You may have to modify your dreams to accommodate bipolar, but you can still dream big and achieve your goals.
For a long time, my dreams of the kind of life I wanted were thwarted by bipolar disorder. I’d set a goal, create a plan, tell myself all the positive things I’d learned from self-help books—“You can do it, Julie!”—and boom, no matter what I tried, bipolar usually reared its ugly head and wrecked everything. Failed dreams litter my past: photography school, finishing university in four years, learning a second language, writing books, speaking in public, living in a foreign country. And let’s not forget making millions.
If you know my work, you might say, “Julie, but you have written books. You do travel, and you have had success.” It’s true—but much later in life than I wanted, and always with my illness in mind first. I’ve learned to respect bipolar’s power.
“Julie, are you telling me that you create your dreams around what bipolar disorder allows you to do? Isn’t this giving in to it? Doesn’t this mean you will never get better?”
Here’s my reality: My bipolar started at age 17 and has not stopped in more than 30 years. My illness hasn’t changed; I have—it’s a medical condition, and until there’s a cure I darn well better respect what it can do to my life if I set a goal that’s too big for me to handle. We can manage the symptoms with medications and a management plan, but that doesn’t change bipolar’s intrinsic nature.
I’ve learned to dream realistically. Here’s an example: I love Broadway and love to sing. I want to be on the stage, but I can’t be in a musical because they happen at night. Sleep is too important to my health, so I avoid events that happen at night. My dream of singing in musical theater isn’t realistic. Not because I don’t have the talent—just as I’m sure you have the talent to do things you love—but because I have a mental health condition that will slam me into a brick wall if I choose to do something that triggers my symptoms. Of course it isn’t fair. But I modify my dreams: I do karaoke; I go to musicals; I’ve done a few one-night shows. If I want to reach my dreams, I have to modify them to accommodate this illness. Otherwise, the dreams will end.
I don’t know one person with bipolar disorder who isn’t impatient to move forward in life. This is why the depression that halts our actions makes us so upset, and the mania that others would find out of control often feels normal for us.
You know what, though? I still dream big. I decided to move to France for one year to learn French and finally write another book. Everything got in my way: a few months before I was going to move the first time, I broke my back in a biking accident. Then I injured my knee. My bipolar disorder acted up and I had to try new meds and gained weight. The savings I had managed to set aside for my trip went to hospital bills (for three years). Over and over again my plans hit the wall, but guess where I am now? I’m writing this column from a café in France. Four years after I planned to be here. A lot older than I thought I would be and with much smaller goals than at the beginning. But here I am!
You can dream big with bipolar disorder. Respecting bipolar every step of the way is what makes it possible. When I was attacked by a dog, had a problem relationship, missed a train, had a suicidal reaction to a sleep medication, gained weight instead of losing, and couldn’t get the internet to work, bipolar disorder sent me into a downswing with psychotic features. Treating my illness first—regular phone sessions with my therapist back home, forcing myself to practice good sleep habits, staying in close contact with family, and, most of all, using the treatment plan I write about in my books—made it possible for me to stay in France, living my dream.
There is no doubt that bipolar is a lifelong challenge. But respecting the power it has over me—not giving in to it, but respecting it—allows me to reach my goals.
Printed as “Fast Talk: Dream Big—But Respect Your Diagnosis”, Fall 2016