I never thought that I would be affected by this, nor that I would be writing about it. After all, I’m somewhat of an educated and successful man … a seemingly stable person. But as it goes, here I am, sharing vulnerably while still picking up pieces of myself I never thought I would have to pick up. I have remained relatively silent about this struggle, but it’s been over a year now. I am now willing to share more publically and, to some extent, help destigmatize mental illness. So let me start by saying, “Hi. My name is Ivan and I am Bipolar.”
What is Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar Disorder is a mental health condition that affects almost 1 percent of the population. It is a genetic condition that usually remains dormant for a portion of a person’s life until it “wakes up”. This waking up usually happens in one’s late teens, their 20s, or sometimes their 30s, as was the case with me. When this condition wakes up, the person affected will experience an accelerated mood swing that can last up to an extended period of time. This elevated mood is characterized by excitement and productivity, a state known as “hypomania”. Beyond the threshold of hypomania is found a much more extreme acceleration that can be toxic and dangerous. This extreme acceleration is known as “mania”. This state, for me, feels like being on meth or some type of energy drug. When the acceleration is over, the person’s mood will drop into depression at extremely low levels.
Depression. Not sadness … crippling depression! There’s a difference.
To be clear, being bipolar doesn’t mean that a person will oscillate between two opposing moods all the time, though this could happen. And it doesn’t mean that the person loses consciousness, starts hallucinating, and gets violent. Being bipolar is more complex than that. It’s important for the affected person to become conscious of his/her condition so that he/she could learn how to navigate through an intense oscillation of extreme moods on a regular basis.
These moods are relatively uncontrollable; you can’t just stop them. There is no gentle word nor mind trick that can remove the symptoms of Bipolar Disorder. Its not necessarily a game of the mind. In fact, it’s history of research is characterized by controversy over whether the condition is a psychological disorder or a biological one. For many, it is both, which is why it is often regarded as a neurobiological brain disorder. It is neurological because the biological chemicals this condition releases affects the brain; it is biological because the root of the problem is not found in the brain but in the way the body releases these chemicals that find their way to the brain. These chemicals are mainly (1) adrenaline (the hormone which increases heart rate, breathing, metabolism, and muscle agility for fight or flight response); (2) noradrenaline (the substance released to increase skeletal, muscle, and heart contraction); (3) seratonine (a neurotransmitter that determines feelings of happyness and wellness); and (4) dopamine (a chemical that creates positive feelings). In sum, Bipolar Disorder starts in the body and ends in the brain, manipulating energy and mood patterns.
So what happened with me?
After my Mission Tattoo project in the summer of 2018, I returned home from Belize and El Salvador with strange sensations in my stomach. I grew convinced that I had caught some type of tapeworm in Central America, since tapeworm is very common, especially in rural areas like the ones I had traversed. I spent thousands of dollars on tests for my stomach and blood.
Everyday my stomach turned and when it did, I felt extremely hungry, like my insulin was low, even though I would eat a lot. The strange part was my weight loss. From July till September, I lost about 25 lbs. I went from almost 165 lbs to 138 lbs. I was afraid for my life because I had never been so skinny.
On top of the strange body sensations and weight loss, I started experiencing escalating blasts of anxiety, or what I consider “extreme adrenaline rushes”. Everyday at about 11 am, after my stomach turned, I began to feel anxious and this anxiety would accelerate throughout the day until about 10 or 11 pm. I compare the feeling to that of drinking about 15 cups of pre-workout or 20 Redbulls. Lot’s of energy! At first it feels great. Lot’s of motivation. You can get a lot of things done when you’re high on adrenaline. But after several days of experiencing these rushes, it begins to develop into irritability and frustration, at worst impulsivity, aggression, and delusionment.
Here’s what my days were like: I would go to work and by lunch time I was starting to move super fast, often feeling panicky and irritated. Then after work, I would go to my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class where I would utilize all my energy. When I got home, at about 8 pm, I would eat and just lay on the floor of my prayer room trying to breathe and survive. Usually I would calm down by about 11 pm, then go to sleep.
This would repeat everyday, and it literally drove me crazy! And while all the bodily sensation overwhelmed me, the real challenge was diffusing mental fixations that I would harbor: I couldn’t trust anyone; my wife, Beth, didn’t care about me; people were looking down at me; I wanted revenge on people who did me wrong; and I grew convinced that this aggressive self was who I really was, my “true self”.
These fixations haunted me everyday. They crowded my accelerated mind, full of chemical chaos. Sadly, I believed these fixations and began to behave in offensive and aggressive ways. I emotionally abused Beth and hurled insults at her until she moved out. I decided to hurt someone who had offended me. I tried to burn my house down with me in it. I quit my job and I turned myself to the mental hospital. Never did I imagine myself going crazy, not like this. I didn’t even know I was bipolar!
My admission to the mental hospital made it easier to see a psychiatrist and to get a clear diagnosis. I had started seeing a therapist a few months prior to my admission but he was focused on trauma therapy for PTSD. However, my psychiatrist who started treating me after my admission to the hospital insisted I was bipolar but he stuck with the diagnosis of Complex PTSD. Both Bipolar Disorder and PTSD share similar symptoms. The major difference is PTSD symptoms are usually triggered by certain experiences whereas Bipolar symptoms don’t need to be triggered. So I moved forward with the medication that my psychiatrist prescribed and eventually my symptoms calmed down. I was still usually amped and irritable, but not to the level that made me lose my mind.
With this level of control, I decided it was a good time to leave Fresno for a bit and try to stabilize. So I came to Antigua, Guatemala, a beautiful town with cobblestone streets and beautiful colonial architecture. The pace of life is slower here and the cost of living very affordable. I thought moving here could help me separate myself from the stressors and triggers that were agitating me back at home. And it worked! Not just because I got away from stressors but because I also found a good set of doctors/therapists who properly diagnosed me with Bipolar Disorder, prescribing me the right medication, and setting me up on a smooth trajectory toward stability.
In December, my Guatemalan psychiatrist declared me stable and removed me from two medications. Whereas in previous months, much of my personal work focused on surviving and trying to get stable, which by God’s grace I achieved, now it is focused on capacity building–trying to re-establish and strengthen abilities and skills that I lost, like reading, writing, and working.
Journeying with Bipolar Disorder (or mental illness) is not easy. It will cause you to think too much about your failures, believing success will never happen again. It will confront you with the reality that people will not understand you nor what happens to your body and mind, and how these in turn affect your behavior. It will result in experiencing a level of rejection and abandonment — people will stay away from you, lose trust in you, or not take you serious as a “mentally ill” person. This may include people who are the closest to you, which can make you question whether or not you’re still meaningful to others. I find myself constantly asking, “Am I worthy of being loved anymore? Do people want to be around me?” And sadly these questions are asked in a place of profound loneliness. Very painful stuff! It’s thus understandable why isolation tends to be a default tendency for many with Bipolar Disorder. It’s hard to trust or feel accepted and loved, so the seemingly better option is staying away. Yet when one stays away, the mind often gets fixated on unhealthy thoughts and other temptations, like substance abuse and suicide.
So then, is isolation a solution? Is there another option? I’m still trying to figure that out. I must, nevertheless, share that I’m grateful for the abundant community of folks that have walked alongside of me this season. They have not let me wander away into extreme isolation.
In this next season, I am focusing on building my skills back up, winning my wife back, and apologizing to those I hurt when I went manic. One of the things that continually plays over and over again in my mind is the way I hurt people. I have a tender conscience and it is very bruised these days. I am now willing to apologize for or fix whatever damage I’ve created, and I am willing to do it without expecting people to understand me.
One thing I have learned about being bipolar (out of many things) is that when a bipolar person makes decisions that hurt others, it’s not wise to use one’s health condition as an excuse. I am learning that as I continue to apologize to others, I must take responsibility for my actions. I can quote my mental health condition to myself as a way of showing myself tenderness and compassion. But to other folks that may not work. For them, it’s much more important to accept responsibility. Yes, there is tension between knowing your excuse and taking full responsibility. But the tension is for us, bipolar folks, to bare. Other people simply will just not understand. And it’s okay. It is absolutely okay.