The Balance Between Light And Dark: What Bipolar II Disorder Feels Like


I have a secret I’ve been keeping from myself for years. I know something is wrong with me; I can feel it in my bones. It sits quietly in my unsettled mind, occasionally making an appearance just to remind me it’s still there.

I will it to go away, fearing people might judge me, hate me or think I’m different and weird. But, I can’t keep it quiet anymore.

I have bipolar II disorder.

Call it what you want: bipolar, manic depression, mood disorder or clinical depression. It doesn’t matter how it rolls off the tongue, I can’t escape the pervasive stigma associated with such an illness.

It’s in my genes. My grandfather had it and so do my aunt and cousin. I have another aunt who has borderline personality disorder. I am just like them.

Embracing this reality is not easy, no matter how hard I try to fight the stigma. As soon as a psychiatrist diagnosed me as bipolar, I went from being the free-spirited, adventurous, sometimes sad and lonely writer to "that crazy girl."

I can no longer separate my reactions to life’s circumstances from what is normal behavior and what is bipolar. I am different and unpredictable.

I have one pill to bring me down, one to keep me up, two for anxiety and another to put me to sleep (because I sure as hell haven’t been sleeping).

Sometimes, I stay up all night getting lost in a book or writing until there are no words left to write.

Other, I lay in my bed in an almost catatonic state, watching the ceiling fan spin above my head. I do this for hours; I do it every night for weeks on end. How long did I sleep? I can’t remember anymore, but I know it’s not long enough. It is never long enough.

In my good moods, I am social and affectionate. I’ll be drinking and laughing and dancing on tables in bars outside San Francisco or telling absurd stories of my travels abroad — like that one time I bribed an official so I could cross the Belize/Guatemala border, or the time I hitched a ride from an El Salvadoran gang leader and spent the afternoon at his house while he assured me, “We don’t hurt tourists.”

I am energetic, impulsive and reckless. I’ve made major life decisions without giving a second thought to time, money or space.

Sell all of my belongings and backpack through Central America? Yes! Buy this plane ticket I can’t afford? That’s what credit cards are for! Quit your job and move to a new state without a plan? Oh yeah!

My enthusiasm, vitality and ability to throw caution to the wind are infectious and exciting. People love me in this state of mind. I lose all my inhibitions and I am the life of the party.

There is an unexplained energy pulsing through my body, and it all makes me feel like for once, I am really living life. I feel important. I feel like I belong. I am on top of the world. I am dancing and sleeping around and not caring.

The fact I have shared my body with so many people, whose names I can no longer remember, does not phase me. I have no shame… that is, until I do. Now I am full of regret; I hate myself.

Here comes sadness and loneliness. I’ve missed their familiar faces, and they’ve missed me, too. They cloak me in a warm embrace and together, we journey to the deep, dark hole that's reserved for me.

I spend countless nights curled up on the hardwood floor of my home. I lay in the fetal position crying, gasping for air and begging God to take the pain away.

All I can do is take deep breaths in and out. I think God is ignoring me, so I plead with myself. Breathe, sweet girl, breathe. Somehow, I find the courage to get up.

I stop going out. I stop taking care of myself. How many days have I gone without showering or washing my hair? I don’t even know anymore.

I use baby powder to mask the greasiness of my hair and baby wipes to wash my body because the concept of showering nearly debilitates me.

Nobody notices my slow descent into this dark abyss; I am too good of an actress. For hours on end, I can keep up the appearance of a hard-working young professional and have as much fun as my friends at happy hour.

When I come home, though, the sadness and loneliness return and we curl up together like long lost friends.

I successfully push away most of my friends and family. I curl up in my “spot” on the couch and watch TV. I binge eat chocolate milkshakes and Oreos.

These are my true friends: the couch, TV, milkshakes and Oreos. Nothing else matters; they are the distractions I need so I don't have to face the reality of my situation.

I reach a severe level of self-loathing and hopelessness, but I continue to write in my blog and post to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I’m determined to convey how fun my life is and how happy I am.

But, I am not having fun, and I am not happy. This is how far I’m willing to go to pretend that I am doing great. I think if nobody knows, then perhaps none of this is real.

Things deteriorate quickly. I start to think the world would be better off without me. I feel broken and unfixable and so empty inside.

The only way to feel again is to hurt myself, so I start cutting my wrists. I want the parts of me visible to the outside world to match how damaged and dead I feel on the inside.

Suicidal thoughts begin to creep in. I sit in the bathtub and contemplate drowning myself. My dog sits next to me and we stare at each other, unblinking, for what seems like an eternity.

I have a fleeting thought of her starving while waiting for someone to show up and find me. This is enough to get me out of the tub. I feel lame and cold and heartless. It wasn’t friends or family that saved me; it was a potentially starving dog.

I suffer a humiliating breakdown at a gas station down the street from my apartment building. The credit/debit machine is down. I remember feeling like the world was conspiring against me, like it was playing some cruel joke on me.

I am screaming and cursing and beating the car. Tears stream down my face. Rage consumes me. My blood boils and I cannot catch my breath.

Then, just as quickly, I am paralyzed with fear. My mind rebels against me and I am finally losing the fight; I need help.

I spend the next week in the psychiatric unit at a local hospital. For the first three days, I cry uncontrollably. I am barely able to get out of bed. I refuse to speak to anyone.

I hear the other residents laughing, seemingly happy, and it makes me angry. I am so consumed by my own pain and despair that I want to punch every one of them in their throats. Then they won’t be laughing then.

On the third day, I steal a pencil, break it in half and spend 30 minutes on the floor of my bathroom, digging deep into my wrists. This will leave four ugly scars on my left wrist for the rest of my life: a gentle reminder of my brain on fire.

I am blessed to be surrounded by family and friends. There are heaps of phone calls, letters and packages. Two of my very best friends will drop everything and drive eight hours to be by my side.

I can feel everyone’s arms wrapped around me. I don’t realize how much I need all of them until they appear. They remind me I am not so insignificant after all.

On Christmas Eve, I am released. I wrestle with the stigma, denial and guilt that comes with my diagnosis of bipolar II. I feel weak and find it difficult to voice to the challenges I face.

I keep reminding myself to practice self-care and self-awareness, but some days feel like two steps forward and five steps back. I see my parents, family and friends standing in my corner and they remind me there is meaning and hope.

Most days, I am fighting to be better for them. Only recently have I fought to be better for myself.