The Heroism of Everyday Life with Bipolar Disorder
It is very easy to become disappointed with ourselves when we have bipolar disorder. After all, we often won’t accomplish as much as other people. Moreover, we often develop grand plans while hypomanic, only to find that we cannot carry them out. This level of disappointment can really affect our overall happiness, as it makes us feel like we are not what we should be.
However, I want to suggest a different way of looking at it. If we look at our accomplishments not relative to a standard that society or we have set up for ourselves, but relative to our actual challenges, people with bipolar disorder actually accomplish quite a bit. In fact, just the process of going through everyday life can be a heroic endeavor.
DepressionPerhaps the case where we see this heroism most clearly is in our experience of depression. When people are depressed, they will often have a symptom called “psychomotor retardation.” Basically, this means our energy level drops right down to very low, and we often find it difficult to perform even the most basic tasks.
I remember the other day, I was in the elevator, and I thought, “Ugh. I’m going to have to push that button to get upstairs.” I stared at the button for a few seconds, and finally pressed it, motivated by the thought that once I got upstairs, I could lie down. My thought at the time was, “I’m so lazy, I can’t even push a button.”
But let’s think about it another way for a moment. When we are depressed, we don’t have a lot of energy. Yet, we are often able to perform tasks that require Herculean effort. Even little things like eating, brushing our teeth or answering the phone become tasks that take as much effort as it would take to spend hours at work on a normal day.
Then, why not see it that way? When we accomplish little things while depressed, we actually are accomplishing quite a bit. We are overcoming an obstacle and mustering up a large amount of effort to accomplish that task.
Living our day to day lives, especially when depressed, can often be a struggle. This is why our living it is so impressive. By being proud of ourselves for fighting the struggles that we face on a day-to-day basis, I’ve realized that there is actually quite a bit to be proud of, even in an ordinary day.
Changing Our LivesThere is another sense in which being bipolar gives us the opportunity to be heroic. Because the illness can disrupt our moods so much, we need to develop ourselves as people in order to live lives that are not completely ruled by the condition.
But note what this does. We can’t simply sit back and watch our lives go by, resting on our talents or complacently accepting everything that comes our way. Instead, we actually need to develop as people. We learn more about ourselves as the years go by.
Now imagine there was a person who didn’t have bipolar disorder. She treats every day as an opportunity to learn more about herself and to become better person. She often learns new skills to live a better life, and she often thinks about how to improve her relationships with others. She spends her time learning about the human condition and trying to put what she learns into practice.
She would be a rare and impressive person. However, that’s just what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder. Living with a mood disorder pushes us into a constant process of self-development where we learn more and more about ourselves, develop new ways of dealing with the world, and develop insight into our condition that will hopefully help us in the future. This process may be a struggle, with a lot of setbacks on the way, but that only makes it more impressive.
So people with bipolar disorder are heroic in a second way. We need to take our lives by the horns and figure out how to live them. Sure, this comes from the necessity that comes from having a mental illness, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. We can be proud of our self-examination and development.
We Have a Lot To Be Proud of
We then have a lot that we can be proud of. While we might not be the person that we might otherwise have been, we are people who fight a heroic struggle almost every day. We are people who examine our own lives, and find strategies to be better. No matter how things might appear from the outside, these are things that make our lives heroic.
thank you so much for this article. i only recently found and subscribed to you and have found your articles to really hit my nail on the head. when i think of my personal history, i realize i have been bi-polar my entire life. but i was diagnosed rapid cycling only 10 years ago. i have been married for 40 years and my husband has struggled just as much if not more with my issues. daily life is still a struggle because i have other health issues, but your articles describe me so well and are so timely that i literally thank God that i found you.
You’re very welcome, Linda. I’m so pleased to hear that what I’m writing has been so helpful. Congratulations on your 40 years of marriage! That’s a real inspiration for the rest of us.
I literally could not agree with you more if I tried. In the past I have spent an entire week mustering the energy required to spend a single day at work. One day in work, six days to recover and psych myself up for the next time I have to go in. There were times when I didn’t make it, but the days when I did, I got home at the end and I thought ‘you’re so pathetic, normal people go to work every day’. More recently I have come to see it very differently. There are times when I have to focus so much energy on keeping the loop of ‘this mood will break at some point’ running in my head, that I can’t actually get out of the house. I’m terrified of being forced to use that energy for anything else, because if I stop telling myself that – if I stop repeating over and over that the way I currently feel will not last forever, I’m gone. In an instant, it can happen so quickly, and the result is a panic attack, or a state of catatonia, or a suicide attempt… When you look at the world from that perspective, when you think to yourself that every day of just keeping yourself breathing regularly is a major achievement at times, you actually find the next day, it’s easier to breathe.
I also think it’s important to remember just how amazing you can be when you’re NOT in a state of depression. A lot of people (myself included) find the bursts of creativity and inspiration do not only come while manic. Even when they do only come while manic, that does not mean they need be wasted; yes sometimes we run away with ourselves thinking we can achieve unrealistic goals, but at other times I wonder if these goals really as so unrealistic. When I was sixteen I decided on a whim that I was going to become an archaeologist: I would have papers published, I’d earn a PhD, I’d go on digs all over the world. Guess what? Despite having suffered horrendously with bipolar since the age of thirteen, and having no idea what was wrong with me until I was twenty five, I’ve (almost) done all of it. I haven’t quite managed to dig up the entire planet yet, and my thesis is not yet complete, but I know it will be, and soon. And I’m by no means alone – Daniel is further proof, as are many others.
Another manic notion I got in my head was that I would become a bestselling author, and (naturally) earn millions, and so it didn’t matter if I racked up thousands upon thousands in debt, I’d soon be able to pay it off when I was published. Now, this is not such a realistic goal, certainly in terms of fame and fortune, my saner self knows it will never happen. That hasn’t stopped me writing however, one novel complete so far, another drafted, a third underway. I’ve endured times when I’ve been convinced I’m a complete failure as an author because I’ve received a rejection letter and I’m ‘still’ not published despite the fact that it’s at least a week since I first decided I wanted to be. The key, at least as far as I’m concerned, is to not let this stop you. Yes, you need to be more realistic and set yourself achievable goals – for me, it was initially to write a novel I was proud of, something I have now done. If you do this, take one of your mad hat ideas, turn it into a realistic goal, and then achieve that goal DESPITE the demon days when the notion of cleaning your teeth seems like an impossible feat, how can you (or anyone else for that matter) ever again say that bipolar limits a person’s capabilities?
How many people do you know, of sound mental health, who harbours some dream or other but never take any steps towards achieving it? In my opinion, bipolar should not be the thing that keeps to from achieving, it should be the part of you that drives you to achieve those things you want most.
Thank you so much for your comment, Hazel. You’re so right. Most of the things I’ve accomplished in my life originally came from hypomania, or at least were developed there. It’s like whole plans are developed all at once. It’s also great to meet another doctoral student with bipolar disorder. School (especially graduate school) has its own unique set of challenges for us.
Hazel, thank you for sharing. It’s funny and not funny at the same time. When I go through the manic phase, which I have just done, I am interested in doing everything. I get so excited and get so many projects going and I feel like I can do anything. Of course, I also spend the money that goes along with it. Then I crash (a term I like to use) and sit looking at all this stuff that I wanted to do, but just can’t seem to get the motivation to do it now. I also love to write, and I try to keep up 4 websites and I go to school full-time online. It has taken me 10 years to get my associates degree, and I’m struggling to finish my bachelor’s by the end of this year. I tell everyone that my goal is to get my PhD. I suppose that it depends on if I live that long. One very good thing I have in my life, is the support of my family. I live with my daughter and I am currently filing for disability. I know that I can no longer go back out there to a meaningful job. Maybe I, like you, will publish that book and make millions. 🙂
Tysvm much for the info! Just diagnosed recently adding to my “resume”. Helps me so much to know I’m not the only one like this & that I’m not just lazy or worthless like I’ve been made to feel 🙁
You’re welcome, Debbie. We’re definitely not lazy or worthless. I think people just don’t understand how difficult things can be.
WoW,,,,,,,,,, very interesting and very helpful,. Going to recommend. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR SHARING,. Wish I could elaborate more, but rather flat mood, maybe Lthium???
THANK YOU again xxxxxxxxxxxx
You’re welcome 🙂 I hope your mood starts to feel better.
I have just found this place, and it’s good to find others who struggle like myself. I have lost almost everything to this disease, in just 8 years since my husband’s death. Both his family and my own have since set out on a crusade to destroy me or keep me in a position of financial destitution until I give up and destroy myself. I refuse to give in to their torture, as I refuse to allow them to beat me. My step mother had me fired a year and a half ago by telling my employer about my disease, and I haven’t had a single interview, as she has made it known county-wide. Unfortunately, I can’t afford to move away from the slum I’m forced to live in here, constantly in fear for my daily safety. She also had me suspended from college the same way. I’m now struggling to keep my utilities paid until my lawsuit settles, but it could still be a year. I had a Fiance’ waiting for me at Home in Chicago, 300 miles north, but we’ve been apart so long now our relationship may not survive beyond friendship. I am ok with that, but missing him is pain that is almost unendurable, and on top of the financial pain, for which there is no relief here, I don’t know how much longer I can survive this war. I only know I cannot allow my family to win and brand me a failure!
I’m so sorry to hear that you’re having so many difficulties, Danise. I hope everything works out well with your lawsuit and with your relationship.
Your story is so familiar. I am just recovering from one of those lives that I have to start all over again. I have been married 5 times, and now I have a husband who tries his best to understand, and (God love him for this) puts up with my instability.
When I get to the place where you are (as many of us do), I think about putting one foot in front of the other. And in the process, take as much time as you need. It’s definitely not easy to take that next step.
It’s funny where I got that image about stepping forward. It actually came from the Christmas cartoon “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”. I always picture that in my mind. 🙂
You had emailed me to post my link on this website, still trying to find where exactly I can post it w/out having to do it by leaving a comment to do so…help!
This is a journal I started a few years back, finally had the courage to post it in on a blog website. I purposely wrote it to help other mom’s out there who too are suffering with this demon of a disease. Remember, it’s not who you are, but what you have.
Thank you very much for posting this. Your blog is very interesting, and a great resource for bipolar moms and for anyone with bipolar disorder.
I am a 59 year old woman who has lived most of her life with this condition. I agree 100% with you that we must control, create, nourish and grow as individuals almost every day in order to feel we are moving forward in our lives.
I took my condition and set her in the corner where I could look at her and when I’d see her acting up I, the other one (me), could push her down to where she belongs. Temper her so to speak.
I use visualization constantly in my life…what we can visualize we can achieve….for my scattered thoughts I have coffins in my mind that I box up some of the thoughts and feelings that come with this condition. I also use a visual for coming down from the extreme highs that is associated with this also.
I decided 25 years ago I’d not raise my voice again as I do believe that is a trigger of the temper side….I’ve had panic attacks and no longer allow myself to buy into the delusion even thou I suffer the racing heart and all other symptoms but my mind is clearer and talking myself out of it the whole time.
I am sorry I could ramble on forever…I did have a book published and was told I was a participant observer the way I live my life….divorced six times, sons death…life is not easy but it is possible to find some joy….Before It Had A Name on kindle with Amazon…Blessings to ya’ll
Thank you for the referral to the book, Jacquie. It looks very interesting. Your suggestion about visualization is very helpful. I’m finding metaphors more and more useful lately, to the point where I think they are more useful than concepts. Thank you.
A counsellor once said to me ‘have compassion for yourself’ its so easy to feel guilt about our behaviour during highs and lows she was the best counsellor i came across in 5 yrs
That’s a great point, Joe. There can be so much guilt over something over which we have no control.
This article gives me inspiration! I tend to forget what this illness can do to me and feel alot of guilt when all I can do is lay down and do nothing after struggling through work. I am currently cycling out of a bad depression, (a small adjustment to my meds can do wonders) and this information really reminded me that I do have so much to offer the world and society. Nothing better than a good feeling of self worth (with a little hypomania thrown into the mix).
You’re welcome, Tony :).
I struggled for years, since my teenage years with this disease and didn’t know what my problem was. I thought I was either lazy or crazy depending on my “mood of the week.” After all these years – I’m 49 now – I finally got help. I finally had a psychotic/suicidal break bad enough to send me to the hospital. Getting out patient help now. I went to a group meeting that was helpful except for a lady who offhandedly referred to Bipolar Type 2 as “Soft” Bipolar; I wanted to rip her apart. Nothing “soft” about it, it’s damn “hard” to live with! When I read, “Ugh. I’m going to have to push that button to get upstairs,” I laughed ’til I nearly peed my pants, then I cried just as hard. Thank you for existing Dr. Daniel B. You write like you can read my mind and heart of all that I have been living with for my whole life. I am glad I found this fb site.
You’re welcome, Leatha. I don’t think it’s fair to consider bipolar 2 “soft.” It’s less acute in some ways, but acute and serious are not the same thing.
I have bi-polar condition as well as dissociative disorder. A number of years ago on top of dealing with this, I was diagnosed with cancer as well. It was tough to go through, but over 10 years later I am cancer free, still working and dealing with my disorders. I do not use my mental illness as a crutch nor will I ever. I am quite strong and encourage others to dig deep and find that strength that you know you have.
I also have osteoarthritis in both my knees as well. Life goes on.
Keep the strength.
Good day Daniel:
Another excellent and informative article about life with this wretched Bipolar illness. I never can read enough about it.
Just when I think I have myself, the illness, and myself with the illness, all figured out….well my episodes are becoming different. My last high gear phase, as I refer to them, gave me instances of mixed states, entirely new to me.
Its so wild to be loving life and everything in it one minute, I mean like simply adoring it, and the next; sobbing uncontrollably, over what? You haven’t got a clue 🙁 And within a few hours you are back to being wonder woman planning new ways to save the world!! Ahhhhh yes, I thought I had it all figured out.
I can honestly say, I do feel more like myself, at least the self that i can remember once being, when I am in a hypo-manic state. This gal who takes over, I think she was me, at one time. I have this very vague memory of this very smart, young lady who everyone loved to be around. I was our gang’s social organizer. My friends all called me on Friday nite to find out our plan of attack for the up-coming weekend. Life was so simple then. Now, this smart slightly more mature woman can count her true friends on one hand. But that’s OK, you prob would have to spread yourself too thin, if you had more.
The hypo-mania up phases,,,I can live quite well with those, its the depressions that kick me in the butt!