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).

Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

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Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

Keep Reading Show less
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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."