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My New Normal: What It's Like To Live With Bipolar Disorder

My name is Rachel Stevens. I'm 23 years old. I am an actor, a producer, a director, a social media manager, an office manager, and an assistant. I have a great family whom I love. I enjoy reading, writing, painting, and hanging out with my friends. I live a pretty normal, happy life. I'm also bipolar.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in my senior year of college, about two years ago. I was experiencing severe mood swings and couldn't get it under control well enough to perform adequately in my classes. I set up an appointment with a psychiatrist, and went in for an initial consultation. I told him everything: the ups and downs, the good, the bad, and the ugly. He told me that in addition to my other diagnoses- depression and anxiety- he strongly suspected I was bipolar type I, meaning severe and lengthy manic states.

This threw me for a loop. Bipolar? Me? While I could see where he was coming from, I was absolutely ashamed of the word. The only experience I had ever had with bipolar disorder was the violent and unstable examples I had seen in the movies. I was so afraid that this meant I was crazy. It took me a long time to come to terms with the diagnosis- in fact, I'm still learning every day how to live with it.

I've had several different types of treatments since I was diagnosed, primarily Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, where I see my therapist once a week, a myriad of different medications which I take daily, and even a stint in a hospitalization program for a month this past summer, for which I am entirely grateful and am positively impacted in my day-to-day life.

I live with depressive states, manic states, mixed states, psychotic symptoms like hallucinations and dissociation, agoraphobia, panic attacks, and others; but I do have my coping skills and a wonderful support system to help me through challenging times. My manic states can last anywhere from one to two weeks, while my depressive states typically last two weeks or more. Something I talk about a lot is that I prefer the depression to the mania. Depression makes me feel more grounded, and when I am depressed, I am less prone to psychotic episodes and severe anxiety.

I am affected by my symptoms on a daily basis, but through therapy and practice, I have developed great coping skills to manage them. Some of my symptoms prevent me from doing things, like being in crowded or unfamiliar places alone, or doing anything scary, like seeing horror movies or going to haunted houses. I have been able to overcome some of these obstacles, however. There was a time when I was unable to work, and now I work three jobs. There was a time when I was unable to do most anything alone, and now I am very independent.

I take bipolar disorder one day at a time. It is easy to get caught up in how difficult it is to deal with on a personal level, and how difficult it must be for the people around me to deal with. But I find that taking things one step at a time is crucial for staying positive and mindful of my wellness. My mom always reminds me, "minute by minute, if you have to."

The stigma surrounding bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses like it make it not only near-taboo, but also difficult for friends, family, and others to understand. So, let's say you know someone living with bipolar disorder or another mental illness. How can you help or understand more fully? Let me give you a few examples:

1. Check in on your person. Oftentimes, it can be difficult to reach out for help, so letting your person know that you are there for them can be just the push they need to start their journey to recovery.

2. Encourage self care. If your person is struggling with their self-worth, it can be hard for them to want to take care of themselves. By encouraging them to practice basic self care, you may be helping to jump start their confidence.

3. Remain calm. I know that seeing someone you care about struggling can be scary and even frustrating. But I promise you, your person is experiencing similar emotions, and while you don't need to walk on eggshells, being gentle and calm can go a long way.

4. Spend time with your person. Mental illness oftentimes means the desire to isolate. This frequently comes from feelings of shame or guilt for "burdening" one's support system. Make sure that when you reach out, you express that your person is important to you, and that you want to spend quality time with them.

5. Listen. So much of the reason people don't want to talk about their mental illnesses is the unsolicited advice they get from people who lack the understanding or expertise necessary to even comment on the situation. Asking about and then actively listening to what your person is going through can go a long way in helping them to trust others, and process what it is they are going through.

6. Do your homework. Let's say that your person has discussed with you what it is they are going through, and you are either confused or put-off by what they are talking about. Aside from asking your person questions about their challenges directly, there are so many valuable resources for mental health education available on the internet, it just makes sense to do a little research.

7. Take care of yourself. One of my favorite phrases is "you can't pour from an empty cup." As important as it may be to you to help your person navigate their difficulties, you need to make sure you are healthy enough to deal with it. And if you're not, that's okay! Just be upfront about it. Something like, "Hey, I hear what you're saying, but I'm really struggling today and I need to take some time for myself. Let's catch up tomorrow!" can go a long way.

My hope is that the stigma surrounding bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses is soon put to rest, as everyone can benefit in one way or another from understanding and openly discussing such difficult topics. While bipolar disorder is a deeply challenging illness, it is not the end of my story. I have decided to take charge of my own care, and now it's just my new normal.


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