Living With Bipolar Disorder: You Are a Hero

Appreciate everything you do daily to manage your bipolar disorder, and repeat this mantra: I am brave. I am courageous. I am a hero.

Earlier this week my husband and I returned from a long weekend spent at resort near Phoenix with my parents. We reveled in the chance to meet up with them in the Sonoran desert valley, and to “sit long, talk much, and laugh often” among some palm trees and bubbling fountains there.

While all of our discussions certainly don’t surround me and my mental illness, inevitably there’s always at least one very long talk about how I’m doing, which includes extended explanations by me of any new revelations about depression and mania. I’m not crazy about this. Yet, I realize it’s important for it to happen for all of us, as a team, working to support my well-being. It just seems like I am forever trying to clarify and illuminate for my family what it really feels like to have a mood shift, to tumble into depression, and to shoot into mania. So, I interpret for them again the past year’s waves of moods, describing how at Christmas a year ago I was high enough to announce I was going to go to Northwestern the following month on scholarship to pursue a PhD in medieval art history; or that last July I was so depressed post-surgery that I nearly took my life; and that oftentimes I am living in a state of disassociation, while seeming perfectly fine. My family works very hard to understand; I know they never truly will.

My family calls me “brave”, “courageous”, “heroic” for continuing to battle bipolar despite the setbacks in mood changes, the daily struggles, and how frickin’ hard it is sometimes. I’ve never really believed those terms. I’ve always just thought dealing with it, surviving, is what one does. You handle it, you move on. To me, there isn’t anything all that heroic about it.

Then I came home this week to some very distressing news. I learned an old friend from junior high school was killed by chronic, major depression; he took his life. Wow, does that hurt. Not only because of his loss, which is obvious, but because I get it. I, and those of us who know depression, get it in a way that those who have never been truly, deeply depressed ever will. The pain of ongoing depression, of depression that is part of bipolar, is so difficult to describe to those who’ve never felt it, who don’t know it. For those of us that do get it, we all just kind of nod in our common understanding.

My friend wasn’t weak. He stayed as long as he could, I like to think. I believe he likely didn’t find the right help in time, whatever that help was. But here’s what I also believe now:

By virtue of deciding to stay, those of us with major depression and/or bipolar disorder are heroic. Because deciding to stay is sometimes the most difficult thing to do. If “heroic” is defined as “of great intensity … of a kind that is likely only to be undertaken to save a life”, then let it be said that our conception of “heroic” is far more intimate and substantive than that put upon us by others.

If you have compassion for yourself, just for this minute, and then this one … you are a hero.

If you tell yourself you need help, you are a hero.

If you ask someone for help, you are a hero.

If you seek to define coping for yourself, you are a hero.

If you want to find hope, you are a hero.

It is extraordinarily difficult for those who love us to comprehend our challenges. I will continue to explain, interpret, dance on my head, and do charades for my family until the cows come home if it will help them to understand a tiny bit more. In the meantime, I’ve learned that, indeed, I am brave, I am courageous. I am a hero, and I’m staying.



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