When I Am Bipolar

I hold the small red pill between my thumb and forefinger. It’s miniscule. Maybe a third the size of a breath mint.

I’ve already taken my antidepressant faithfully, as I always do. I habitually gulp down the rest of my pills but this one I take last, because it’s so small. There was the time it slid silently from my palm as I tossed the pills into my mouth and it was only the next day I realized I must have missed my dose.

You’re not supposed to skip a day when you’re on antipsychotics. But sometimes I want to.

It’s been a year since I lost my mind. Since it slipped easily towards escape, since salvation seemed like wide open spaces on the limitless acreage behind our home. When I imagined myself retrieving the key to the gun cabinet. When I fantasized about slipping unnoticed from my house, past the breakfast dishes and the vase of fresh flowers I’d just bought the day before sitting in a jar like hope. Past my sleeping husband who had kissed me goodnight and rubbed my back until my breathing went soft and rhythmic. There would be no chance my kids would find me. No one would have to clean anything up, there would be no messy blood stains or images that would haunt them. Hunters would find me, or hikers wandering the back trails. It would all be very simple and discreet.

I imagined everyone would be better off. I wouldn’t ache anymore with despair. But even as I entertained these thoughts, I knew they were the thick velvet imaginations of a mind gone dark, the curtains dragged closed.

I had seen the devastation a suicide attempt can leave. I had seen it in my mother’s eyes years ago when her gaze nervously traced the raised red scar that had turned into a grotesque palette of purples, yellows, and browns on my brother’s neck. I couldn’t forget that haunted look she carried whenever she looked at him.

I told my husband first, and then my mother. I called my doctor and then I prayed through the hollow that had become my soul. The words were empty on my lips but I said them anyway, and hoped to mean them again.

And later, I left my psychiatrist’s office with a face washed clean in tears and a stack of prescriptions.

But sometimes I hold the pill between my fingers and I imagine dropping it back into the bottle and twisting the lid back on tight.

It’s true that this year I have been more stable than ever before. Sometimes I even wonder if I am well and no longer need them. That was my mistake last time. Wishful thinking. After the first few months on new meds, the days became flatter, less vibrant, but also less lethal.

My husband didn’t come home to find me curled into the couch wailing. I didn’t throw things across the room in a rage and collapse on the floor. I didn’t yell and scream until my voice bled dry and faded into a shameful whisper whimpering that it hurt so much, so very much. I didn’t angrily grab the keys to the car charging into the night with the yells of my family behind me only to return hours later with bags from Walmart filled with cleaning supplies. I didn’t suspect that everyone was against me and judging me and talking about me behind my back. I didn’t devise grand plans and drag all the furniture out onto the lawn to strip and repaint it. I didn’t go on any shopping sprees for things I didn’t need or want. I didn’t sign up for a million things juggling them easily until the crash came and I found myself overwhelmed and unable to get out of bed.

I don’t miss those things.

But I do miss every nerve ending on high alert. I miss the words that used to traipse endlessly through my mind leaking easily onto pages, filling the gaps when I waited for my coffee to percolate or glanced out the window and caught sight of a sunset only to be flooded with a million metaphors for the way the sky melted together. I miss the abundance of words and the way notebooks would magically fill without any notice of my hand cramping. Every word felt inspired, holding the sparkling weight of firing synapses and neurotransmitters sloshing around like a cocktail awash with the drunken wobble and creativity of someone on a bender. I was drunk with passion. I miss the dazzle of the world and beauty everywhere. I miss the way the light looked in the morning, even after a night with no sleep. I miss the way strawberries tasted. I miss the meaning in everything, or being able to see it so clearly, like a secret world. I miss the bravado and the ferocity of wild dreams and untethered schemes.

I miss seeing the color orange as I once did. These days I go back and pull from my writing, my memories, and try to remember the world as I once experienced it. It’s more muted now. Calmer. There is less meaning in everything. The regularity of life has replaced the roller coaster. It feels more like a slow ferry ride, chugging steadily through thick and murky waters. There is a mundane element that I am learning to embrace, the ordinariness of chopping vegetables for stew. Walking the dog. Adding paper towels to the grocery list. The feel of my pillow beneath my head with no rambling thoughts to pull me from sleep and taunt me.

But there are sacrifices to surviving. I know this now. This disease costs you something whether you stay sick or you get well. Because who am I if I am not bipolar? What parts of my disease were a broken brain and what parts are me, the me I’ve always known?

When I look back pre-diagnosis, what parts were the fun Alia who danced with her arms flung out wide in the middle of a snowy parking lot as the sun rose? What parts were madness?

In those first months on my new medications, my brain wobbled unsteadily and my head ached, my eyes felt like they were replaying scenes a second too far behind. I would tilt my head and the world would slide lazily into place after it. I was dizzy and nauseous and cold. I gained even more weight. I cried when my pants wouldn’t button even though I had cut out sugar, and dairy, and grains and watched every mouthful suspiciously for the ways even the healthiest foods seemed to sabotage me. I forgot words and book plots and my hands shook when I tried to type. I hadn’t reached for my husband and was, in fact, surprised when he leaned over to kiss me and I realized I had no desire left. I hadn’t even realized it had gone. It was as if that womanly part of me that used to come alive under his touch had simply vanished as if it were never there to begin with. I started staying up late watching television in the living room and only going to sleep after he had long since started snoring. I pulled inward. I lost friendships. I didn’t know what to say anymore. I wasn’t sad so much as absent.

I couldn’t explain that I was both happy that I was getting better and also grieving all I had lost. 

I waited for my body to come back to me. I waited for my mind to feel familiar.

I wondered who I was now that the world was an even, if not unrecognizable, place.

I never knew how hard it was to grab hold of words and pull them to earth now that my mind felt insulated, swathed in fancy chemicals to keep the mania away.

Is my normal self boring? Is boring the greatest answer to those hollowed out prayers? After all the chaos, is boring its own salvation?

But still, even with the adjustments, I feel stupidly grateful that I am alive to struggle. That my kids get a mom who is there every day to help with algebra and read them stories and tell them to brush their teeth. That I can check the mail and buy ground beef and pay my electric bill. That I laugh at a funny rerun of The Office. That a weekend away with my husband reminds me of all we still have. That I am still a woman. 

I am relearning myself as ordinary. Just someone who takes her pills faithfully every night and sleeps a solid eight hours.

I am learning the rhythms of regularity without the cycles crashing down on me.

I put the bitter pill in my mouth and swallow it whole.

Alia Joy
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43 thoughts on “When I Am Bipolar

    • Thank you. I’ve never been on a heroes list before. 😉

  1. The best description I’ve ever read of what this is like from the inside. Thank you.

    • Thanks for reading, Diana, and seeking to understand.

  2. Wow. This is just brilliant. I know you may not see orange as you used to but – oh BOY – your writing sings. Longing with you for full healing.

  3. Alia, you address the tension involved in the implications of being made well. Having a daughter who is treated for Bipolar, I can empathize with your current struggle. I have often wondered if her creativity and witty personality would be less visible if she didn’t have it. What would she be like “healthy?”Many influential creatives have been thought to struggle with Bipolar (or have been so diagnosed). Louisa May Alcott is one of them. After reading a biography about her and her weekends of writing marathons (without sleeping) , my suspicions were confirmed. While medical treatment seeks to restore, there certainly is grief in the transformation. “I couldn’t explain that I was both happy that I was getting better and also grieving all I had lost.” Honesty in the mystery of our creation.

    • Yes, I think that’s it- grief in the transformation. It’s a new learned contentment with things as they are, not as we often wish them to be. It’s learning we both are and are not our sickness.

  4. My daughter struggles with Bi-Polar too. Thank you for really explaining what you experience with Bi-Polar, I understand my daughter much better. She was never really able to describe what her felt inside. Thank you for putting yourself in this vulnerable position.

    • I’m so glad it gave you a possible glimpse into the experiences she might have. It is hard to explain because everything can feel so conflicting but I do hope in telling my story, people will begin to understand a little more what it can be like. Thanks for reading, Joanne.

  5. Alia,
    I feel this. This is part of my journey as well. I read back on my old journals and while I can hear the sickness in those words, I can also hear that mania, that madness, that high that I used to chase pre-diagnosis.

    I’m glad you take your pills. Your words still sound with reverb and touch the truth. You’ve not lost yourself, just as I haven’t. Things aren’t as bright as they once were, but they also aren;t as dark as they have been in the past. I pray we both can find the vibrancy in our colors (I miss green) without being consumed with the madness. Someday…

    • Yes, to somedays. And yes I’m thankful that even though the highs are not the same, the bottomless lows aren’t there to devour me either. It’s a new kind of middle way. I’m learning to live in it.

  6. Alia, you still write more beautifully than anyone I know. You’re a natural. It’s who you are and always will be, totally transparent and truthful. The way you reveal life in all its stark reality, laced with tenderness, compassion and grace, is a gift beyond measure. I’m grateful you’ve shared your story so openly. We have a daughter-in-law who suffered puerperal psychosis just over three years ago, has had a roller-coaster ride of emotions ever since and recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I’m going to send her this post to read. I think you have been pretty courageous in sharing these glimpses into what it’s like to live with a mental health problem, and you will have helped far more people than you know by doing so. Well said, dear friend. Keeping you in my thoughts and prayers. Sending blessings, love and hugs. xo

    • You are a gift to my confidence, that’s for sure. Thank you. The words have felt shaky and unsure and I’m adjusting to having to work for it in a different way but I’m thankful they’re not gone, just hidden sometimes. I can’t fully imagine loving someone through what I’ve been through. i can imagine how hard it would be and have often wondered the same about my family. I’m grateful for their love, grace, and understanding as they’ve walked with me through this as I’m sure your daughter-in-law has felt. As always, your words are grace and encouragement to me. Thank you for being you.

  7. “I feel stupidly grateful that I am alive to struggle.” These words resonate deeply, Alia. I just spent 5 days with my siblings, talking about alcoholism, the thief in our family.. By God’s grace I’ve been able to keep him at bay.
    You are a beautiful example of someone becoming whole yet living with brokenness; thank you for sharing that journey with the world–you are not alone. (I’m with Joy L–you write more beautifully than just about anyone I know.)

    • Thank you so much, Jody. Yes, by God’s grace, that’s how we go, right? What a testament to the mercy of God that has kept you from that devastation.

  8. Yes.blessings. And I hear you.I wish you wellness. And I pray for healing. What I do know is this: you writing is very VIVID and helps me to see the light of this “mental health struggle” in a new way.

    • I am so glad to be able to do justice to some of this story and hopefully help give people a glimpse into what so many of us struggle with. Thanks for reading and for your prayers.

  9. Oh, Alia, I’m so grateful for your story – and your amazing gift for telling it. I know it costs you much to do so, and all the more beautiful for that. I love you, friend, and am so thankful for you! ~ Lisa
    P.S. You are anything but boring!

    • Thanks so much, friend. P.S. I miss your face. We need to try to get coffee when Adriel comes to town.

  10. I needed to hear your story today. It blesses me and crushes me and reminds me of years ago and of friendships that drifted because of my brokenness and their brokenness and brains that do not process things in ways that the world, the church, the community understands. Praying for you as you walk this journey and find healing through your writing and your family.

    • Thank you, Jen. Yes, it’s been a lonely season, and so many of us go through it. Praying for more voices and stories and understanding so we don’t have to keep going it alone.

  11. I know what you mean about the boring parts. I’m in a place myself where I’m experiencing more peace than I ever have before and it’s unnerving and a little boring. Without all my trauma, am I boring too?

    • You’re anything but boring. But then sometimes boring is good, yeah? Sometimes boring might be exactly what we all need. Today boring sounds pretty good.

  12. thank you Alia…. you help me realize that i am not alone… ❤️

    • Love you, Laurie. I am so thankful you’re my mom’s friend and mine too. You’ve been a HUGE blessing along this journey.

  13. Alia, you are telling your story but in a way that so many who live this same story and hear and nod and also swallow their bitter pills. I know, because I prescribe those bitter pills and see the healing that happens. Thank you and bless you, Emily

    • Yes, so many who know this story by heart. We do what we must to survive and find beauty anyway. Thanks Emily.

  14. Alia, thank you for giving me a greater glimpse into your reality. Although I do not struggle with Bi-Polar, I do fight off depression more often than not, so I do see myself in some of this. Thank you for being brave and willing to be vulnerable to continue to share your story. And your writing, so beautiful and so inspiring.

    • Thank you, Barbie. I know you get some of this and I’m thankful for you.

  15. For those of us whom walk alongside you from afar… thank you for letting us in to your self. For giving us the big picture in the best way possible – with your word paintings.

    In your corner. Mean it.

    • I know for certain you are. Thanks for having my back, friend. love you.

  16. Thank you sweet, sweet sister for your raw and candid sharing of your deepest self. You have given me a window into the life of an illness that afflicts many in my life, giving me an insight that propels me to pray more empathetically and powerfully. You are brave. And you are a hero in my book!
    God bless you!

    • Thanks Linda. I’m so glad it was insightful for your prayer life and for your ability to love those around you better. Thank you for taking the time to listen, learn, and invest.

  17. As ever, you are stunning in your raw, yet graceful honesty, Alia. More people are going to resonate with your words than you’d ever dream.

    God’s going to keep on using you to give hope. Promise.

    • Thanks Linda. It’s been a bummer couple of days and if I’m honest, I’m pretty tired. But I’m bolstered by the response of this post and for the many stories of others just like me who are taking their pills and pushing on. Thanks for your encouragement.

  18. Alia, I am the friend of someone who struggles with being bipolar and the medicine associated with her body chemistry. This amazing woman lives in our house, with my wife and two of or three adult children. We are a family that God has brought together. Thank you for sharing with us, it helps me to better understand and to be a better brother to my friend/sister.

  19. Alia, your words do not at ALL sound like they come from an insulated mind. You are extremely gifted, my friend. Medication has not stopped your beautiful, irreplaceable gift. Thank you so much.

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