I often read that bipolar disorder is like riding a "roller-coaster" with the unusual shifts in mood, and the highs and lows that one experiences. I agree with this sentiment wholeheartedly, but I also feel that living with bipolar disorder, and experiencing full-blown mania in particular, is more like a mixture between a severe tornado and a horrifying nightmare. Of course, what goes up must come down, and full-blown mania is almost always followed by severe depression.
When I was younger and newly diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I used to chase the high of mania, for it was better than any natural or synthetic high that I had experienced, and by a long shot. Mania would always lead me On the Road with Jack Kerouac or drifting and dreaming down a long and convoluted trail leading to the epicenter of the counterculture world. Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise were my trip advisors; at least until I figured out that their real lives did not end so well.
Mania and hypomania (a milder form of mania) can be so subtle and seductive at the very onset, and way beyond cunning and baffling, that it can be easy to miss warning signs, early symptoms, and red flags that can help to avoid a serious episode from taking place, even when you are taking a daily inventory. This doesn’t mean that a full-blown manic episode can’t be averted because it can, if one is really tuned into how they are feeling mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Preventative measures can go a long way on the road to recovery, but with mood disorders like bipolar disorder, relapses can be common despite having, and following a recovery action plan. There are also several different types of bipolar disorder including bipolar I disorder, bipolar II disorder, cyclothymic disorder, mixed features, and rapid-cycling. It can be said that people living with bipolar disorder are on a spectrum, where symptoms and severity of one’s condition, can look very different from person to person and can range from mild to wild.
I used to equate mania with the thrill of a lifetime, the ultimate rush, a ball of excitement and wonder, and an endless well of creativity and light. After living with bipolar disorder for nearly two decades I can assure you that the destructive nature of mania almost always leads to complete and utter darkness, never failing to end with a crash and burn. I was once again reminded of this bleak truth when I stumbled and fell this past January and was admitted to the inpatient psychiatric unit at Yale New Haven Hospital (New Haven, CT).
Each and every episode that I have undergone has offered me a lesson to learn from and this episode was no different. I have never played the "poor me" or "why me" card, but I am faced today with a harsh reality. I am still experiencing certain symptoms and continue to engage in certain old behavior patterns that I need to address, face, and change or else?
I have been changing on a continuous basis over the years, but there are specific areas in my life and in my recovery, that have remained relatively static despite my best efforts and progresses made. In other words, there are a few things that I have narrowed in on that I can be doing better with regarding my mental wellness.
The crazy thing about this is that these certain issues are relatively basic when spoken about but much more complicated when addressed head on. Some might say, "Well, just don’t do that anymore?" The truth is it is that simple, but it’s also just not that simple, and therein lies the problem. My experience with bipolar disorder is now layered over almost twenty years of deep and heavy events, bizarre states of mind, and unthinkable circumstances. The negative consequences that I am facing as a result, without complete change, include loss of marriage, children, home, career, and everything else that I love in my life - a tragedy that I do not welcome.
So where does this leave me? My current lot places me in a position where there are only a few decisions to be made. One decision leads me to despair and the other leads me to triumph. So how have I made it thus far after multiple, multiple hospitalizations around the country; enduring four point restraints; handcuffs in the back of police cars; and ambulance rides to countless emergency rooms? How have I survived a condition that takes so many lives by suicide and accidental death? How do I continue to stand back up after going through the emotional wringer for the thousandth time?
The foundation of this answer is based on resiliency and the fact that I have chosen to not give up. Just as much as my personality feeds my mania when I am in the midst of an episode, it also feeds my recovery.
Twenty-five years ago on March 3, 1993, a seed was planted in my mind as I watched Jimmy Valvano receive the Arthur Ashe Award during the inaugural ESPY Awards. I was 14-years-old and my dream at the time was to play college basketball. Jimmy Valvano was most well known for winning the NCAA National title in 1983 while coaching the North Carolina State University Men’s Basketball Team, and for going on to become a sports broadcaster.
Jimmy V. delivered a speech that touched millions of lives and changed the course of cancer treatment forever. This speech moved me to tears as a teenager and continues to do so every time I watch this special video. Coach Valvano’s inspiring message, as he stood on stage with cancerous tumors throughout his body, was the following: "Don’t give up…don’t ever give up." Jimmy Valvano died less than two months after giving this memorable speech.
My life back then looked very different from the way it looks today. When I was 14-years-old, I didn’t know anyone close to me living cancer. Years later, my grandmother and uncle would die from cancer, and my mother and several other relatives would become cancer survivors. So the take home message from Jimmy V’s timeless speech followed me, on and off the basketball court, and into high school and college. My mantra, as an adolescent and as a young adult became, "Don’t give up…don’t ever give up."
This mantra would take on an entirely different meaning during the beginning of my senior year of college as I was recovering from my first manic episode. I knew that I had experienced a life-changing event by the end of my first inpatient hospitalization, but I had no inkling how bipolar disorder was going to turn my world upside down.
Jimmy Valvano’s words, spirit, and memory have helped me all along my journey over the past eighteen years, and in ways that were unforeseen as a younger version of myself. If you have never seen Jimmy Valvano’s ESPY AWARD speech from 1993, or if it has been awhile, please check it out below. Your life may change as a result. Thank you, Jimmy V!