I am a 31 year old high school teacher living with bipolar disorder. I was diagnosed at the age of 26, but symptoms were present earlier. It is often the case that bipolar disorder will not surface until late adolescence or early adulthood. Bipolar disorder was formerly known as Manic Depression, but I guess they think bipolar disorder will be less stereotyped.
Five years seems like a long time. I should be able to handle this disease by now, but I’m not. Sometimes the mood changes are rapid cycling, meaning they occur within 24 to 48 hour periods. However, sometimes I’ll be either up or down for months at a time. The up side is called manic and the down is depressive. People ask me sometimes, “Hey, are you going to be at the game next week?” and I won’t have an answer because I can’t tell you whether I will be functional. When I am down, I don’t even want to get out of bed. Paying bills or feeding the dogs becomes a huge task. Eating and showering occur out of necessity and I will go for weeks without going to the grocery store.
Understanding the Disease
Since my diagnosis, I have lost a lot of friends who wouldn’t take the time to understand my disease. When I am down, I disappear. The disease has made my life as a teacher more difficult as well. How do you explain to a room full of hormone-raging teenagers that you have bipolar disorder? Especially when that is an insult they use to call teachers they think are crazy. The stigma of the disease goes that far. Those kids, who may not even be able to spell bipolar disorder, know that it has a bad connotation.
Sometimes I have to miss days just because I can’t go to work. I am physically well, but I can’t go and I can’t explain why I won’t go. This is called mutism and is common among those with the disease. It is the inability to express one’s feelings not because one doesn’t want to, but because they can’t. I don’t call those my sick days; they are my mental health days. When I tell someone that, they really don’t understand the depth of that statement.
The Americans with Disabilities Act
The only thing on my side is the ADA. Those with bipolar disorder are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. After working in the school system for eight years, I finally approached my principal because the disease was causing problems at work. The problems had gone so far that I was nearly fired or at least that’s what I thought because bipolar disorder often makes you very paranoid. It always seemed to me like someone was out to get me. Someone wanted to get me fired. It was all in my head. I see that now. Still, I can’t control it. My principal has been more supportive than I ever could have imagined. I am very thankful for him. My job is a huge trigger in my moods. A trigger is a noticeable event that causes the mood to change suddenly. Many of those with the disease are able to pinpoint their triggers after some time with the disease. I know two of my triggers: my job and money.
I have been on countless different pills of varying shapes, sizes, and colors since I was 22, even though the diagnosis was not until 26. No drug works completely, 100% of the time. I wish I could express that to those closest to me who ask, “Have you been taking your pills?” Can you imagine hearing that every time you are in a bad mood? I went off of my pills once and wanted to kill myself. I ended up in the hospital for several days with a doctor who swore I wasn’t bipolar, but never did tell me what was wrong with me. There are other psychological illnesses that mimic bipolar disorder; however with my family history I believe it to be true. Bipolar disorder is often genetic and my mother and grandfather both had bipolar disorder.
It is hard living with this disease and the stigma attached to it. I hate explaining why I take a handful of pills every night. I will never have children, which is something I want more than anything in the world, because I don’t want to pass on this curse. Bipolar disorder is for life. You don’t get well. You may be stable, but you are never well. It doesn’t just go away.