Bipolar disorder runs in my family, but I didn’t know that when I had my first manic episode.
I was a hardworking, self-employed writer and photographer. A lifelong night owl, I was no stranger to late nights. Sometimes I’d stay up all night, focused on a writing assignment. Other times I’d stay out until 3 a.m. photographing concerts, then processing raw photos until sunup so they could be published that afternoon. I was living on my own terms, having the time of my life.
So, when that first manic episode came on, sudden and without warning, it took a few days to realize something was wrong.
I received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder in 2012 and have been on a strict treatment to manage the condition ever since. My day-to-day life is normal and well-managed. I take care of myself and take my meds without fail. If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t know I live with bipolar.
But despite my best efforts, I’ve experienced mania again. If you don’t know much about the implications of bipolar disorder, it’s important for you to know that mania is not what it seems. It’s not a “super high” or being “extremely happy.” Mania is overwhelming, terrifying, and exhausting. Here’s what a day in the life of a bipolar manic episode feels like.
The alarm goes off. I didn’t get any sleep last night.
I never got tired — my mind was racing. Idea after idea streamed through my mind, one after the next after the next. Articles I should write. Photographs I should take. And song lyrics. So many song lyrics, all taking on new meanings.
I’m so anxious. The Brainwave Tuner Sleep Induction app on my phone usually helps me fall and stay asleep, but it wasn’t any help last night. I took two doses of sleeping pills over the course of the night, but my body overrode their effect. Am I manic again?
I know I haven’t missed any doses.
Is my dose too low?
I sit up. With my left hand, I reach for the brown bottle of little white pills on my bedside and clutch my red water bottle with my right. I remove one pill and swallow my daily dose of hypothyroid medication, which needs to be taken on an empty stomach. Many people with bipolar disorder also have a thyroid condition or other dual diagnosis.
I don’t want to eat. I’m not hungry. But my bipolar medication needs to be taken with food and proper nutrition is critical, so I make a veggie omelet, rinse a cup of fresh berries, and sit down at the table with today’s pillbox.
Everything tastes horrible. I might as well be chewing cardboard. After choking down the meal, I take my first of two daily bipolar capsules along with half my daily dose of fish oil. I wash it all down with water and decaf coffee. I had to give up caffeine years ago because bipolar and caffeine don’t do well together.
I sit down at my desk. I write and write, hyper-focused on my latest project. The ideas are plenty, but next week I’ll read it back and hate every word, I’m sure.
It’s lunchtime. I’m still not hungry. I’m craving the carbs of spaghetti, but I don’t keep food like this in the house. I force vegetable soup and a salad down my throat because I know I need to eat.
Eating is a chore. It tastes like nothing. I swallow half my daily dose of multivitamin, a biotin capsule for my thinning hair, and vitamin E because my last blood test showed a slight deficiency. More pills.
OK, it’s back to work. I switch gears and start editing photos from my last photo shoot. Dozens of ideas rush through my mind. I need to make changes to my website. I feel an intense need to do them all right now.
My husband comes home from work. I’m still working. He comes in to chat, and I get upset at the interruption. He asks if I’d gotten any sleep. My husband knows I was tossing and turning all night, and it scared him.
He makes dinner: chicken and wild rice with vegetables. On a normal day, this would be delicious. Today, it turns to dry, flavorless dust in my mouth. I take the second of two daily doses of bipolar medication, fish oil, and multivitamin.
Over dinner, he notices how fast I’m talking, how quickly my mind is working.
He knows what to do. He packs my bags and talks me into the car so he can drive me to the emergency room. I’m terrified and don’t want to go. I’m paranoid, convinced we’ll get in an accident on the way.
The psychiatric ward is across town. A few years ago, their emergency room closed due to budget cuts. So now we have to go through the ER at city hospital.
I’m singing loudly behind my curtain. The nurse tries to take my vitals, but I’m too scared to let her. They call the psych ward, secure a bed, and arrange for the ambulance to take me there.
It’s been a long day. I’m finally at the psych ward. Doctors and nurses in white are milling about all around me. The lights are so bright. Doors open and close, open and close constantly. They give me a snack: peanut butter crackers. More dry, flavorless food. They up my dosage of bipolar medication and send me to bed. Will I be able to sleep at all?
I didn’t sleep last night, but I’m still wide awake.
I approach the nurses’ station and ask for a sleeping pill.
The night nurse has stopped by to check on me every 20 minutes since I crawled into bed. If I’ve slept at all, it’s only been for a few minutes. If I don’t get another sleeping pill before 2 a.m., they won’t let me have one later, so I make my way to the nurses’ station.
The nurse comes in to take my vitals and gives me my morning dose of hypothyroid medication.
Was I asleep? Had I slept at all?
Soon they’ll be calling us to breakfast. They’ll serve a lackluster breakfast sandwich cooked at least two hours prior. I’ll go to group therapy, where we might make art. It’s been to known to help people with their mental health. Other than that, there’s nothing to do but watch TV. It’s so boring.
Bipolar mania can be a scary thing to experience. But the good news is that bipolar disorder is treatable. Since receiving my diagnosis, I’ve found the right medication and the right dosage so that day-to-day life is totally normal.
I haven’t had another one of these episodes in five years. I go to bed early and pay close attention to my sleep patterns. I plan healthy meals for the week and never miss a dose of medication.
Bipolar disorder is a fairly common condition, so if you or a loved one live with a mental illness, take comfort that you’re not alone. Bipolar can affect people from all walks of life.
It’s true that episodes of mania or depression can recur after years of remission, and medication may need to be adjusted in a doctor or hospital setting. But with proper treatment and a positive outlook, it’s possible to lead a balanced, productive life. I’m doing it. I know you can, too.
Mara Robinson is a freelance marketing communications specialist with more than 15 years of experience. She’s created many forms of communications for a wide variety of clients, including feature articles, product descriptions, ad copy, sales materials, packaging, press kits, newsletters, and more. She’s also an avid photographer and music lover who can frequently be found photographing rock concerts at MaraRobinson.com.