A Day in the Life of Bipolar Disorder

Patient Expert

Today I am restless, moody, bored. I would like to get in the car and head out across the country. I would like to smash something. I would like to crawl out of my skin and into a new life. This is one phase of my bipolar disorder--the restless one. It's the mood that has made me move more than twenty-five times in my life, and has taken me to jobs as disparate as selling vacuum cleaners to teaching creative writing at a university.

Give me a new challenge and I can rise to the occasion with unlimited energy, optimism, and creativity. At Cooper Union art school at nineteen, I took Benzedrine and drank coffee, skinny as a rail, roller-skating on the streets of New York or walking barefoot on hot days to do the gallery scene. I stayed up all night to build sound and light machines, talked endlessly out loud to friends, or to myself--my head filled with infinite solutions to problems from the minute to the monumental.

Then the crash would come, the fall into a gray sticky gum of immobility. Mind shut down, limbs refusing to move, the ennui of nothingness would settle over me. Flat, meaningless existence, hardly bearable. Days, weeks, or months hiding in my room, living out of my bed. No reason in the universe to get out of it.

"You're so changeable," my first husband said to me. Undiagnosed, I thought my mood swings were a character flaw.

I fell in love with him the first time he took me for a ride on the back of his motorcycle. I painted a portrait in oils on his helmet of myself with my mouth open screaming. We were late for our wedding because he was out shooting up heroin.

But I would save him. Saving people is one of my more ambitious projects. It presents a huge challenge, which stimulates my hypomania. Love that high. Plus, I'll get to be the hero, I think. I always identified with male heroes when I was a young girl. I never wanted to be the heroine who had to be saved by the male lead.

But no one really wants you to save them. And I always run out of energy before the job is done. Five years later, I take our nine-month old baby and leave him 3,000 miles behind me. The baby helps me grow up a little, and fortunately, she's a good, happy baby.

The baby is now thirty-nine years old and the mother of my grandchildren. She is not at all like me, thank God, and has lived in the same country house her husband built over twenty years ago.

I was finally diagnosed as bipolar in my late forties when I was going through a hellish menopause. Wow, I thought, this explains so many things, like the two personal bankruptcies I had gone through because of business failures. It wasn't that I didn't know how to run those businesses. I was capable enough, but running a business stimulated my hypomania, and that stimulated my unreasonable optimism and belief that I could do anything. I was capable of seeing only the upside, never the down, and so I was always expanding and adding new products and projects and never put any money away for that rainy day I knew would never come.

The rainy days did come, and with them, deep depressions that drove me to drink and the brink of suicide. Another relationship was destroyed with the failure of the first business. I got lucky with the second one. Maybe because I had helped him take care of his mother when she had Alzheimer's, Adrian stuck with me through the thin bleak times, and our marriage survived.

In the years since my diagnosis, I've gotten help for the bipolar medication, therapy, lifestyle improvements. I understand myself a lot better now, and I work at staying healthy. But I still woke up restless today, looking for a challenge to stimulate the hypomania. Being bipolar is not something you cure and then forget about. You live with it every day of your life.