By Lauren Porter
PART 1: PERSONAL STORY
Today on World Bipolar Day, I want to take an opportunity to share a story of hope and healing to raise awareness, reduce stigma, and open up conversations. Please note that this blog contains content around mental illness, self-harm, substance use, and suicide.
“I’m at my breaking point. I’m trying so hard to hold on. It’s getting hard and harder. It’s a never-ending battle. I don’t know how much longer I can do this. It just keeps getting worse and worse. I am broken. I feel empty. I sob and sob and sob and choke on my own breath. My heart is on fire. I tear my body apart for a relief that I can never get. This pain is so deep. What if it never ends?”—Journal, August 2010
It goes back to when I was 12 years old with a bright future ahead. Straight-A student. Supportive family. Volunteering. Playing sports. Life progressed normally in my relatively ordinary childhood to a point, but then my mood started to go down and my anxiety started to go up. Little by little. Withdrawing from friends, not being able to focus in school, not falling asleep until the early morning hours, intense sadness without any clear reason, panic attacks, and starting to cope in unhealthy ways. It was slow, and then it was fast. Before I knew it, I was in the depths of a deep depression and anxiety disorder. After a prolonged period of increasing symptoms, it was clear it was beyond “normal teenage moodiness,” my family got me into my doctor who put me on Prozac, sent me to an intensive treatment program, then to a long-term outpatient therapist. Things began to stabilize. For a few years, it seemed like things might actually be okay. My mood felt more stable; I was functioning; I felt like I was healing. Then, something wasn’t right. I sensed it, but I couldn’t name it. It was little by little again. Something was happening. I was so incredibly sad for a while, then it was normal again, then I was plagued with debilitating anxiety, then I plummeted back into the depressions. Just like before, it was slow, and then it was fast. By mid-adolescence, my life was tumultuous and filled with relentless mental illness. Everyone around me was torn apart by my steady decline, the terrifying symptoms, the self-injury, the suicidality, and stuck with confusion about what went wrong when it seemed like things had finally stabilized.
"I need help. I need help. I need help. Something is wrong with me. Something is so so so wrong with me. I don’t understand any of this. What is wrong with me? What the hell is wrong with me? Nothing is working anymore. Set me free or let me die." —Journal, February 2012
I was now 16 years old, sitting in the office of a new psychiatrist. She looked at my symptom log from the last year, reviewed my history, and did her assessments. She explained the progression of my disease from starting as a unipolar depression with co-occurring anxiety to the development of a cyclical mood disorder as I entered adolescence. Then she said the phrase that flipped my world upside down: “You have bipolar disorder.”
It hit me like a truck, like reading a book in a foreign language I couldn’t understand, like being pushed over the edge of a cliff. I felt like I was handed a life sentence to suffer forever, that there was no hope of me getting better or accomplishing the things I wanted to. I had an enormous cloud of shame and pain and anger envelop me. I was scared. I felt emotions I didn’t know. Over the next few years, while my friends were shopping for prom dresses, visiting colleges, and having their first boyfriends, I was in and out of treatment. In a way, there was a relief in finally having a name to what I was experiencing, what was “wrong” with me, and some semblance of a plan towards healing, but that didn’t stop the confusion and grief I had. Why this was my life. Why was I born this way? Why did this happen to me?
The rest of my teenage years were filled with two steps forward and one step back, breaks from episodes only to be thrown right back into them, dozens of medication switches, inpatient and residential treatment, annual stints in partial hospital and intensive outpatient programs, and more therapists than I had friends. With time, I did begin to heal. Clinical interventions helped me progress, reduce my symptoms, and my moods started to stabilize. I had endless support from my family who worked hard to help me and ensure I had access to the care that I needed. I devoted significant time to my treatment and shaping my life in a way to support myself and work with the way my brain is and not against it. I struggled for years with that initial grief but came to a point of acceptance. I could exert energy suffering, or I could exert energy healing. Day by day, as I could, I chose the latter.
“I have fought back. This pushed me to the brink of death, but I am alive. I am scarred by battle wounds, but I am a warrior. This disease is not going to rule me or dictate my life. I wake up every day still in disbelief that I am alive, but after taking that first breath each day, I am so thankful I am." —Journal, March 2014
This brings us to the end of my high school career. I wish I could say that that was it, things wrapped up nicely, and I left this period of my life behind as I entered the next one. In fact, it turned out to be quite the opposite. I experienced a recurrence of symptoms in college, which is not atypical as one with bipolar disorder enters adulthood and goes through new stages of brain development and life changes. I still came out the other side with my degree in hand and survived. How did I do it? I wish I could write about a magic solution I found. To report that I overcame and recovered from mental illness and that I achieved some time of long-term remission. I found college immediately to be an uphill battle, and I took responsibility that I had to manage my illness if I was going to live with it and still achieve my dreams. The entire time, I was proactive to utilize what I could to help me through. I used disability service accommodations, I went to therapy twice a week, I went to my monthly psychiatric appointments and took my meds, I was involved in the school’s recovery center, and I formed relationships with professors and friends who understood my cyclical illness.
Some semesters, I felt on top of the world, that I was recovering and on an upward trajectory. At times, I was this stellar student on the brink of a 4.0 GPA, holding leadership roles in multiple clubs, stable employment, and active in my community. Unfortunately, I wasn’t always as okay as I looked. This speaks to the fact that people can be deeply suffering even if they look successful and okay on the outside. In multiple semesters, I was hospitalized when my illness reached scary lows. I had periods of struggling with behavioral health issues again, using substances to cope and causing other harm to myself. I took incompletes in courses and medical leaves of absence from work so I could go to more in-depth treatment. I spent most of my junior and senior years in intensive outpatient therapy for at least 20 hours a week. I trudged along. I did one assignment at a time. I fought to learn about myself and my illness, to manage my symptoms and behaviors to be successful, and to take steps forward even if they were slow and painful. It was work, a lot of work. Sometimes I gave it my all, and sometimes I started to let myself drown and wanted nothing more than to give up.
When I think of the word overcome, I think of something complete. I think of climbing a mountain, reaching the top, taking a breath, and resting. For a while, I thought overcoming mental illness would mean I wouldn’t struggle anymore, that the symptoms wouldn’t interfere with my life, and that I wouldn’t engage in self-destructive behaviors ever again. I thought it would be moving past all of this and wrapping up a chapter of my life as a story to look back on. I soon found that that’s not what it means. Instead, it was made up of lots of small battles that I won; small battles that moved me forward but did not make everything go away. I pulled up one dictionary definition of overcome: to succeed in dealing with a problem or difficulty. In that case, I can certainly say I have overcome this battle. Success was every time I took my medication in the morning and every time I sat down in my therapist’s office. Success was each time I delivered a psychiatric accommodation letter to a professor and had honest conversations, each time I learned how to do my assignments in spite of my symptoms, and each time I had to miss school to go to treatment and still came back around to complete them when I was well. Success was choosing to climb uphill every second of every day. It was choosing to live even when I wanted to die.
Despite significant treatment throughout my undergraduate career, my symptoms were still pervasive. I realized I could not continue without more time to spend recovering from the illness. I withdrew my graduate school applications to go into residential and intensive treatment for six months, and then another six months of transitioning into lower levels of care. I began integrating peer support and other non-clinical practices in supporting me as well during that time. Day by day, I accepted that this was my reality, and I could overcome it piece by piece. I was determined to accomplish what I wanted for my life.
Where does this bring us today 10 years after my diagnosis? I have not had a long enough period of time without an episode to be considered in remission, but they are much less frequent. I’ve gotten onto a medication regimen that works for me and a level of clinical treatment that is effective for maintenance. It’s still weekly support groups and daily practices of journaling, connecting with other people, tracking my symptoms, prioritizing my sleep, and radically accepting that my brain is different, and that is okay. I know that this is a chronic illness that will be a part of my life to some degree forever. For periods of time, it may be just something off to the side, and at other times, it will be my entire focus. Nevertheless, I’ve accomplished more than I ever thought I could. I completed my bachelor’s degree, I’ve obtained licenses as a peer support specialist and substance use counselor, I’ve joined the National Board, I’ve lived abroad and traveled the world, I’ve restored relationships, I found a partner who works to support me through my illness, I started my Master’s degree, I found employment I love, and I’m chasing my dreams. I continue to learn how to live with mental illness, not suffer from it. Today, overcoming means carrying each of these small successes with me and valuing how I stood in the face of adversity. It is accepting that I’ve been dealt a difficult hand of cards and learning to play them anyway. I now see this as a part of who I am but not all of who I am. It has shaped me, strengthened me, and changed me, but it does not define all of me, and it certainly won’t limit the possibilities of what I can create for my life.
“It's not easy, but I'm doing it. It's even harder than I expected. It makes me cry and laugh and scream. Recovery is not a straight line. It is a scatterplot, but when you take a step back, they are all moving upwards. I don't know if the battles have gotten easier, but I do know that I got stronger. It will never be glorious. It is made up of lost battles and defeats. It is made up of progress and failures. It is made up of fighting, but it is also made up of hope, healing, and freedom. And it is worth it. It is so worth it.” —Journal, December 2015
Next up, part two will provide more insight into bipolar disorders, how they present, causes, treatment, and ways to support someone struggling.