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Today I have the privilege of sharing the story of Emily’s personal experience with bipolar disorder and psychosis. As I dove into her story, I saw myself in her struggles.
Like Emily, I was always very high functioning, so my doctors misdiagnosed me for years. And just like her, the reason I finally received the correct diagnosis was because I had a manic episode with psychotic features.
Today Emily bravely shares the reality of psychosis. It’s not pretty, but her candidness is important so that others can understand what I believe is the most misunderstood symptom of mental illness.
So, without further ado, let’s look at the world of bipolar disorder and psychosis through Emily’s eyes.
Hello, my name is Emily, and I am, at least I try to be, unabashedly bipolar. Though before I get to the bipolar stuff, I’ll share a bit about me outside of my diagnosis because, though it’s easy for me to get wrapped up in all things mental health related, it’s imperative to remind myself that I am not my diagnosis.
When I’m not writing, I’m painting, and when I’m not doing either, I find myself wishing I were. I absolutely love listening to music. I typically find a song that resonates with my emotions for the day and listen to it on repeat while I paint. Creating and taking long, essential oil-filled baths, are my favorite two favorite forms of self-care.
My family is incredibly important to me. My husband, Mike, and our pup, Georgie, make up our little family unit. I’m also very close with my mother, my two sisters, my sweet nephew, and the rest of my immediate family. Having harmonious relationships with the people I love the most is of utmost importance to me. In fact, when I was at my lowest and couldn’t muster any love for myself, my love for them motivated me to get better.
Identifying a Problem
I went to counseling for six years after an extremely messy breakup led to me having severe anxiety. My heart was constantly pounding, and I was having symptoms of OCD.
My first counselor—and counselors after that—thought I had posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because of traumatic childhood experiences. I worked with those professionals for years attempting to resolve these traumas, and though I saw some improvement in my symptoms, I was still struggling in my daily life.
The problems escalated when the Army scheduled my husband’s brigade to deploy. He then decided to leave the Army after the deployment, and to top it off, I was working in a high-stress environment. All these changes at once, and other life stressors, pushed me over the edge.
Emily’s Early Symptoms
I began to write incessantly. I would wake up and write 20,000-word essays in one morning. I was exercising and painting excessively, I quit my job, and I even became vegan. I was making a lot of big life decisions all at once.
Besides the writing, my behavior wasn’t overly erratic, so my loved ones just chalked it up to stress. So, when my psychosis escalated within a matter of a few days, we were all taken by surprise. Looking back, I realized I had been cycling in and out of depression and mild hypomania for some time before I experienced psychosis.
I always had high-functioning depression. I struggled to exercise, cook meals, and socialize when I was down, but I was otherwise functioning. During my mild hypomania, I would become energized and productive. I would have countless ideas flowing through my mind. I had no awareness that these were fluctuations of my mood. I just thought that was who and how I was.
During my psychosis I experienced a wide range of symptoms, the most vivid being: visual, auditory, and olfactory hallucinations and delusions both grand and persecutory.
During my psychotic episode, especially in moments of distress, I would “become” or at least think I was another person. I thought I was Princess Diana, Malala Yousafzai, a secret Agent, John Lennon, Emily Dickinson, Saraswati (a Hindu Goddess), and Anna Freud, to name a few. I also had the very grand delusion that Pablo Picasso was a time traveling art thief who had actually stolen ideas from my art.
After my hospitalization, my hallucinations returned, but now, I was hallucinating my husband into multiple different Mikes. The Mikes would shift and reappear depending on my mood and his. This was utterly confusing and at one point in time, I completely forgot what my real husband looked like.
My least favorite symptom was the auditory hallucinations. Hearing voices is perhaps the most distressing experience I’ve ever had. The voices mainly happened when I was out shopping. One day we were in Target and I heard voices that seemed to come from the people around me. They were telling me to buy more stuff. Thankfully, I had the sense to do the opposite. I put away everything that I didn’t need. After that, the voices didn’t come back.
I was involuntarily admitted to Holly Hill Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, and they diagnosed me with Bipolar 1 Disorder.
Initially, I was angry, confused, and in complete denial. I had spent years in counseling trying to make sure I didn’t lead a life similar to my father’s. I didn’t fully comprehend then that bipolar disorder, though influenced by the environment, is biological in origin. I had done nothing wrong, but it felt like it for a time.
Eventually, especially once I found the right med-provider who prescribed me medications that worked with my chemistry, I could not only accept but also embrace my diagnosis.
Prior to having my breakdown, I always felt different. I always felt as if something was “wrong” with me. Once I understood I had been living with an untreated mental illness for years, I had so much more compassion and forgiveness for myself.
Having that experience was beyond difficult, but finally having answers has been incredibly empowering.
Emily’s Treatment Protocol
I am currently taking a mood stabilizer in combination with a second generation antipsychotic (SGA). The second generation antipsychotic is a lower dose, so it acts as an antidepressant and mood stabilizer while also augmenting the other mood stabilizer I take.
Besides taking medication (the most important part of my routine), I attend sessions with a counselor who specializes in patients who have bipolar. He uses cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) methods and mindfulness techniques during our sessions.
Beyond medication and counseling, I engage in various self-care activities to boost my mood and give my life a sense of purpose. When I’m not working, I enjoy writing, painting, reading, meditating, and spending time with loved ones.
I recently started attending virtual church meetings held by Unitarian Universalists. I hope that, through this organization, I can meet like-minded individuals and build a personal community while serving my broader community.
Emily’s Life Today
My life has completely changed in one year, and though I am still grappling with those changes, the gratitude I feel in better understanding myself far outweighs the struggle.
I still have days that are up and down, but the range is much more manageable. It helps that I have developed a degree of self-awareness, so I am better able to use coping skills when needed.
It’s a relief to have my moods be relatively stable, but I won’t lie and say I don’t enjoy a mild hypomanic day. The depressed days are the days I dread the most. When I slip into that state, I fear I’ll be stuck there forever. I must constantly remind myself that it will eventually pass.
Beyond that, I would say my greatest struggle is maintaining an optimistic view of the future. As a child, I watched my father cycle in and out of severe manic and depressive episodes his entire life. It’s been almost a year since I experienced a psychosis, and I am terrified of it happening again.
Now I have made peace and can even enjoy a mild hypomanic day, but just a couple months ago, any boost in mood or energy would cause an anxiety attack. Even today, if I remain in a good mood for too long, I cannot enjoy myself. Though I despise the depressed days, they are in a way a bit more comfortable because at least I’m not afraid of becoming manic.
Emily’s Greatest Triumph
My greatest triumph in all of this is starting my blog: Unabashedly Bipolar. I grew up in an area where mental illness was misunderstood. As a child, I recall people laughing about and making fun of people who they called “crazy.”
When I was first diagnosed, one of my biggest fears was someone from my hometown finding out that I had a mental illness. Instead of allowing that fear to fester and control my actions, I made the choice to self-identify. I understand that this isn’t a choice everyone feels they can make, but I am so thankful I could be open about my experience because letting the world know on my own terms was so liberating.
I wish all people could fully comprehend what is feels like to experience psychosis. A lot of the care I received from professionals was insensitive and undignified. I truly believe that if more healthcare professionals had real-life experience with psychosis—and other mental illness symptoms—care for people experiencing a mental health crisis would be dramatically different.
I have always believed that the best way to end the stigma surrounding bipolar disorder—and all mental illness—is by sharing the stories of our real-life experiences.
I believe that when we demystify and humanize mental illness, others see those who live with mental illness as actual people—not just a list of symptoms and misconceptions.
It is natural to be afraid of psychosis because of the stereotypical depictions on the news, television, and movies. Emily’s story is a reminder that bipolar and psychosis are indeed scary propositions, but there is hope for recovery and a bright future.
Emily’s Favorite Resources
For more information on bipolar disorder, read the National Institute of Mental Health’s comprehensive article.
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