The Bipolar Roller Coaster

Whenever I hear this Katy Perry song on the radio I cringe because of this lyric… “Someone call the doctor, got a case of love bipolar, stuck on a roller coaster, and I can’t get off this ride…” http://www.katyperry.com/songs/hot-n-cold-2/

While I hate the reference and the message – I actually find a lot of truth in the roller coaster analogy. I was diagnosed with BP Type II in my early college years after being unsuccessfully treated for depression. My symptoms started in middle school but I didn’t know they were part of a medical condition until I started studying psychology and put the pieces together.

Bipolar II still involves the highs and lows that people think of when they hear the name, but the “highs” only reach what’s called hypomania rather than full mania. Hypomania includes the mood elevation, irritability, insomnia, and hyperactivity, but it doesn’t include extreme recklessness or psychosis that can happen in full mania.

So what does bipolar disorder look like for me? I think it is so critical to acknowledge and appreciate that symptoms vary greatly from person-to-person. This is just my personal experience.

The Lows

The reason I identify with the roller coaster analogy is that any given day I will wake up and know immediately if the day is going to be really challenging (on the downward spiral of the track) or if it’s going to be o.k. (headed up on the track) or it’s going to be a good day (at the top!). If I’m having an “off” day I’ll wake up and know it. I’m tired, foggy, and my head is swirling with negative thoughts. I feel down and just getting going feels insurmountable. I’m usually anxious, which makes me feel nauseous and I don’t feel like eating. For me, the lows are more frequent – depression is the major battle.

The “Highs”

Hypomania is the “high” point of the roller coaster. The media and TV shows like to depict it as an exhilarating high with grandiose thoughts and ideas but my version isn’t as much fun. Mania for me is extreme irritability, both with myself and everyone around me. I’m literally frustrated with everyone for no apparent reason. I have energy but not the good kind – it’s anxious, my thoughts are rapid and my speech can be as well, and I often battle insomnia during this time. If I’m coming out of a depression, I sometimes swing into mania but sometimes not.

In the Middle

My “peak of the coaster” good days are when I feel balanced and hopeful, stop and enjoy things, feel social and have energy and motivation to tackle whatever comes my way. I tend to cycle through these different phases every couple of weeks but sometimes there are longer stretches without mania.

Maintaining Wellness

I like to explain to people that having a chronic mental health condition is like having another full-time job because of all the day-to-day work it takes to function. There’s the daily management of moods and expectations. There’s the relationship work, because when I’m not mentally well, I don’t have the energy for relationships but know I need to maintain them. I need to do research on tools and resources, constant mental check-in’s (and second guessing decisions), and a real effort at mindfulness because my brain is always working in the past or in the future.

And then of course the medication – taking it exactly at the right intervals so I don’t fall off track. The medication I use has some side effects, like dehydration, dizziness, tremors, nausea, and memory loss. Oh, and they’re ruining my kidneys – or so I’m told and get blood taken regularly to monitor this.

Moving Forward, Looking Back

My condition is for life and I know that. Sometimes I am o.k. with it, but other times I feel frustrated by it. I realize I’m not making all of this sound very glamorous. Well, it’s not, but it also isn’t a reason to give up.

Before I sought treatment, I did contemplate suicide and came very close. Now, after almost 20 years, I can see how life is different with treatment, a support system, and a LOT of work.

It’s all worth it. I feel blessed to have found what works for me and most importantly to be surrounded by family & friends that love and care about me.

Amanda Kearney-Smith

I founded the Network as the Executive Director in 2011 and, before that, I was a program director at Mental Health Colorado. My educational background is in Developmental Psychology, but living with bipolar disorder has drawn me to this work. I'm most passionate about protecting the civil rights and dignity of others. In my free time, I love reading, practicing yoga, and spending time with my family here and in Illinois.

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