Three years ago, I hit financial rock bottom.
Rent was due and, once again, I didn’t have it. I did, however, have three maxed-out credit cards, a negative account balance, and a closet full of useless junk I’d bought during a 2 a.m. online shopping binge a few weeks prior.
I wasn’t financially illiterate. I knew how credit scores can be damaged and interest charges accumulate over time thanks to my mom, a single parent who taught me to prioritize financial independence and frequently references the teachings of financial expert and lesbian style icon Suze Orman.
I fully understood what I was supposed to be doing with my money, and that I didn’t have much of it. As a freelance writer, I don’t make the kind of money to support a fun, quirky shopping addiction a la ”Confessions Of A Shopaholic.” I wasn’t trying to live out a broke-but-fabulous Carrie Bradshaw fantasy, and I was way past the point in my 20s when being broke stops being cute.
My credit tanked as I kept racking up online shopping debt I knew I couldn’t pay off, and I couldn’t stop. I also couldn’t sleep, but I didn’t need to. Sitting in front of my computer all night impulse-buying clothes, shoes, gimmicky skincare products, or a high-end espresso machine gave me an undeniable rush. It didn’t matter what I bought, only that I wanted this stuff because this stuff would make me feel better, and somehow the details of how I would pay for it would all work themselves out.
I felt unstoppable, untouchable, until the rush died down, and I’d crawl into bed for the next five days terrified by the depth of the financial hole I’d dug myself into—an exhausting cycle that started in my early 20s and seemed like it would never end until I ruined myself financially.
Around this time, I started seeing a therapist to help me cope with the constant anxiety of my mounting money problems. I told her about my ongoing financial problems, and the euphoria I sometimes felt that seemed to come in waves before an eventual crash into severe depression that lasted for weeks until the cycle began again. But most of the time I could barely get out of bed.
“The double stigma of struggling with both mental illness and financial instability can feel embarrassing or shameful.”
After a few sessions, she referred me to a psychiatrist who explained that drastic and unpredictable mood shifts like mine—periods of high energy, hyperactivity, and loss of touch followed by depressive episodes—are typically associated with bipolar disorder.
Not only that, but the feelings of impulsivity, restlessness and delusion that often accompany these manic periods can lead some people with bipolar toward risk-taking behaviors like self-harm, unsafe sex, and in some instances, shopping binges and spending sprees. I learned that most people who live with bipolar manage their symptoms through a combination of medication and talk therapy, and fortunately, I was able to start a course of treatment.
Though classic symptoms of a bipolar disorder can include what some people might describe simply as “highs” and “lows,” or what pop culture portrays as a “split personality,” getting a diagnosis and learning to live with these symptoms is much more complex.
Compulsive shopping isn’t typically discussed in relation to bipolar, and “financial destruction” doesn’t typically show up on the lists of common symptoms. However, chronic overspending is fairly common among people living with bipolar disorder, and it can be just as destructive to long-term health and wellbeing as any other behavioral symptom left untreated.
Before I was formally diagnosed, I never suspected I could be experiencing symptoms of bipolar disorder. Instead, I told myself I was just bad with money, bad at relationships, terrible at my job, and that my fluctuating moods were just bad PMS (that somehow lasted for months on end.) I believed recklessness and impulsivity were just part of my personality, rather than a symptom of a common and highly treatable mental illness.
I do occasionally behave in ways that could be described as reckless, impulsive, and financially irresponsible that have nothing to do with having bipolar, but before I sought treatment, these impulses were much more difficult to control.
Bipolar disorder can complicate work, relationships and other aspects of everyday life in a variety of ways, but the financial consequences can be some of the most devastating and most stigmatized.
Living with mental illness of any kind is shockingly expensive. The cost of therapy, medications and missed work days can add up, fueling the cycle of depression and instability. The double stigma of struggling with both mental illness and financial instability can feel embarrassing or shameful.
“I still feel the urge to spend when I’m anxious, stressed, or even feeling exceptionally good, but now those compulsions feel more like background noise I can easily tune out.”
I not only live with a bipolar disorder, which itself is highly stigmatized and stereotyped, I’ve also made some remarkably irresponsible financial decisions that had substantial, long-lasting consequences. Credit and debt can take years to rebuild and pay off, not to mention how long it can take to set aside money for a savings account.
After experimenting with a few different combinations of medication with the help of my psychiatrist, my symptoms are generally under control. I still see my therapist for regular visits to help me cope and stay focused on my progress, financial or otherwise. I still feel the urge to spend when I’m anxious, stressed, or even feeling exceptionally good, but now those compulsions feel more like background noise I can easily tune out. I also deleted the shopping apps from my phone and unsaved my credit card information from the websites I visited regularly, so I’ll be less tempted the next time I hit a rough patch.
I’m steadily making progress toward improving my credit score, paying bills on time, spending far less and adding to my savings. The impact of my mental illness on my financial health security will likely follow me into future financial decisions and possibly my personal relationships, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve struggled with mental illness, or that living with bipolar disorder complicates my financial present and future.
Money talk can be embarrassing, but it also sheds light on the complexities of bipolar beyond a surface-level understanding of “highs” and “lows.” Radical transparency is critical to eliminating shame and stigma surrounding both mental illness and financial instability.