I'm Bipolar. Here's How I Took Back Control Of My Life
Growing up, life always felt like a pressure-cooker. I was stuck in some strange contraption that I didn't understand and couldn't find my way out of. With the lid on tight, I stewed in a suffocating mix of emotions, noisy thoughts, and forceful expectations of how I was supposed to be. The pressure would build; the heat would rise until I exploded in response.
The sensation of being pressurized was constant through my teens and 20s. Big changes in my life—college, my first job, and my first love—all brought on their unique form of stress. My environment and those in it seemed to be in control—I wasn't. I felt like I had no choice to act. I could only respond to these strange, and at times inexplicable, fluctuations in pressure around me. Thus meltdowns and explosions littered my early years, along with the shame and embarrassment that followed them.
Here's one such episode, told just as it happened.
I look down at my khaki pants and white shirt. Sh*t. I hate this outfit. I throw open my closet door and somehow have nothing to wear. The red numbers on my bedside clock catch my attention: 6:48. Shit, shit, shit. I'm going to be late.
My shirt is sticking to my armpits. Oh, gross. I'm already sweating. This is not the way I want to start the first day of my internship. I wail and cover my face with my hands. Tears and sweat mingle in streams down my face.
A hand that seems to belong to someone else rips my shirt off. Buttons fly as another wail pushes its way out of my body. My throat burns as the screams continue. I rake my nails down my arms. Then I see the raised red trails I've made. I curl my hands into fists, and a string of expletives bursts from my mouth.
I wiggle out of the pants and kick them across the room. I am shaking uncontrollably. I slump onto the floor of my closet and curl up into the fetal position.
An image of the hospital where I'm supposed to start work today comes to mind. I have graduated from the student clinic and am starting a real job today. I'm a grown-up. This behavior is unacceptable.
I hear my own voice whisper to me, "No. No more. Get up, Lauren. Get up now."
I breathe deeply, remembering my yoga practice. Breathe in through the nose; breathe out through the mouth. I pull myself up into a sitting position. I continue my deep breathing as my body continues to shake.
I stand up slowly, steadying myself against the wall. I command my body to stop shaking. I can handle this, I tell myself. Just pick something. I reach for my favorite long black skirt and, balancing against the wall, lift one leg at a time to pull it on. I pull out my pink sweater and pull it over my head. My arms quiver a bit as I stretch them into the tight fabric. I slip my feet into my black flats and look at the clock. 6:52. Five minutes wasted on a meltdown. I thought I was done with these.
I head into the kitchen and grab a muffin, my keys, and my bag and head for the door. I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror on the way out the door. My mascara has left black trail marks down my cheeks. My eyes are bloodshot and puffy from crying. I gasp. I haven't seen myself like this in so long.
I do more yoga breathing: in through the nose, out through the mouth. Fill my belly in between. I push the feeling of disgust down and out of my body and mind. It'll be OK, I tell myself. I can wipe the black off my cheeks at the stoplights, and time will diminish the puffiness and redness. No one will know but me.
Living at the boiling point:
The most destructive thing about pressurized living is that you're always at the boiling point. You walk around already simmering in a hot liquid that requires only one thing to go wrong. When it does, the heat gets turned up ever so slightly, and you're cooked.
I know it seems silly to lose your shit over not being able to find the right outfit. But it was the one thing—the last straw, so-to-speak—that turned up the heat on my already simmering stew, and I blew up in response.
The pressure I felt from the environment in that moment was intense. I had been living under the weight of a very demanding graduate school program. I had very little me time, which was my best method for releasing pressure. Without that, I found myself constantly at the boiling point.
There was also a self-induced pressure from my inner expectations. I pushed myself hard. Ever the achiever, I would not settle and was never satisfied. That, when combined with my bipolar disorder's ingrained explosive reactionary patterns and the fact that I wasn't using my coping mechanisms, was a recipe for disaster. I should've seen the meltdown coming.
Moderating the pressure:
Despite all of that, I wouldn't do anything differently. I would not have stopped pushing myself. I would not have accepted the perspective that it is better to stay in your comfort zone than to risk pushing yourself too hard. I believe that leads to a smaller, less satisfying life. It means diminishing your dreams and limiting your self-growth.
Pressure isn't an inherently destructive presence. It becomes toxic if you let it control you. But if you are able to find healthy ways to keep yourself on a low simmer, nothing can keep you from thriving.
Finding your release valve:
The truth is this world is messy and beautiful and upsetting and magical and... We'll have great times and no-so-great times. The pressure will build; our internal heat may rise, but we have a choice in how we respond when it does. Don't seek the absence of pressure, homeostasis, or comfort. Instead, seek the edge between ease and effort—that place where you can handle the challenge but you're still growing.
How do you do that? Take time for you. Handle drama when it comes up—don't let the pressure build until it has no choice but to overflow. Be clear about what you can and cannot do. Turn down requests that are unrealistic, not authentic, or not fun for you. Find your voice in the noise of this world.
This is something I'm still working on, but I'm determined to keep at it. The sense of peace and possibility I've experienced here is worth the effort.