Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder. To me, this means that I experience moods at a more extreme level than the average person. This does not mean that I have terrible mood swings one day and bounce back the next day. It’s not that sudden.
I have had some friends admit their curiosity about the nature of my illness. They often start off saying, “I know this is a stupid question, but…”
I honestly wish more people would ask me what it’s like. Although it is called bipolar disorder, I often think of myself as being “tripolar.” Sometimes I experience mania, sometimes I experience depression, but I also inhabit a unique space in the middle. Being bipolar is like being a seesaw. And I don’t mean that my illness is like sitting on a certain side of the seesaw — I am referring to the seesaw itself. Just as a seesaw is constantly trying to balance the ups and downs of its riders, I have to maintain a balance between my two extreme emotions.
For those who might be afraid to ask, here are a few ways depressive and manic episodes have affected different aspects of my life.
1. School and Work
During a depressive episode, I feel emotionally drained and tired. When I was in school, I had no motivation to get up and go to class and would stay in bed the whole weekend. I would not be able to get any homework done. This vicious cycle took a toll on my grades, my social life — everything.
During a manic episode, I have symptoms such as racing thoughts and irritability that make it impossible for me to sit still or concentrate. I have such overwhelming energy that it’s often mistaken for a very cheery attitude or silliness, even when neither may not be appropriate.
Both types of episodes affected my attendance at work, as well as my motivation to go to work. My concentration was impacted the most, and I would have trouble completing even the simplest of tasks. After losing jobs from being hospitalized so many times, I realized that I would either be better off staring my own business where I could set my own hours.
2. Money and Spending Habits
As if losing a job is not hard enough as it is, money can be a major problem for people with bipolar disorder. I certainly cannot speak for everyone who has this illness, but I tend to go on peculiar spending sprees while having a manic or hypomanic (almost manic but not quite) episode.
I max out credit cards, finding myself badly in debt once I’ve come down from a manic episode. What makes the spending sprees unique is that usually they come with some obsession, like an idea of saving the world by making tons of hula hoops using expensive Home Depot supplies.
3. Relationships with Family and Friends
I have had many episodes over the past three years. I am starting to lose count. And part of me feels like people I’m close with have started to lose hope in me. How many times will I have to get hospitalized to finally get better? How much more support do I need from people who might be getting tired of what may seem like a never-ending cycle?
Although I listed this aspect of my life last, it happens to be the most painful. There have been plenty of instances where I have been blocked or ignored by a person (including my own twin sister) when I start showing manic symptoms. Here is how I end up interpreting it all: No one wants to be bothered with my problems. People already have enough problems of their own.
If I start acting strange, some may call me out on it, but many will not because they do not understand bipolar disorder or they just may not care. It’s a tough reality to face, but I remain optimistic. I know that I can get better. Family and friends continue to be part of my support system, and I believe that one day I will be able to establish trust in an intimate relationship despite the symptoms of my mental illness.
Thanks to medication, I am able to manage my illness and lessen my chances of experiencing a manic or depressive episode. But that does not mean I am recovered or “cured.” In addition to bipolar, I also suffer from substance issues, insomnia and anxiety, which creates an added challenge.
I have to deal with all the other bad habits and coping mechanisms I have developed and try to figure out how I can live in harmony with myself. This is not easy at all. If it were, I would not be hospitalized nearly every single year. But one of my biggest goals is to seek help by navigating through a complex health system and finally obtaining consistent counseling.
Fighting a mental illness is more than just a battle. It is a process that takes time and patience. Time brings understanding and heals intangible wounds like no other medicine.
Based in Houston, TX, Gisele Phalo has continued her passion for music and mental health advocacy since she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2015. Since then, Gisele has made it to her mission to inspire others through storytelling, ukulele, and — most importantly — her smile. Learn more on her website.