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Living in a zigzag

Every morning, as soon as I wake up, I take a pill. At night, right before going to bed, I take three pills. I see my doctor at least once a month (remotely since the start of the pandemic). I watch my diet carefully. My sleeping hours must be uniform, and I cannot take night shifts. One drastic change in my schedule, and my health will suffer.

Every day, I walk on a tightrope. A slight stumble, a moment caught off-balance, and I would find myself in one extreme or another. And yet, I am one of the lucky ones. I can afford treatment.

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I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder in my last year of college. I explained my situation to my psychiatrist and she asked me to draw a line symbolizing my mood for the past six months. I remembered drawing what loosely resembled a zigzag—a series of dips and rises, one after another, each more or less the same length. I’d been down for as long as I’d been up. And so the diagnosis made complete sense. My type of bipolar consisted of “depression”—suicidal thoughts, lack of energy, oversleeping, persistent anxiety, which usually followed periods of “hypomania”—racing thoughts, high levels of excitement, feelings of invincibility, intense productivity, lack of sleep and concentration. Hypomania, in my experience, was more dangerous as I tended to make rash decisions that I would back out of when depression struck, and depression always struck afterward.

Bipolar disorder is an illness, and it can affect just about any aspect of one’s life. During my hypomanic phases, I found myself accepting many projects at once, only to feel drained and exhausted by the end of each day. Worse, I had to quit several jobs early on because I was unable to concentrate, or because depression had already struck by the time I was hired. I would start multiple stories that I never got to finish. I’d be kept awake by ideas racing in my head, and end up disturbing everybody by talking to them about it nonstop. It was so addictive to be upbeat and seemingly happy. At times, I was even tempted to stop taking my night pills to remain hypomanic. It was a terrible mistake since depression came anyway, hitting so hard that I attempted to hurt myself once and was hospitalized as a result.

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Depression was another story. It was always hard to explain this to people who thought it was the same as feeling disappointed over a job rejection or the loss of a friendship. These people believed that depression is something easy to “snap out” of, and that people who attempted to kill themselves are selfish for doing so. I have been called selfish by loved ones because of my illness, but I learned to forgive them over time. It was not their fault that they were not educated about these things. Those suffering from depression or bipolar disorder would actually be led to believe that suicide was a form of selflessness since others would be better off without them.

I thought how lucky “normal” people were for having so much self-worth to find this hard to believe. In truth, it was pathological. I felt that there was no way out and that life no longer held meaning. I did not believe at that point that there was anything good about myself. However, I learned to deal with my condition. The good thing about bipolar disorder is that it is manageable. As long as I stick to my medication, regular sleeping patterns, and therapy, I could live as a productive member of society.

My condition has actually taught me to be more sensitive to others as I am sensitive to my impending highs and lows. When I feel unusually upbeat or excited to take over the world, I remind myself not to accept every offer that comes my way. I resist making life-changing decisions until I’ve calmed down enough. When I sense that I’m about to sink, I reach out. I take mental health breaks, meditate, and write for fun. I avoid heavy media and instead watch slice-of-life anime and Korean dramas. I listen to classical music. I’ve learned to accept that I cannot get rid of my disorder, but I can still live with it and make do.

I am lucky because my family and friends support me. I am fortunate because I am able to afford treatment. My medicine costs a lot, although the expenses are mitigated by my PWD card. Nevertheless, I’ve decided to use my privilege to break the stigma, raise awareness, and help less fortunate people who are suffering from the same condition but are unable to get sufficient help. Mental illness is serious and has damaging effects, and those who have it also deserve fulfilling lives. A little understanding, as well as more affordable treatment, could go a long way.

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Carmel Ilustrisimo, 26, is taking her master’s in creative writing at the University of Santo Tomas. She works as a content writer and English language tutor.

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