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Life In A Manic State: How Learning To Live With Bipolar Disorder Actually Made Me A Better Person

When I was a 20-year-old undergrad, weird things started happening to me. I’d be sitting in class, and suddenly, I would just have to leave.

I couldn’t sit there a moment longer. I’d bolt up from my desk and go to the bathroom, where I’d do jumping jacks in a handicapped stall until I tired myself out enough to be able to sit still long enough to make it through the rest of the lecture.

There were other problems — alienating friends, reckless driving incidents and the American Express affair. For whatever reason, Amex gave me a credit card and in case you don’t know, with an Amex, you are expected to pay your account balance in full at the end of every month.

In one month, I charged about $5,000 on the car.  And I knew as I spent it, there was no possibility I would be able to make the payment at the end of the month.

And then, there was the drinking. Like a sh*t ton of drinking, which I slowly began to realize I was doing just so I could go to sleep at night, just so I could chill the fuck out without doing jumping jacks. (I learned a bit later that this was classic self-medicating.)

I was hurting people with no regard for the consequences of my actions, lashing out emotionally in nearly all of my personal relationships. And I made impulsive, poor decisions with no thought to caution or responsibility.

None of this was “me,” nor the idea that I was actually doing these very irresponsible, impulsive things. None of it was in line with my up-until-that-point stable, pragmatic, responsible personality. I had always been an annoying over-achiever and a nerd — the girl who blew off prom for “Batman Begins.” Nothing was making sense.

Looking for some guidance, I sought counseling at school to help me with what I thought was just a delayed adjustment to the high stress/responsibility of college living. But after a couple weeks of seeing various therapists and eventually, a psychiatrist, I was very quickly diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

After some time seeing a psychiatrist, I began taking meds, which definitely helped me to put my life back on track.  But, my life would occasionally still spiral out of control, even after I was on medication.

Because mania, the “extreme high” pole of bipolar, is characterized by racing and obsessive thoughts, impulsive, pleasure-oriented behavior brought on by the feeling of euphoria that accompanies mania and a feeling of superiority and invincibility; a Superman complex in which normal rules don’t apply to you — traffic rules, societal rules, laws of physics, mortality or morality. Responsibilities don’t matter.

Consequences don’t exist because within a manic state, there is no future — there is only right now, and right now, I want to spend, spend, spend and go fast, fast, fast.

I’d also do things like go skydiving, jump off of anything into anything, date inappropriate and toxic men just because they were “exhilarating.” In a manic state, any and all drugs are a great idea, unprotected sex with strangers is a great idea, getting in a car and driving to the opposite coast is a great idea.

I moved across the country on a whim a couple times, and then, I’d get there and realize I hated it after blowing all of my money. I’d go in and out of debt. I still have financial problems, due to my hedonistic spending, whimsical cross-country moves and dubious relationships. I have sh*tty credit to this day.

Because, the thing about mania is that you are making life-altering decisions for a protracted period of time from altered mental and emotional states. It’s like being on an indefinite spring break.

But, you don’t go back to your real life and your normal decision-making process after a week, which isn’t any way to live — especially for someone like me, who is a classic Type-A organizer and a general nerd of responsibility.

Additionally, being bipolar is not unlike Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison on “Homeland. It becomes increasingly difficult to trust your own judgment, on anything, even when you don’t think you are in a manic state.

It’s so hard to tell what’s real, what you are overemphasizing in your head and thus, what you are obsessing over. It has taken me a long time to get to a place where I feel comfortable trusting my own judgment in the big situations.

Over time, what became even more crucial for trusting my own judgment than being medicated was the way I retrained myself to think; the ways I retrained myself to behave and react in stressful/confrontational situations and the little “tricks” I taught myself that helped me to rewire my emotional programming, so to speak. I guess you could call these things “emotional life hacks.”

Since learning to live with being bipolar, I’ve come to realize that now, I’m way different than I was before the jumping jacks. I’m kinder, more patient and more tolerant.

I’m steadier, more self-assured and confident in my decision-making skills. I can be confident in my decisions because I know they are based on logic rather than on impulse or emotions. I no longer lash out emotionally in confrontational personal situations, but I don’t shy away from conflict. I’m patient, centered, and rational (for the most part).

Am I perfect? F*ck no. I’m still quirky and weird and messy and complicated. But, I like to think that now, I treat others as I’d like to be treated and I carry myself with poise and empathy in emotionally charged situations.

So, from one imperfect person to another, here are some of the lessons I have learned while living with disorder; lessons that I think can help us all on our journeys toward becoming functional adults.

Stop trying to micromanage every detail of your life

You will never be in complete control of everything — you may never even be in control of just one thing. Chaos happens, the world and the people in it are unruly.

So, mandating unattainable levels of control for yourself will only frustrate and disappoint you, because at every turn, life will have other plans. Hope for the best outcome and feel free to make contingency plans. Trying to micromanage every situation in your life will only break your heart. Let some chaos in.

Cut out negative thinking

Self-defeatist thinking can very quickly turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s one thing to strive for realistic dreams, goals and standards. But, it’s another thing altogether to approach life with a “Nothing good will ever happen for me because I’m not good enough” attitude.

Know your strengths and weaknesses and map out a game plan based on them. Dwelling on your negatives will poison your mind. I can’t stress enough how bad toxic, negative thinking can be for your mental and even physiological well being.

Focus on positive thinking

Yes, I know it sounds cheesy. Yes, I know it sounds like self-help mumbo jumbo. But, any psychiatric professional will tell you it’s where you must start if you don’t want to be a miserable sad sack.

You must retrain your thought processes to steer clear of negatives and focus on the good in every situation. There’s a reason “Silver Linings Playbook resonated with so many people, including myself. Setting positive, attainable goals and identifying that lame cheesy silver lining actually works.

Get rid of negative influences

If there are people who are close to you, who are flat-out negative assh*les who have no sign of changing their ways, those people are toxic, will drag you back down the rabbit hole and cripple you with self doubt.

Get them out of your life. This includes people who instigate confrontation, who gossip, who are drama magnets or who will, in general, never have anything positive to say. Ditch the haters.

Temper reactions

When you feel passionately about an issue or a person, it can be difficult not to react emotionally to a challenge or a confrontation in the moment.

But, tempering instinctual emotional reactions in stressful situations is paramount to maintaining healthy relationships. Don’t say petty, personally attacking things to people about whom you care.

Be honest

Especially with yourself, and especially when it concerns what you truly want in life. When you lie to yourself about your desires or intentions, you are only hurting yourself by not allowing for optimal personal happiness.

With others, avoid passive-aggressive behavior and manipulations. The people in your life will appreciate straightforward, open communication as opposed to ulterior motives.

Avoid emotional decision-making

Making life decisions based on impulse can be dangerous, as illustrated above. But, making decisions based on emotional attachment can also be detrimental. Don’t choose the grad school your boyfriend is set to attend. Choose the grad school that offers the best possible program for your field.

I make lists of practicality that help me see what decision the best one for me. I also rely on my friends’ opinions to steer me in the most logical direction. When in doubt, run decisions by a reliable third party who knows you and your flaws best.

Learn to compartmentalize

I call it “putting things on a shelf.” With a particularly tough decision, or maybe an emotional gut-reaction, let it go for the moment and put it on a shelf. Give yourself some time and come back to it later.

If I’m upset about a situation at work or with a boyfriend and my immediate reaction is to say or do something drastic or confrontational right then, I stop myself and let it go and revisit it in a few days.

If, in three days, I still think it’s necessary to confront a coworker about taking credit for my work (or whatever it is) then I do it, calmly. I know this is easier said than done and not every person can compartmentalize his or her emotional reactions. It takes time to learn.

Choose your battles

Along the lines of compartmentalizing, ask yourself, “Is this worth the mental energy to upset myself? Is this worth attempting to change/control? In 20 minutes or 24 hours, will I still want to act on this?” You can’t fight every battle. It would just take up too much of your mental energy.

So, carefully choose your battles. If you decide something is worth the time and the mental energy, definitely pursue it with everything you have. But at the same time, choosing your battles is all about learning to accept that some battles can’t be won and moving forward without fighting every fight.

Stop obsessing

Just stop. Whether it’s an ex’s new girlfriend’s Instagram or that last five pounds, just stop -- it’s not worth the energy. If it falls into the category of "things you can’t control" or "battles that you can’t win," just stop.

Let it go

Once you’ve realized that something is a losing battle, stop putting energy — and thought — into it. This includes relationships and jobs.

Once you realize something is a lost cause, it’s best to go ahead and get off the sinking ship. Don’t worry about losing the time and energy you’ve already invested when you walk away. It’s better to cut your losses than to create more.

Focus on you

Focus on what’s best for you and for your well-being. Focus on being the best version of yourself as opposed to what you have or what looks good on Facebook.

Ignore the natural inclination for peer comparisons, especially on Facebook. Someone’s life might look great the way it is represented on Facebook, but that doesn’t mean it’s actually great.

Titles and possessions matter less in the long run than your sanity, your well-being, your sense of self-worth and whether or not you are happy with the person you show to the rest of the world each day.