More than just black and white

Young woman facing bipolar disorder - happy and sad two-faced expression

Young woman facing bipolar disorder - happy and sad two-faced expression  


The experience of a person who has learnt to manage bipolar disorder with all its ups and downs

My life story with bipolar disorder starts from 1989. At that time, I was 22 years old. Now, 27 years later, I am almost 50. I still have bipolar disorder; in fact, I have lived more years with this mental illness than without. Officially, my medical condition is known as bipolar disorder II, characterised by episodes of depression and hypomania (a milder form of mania, but problematic nevertheless). I have suffered through countless days without the tiniest bit of happiness, without the desire to be with anyone, without the motivation or the ability to do anything productive. I have endured the loss of success, love, and respect. Yet, I am lucky to be alive, because nearly 15% of people suffering from depression choose to end their lives.

Depression first engulfed me when I was going through a period of such excruciating stress that I felt something snap at a fundamental, irreversible, level in my brain. There was no reason for it to happen, but it did. In an instant, my worldview changed from technicolour to grey. If only the sadness had gone away the next day, or in a few days, and never come back, I wouldn’t be writing this. But not only did it refuse to go away, it settled down, and never left.

After a few months of terrifying depression came mania. At that time, I didn’t know this feeling I was experiencing was called mania. It felt great, it felt like a cure to all my problems. But it lasted only for a few days. In retrospect, having gone through countless episodes of mania, or hypomania, I now know the difference between being “with mania” and without. It is unfortunate, or perhaps it’s not all that unusual, that none of the psychiatrists or psychologists I consulted provided a breakthrough into my mental state. The medicines prescribed did not work for me, and the psychotherapy sessions only gave temporary relief.

Mood stability

Due to my disappointing experience with medication and counselling, I went for long periods without either of them. I experienced days of “normalcy” without bothering to do anything about it. However, every recurring episode — and they were not infrequent — reminded me that I had a serious problem. It took me years to develop an insight into my illness. I had to understand that as wonderful as some aspects of mania were, it came with its own threats and challenges; it had to be managed, just as depression, for mood stability.

The difficulty with mental illness is the challenge of treating it. There is a wide universe of help available in the form of psychiatrists, psychotherapists, psychologists, self-help tools, religion and spirituality, and so on. Yet, there are no proven, established formulas for beating it and the recovery and treatment process is fraught with relapses and failures. Hardly anyone undergoing treatment reports any significant improvements. My own experience with medicines was frustrating. I kept at them for years — sometimes my doctor changed the medicines, sometimes I changed both the doctor and the medicines, but improvement remained elusive. I tried other things as well, like turning to faith and meditation. From vipassana to sudarshan kriya, and some other stuff that I do not even remember now; I experimented with many things. But it got me nowhere.

Over time, my life settled into a familiar pattern. In one month, I would feel normal for about a week, manic for around three or four days, and depressed the rest of the time. When I was depressed, my social withdrawal would be extreme — from not taking any phone calls, no matter how important, to completely avoiding people. My aversion to interaction was so severe that I would leave my own house when unexpected visitors dropped in. I experienced another very painful aspect of depression called brain fog, a condition where the mind loses its ability to think in a healthy way. Simple tasks become difficult, difficult tasks become impossible. I also faced social anhedonia, a feeling of complete disconnect with people, a lack of any pleasure in the company of others. It is a terrible feeling, and virtually impossible to understand by those who haven’t felt it.

It is said that sometimes you do not go up till you hit rock bottom. I had a major episode of depression in April 2016. I felt so abysmally low that I was ready to give up. Somehow, I took myself to a new doctor and he put me on a well-known medicine for bipolar disorder. It was the first drug that had any kind of effect on my condition, and I noticed this after a couple of months. For me, it curbed mania, helping me take charge of my illness. However, the threat of an impending episode of depression always loomed large.

Running to the rescue

Then, in August that year, I had my biggest breakthrough against depression. I figured out that running always makes me feel good. I had been running since 2011, successfully completing one full marathon and several half marathons. But I didn’t work out regularly. I would either run a lot, or not at all. I also noticed that the great feeling I experienced after running was more or less the same whether I ran for five kilometres or 20. So I thought to myself: Why feel good only once running 20 kilometres at a stretch when I can feel good many times by running for five kilometres at four different times? I put this logic to work and the results have been unbelievably good! Between August 2016 and March 2017, over a period of 30 weeks, I suffered only two weeks of depression. I felt better, more steady and stable for nearly 28 out of 30 weeks, i.e. over 90% of the time. What a dramatic change it has been! Frankly, I’m over the moon with joy.

I believe that anyone suffering from depression should regard exercise as important as food, water, air and sleep. I continue to take a low dose of the drug every day because curbing mania is also critical. I finally have two complementary weapons against my mental illness: the medication fights mania and exercise fights depression. The results of this two-pronged strategy have been very encouraging.

This is not to say that I have discovered some kind of cure. I have no illusions that my bipolar disorder has magically disappeared. It will probably never go away fully. I have simply devised a way to manage it effectively, a way that has worked for the last seven months and perhaps needs another seven months to become more credible. I have also come across a book by Dr John J Ratey which validates my experience of the benefits of exercise on the brain.

I have outdone my mental illness to a great extent. In my head, there exists no stigma about my condition — it can happen to anyone and it is widespread. I share my story freely through various media and other platforms. I hope it can help others who are struggling with bipolar disorder or are trying to understand it. Together, let’s beat the crap out of mental illness!

Excerpted from Side Effects of Living: An Anthology of Voices on Mental Health, edited by Jhilmil Breckenridge and Namarita Kathait, published by Women Unlimited, New Delhi

In this series, we feature first-person accounts of people who have accepted, acknowledged and sought help for their mental health challenges

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 9:23:02 AM |

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