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How I Learned to Manage Bipolar Disorder

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Five years ago I was going into the second year of my undergrad at the University of Guelph. The semester was going well. I was living with friends and dating a lovely girl. I was very studious and rarely partying.

A month into the semester my mood elevated. It was Halloween night, and I joined my roommates downstairs as they came home from the bar. Sitting with them, an odd question popped into my head. I hesitated at first, but eventually asked my friends, "How would you define a utopian world?"

I became obsessed with figuring out a framework for defining a utopian world and a strategy to achieve this quickly. I didn't sleep that night and had heightened energy levels the following day. That same day, my girlfriend broke up with me. This didn't help my state of mind. My first manic episode was brewing in my brain. Having no previous knowledge about mania, I thought this ecstatic mood was natural and healthy.

I stayed awake for three consecutive days and my appetite drastically decreased. My manic state of mind thought my body had become more efficient. In reality, I was euphoric and delusional. My racing thoughts and flight of ideas had me convinced that I had found a solution to wealth inequality; I stopped attending lectures. I knew I couldn't tell anyone that I felt like a god.

Luckily, a friend knew something wasn't right and called my mom, a psychiatrist, who knew what was happening right away. My parents picked me up from Guelph and brought me to Sunnybrook hospital in Toronto. I was presenting nearly all the criteria of a manic episode, so it was easy for the doctors to diagnose me bipolar. They admitted me, stating I was a threat to myself. My liberty was taken away.

I spent 30 days in the hospital. Initially I refused to take any medication, as I believed it would bring me down. The peak of my mania had passed after a week in the hospital, so I caved and started to take mood stabilizers to help manage the mania. I started to lose the euphoria. The effects of the medication were kicking in, and I felt my brain activity slowing down.

I was detached from society. I had no phone. No Internet. The common portrayal in movies of patients pacing in hospital hallways became real. There is normally nowhere to exercise so we pace to be active.

Being released from the hospital was difficult. The medications were dulling my mind and physically slowing me down. I was walking, talking and thinking slower. The doctors advised me that there were three primary things to focus on in order to recover: 1) take my medication, 2) sleep well, and 3) exercise consistently. I was told it would take months to fully recover.

Against doctor recommendations, I tried to go back to school. In under a month my mental state left me bedridden, and I stopped attending classes. Thankfully my parents had always understood what I was dealing with, which made it easier to call them after not leaving my house for a week. They brought me home. I had no drive, no hope, and nothing to look forward to. I didn't want to see anyone because I felt I had nothing valuable to say. I was hollow inside; I was emotionally numb.

My dad, a very persistent man, would urge me every day to be physically active. For weeks the lethargy led me to decline. One evening I heard my mom sobbing in the dining room. I knew it was because of me; this was my tipping point. I had to start doing what was best for me.

It started out slow, but eventually I got into the habit of going to the gym and eating well. I would work out three to four times per week and spend hours researching diets and workout routines. I wanted to lose the 20 pounds I had put on from excessive eating during this depression; I had a goal. More and more it kept my mind off the negative thoughts throughout each day. I finally started feeling better.

Summertime came, and I vaguely remember the first times I felt happy again. It had been a long time since I had cracked a genuine smile. The semester was over and my friends were back from university, so I was feeling ready to hang out with them.

In the range of highs and lows I had experienced, it was hard for me to realize that my mood was starting to rise above a stable level. I was spending lots of time with friends, sleeping less and loving life. My mood was elevated, but I was still relatively stable. One night I forgot to take my medication and woke up with more energy than normal. Without letting anyone know, I began reducing the amount of medication I was taking. Over the next two weeks my mood continued to elevate. I socially isolated myself and was no longer physically active. I stopped the three things my doctor had suggested for recovery. Eventually I stopped taking my medication completely.

My family was worried; they didn't know how to get me to take the medication. They felt helpless. My parents and doctor suggested I bring myself to the hospital for a few days to help stabilize my mood. At the time, I felt they didn't understand what I was dealing with. I brought myself to the hospital with the intent to get my "green card" -- instead, I was put on another form and lost my liberty once again. I was rejecting advice from professionals keeping me there for another month. When I was released, I was still rejecting the advice the doctors had given me. I quickly stopped taking my medication and, for three months, I experienced an unstable, elevated mood.

Eventually my mood dropped, and my second depression hit. At this point I decided that it was time to take my mental vitality seriously. I went back on the medication and started going to the gym again. I knew that if I consistently did what was best for my health, even in the hardest times, I would pull through. Within a month of the start of the depression I was stable and back in school. After six months of staying stable, I worked with my doctor to slowly come off the medication.

Since recovering from my second hospitalization/depression I've had the most fulfilling three years of my life. I have a good group of friends, I paddle on my university's dragon-boat team, and I've done well academically. I incorporated the idea that stemmed from my first manic episode, addressing wealth inequality, into an undergrad thesis in economics titled "A Framework For A Digital Economy For Social Good." I found a passion for technology and a drive to make the world a better place. Most importantly, I'm loving life, stably.

Being very aware of how everything I did impacted my mood greatly and helped me recover. My level of self-awareness has increased immensely. Every day I introspect the six areas that impact my mood the most: sleep, physical activity, socialization, inputs (nutrition, medication, alcohol, etc.), and where I spend my time and money. By taking a few minutes to myself to be mindful and reflect every day allows me to check in with my well-being and adjust my behavior.

Currently, I work out five times a week, eat healthy, drink no more than three caffeinated beverages a week for better sleep, ensure that I get approximately seven hours of sleep a night, and spend time on things I'm passionate about.

While I did work with my doctor to come off all daily medication, I do take some on an as-needed-basis when I notice my mood shifting. My ability to successfully stay stable has relied on me being self-aware of my mood and alter my daily decisions accordingly.

I wish I had known more about bipolar before having to experience it firsthand. If five years ago I had my current knowledge about how to manage my mental well-being and an understanding of what bipolar is, I believe that I would have acknowledged what was happening before I reached a manic state and had to be hospitalized.

To help others improve self-awareness and mental vitality, I have built a micro journaling app called Stigma you can download it here. I've been using it daily for over six months and there are thousands of others that have joined me. I am also creating a website sharing individual's success stories around mental health issues for educational and inspirational purposes. My hope is to help people become more self-aware, reflect often, and reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues.