My life with bipolar—what it's really like to live with a severe mental health disorder
Photo by DANNY G on Unsplash

I was 20 years old when I first heard the word "bipolar." I was in a sterile, white room: a room with stained walls and cold, metal chairs. There were marks on the floor. Scuffs and crumbs and wisps of unswept hair. But that didn't bother me. Not really. What bothered me was my new diagnosis.

Bipolar.

I wasn't sad or depressed, I was bipolar.

I'd be lying if I said I accepted my new label with grace. I mean, I started taking medication. Depakote. I went to therapy, as my psychiatrist suggested, and I attempted to make progress. I really, really tried. But I didn't believe I was sick, or at least not as sick as they were telling me, and after a few months, I stopped taking my meds — something which, over the last 16 years, I have done time and time again. But it didn't end well. It never ends well. And during my "withdrawal," my body began reacting.

Within days, I was exuberant, elated, and happy. I was working more and sleeping less. I was talkative. Very talkative. I text dozens of friends, friends who I hadn't spoken to in years, and I was confident. Hypomania was setting in. I also pitched hundreds of story ideas. I wrote more articles than I can count. Oh, and I dyed my hair. Over the span of a week, I sported three different shades. But I was seeing things. Hearing voices. The walls had eyes. My world was closing in. And I was drinking to manage. To deal. To cope.

I was also suicidal. When I am manic, I am always suicidal.


But why then did I stop my pills? Why did I put myself and my wellbeing at risk? Because I have a mental health disorder. Specifically, I live with bipolar disorder, and one of the symptoms of my illness is impulsivity. Mania and hypomania is marked by reckless decisions. And stopping my pills? That was brash and careless. It was negligent and thoughtless, and it was reckless. It was textbook bipolar behavior.

But mania and hypomania aren't the only manifestations of my illness. Bipolar disorder is a serious mental health disorder, one that affects 2.3 million Americans, and in order to be diagnosed with this condition, one must experience elation and sadness. Those with bipolar experience manic highs and depressive lows—and I would know.

While my most recent swing was up, I have spent many days down. My depressive episodes are frequent, dark and morose.

You see, when I am depressed, I am discouraged and despondent, helpless and hopeless, and I feel numb. I am suffocated by a curtain I cannot see. I am stuck behind a wall which does not exist, and I am tethered to a pole by an imaginary rope.

I run laps like a caged animal. I beg for someone—anyone—to throw me a bone.

When I am depressed, I miss deadlines and lack motivation: To work. To parent. To run, read, or shower.

When I am depressed, I want to be alone. I need to be alone. Seeing people being and breathing is too painful. Watching others live their life hurts. And when I am depressed I feel guilty for thinking these things. For feeling these things. Everything becomes a chore.

"Bipolar disorder (formerly called manic-depressive illness or manic depression) is a mental disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, concentration, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks," the National Institute of Mental Health writes. Those living with bipolar "experience periods of unusually intense emotion, changes in sleep patterns and activity levels, and uncharacteristic behaviors — often without recognizing their likely harmful or undesirable effects."

Of course, as with any illness, the symptoms of bipolar vary from person to person and patient to patient; however, those living with bipolar will experience periods of depression, mania and/or hypomania.

"Mania and hypomania are two distinct types of episodes," the Mayo Clinic explains, "but they have the same symptoms, [including but not limited to feeling] abnormally upbeat, jumpy or wired; [having] increased activity, energy or agitation [and/or an] exaggerated sense of well-being and self-confidence (euphoria); [experiencing a] decreased need for sleep... [and engaging in] poor decision-making."

Those with depression will experience feelings of numbness, sadness, tearfulness, hopelessness, and helplessness. They may experience weight loss or weight gain, and depression can exacerbate feelings of worthlessness and guilt. Fatigue and a general loss of motivation and energy can also occur.

The good news is most days I am stable. I am balanced. Thanks to therapy and medication, I am living somewhere "in between." Most days I wake feeling fine. I am able to parent. To work. To function. I am a good employee. A caring wife. A loving mother, and an (overly invested) friend. I can also roll with the punches. I don't cry over cold coffee or breakdown when I spill milk. I also don't drink. I am able to keep the manic demons at bay. Plus, I know how to manage my illness when I am not. I run. I rest. I speak with my therapist more frequently. If necessary, I ask my psychiatrist to adjust my meds, and I implement my crisis intervention plan, a document which includes tangible steps I can take if and when I am feeling manic or depressed.

But being well isn't easy. It takes patience and hard work. It also takes a little faith and a whole lot of luck, but it is worth it.

I am worth it.

If you or someone you know is struggling, know this: You are not alone. There is help. There is hope. For more information about bipolar disorder and/or resources about substance abuse or other mental health disorders, call the visit SAMHSA's website or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Images courtesy of Letters of Love
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When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

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