Extreme emotions

One woman describes her being diagnosed with bipolar disorder has affected her life.

“I think I might be a little manic right now, with all this talking about myself,” says Gina* nonchalantly, midway through our interview. “You have to tell me if I’m talking too fast, or if I’m not making sense, because I still question my own judgement.”

Ironically, she has been a model interviewee so far; eloquent and generous with her life story, all wrapped up with just a touch of dark humour. A freelance graphic designer in her 30s, Gina’s eyes particularly light up when she talks about the intricacies of philosophy.

When I ask her what she means by being ‘manic’, she equates it to “seeing the world in a dreamy haze of joy”. “You just feel really energetic and optimistic, like life is as perfect as it can get and you can do no wrong. When I say energetic, I mean I can go without sleep for days, and get completely lost in my work thinking it’s going to change the world,” she adds.

While this may sound like an artist’s dream, there are some noticeable downsides when such a mood strikes. “The not-sleeping soon becomes insomnia, and the feeling great turns into thoughts racing through my brain, each sentence crashing into each other. I’d start getting irritated with other people because they couldn’t keep up with me or what I was saying,” explains Gina.

Then, there was the crushing depression that soon followed. “It was like I would feel exhausted from feeling so much, that I’d end feeling nothing at all,” she says. “Everything would feel hopeless, and if it got really bad, I couldn’t see the point of living at all. I would find it hard to even get out of bed to go brush my teeth; or eat, or shower, or get out of the house. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to kill myself, but rather wishing that I would just stop existing.”

For a long time, Gina thought that this was the way everyone lived their lives and they just did not show it to the outside world. And for a long time, her friends and family what they did see of her behaviour as just unique quirks. That was until she fell into a particularly deep state of depression that lasted for almost a year.

“This was around the time I started self-medicating very frequently — the medication was lots and lots of alcohol,” she says. “It started with a drink or two a week, just to motivate myself to get out of the house. I was still able to meet my project deadlines, and appear normal to others, so no one really noticed at first. But that became one or two drinks every night, and soon entire bottles just to make it through the day.”

Thankfully, Gina’s friends noticed the change; she had become more withdrawn and sullen, only seeming to brighten up when there was alcohol involved. They cajoled her into seeking help, and she relented. “To the surprise of no one, I was diagnosed with depression,” she says of her initial visit to the doctor. “At that time I thought, oh, this is the end of it, we’ve identified the problem, and now we’re going to fix it.”

However, she couldn’t shake off the feeling that there was more to her condition. “I was taking my medications for depression, which helped me sleep but left me feeling like a zombie, and my doctor was slowly trying to get me off them because I seemed to getting better. But then I started feeling that ‘high’, being incredibly restless and agitated, while at the same time feeling depressed. It was scary and confusing; I was starting to have suicidal thoughts, and because I was energetic enough to follow through with these thoughts, it was a scary place to be in,” she says.

That confusion Gina experienced is what mental health professionals call a ‘mixed episode’, a common experience for those diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder characterised by distinct periods of extreme euphoria and energy (mania), and that of depression. Contrary to popular belief that the disorder is just “extreme mood swings’, it also affects a person’s reasoning, energy, concentration and self-esteem. Additionally, bipolar disorder comes in a wide range, marked by the patient’s different experiences and intensities of the moods experienced.

Armed with the right diagnosis, Gina then began the difficult task of working towards managing the condition. “I have to admit, I was terrified by the diagnosis because of my own misconceptions of what the condition was. Before this I thought that you had to be be totally psychotic and beyond help to get that label. Then I got labelled with it myself,” she says.

These days, Gina has found the right balance of medication and lifestyle choices to help stabilise her moods. Initially swearing off alcohol while she worked on getting better, she now even allows herself the indulgence of an occasional glass of wine. “Of course, never with my medication,” she says with a smirk. “It’s not easy sometimes, especially when I am experiencing a lot of stress or bad events happen. But meditation helps in calming my mind, and making sure I get enough sleep. I think the biggest misconception is that people like me are never stable, and we have no idea how to be rational. Of course we do; we just need some coping mechanisms sometimes to help us do it.”

More than anything, it is having a strong support structure that has helped her cope. “I could not have made this far without my friends. I have lost some friends along the way as well, because I’ve lashed out at them. And having a mental illness is in no way an excuse for bad behaviour towards others. But so many others have been very understanding, and knowing that I have people to rely on has made all the difference,” she adds.

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