My Experience With Bipolar, An FAQ

1200 800 Benjamin H.

Something that I don’t talk about enough is my own experience with bipolar disorder. I am pretty open about the fact that I am bipolar, but I feel like people aren’t able to connect the fact that I’m bipolar with the fact that I am also one of the most consistently positive people they know.

I get it– a lot of times, people who are bipolar have obvious stories of struggle and sometimes you can even guess that someone is bipolar before they tell you. And the reason that my stories of struggle aren’t as obvious is that I consider myself to be a total bipolar success story.

I have worked really hard to learn when I should take myself out of certain situations, how I can leverage my highs and my lows, and how I can function every day in ways that are healthy and productive for me.

Now that I’m getting older, more and more of my friends ask me about my experience with bipolar disorder. I was diagnosed when I was about 10 years old, but did you know that bipolar commonly won’t even show up for people until they are later in their 20s and even in their earlier 30s?

Sometimes I get questions like, “how did you know you were bipolar,” and “do you take medication?” and my personal favorite, “if I myself am bipolar, does that mean I won’t be able to drink ever again?”

I have so many answers to all of these questions and I really wanted to write this post to accomplish a few things. First, I want to share this story of mine that I rarely post about. Second, I have some strategies and frames of mind that have changed my outlook on depression and managing my mood. I want to share those as well. And last, I want to create a blog post that I can send to someone the next time they ask me questions about what it’s like to be bipolar.

Most people have a lot of the same questions, and I find that after conversations with me, my friends tend to feel more comforted and secure in their desire to learn more. If there’s anyone out there looking for these kinds of answers, please continue reading 🙂

Below is me pretending to be interviewed by Barbara Walters about my bipolar experience:

How did you know you were bipolar?

I am incredibly lucky to have a mother who had educated herself on mental health and had specifically read up on bipolar disorder before I came along. She had suspected bipolar in people in her own life, and it was important to her that she knew how to help. Growing up, I was energetic and positive a lot of times, but I also had lots of trouble managing my temper. There are a few moments in my early childhood when I clearly remember feeling incredibly frustrated by things that were pretty simple. Many kids have trouble managing their temper, but for me, it happened rapidly and with an abnormality that got my mom’s attention.

She took me to a psychiatrist, who spent time with us talking about our lives, our relationship with each other and the rest of the family, and how I felt. I saw one psychiatrist, then I eventually switched to Dr. Zuberi, who, at 10 years old, I described as a “magician.”

Dr. Zuberi understood me, and he changed my life. He asked questions about how my mind worked that I had never even considered. He asked me about how long it takes me to fall asleep at night, he asked me about how I feel when certain things happen, and from my simple answers, he was able to diagnose me as bipolar.

This might not be totally true, but the appointment felt like it was 10 minutes. He explained to me what bipolar was in a way that I still use when people ask me about it.

He drew one straight line across a notepad and he said that the line represented a stable mood. Then he drew a soft and wavy line that hovered above and below the original line. He explained that it’s normal for people’s mood to move above the line, then go below the line and that most people experience highs and low.

He then started to quickly draw long, straight, extreme zig zags from the top of the paper to the bottom, and back up again. I remember the lines he drew being darker and sloppier, but sharp and very fast.

He explained to me that while it’s natural to flow between highs and lows, what I was experiencing was different. He circled the tops of the highs and the bottoms of the lows and pointed out how high the highs were and how low the lows were, and how rapidly they were switching back and forth. He also pointed out that in this model, I wasn’t able to spend time in the middle where most people hovered.

That was the first time I had ever heard the notion of highs and lows, but there was something that I connected to so deeply about that. He prescribed me a medication called Risperdal, and he told me that the point of this medicine was to bring me closer to that original line and allow me to hover around it. He noted that it would take time, but that in a few months, my mind would stop racing so much, that I would notice that normal day-to-day things wouldn’t set me off as easily as they used to, and that it would all be a little bit easier. That’s how I found out I was bipolar 🙂

What if my friends find out I’m bipolar and think I’m crazy?

My answer to this is simple and consists of 3 parts:

  1. First of all, bipolar people aren’t “crazy” so you can scratch that off your list. Also, if you find out that you do have bipolar, it wouldn’t mean that you all of the sudden have bipolar disorder. It means you have already been experiencing bipolar disorder for years. It won’t actually change anything about your how you think or how you already walk through the world.
  2. If your friends would do anything less than fully support you when you found out you were dealing with this, they aren’t really your friends. Leave them behind and turn to people who are actually there for you in moments you need them. Those are the people you should put your energy into anyway.
  3. Nothing has to change if you find out you are bipolar. You don’t need to change anything if you don’t want to, and you can even wait. Help will always be there. If you wanted to, you could privately visit a psychiatrist, have them diagnose you or not, and never think about it again. Nobody is going to force you to change your habits, take medication, or go to therapy. You could100% just ignore it if you wanted to. Not what I necessarily recommend, it’s at least better than not knowing.
I don’t want to take medication.

You don’t have to if you don’t want to, and I’ll be the first to acknowledge that medication might not be for everyone. But I also want to be honest here– I wouldn’t be where I am if I hadn’t worked with my doctor to come up with the right balance of medication.

I take one pill in the morning, and two at night. I’ve been doing that for 15 years now. I would never say that it’s easy or simple to find the right solution, but I can say that if I didn’t have the medication that I take every day, it would be extremely difficult for me to continue to be productive, healthy, or happy.

There are two other things that I really want to address in this section. The first is for people who say that they don’t feel like themselves on medication or that they feel clouded or tired on medication. I totally get that, and that sucks. If that is the case, I would argue that it’s not necessarily the fact that you are on any medication, but it has to be more that you haven’t found the right dose, type of medication, or balance for your body.

People always have the option to live their lives without medicine, and I would support any of my friends who made that decision. All I am saying is that it was hard for me at first too, and it took time and work to be able to find the solution. After communicating and working hard with my doctor, here I am 15 years later happier than ever living out my goals and dreams in a healthy and productive way.

The other thing I want to address is the people who plainly don’t believe in medication as a solution for mental health. I have heard many arguments about medication not being a healthy solution, not being a sustainable solution, or being a lazy way of handling a problem.

I really disagree with those people. I wouldn’t normally come down so hard on something, but to my core, I believe in medication as at least a partial solution. People can choose to be on medication or not for themselves, but to entirely disregard medication as a real solution for other people is not okay with me.

What my medication does is take the edge and severity off of my own highs and lows, and I can’t even start to explain to you how much other work I have done to build myself up into a positive, stable, and happy person. It’s a combination of the medication and my own practice, and it’s a total balance of the two. I don’t think any doctor actually thinks a pill alone would fix mental health. I’ve found that people who make arguments against medication for others usually just don’t understand. It might not be for everyone, but it’s totally for me.

Can you drink alcohol when you’re bipolar?

I mean, follow me on Instagram. I am able to drink all the time. I’m sure there are a lot of factors here, and it’s a great question for the pharmacy or for your doctor, but there are solutions and moderations that are available. Drinking is something that everyone already has to be careful about.

How do you deal with all the highs and lows?

Someone I really look up to on this topic is the singer, Adam Lambert. He has this music video for his song called “Better Than I Know Myself,” which deals with the topic of highs and lows.

In the video, he appears in two different looks. One very sharp black leather studded outfit with dramatic black hair and black painted nails. And one lighter softer outfit with a woven brown sweater and more flowy hair.

He was interviewed on the radio about these two sides of himself, and the answers he gave changed my entire outlook on mental health.

I can never find the video, but below is kind of how I have adapted it over the years:

In times that I feel down, and depressed, it has really helped me to think of my moods as a wheel or a cycle. That when I’m down, I know I won’t stay down forever. And when I’m up, I won’t be up forever.

The terms I like to use are “light” and “dark” rather than “good and bad” or “happy and sad.”

And this is what Adam Lambert talks about.

There is something beautiful about embracing every side of who you are. The fun and easy “lighter” side might be easier to share with the world, and it might be an easier place for your mind to live, but it’s not all of who you are.

If you only embrace that one side of you, you’ll never be able to accept the full version of who you are and what you’ve experienced. Creatively, functionally, you can not be successful unless you embrace all parts of who you are, and what you are.

There is a darker side of you that can be more deep, powerful, and meaningful, that is an entire piece of who you are. This part of you might be less fun at karaoke night and might be harder to share with the people you care about. But you should always be able to feel confident in sharing that side of you with people. It’s okay.

If you leave that darker side behind, people will never understand the entirety of who you are and how you think and feel. The radio interviewer asked Adam, “Of the light and the dark, who wins?” Adam told her that in his mind, the light sides and dark sides should never be competing.

They are not working to beat each other out, they are two equal parts that make you who you are. These two sides of you should work together to make up your perspective, your outlook, your story, and they will “win” together.

If you are able to harness these 2 sides of yourself, that is where the magic happens.

It’s absolutely natural to feel highs and to feel lows, and we should allow these feelings to exist within us. We should be free and confident to share our full authentic thoughts with the people we care about, and our loved ones should be excited and open to hearing about all of it.

For me, embracing that darker, slower, scarier side of me has helped me find peace and pride in my shifting moods.

I feel more authentic and happier overall, even in the darker moments.

How do you handle the stigma of bipolar?

When I was 15, my best friend Kelly joked that I was the “poster boy” for bipolar disorder, and I loved it. I would be the poster boy for anything, but bipolar is near and dear.

It used to bother me how people would use the term “bipolar.” I would get upset when people would call the weather bipolar, or when their mom would ground them for breaking the rules and they would call her bipolar for getting upset.

As a teenager, a lot of my anger was met with “did you take your pill today?” or things like that. My family and friends knew I was bipolar and that sometimes I went off. So I guess there has been a stigma in that way.

But in all seriousness, in my most authentic and truest opinion, I haven’t experienced a stigma in my adult life. And I think that is because when I tell people I’m bipolar, I am truly proud of it. Bipolar is so much a part of who I am, and how I was raised, and what I have learned. To my core, I believe it is the best thing that has ever happened to me.

I’m so proud that I have learned so much about how to handle myself in various types of situations, and I am proud of the work I have done to set myself up for success in this world.

I’m also proud of the patience and the empathy that living with bipolar has given me the opportunity to learn. And I’m proud that I can be there for my friends when they are experiencing depression and highs and lows, and when they think they, themselves, might be bipolar.

I don’t experience a stigma because I am overall proud of who I am, and what I have built for myself. Bipolar is very much a part of all of that. I find that when I tell someone I’m bipolar, they are usually just interested to learn more, especially because I “don’t seem bipolar.”

I’m always happy to sit down and explain it to them.

Conclusion

I hope this was helpful to anyone who wanted to know more about my experience, or anyone who came across this post hoping to learn more about what it’s like living with bipolar disorder. It has been a ride, but I truly feel great. I feel happy, I feel proud, and I feel successful.

Please feel free to share this post with anyone who might need it, and if you have any questions, please comment below or email me at benjhawes@gmail.com. You can also follow me on Twitter if you like my mind and Instagram if you like my style 🙂

Thanks for reading!


Also published on Medium.