You’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Or you suspect you have it. Sometimes, you feel a persistent, relentless kind of darkness. You feel like you can’t breathe. Or you feel numb. Hollow. You have zero desire to do anything. The smallest tasks feel burdensome.
And other times, you feel on top of the world. You feel like you can stay awake for hours. And hours. And you do. You feel like you can work for hours. And hours, too. You feel extremely restless or irritable. You feel impulsive, and do things you normally wouldn’t. You have racing thoughts that feel like bumper cars, colliding into each other. You also talk rapidly, talking over everyone else.
But you’re not sure if you want to seek treatment. Or maybe you’re sure you don’t. Maybe you’ve already worked with a doctor or two. And they were terrible. Maybe they even made you feel worse.
Maybe you worry that medication will quell your creativity, or cause other difficult side effects. You’ve heard that other people struggle with everything from shaking to dizziness, and that just sounds awful to you. Understandably.
Maybe you feel shame about having a mental illness. Maybe you feel weak and insecure and inadequate. And you prefer not to think about it. You prefer to handle it on your own.
Maybe you don’t think anything will work anyway, so why try?
At 25 years old, Gabe Howard was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. He was deeply depressed, experiencing delusions and had a suicide plan. He’d been struggling for years, but others assumed it was a behavioral issue.
Today, with treatment, including medication and therapy, he’s recovered. Today, he continues to take medication and attend therapy. Today, he’s a writer, speaker, and co-host of The Psych Central Show podcast and A Bipolar, A Schizophrenic, and A Podcast.
Howard wants readers who are iffy about treatment to know that bipolar disorder is a medical illness that requires working with a doctor and taking medication. He cautioned against believing that exercise and natural remedies—“the latest ‘magical treatment of the day’ is cannabis oil”—work alone, no matter what you read on people’s blogs or in social media posts.
“People believe they work alone because of the cyclical nature of bipolar disorder. Doing literally absolutely nothing will result in improvement eventually because that’s the nature of the disease.”
Doctors and medications aren’t perfect, Howard said. He struggled with various frustrating side effects, but with the help of his doctor, these side effects have either been eliminated or greatly reduced.
Karla Dougherty, a prolific writer and author of Less Than Crazy: Living Fully With Bipolar II, used to worry that medication messed with her creativity and writing. But she’s actually accomplished more while taking medication than she has without it.
“The freedom from fear, anxiety, and sadness is worth more than any side effects of a drug you are taking,” Dougherty said. “And there are so many different classes of drugs to take now that working with your psychiatrist, you can find something that will work for you.”
Howard stressed the importance of being an active participant in your treatment: Work with your medical team, and ask good questions. Bring up your concerns. Speak up when you don’t understand something. Speak up when side effects have become too much. Be honest with your practitioners.
If you haven’t found the right treatment team, keep searching. Therese Borchard, a writer and senior editor at HealthCentral.com, went through half a dozen doctors. Some even made her worse. At one point, she was seeing a psychiatrist, who was supposedly the best psychiatrist in Annapolis. As she writes in her powerful book Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes, he had her taking 16 pills a day.
Borchard finally found excellent, life-saving treatment at Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center in Baltimore, Maryland. She still sees the same psychiatrist today.
“The right care and treatment is always going to improve your quality of life. It’s worth shopping around and being persistent to get quality care,” Borchard said.
“[S]eeking treatment for bipolar disorder gave my husband back his wife and gave my kids a more normal childhood and made me feel like I could participate in life for the first time in a long time,” said Tosha Maaks, a mom to four teenage boys and a frequent contributor to Psych Central. “It was nice not to hate myself, not be angry all the time, think the world thought poorly of me, or never finish anything I started.”
“[G]etting treatment was the best thing I could have ever done for myself and my family,” Maaks said. “Looking back, I wish I would have figured out how to be well a lot sooner.”
Maaks underscored that treatment for bipolar disorder is a comprehensive plan that’s unique to each individual and takes time to develop. In addition to medication and therapy, it includes support systems, self-care strategies and a healthy routine, she said. She also recommended peer support “either in support groups or in the form of a CRSS (certified recovery support specialist) or mentor” (along with your psychiatrist and therapist).
Bipolar disorder is a complex, difficult illness. Getting treatment doesn’t make you weak. It makes you strong, because it takes hard work, and because you’re facing your challenges head-on.
And getting treatment doesn’t get in your way. Getting treatment helps you achieve your goals. It helps you harness your creativity. It helps you get clear and live according to your values. It helps you be present and available to your loved ones. Getting treatment helps you create fulfillment and meaning.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re struggling with a condition that’s known as a mental illness. The fact is that when we’re sick — with whatever — we deserve to get the help we so need. We deserve to stop needlessly suffering. We deserve to feel better. And you do, too.