When I was on active duty in the Army, I developed PTSD and panic attacks after my squad leader was shot and killed right in front of me and I could not save his life. This occurred nearly 20 years ago, but just last year I finally stopped shouldering the blame for his loss. It can take time.
We lost him as I was approaching the height of my active duty career, so even though I reached out for help, none was provided. Instead, I continued to march and was assigned increasingly stressful missions that only made things worse for me. The Army did not take it seriously back then and I was always told to “suck it up.”
During one particular mission, I regulalry went days without sleep at a time, and several months without one day of sleeping more than four hours straight. This likely caused my first manic phase. I was stuck in it for so long that I had a psychotic break and chased a bottle of pills with a bottle of alcohol while setting my room on fire.
Luckily, I was rescued and survived. But things should never have gotten to that point. Sadly, far too few people understand PTSD and bipolar disorder, so recognizing these invisible wounds can be hard. And talking about it can be even harder.
A couple weeks ago, I tried talking about my diagnosis with a Vietnam veteran who was a bureau chief at a major newspaper in New York City. He said he believed bipolar disorder was a myth. It crushed me. But I knew if he even stayed with someone who suffers bipolar for one week he’d realize it was no myth. I started this blog because of that conversation and a new desire to educate people about what its like, to the best of my ability.
As Joker aptly stated in the recent Joker movie; “The worst thing about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” Sufferers need to be able to talk about it, and people new to it need resources and a support network.
Before I continue, I must note that I love life and want to live — there is nothing like almost dying to teach you that. Please think of this blog as a labor of love that I am doing with the hopes that sharing my stories could help just one person. Saving one life is much more important to me than what anyone thinks of me.
Signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder can include, but are not limited to: Severe mood swings that cycle between mania and severe depression, not needing sleep or needing too much sleep, not eating or eating too much, paranoia, delusions, hallucinations, hyper-sexuality, excessive spending, substance abuse, etc.
Note: I refer to being balanced as staying “flatlined.” Imagine a heart monitor when it reads spikes and dips above the flatline with each heartbeat. With bipolar, flatlining is a good thing; its one’s healthy place.
There is no escaping bipolar disorder.
When you suffer from bipolar, you’re saving the world when you can’t even save yourself. You’re chasing your flatline on wild adventures thousands of miles away, loved ones wondering if you’ll ever come home again. Or, you’re stuck in bed for days, or weeks, unable to even feed yourself, loved ones wondering if you’ll ever get up again. I often think of the Motley Crue song Merry Go Round when trying to describe how far bipolar delusions can take you.
You feel everything more intensely than normal people could ever imagine. You’ll be happier or sadder than they’ve ever been. You’re standing there looking crazy to them because they can’t see the invisible rollercoaster that’s ripping your insides apart at the seams.
You’re an expert judge of character because you learn quickly who has true compassion, loyalty, understanding and love based on how they react to you being you.
You sadly accept society as blind and ignorant to the daily battles you fight just to be normal. You endure the stigmas dozens of times every day, and every time you try to break them someone hurts you for talking about it. They take your loyalty for-granted, not realizing that you treasure those who understand and support you so deeply you’d die for them.
You learn to embrace a disease that controls and haunts you because it’s better to feel all of these things than nothing at all.
We cannot expect things to change if we lack the courage to talk about it. The number one reason why things go too far, in my opinion, is because of the stigma against talking about it. We have to foster an environment where invisible wounds are treated with the same concern as visible ones.
Managing bipolar is a constant battle.
Every single day you need therapy, medication and an attack plan based on your condition. You must develop a strong support network of trusted friends, loved ones and therapists. For me, its a small but strong circle.
Ideally, you will need a flexible job because some days your bipolar will prevent you from making it in. A proper diet, regular sleep or naps, exercise, stress reduction techniques, and assistance managing your money are a winning combination.
Never forget that just because you feel good today, doesn’t mean you can let your guard down. Once you get bipolar, life gets more complicated and you need a constant plan of attack.
And, most importantly, always remember that you are worthy, have value and deserve to be loved. And always love yourself no matter what disabilities you have.
If you are suffering or know someone who is, talk to them and/or encourage them to call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.