Book Review: Madness: A Bipolar Life

“An astonishing dispatch from inside the belly of bipolar disorder, reflecting major new insights

When Marya Hornbacher published her first book, Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia, she did not yet have the piece of shattering knowledge that would finally make sense of the chaos of her life. At age twenty-four, Hornbacher was diagnosed with Type I rapid-cycle bipolar, the most severe form of bipolar disorder.

In Madness, in her trademark wry and utterly self-revealing voice, Hornbacher tells her new story. Through scenes of astonishing visceral and emotional power, she takes us inside her own desperate attempts to counteract violently careening mood swings by self-starvation, substance abuse, numbing sex, and self-mutilation. How Hornbacher fights her way up from a madness that all but destroys her, and what it is like to live in a difficult and sometimes beautiful life and marriage — where bipolar always beckons — is at the center of this brave and heart-stopping memoir.

Madness delivers the revelation that Hornbacher is not alone: millions of people in America today are struggling with a variety of disorders that may disguise their bipolar disease. And Hornbacher’s fiercely self-aware portrait of her own bipolar as early as age four will powerfully change, too, the current debate on whether bipolar in children actually exists.

Ten years after Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, this storm of a memoir will revolutionize our understanding of bipolar disorder.”

-Goodreads

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The plus side of being open about your mental illness:

You probably have gathered that I really don’t care who knows I’m bipolar, seeing that I run a blog that is mostly on mental health. I’m not just open online though, I talk about it in person too. While I’m a firm believer that your mental illness isn’t the most interesting thing about you and you should never frame your identity around it, I also believe that it’s important to be able to talk about your illness.

Here’s why:

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Don’t be so quick with your mental health medications warning:

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I once wrote a blog post about not googling all your medications side effects, especially mental health medications. I said it does nothing but add stress and anxiety and it can make you imagine side effects that aren’t real.

I stand by that post, but I also want to expand on it.

I recently joined a few bipolar support groups on Facebook. I haven’t done this before because my disorder is fairly regulated and I haven’t been having problems with my medication, but I thought it was a good idea to have a sense of community.

One thing that I notice a lot of is people saying their doctor is putting them on a new medication and asking what it’s done for people. I get the concept, if it’s done good things for people it’ll make you worry about it less, but the fact is the reverse is also true.

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About a past post: I think there are wrong ways to feel emotions.

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Someone I know personally sent me a message about my language in my last bipolar post, about how I said that under the right treatment plan you could feel emotions the normal way, the right way. I seemed to have slightly ruffled feathers by implying that there was a normal and right way to feel emotions.

It’s true, I suppose, that everyone reacts to their emotions differently, even completely healthy people with no hint of mental illness, that being said, there is most definitely, without a doubt in my mind, a wrong way to feel emotions and it’s not normal.

Being bipolar does not define me, but it is most certainly something that is wrong with me, I think to say otherwise is dishonest. I wouldn’t have chosen to be bipolar, even though it has gifted me with some wonderful things, like being so creative. Actually this has been a debate in my mind, would I give the creativity in exchange for the mood disorder? I don’t really know, but I would never miss the disordered moods. I’d never miss not being in control of my emotions, of not being able to feel happy when surrounded by things that should make me overjoyed. The simple fact that I could be in a situation where literally nothing is wrong and still feel depressed? That is the wrong emotion, that is the wrong way to feel emotions. The same goes for being so manic you lose control of your ability to rein in your thoughts or in some cases control your actions. Is that right? Certainly not. It is a wrong way for emotions to overtake you. They aren’t supposed to do that, they can be consuming, but they aren’t supposed to be controlling.

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I ran out of one of my bipolar medications…

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I ran out of one of my bipolar medications, and not in a “I wasn’t paying attention” sort of way, but in a “my doctor was on vacation, I switched pharmacies, and spent hours on the phone only to finally get my medication after four days of not taking it” sort of way.

After two days of not having it I noticed something, a hint of self loathing, then the next day a large drop of despair. A taste of where I would be without my medication. I don’t understand why, I’m at a really really good place in my life. Things are going great. If I would have guessed I would have thought that if I stopped all my medications I’d be manic, but I was faced with something else, clearly, after my little medical mishap. I’d be depressed right now.

I don’t know if that was what startled me most over these bits of mood turbulence that came from only four days without just one of my many medications, was it that I would be depressed now without them, surrounded by all the current joy I have, or was it the fact that this is all it took for me to feel those ends fraying, me losing control over my emotions?

The reality of bipolar isn’t an easy one, even for someone like me who isn’t a control freak. I’m not in control of my own emotions; perhaps I’m painting with too wide a brush. I am in control when I’m also in control of taking my medications.

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The importance of identifying mental health cycles:

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Life comes in phases. It’s a up down cycle of happiness and sadness. A constant revolving door between good events and bad events. It’s easy to dismiss that fact, to overlook it and think that each bad phase is going to last forever, but they never do. So, why is it so easy to dismiss the cycle?

Our emotions are overwhelming. They completely take over our thoughts. Our memories of both good and bad times get fuzzy and we think the only thing we know for sure is the crisp emotions we currently feel.

Because of this it’s easy to miss the fact that it isn’t just happiness and sadness that cycle, but all aspects of our mental health. Anxieties that we have conquered in the past can come up again in different ways. Habits that we haven’t seen in a long while can come back when we least expect them.

We often find ourselves trapped in cycles without even noticing it, and perhaps that’s because we really can’t control these cycles, and they’ll always come back despite us. But not being able to control our cycles doesn’t mean that we can’t beat them.

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I told people I’m bipolar on the first date:

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I told people I’m bipolar on the first date and I’d still be doing it if I was still dating.

Here’s the thing, I didn’t at first. I was terrified of what people would think of me, how it would effect my chances with someone. I wouldn’t tell a soul, I thought it was something that should be saved for a few months in, a “so I should probably tell you…” that comes when your ready to confess.

But why was I confessing? I wasn’t guilty of anything. I am bipolar, it’s part of me and it has been for a long time. I’m not ashamed of it, I’m annoyed by it a lot, but I’m not ashamed of it. It was out of my control and it made me stronger. It’s just there, a consistent part of me, and I share things about me when I’m trying to get to know someone, so why shouldn’t it be shared as well?

Sure, there is stigma, but there is stigma on all sorts of things, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be talking about it. Maybe by hiding our disorders we’re adding to the stigma. We’re acting ashamed, so they must be shameful! But it isn’t. Bipolar disorder is nothing to be ashamed of, so I started to act like it.

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