To live with bipolar is to be in the midst of a raging fire of emotions — love, anger, joy and sadness — and not everyone understands the plight of navigating these emotions on a daily basis unless they too are in the storm.
By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti
I was diagnosed with bipolar type II in 2012, this variation is described as a less severe type of disorder that involves depressive and hypomanic episodes. At the time, I was a 22-year-old man in a society that still had little or no understanding of the disorder. In order for me to understand what was happening in my mind, I voluntarily committed myself to a mental facility. After all of the years, floating in a bottomless pool of depression and sadness, I finally had a name for what I was feeling. It was not all an illusion—I was sick. That revelation kick-started my journey of healing my mind and finding new ways of being. However, living with this condition in black society comes with a lot of stigma, stereotypes and misconceptions. Bipolar is still shorthand for, “you’re crazy!”
Accepting the disorder was a battle. I had to work with friends and family to understand my plight so they could know how to support me. This in and of itself was a war. When my family found out about my diagnosis, they did not know how to approach the subject. It was too much to digest, so they pushed it into the closet along with all other family affairs that were too overwhelming to comprehend. Others tried to dispute the diagnosis, claiming the doctors wanted to “chow” the medical aid funds, as usual. This further pushed me into a severe state of isolation.
The shame was eating me from the inside and out, and I had no one to lean on. Black families often shrink or hide in the face of overwhelming emotional issues. Even though they are strong people, they are not equipped with the emotional intelligence to face emotional turmoil. When it comes to any mental health issue, they often enter a freeze or flight mode because we don’t have the necessary tools to understand and offer full support to the one suffering. This further accelerates the feelings of isolation, abandonment, loneliness and sadness. Black people living with bipolar usually don’t have a “safe space” to purge their emotions and often resort to risky and disruptive behaviour to suppress the storm raging inside them.
To put a plaster on the gaping loneliness inside me, I also resorted to disruptive and risky behaviours. I engaged in almost every escapist behaviour, in search of the “feel good” hormones. Like most black men shackled by dark emotions, I drank. I drank every day, and at times, by midday, I would be intoxicated. Even though alcohol gave me a certain level of high, afterwards, I would have to dig myself out of the rubble of emotions. I was also unaware that alcohol was like a magnet for depression. The fleeting moment of escape came with a heavy sentence of a wave of feelings of sadness, guilt and numbness which is really the feeling of being unable to to locate the specific emotion that is pulling your guts.
It took me being committed a few times to grasp that alcohol further compounded my emotional instability. I could no longer self-soothe with alcohol because the consequences were high. Consequently, I moved to food bingeing, self-isolation, and impulsive behaviours: spendthrift, people-pleasing, dangerous activities including walking the streets at midnite and hanging out with the wrong crowds, alongside other activities that are better left unsaid.
While medication and psychotherapy help to alleviate the symptoms of bipolar disorder, they are not a cure. Medication helps manage the emotions and takes the emotional edge off. However, most people who suffer from mental health issues, myself included, have a tumultuous relationship with medication. I have been on and off medication for years for numerous reasons: medication is expensive; mental healthcare is inaccessible in South Africa especially if you are not on medical aid; and medication requires you to make drastic changes to your lifestyle, and it can come with many side effects like weight gain and fatigue. Currently, I am on Lamitor (a mood stabiliser) and Dopaquel (a sleeping tablet). After years of trying to find the perfect treatment, I am happy with the combination, and I can function effectively.
Maintaining treatment is hard, even though it is vital for my mental stability. And the narrative that one should try and avoid medication because doctors are in cahoots or conspiring with pharmaceutical companies for profits does not help. Now I know that my relapses have been due to stopping treatment. And with every relapse, it has taken longer to recover, not to mention the personal relationships that were collateral damage in the process.
It’s imperative for anyone living with bipolar to be on medication, or if they find alternative ways to treat the disorder to do so under the care of a professional mental health practitioner. If left untreated, the emotions spiral out of control and wreak havoc in your life. And often lead to self-harm or, worse, suicide. A few years back, in my most depressive moment, I attempted suicide, but I was fortunate enough not to succeed. The act was not about taking my life but a way to stop the unbearable pain.
Bipolar affects people in so many ways, mostly it affects our emotions and mood. Many people with bipolar disorder have trouble maintaining relationships due to childhood trauma, severe anxiety and depression, and mood swings. I can count many of my relationships, which are either on life support or never survived an episode (acting out). Many people who are in relationships with people with bipolar don’t educate themselves about the disorder, which results in misunderstandings and labelling their loved ones as bad or crazy people.
It’s important to create an environment for a loved one living with bipolar to vent and share their struggles: this can help to educate yourself and to better understand them. This can also help strengthen your relationship. The truth is: people with bipolar have relationship anxieties. Some also suffer from or have traits of borderline personality disorder (BPD).
Being misunderstood can also result in them retreating to themselves, being controlling and manipulative, having anger issues, passive-aggressiveness and codependency. If you are in a relationship with a person living with bipolar, learn about their condition and their triggers. If possible, attend therapy sessions with them. This may clarify some of their actions and help you detect when their acting out is pure bad behaviour or an episode.
People living with bipolar feel things intensely, whether it’s love, anger, joy or sadness. It’s hard for them to control their mood swings which tends to affect their close relationships. I mean, who can ever be able to keep up with someone whose mood can change from loving to anger in just a split second? A relationship is generally hard, but a relationship with a person living with bipolar can be very demanding. I have friends who have walked away because they could not handle the emotional inconsistency. And to be honest, I cannot blame them. People with bipolar can be very toxic and manipulative, especially when they are not on treatment.
However, they can also be very loving and caring. When they are not crippled by relationship anxieties or having an episode, being around them can be a state of ecstasy. When there is a solid foundation of communication and support, this relationship can thrive. Looking back, I wish someone would have told me about the grave effects that this condition has on one’s relationships. Perhaps I could have equipped myself with the necessary tools to save myself from years of heartbreak and abandonment. I could have learned to be more open and vulnerable in relationships, so I could be better understood and loved in the ways that I deserve to be.
There is a lot to say about living with bipolar and most of it cannot fit into one article. But I hope that sharing this portion of living with the disorder can provide a snapshot of the pain we face daily. Perhaps, it could help you better understand your loved one who is suffering in silence or mend a relationship that has been collateral damage to this silent disease.
I hope that this World Bipolar Day, we can start having hard conversations about bipolar, especially in the black community. I dream of the day when people living with the condition are no longer pushed further into obscurity and we find ways of loving and supporting them, even—and especially—when they sometimes make it hard to.
Bipolar doesn’t always have to lead to self-harm or suicide. If we, as a community, play our part and educate ourselves, whether or not affected by the condition, we can build a world where no one has to suffer in silence. I know it’s hard to unlearn what we have absorbed from our environment (society), especially regarding mental illnesses but if we can educate ourselves, we can save so many lives. Most importantly: we can end this cycle of suffering.
Please note: Bipolar symptoms vary from person to person.
To seek professional help contact:
SADAG (The South African Depression and Anxiety Group)
24hr Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0800 12 13 14
Cipla 24hr Mental Health Helpline
0800 456 789
Cipla Whatsapp Chat Line
076 882 2775
Pharmadynamics Police &Trauma Line
0800 20 50 26
Adcock Ingram Depression and Anxiety Helpline
0800 70 80 90
Department of Social Development Substance Abuse Line 24hr helpline
0800 12 13 14
Lifeline – National Counselling
0861 322 322 (24 hours/ 7 days a week)