Untreated bipolar disorder can become as destructive to a person's mind as an A-bomb to a city. I experienced firsthand the power of this biological mental illness when I suffered an extreme manic episode while living in Taiwan. The horrific breakdown was only the first bomb of a lifelong war with this illness.
As a child my symptoms began so subtly, I brushed them off and learned to tune them out. Over the years they grew in intensity until the life-shattering breakdown. At one point I felt I had lost all hope. If you want to know how serious my illness became, ask the other people who were with me during the breakdowns about their experiences.
One of them, Mike, can show you the scar on his leg where I bit him. Johnny can show you the spot in Bozeman Montana where I knelt prostrate on the sidewalk and worshipped him (after being sent home from Taiwan, I was reassigned to work in Montana). Four other coworkers can tell you how it took all of them to hold me down while I screamed and thrashed in a psychiatric hospital until three tranquilizer injections finally put me to sleep. Yes, it's a serious illness and a dreadful war (I haven't even mentioned the devastating depression). But I'm winning it. If I can do it, you can too.
I have consciously fought this war for over two decades. During this time, I have learned much about my bipolar enemy. I now know how to recognize it, fight it, and keep it from destroying my life. I hope by sharing my knowledge and experiences, you can better understand how to avoid the suffering I have been through.
The first step in winning the war is identifying what the enemy is, and who the enemy is not. This sounds easy, but remember we are talking about a mental illness, not a stalker in the cornfield. This war is literally "mind games." Many times the person afflicted with the disorder confuses the enemy to be the people who try to help, or the circumstances of the world around them. No one wants to admit, "I have a mental illness." They fear the jokes and cruel ignorance of the world around them.
Stigma in our society also fools many into believing that mental illness happens only to bums on the street, druggies, and alcoholics. Don't be fooled. Bipolar disorder does not discriminate. It sets landmines under men and women on all walks of life. In other words, this illness may happen to your student body president, your prom queen, your basketball team captain, or your favorite music star. Don't think that because someone appears to have it all together, that he/she is immune. Knowing that bipolar disorder affects all kinds of people was comforting to me because I didn't feel so alone and alienated.
The way to catch the bipolar monster in its advance is by recognizing early symptoms. Symptoms usually begin subtly in late childhood. Undetected they grow with the youth and then explode during early adulthood in major life changes such as joining the military, moving away from home for the first time, marriage, moving away to college, or starting a new job. Detecting early symptoms is also not as easy as it sounds because everyone suffers mild symptoms of this disorder at some point in their lives. The trick is detecting when the symptoms trespass over the line of "normal."
Some of my early symptoms included: excessive worry, perfectionism, constant guilt and feelings of unworthiness, an addiction to music, inability to go to sleep due to obsessive thinking, intrusive or "scary" thoughts, other people constantly commenting that I looked tired, and a chronic feeling of weight in my stomach-or in other words-depression.
Education and professional help are the binoculars you need to spot the enemy's early symptoms. There are many excellent educational sources. I recommend www.nami.org as a starter. This is the website of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. There you can learn about many or all of the mental illnesses and their symptoms. On this website, you also can get help and support. The website is for people with mental disorders, and those who love them and want to help.
If you discover that you have symptoms, don't hide in embarrassment or shame. If people that love you make comments that they see symptoms of bipolar disorder in your actions or personality, don't deny it and run away. The best thing to do is to talk to your parents, teachers, or responsible friends to find out what symptoms they see in you that you can't see. You can also call the NAMI hotline (click "find support" on the nami website to get help in your specific area). Talking to others about my mental illness was hard at first. But as I did, I found they didn't laugh, judge, or make jokes behind my back. They only loved, supported and even respected me for being willing to seek help.
To recognize the enemy, you must courageously open your eyes. To fight bipolar disorder, you must humbly open your heart. This means trusting those who try to help. Parents, doctors, teachers, caring roommates, church leaders and God are your allies and friends in this war. Don't blame them for identifying your illness, and don't hate them for trying to help. For years I fought this illness alone because I built walls of resentment around myself. I lived in denial and blamed the world for my pain instead of simply admitting I was ill and seeking the help of others.
Once you recognize the enemy and know who your allies are, it is still a very difficult war. One of the booby traps many people fall into is addictive, self-destructive escapes, or "self medicating." Alcohol, illegal or prescription drug abuse, and pornography are the more obvious traps to avoid. Still, there are other traps camouflaged as "legal." The traps I fell into were over sleeping and an addiction to music. Normally sleep and music are good things. For me they became self-destructive habits. "Legal" traps I have seen others fall into are TV and movie addictions, gaming addictions, internet addictions such as Facebook or chat lines, eating disorders, self-isolation, compulsive spending leading to excessive debt, and uncontrolled tempers.
While fighting your war, you need to surround yourself with positive and caring people including mental health professionals. It is important to find a counselor and program that shares the same values you do. Don't be afraid to try different help organizations until you find one that fits your needs. When you find the right organization or professional counselor, listen to their encouragement and counsel. Follow the guidelines of the program.
If your doctor prescribes medication, take it consistently and responsibly. Notice how the medication makes you feel, and report back to your doctor. Each medication affects different people in different ways. Your honest feedback is the only way your doctor can know if it is working. It may take several tries to find the medicine combination that works for you. For some, counseling is enough. For others like me, medicine is a must.
In your bipolar war, never forget that God is your loving friend. Many people who suffer with chronic depression or other mental illnesses stop believing in God. They feel that if a loving God really existed He wouldn't allow this type of deep and lasting suffering. Others believe in God, but lose faith in Him by thinking that God has cursed them with mental illness either as a punishment, or because He hates them. My belief is that God did not curse me with bipolar disorder to punish me or because He hates me. I believe God allowed me to experience this illness to make me stronger and to teach me things I couldn't learn otherwise. While struggling with this illness, I have learned that when I humbly and consistently seek God's help, He is always there not just to get me through it, but to make me a better person because of it.
I know how testing this chronic war is. In many cases it is a matter of life and death. I also know the bipolar enemy, though presently it can't be destroyed completely, it can be kept under control. I have been happily married for over 16 years. I have two beautiful and healthy children. I am able to hold a job, work effectively and support my family. I hold responsible positions in my church and community. I'm not bragging. I'm simply stating that bipolar disorder is a treatable illness. Even those who have been severely wounded in their personal bipolar wars can still regain control and live normal, productive and fulfilling lives. I hope sharing my life can help you enjoy yours.