First Person: Becoming Bipolar

Seth Perry / Photo provided by Perry

I didnt just wake up with bipolar disorder type one. My mental health condition slowly revealed itself over the course of nine years. It is hard to pinpoint when the symptoms began; however, I am certain I noticed something lurking beneath the surface as a teenager. It was obvious to many who loved and cared for me that I had a concurrent disorder. Addiction and bipolar type one combined to make a perilous uphill battle through my twenties. After years of denial and defiance, I embraced the diagnosis my psychiatrist gave me. Here is how it all unfolded.

As I began twelfth grade, recreational drug use, stress at home, academic pressures, and my involvement in an overwhelming number of extracurricular activities all triggered my first episode. The first significant symptom that surfaced was my inability to sleep. The initial sleepless night was merely an inconvenience; by the midpoint of the second night, panic had set in. As I approached the third night, I found myself dreading bedtime. I fell deeper into a mire of delusions. Deeply concerned, mom and dad took me to the doctor, and I was prescribed sleeping pills. Initially, it offered a few hours of very light sleep during the first use, but subsequently, it proved to be ineffective. Without sleep, I continued to spiral out of control.

At that point, I remember embracing the unhinged grandeur, energy, creativity, and sense of authority that mania infused into my life. This stage of an episode is incredibly dangerous. I was not yet debilitated by mania; I was inflated by it. I remember angrily ranting at my parents while they sat frozen on the couch, wondering what to do as they said and did nothing. They had nowhere to reach for help.

I grew up in a family where if you had a fever after school, we had a doctor who made house calls. Now, faced with a mental health crisis, mom and dad were outmatched. My parents had no number to call and no professional to contact to intervene in this crisis.

Watching your son’s involuntary and compulsive behavior take over his life at four a.m. compelled my father to exhaustively research a source for psychiatric intervention.School peers didnt sense much was wrong with me. They seemed to get swept up in the energy, imaginativeness, and excitement of my manic episode. Early stages of mania and teenage angst seamlessly blend together. This is why my teachers didnt even sense that anything was wrong because many assumed I was just another eccentric teen.

In the early hours of the morning, I was making enough noise in my bedroom to wake my father. In that moment, he discovered me in my room, surrounded by scattered sheets of paper covered in scribbles. Surrounded by chaos and incoherency, this moment in my bedroom was a tipping point. Yelling and insomnia could all be rationalized as byproducts of stress. Watching your sons involuntary and compulsive behavior take over his life at four a.m. compelled my father to exhaustively research a source for psychiatric intervention.

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In short order, I was seen by a psychiatrist, given medication to weather the storm, and I began to sleep regularly, and the fog of mania lifted. The psychiatrist was apprehensive to diagnose and treat my condition with mood stabilizers. At the time, the psychiatrist believed that I was too young for diagnosis. My parents were told to watch and wait.

A period of malaise set in. Coming down from a manic episode made me fragile and sensitive to stimulation. I couldnt concentrate in the same way that I used to before my manic episode. I didnt know it at the time, but I would become quite accustomed to the shock and uneasiness of recovering from mania over the coming decade.

As high school came to a close, mania returned. Rather quickly, I wasnt sleeping. I feared what would happen next. My mind couldnt shut off, and nothing that I tried worked. My second manic episode escalated quicker than before. I seemed to be more incoherent, less socially acceptable, noticeably unkempt, and seriously delusional. Three weeks remained in the school year. I stopped attending school and went on sick leave until my graduation day.

Prior to my first two manic episodes, I was a textbook extrovert. After graduation, I hid out at home. I felt like shattered pottery that had been superglued back together. Normally, the summer of senior year would be filled with memories. Unfortunately, I spent most of that summer on the couch watching TV.

Having one manic episode was a fluke. Once mania happened again, I had proven that I was changed forever. With no prospects on the horizon and no direction, I continued to hide at home for an entire year. With a stroke of luck, I applied for admission to one college program, got in, and I moved on with my life and started college.

History repeated itself. After an entire post-secondary career free from manic episodes, the looming pressure of graduating coincided with a major psychiatric break. This episode was frighteningly different. My speech had become so rapid it was impossible for other people to understand what I was saying. My roommate and classmates would go for days wondering where I was. I vividly recall the look of fear on my friends’ faces when they saw me after days of roaming from bars to apartments, to parties, and elsewhere. Without my knowing, they arranged for me to be assessed at the university student health center by a crisis worker. That day I left the campus in an ambulance and was admitted to a psychiatric ward for eight weeks. I was released only a couple of days before my graduation ceremony.

This is the point in the story that I wish I could tell you it got better. Unfortunately, my life became repetitive and progressively worse. Going AWOL with family, friends, employers, and roommates was an annual occurrence. Over the course of five years, I was hospitalized in five psychiatric facilities. Each time I was admitted, my family held on to any sign of improvement with optimism, only to have their hopes smashed within weeks of my discharge.

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The clock is still running on my recovery because I am still putting the pieces back together.Here is how my life finally changed for the better. At age twenty-nine, I was psychiatrically, emotionally, spiritually, and physically wasted. Years of addiction that pushed me to a physical state that made me fear for my life. That was the turning point. After thirteen years of mania and depression, it was my wasted body that forced me to genuinely seek help for the first time. I am fortunate that when I walked into the psychiatric unit in 2010, the treatment worked for the long term.

Concerned parents, loved ones, roommates, siblings, and friends of the dually diagnosed have heard my story and asked the following requisite questions. What made you change? How did you stick with it? Was there anything your family and friends did to get you to keep seeking treatment after hospitalization? I wish there was a silver bullet for treating bipolar disorder, but I have yet to encounter one. From age sixteen to nineteen, I grew into the serious and sometimes terminal diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Since 2010, I have had to grow into the identity of an adult who is living well with bipolar type one in remission. My treatment has been comprehensive, slow moving and has had many components. It is a solution that was tailored to my specific needs by psychiatrists, psychologists, spiritual care practitioners, addictions counselors and support groups. It took time for my mood disorder and addiction to present itself. The clock is still running on my recovery because I am still putting the pieces back together. With confidence, I can assert that there is no singular treatment path that represents the definitive solution for a dual diagnosis. Each individual is unique in living with their own specific set of circumstances. I can say that the valuable tenets of patience, caution, discernment, perseverance, hope, humility, open-mindedness, cooperation, and acceptance will always assist anyone facing a mental health diagnosis or crisis.


Seth Perry (he/him/his), an ELCA Pastor, devotional blogger, and mental health recovery educator, embraces his journey of living well with Bipolar Type 1. He works to reduce stigma where faith, mental health, and personal growth intertwine. Pastor Seth currently serves Elim Lutheran Church in Scandia, MN. His website is: www.giveupthestigma.com.

Last Updated on December 13, 2023

4 comments

    • Seth Perry says:

      David, thank you for your comment. It’s great to hear from you again. I appreciate you taking the time to read the article. It’s nice to see you’ve migrated from Facebook to the article platform. Thanks for clicking the link I shared.

      As for my love for late-night cinnamon toast, it originated from the psych ward, believe it or not. I could probably compile a psych ward cookbook with all the snacks I made during the mid to late 2000s. There were triple-decker peanut butter and banana sandwiches, frozen yogurt crafted from yogurt cups, and, of course, the classic late-night cinnamon toast that we used to share. Interestingly, some folks even opted for cinnamon milk in lieu of chocolate milk (not my style).

      Your ongoing support means a lot. I’m always grateful for your readership and your thoughtful comments on my blog.

      Warm regards,
      Seth

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