Now imagine the worst day you've ever had, a day when you felt sad and lonely and discouraged. A day when getting out of bed seemed like a Herculean task and you had to force yourself through the motions of getting through the day. Now, multiply that feeling by 100. Unless you've been there, that's probably the closest you can come to understanding a depressive episode.
Although I was not officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder until I was in my thirties, I've been living with it ever since I was a teenager.
On most days, you'd never guess there was anything "wrong" with me. I'm calm, even-tempered, and I love working at my freelance writing business. I can't ever let myself forget, though, that the mania and depression lie in wait, counting on me to make a mistake that will release them.
In some ways, being bipolar is kind of like driving down a road. You're going along just fine when all of a sudden your tires hit an icy patch and send you flying into a skid. With not even a second's notice, you're fighting for your very survival.
Only when the car comes to a shuddering stop are you able to get out and assess the damage--like thousands of dollars in credit card charges or a visit to the hospital emergency room after an overdose.
But the picture is not all bleak. As long as you can keep that car on the road, you can go for days, months, even years without a serious episode of mania or depression.
How do you control that car? These suggestions have helped me.
1. Drive slowly. That way, even if you hit an icy patch you won't skid nearly as long or as quickly, and you're likely to emerge with less damage to your life.
2. Take care of your car. You wouldn't undertake a road trip with bald tires and sugar in the gas tank, yet so often we force our bodies to operate fueled by junk food, stress, inertia, and far too little sleep.
3. Follow your mechanic's advice. The mechanic, in this case, is your doctor. If the two of you have agreed on a certain treatment regimen, follow it to the letter. Don't play around with drug dosages or change anything else without your doctor's approval.
4. Be mindful of road conditions. If the road ahead looks slick and treacherous, slow down. You may even want to stop for a little while to give the driving conditions a chance to clear up. If you think you can't afford a day or two of rest, remember what a month of mania or depression would do to your schedule!
5. Use a map. If you're entering uncharted territory, get help and advice from those who have been there before and come back to tell the tale.
In spite of--or perhaps even because of--my bipolar disorder, I've had successful careers as both a medical social worker and a freelance writer. More than 95% of the time, I would describe myself as content and fulfilled by my life and work. So trust me, there is life after a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
Now that I've told you my story, I'd like to hear yours!