroom and put you to bed because you are “too tired to go to sleep.”
• I am not alone. This, mostly thanks to many of you who have told me so.
There is so much that I am still learning about myself and about how to live the fullest, richest life I can. I am not defined by my illness, and yet, it is as much a part of me as my terrible dancing and my freakishly small hands. Today I find that with all of the things that are hard about living with bipolar disorder and (perhaps even more so) wearing that label, I am profoundly grateful. I am grateful that there is an explanation for the things I feel and that it’s no longer a mystery. I am grateful for treatments and for coping strategies. I am grateful that I pushed through the fear and the shame and started talking about this, and I am grateful for all the love and understanding waiting for me here. Most of all, I am grateful for a family that is immensely supportive and for a faith that, though feeble, is still somehow enough.