The one about bipolar disorder with Tom

As we go through life, we change. We change from kids to obnoxious teenagers, to confused adults, to somewhat stable middle-aged people, and finally to wise and seen-it-all seniors. As we go through these different stages in our lives, we grow as people too. While the physical change of a person is guaranteed, mental growth differs for everyone. Some people repeat the same mistakes over and over again before they learn their lesson and some people fall once, stand back up and carry on. Some people have the world wrapped around their finger and some people have to change to fit in.

When I think about who I was when I met Tom, I quite literally have to cringe. It was 2015 and I had just moved from my home country Lithuania to The Netherlands.

‘’I think if I had to describe you back then, I would say you were just naïve and curious. A bit like a child stepping into the world.’’

And I would have to agree with that. However, that is quite different from the person I am today. Naturally, it has been 7 years and I will probably never be the person I was back then. And that is okay. Change is okay. Changing is okay. Growing up is okay.

Just as I have changed, so has Tom. Over the years I have seen him grow from a very positive, friendly, and quite nerdy guy to someone that is more open, level-headed, and direct. I have seen his hobbies shift from gaming to photography, I have seen his personality change from an introvert to more of an extrovert, and I have seen him travel all around the world, living in different countries, and experiencing different things. And that is the beauty of life. With time and experience, it changes us. And guess what. That is okay.

The world is full of people that are different. Different in the way they dress, the way they talk, the way they think, and the way they change. As people, we are naturally used to relating everything back to ourselves and while sometimes it is hard to relate to someone or understand them, it is important to keep in mind that we all have baggage. Baggage, that affects our decision-making and thought processes. And sometimes that baggage is quite heavy, sometimes it takes the form of a mental health condition and in Tom’s case – bipolar disorder, that develops only later in life, somewhat unprovoked and unannounced.

Q: Some people say that mental health issues are premeditated in our childhood. What are your thoughts on that?

T: There are a lot of mental health issues. Probably more than I can count. Whereas it is true that many of those come from some form of childhood trauma, many others don’t. They can develop over time, be a result of an experience, or simply caused by an actual illness. I think that statement is a simple generalization. We should look at it individually, just like we do with humans.

Q: In your own words, how would you describe having bipolar disorder?

T: Bipolar disorder is difficult to describe. Although there are common symptoms, they can be totally different for everyone. That becomes especially clear when you look at the defined symptoms of the disorder. They are rather generic and could easily be a part of some other mental health issue. For instance, a few symptoms like “speaking fast”, and “feeling restless” which are defined as mania, can also easily be an indicator of another disorder like ADHD. Additionally, the strength of the symptoms can vary quite significantly. Consequently, it is often misdiagnosed.

How does it feel like? Well, I don’t want to make these puns about “ups and downs”, “rollercoasters” or “it is what it is”. But to be honest, that’s how it felt for me so far. Sometimes, you have weak to strong highs of happiness. Sometimes, you have weak to strong downs. Then again, sometimes you are just normal/okay.

My psychiatrist initially diagnosed me with Bipolar 2, which is a weaker version of the disorder. But that is not the end of the line and not an official diagnosis as of yet. Currently, it’s a grey sludge. I couldn’t tell you whether my issue is purely bipolar, a mix, or something totally different. It is a continuous struggle to find out what it actually is. The fact that I am a high-functioning individual doesn’t help either.

Q: At what stage in your life did you realize that you might have this mental health condition? How did you come to this conclusion that something is not right?

From Tom’s personal archive.

T: The realization is still quite fresh. I realized something is wrong pretty soon after I moved back to Berlin. With loads of time by myself I started to reflect more on myself, my emotions, and my behavior. Around April, I made the observation that my mood shifts have become quite apparent and stronger.

I would have phases of pure emptiness and just hate or anger for myself and everyone around me. In these times I would have this strong urge to just run away and completely cut myself off. Then again, there were phases when the numbness just ceased to exist. Suddenly, everything was alright and great. I would be so happy, full of creativity and energy. Even so much, that it got too much.

I know that shifts in mood are totally natural. So, initially, I didn’t do anything. But, after witnessing it a couple of times and feeling that it got stronger, I decided to go to a psychiatrist.

Q: From your own personal experience, what are the highs of bipolar disorder?

T: For me, the highs can range from weaker to very strong. Generally, I would describe it as a phase where you are just next-level happy. Nothing can bring you down. You want to try out things, and you have loads of impulses, ideas, and more. Depending on the person, these could also be things that could be considered harmful, excessive, or just unnatural. This “hyperactive” stage translates into different behaviors.

”For me, it is like a feeling of inner restlessness. It is like you are shaking or trembling on the inside. A feeling of wanting to start running and not stopping. The tremors often also show in my hands or legs.”

I become very fast and impulse-driven, which sometimes results in stupid behavior, comments, clumsiness, and more. At the same time, thousands of thoughts, ideas and impulses shoot into my head. On the one hand that makes me quite creative. On the other hand, it hinders me from focusing. So, I end up planning tons of things and then never following up on them.

Further, I become very confident. At times even arrogant. I would feel like I am the best person in the world and everyone else is just trash. You start to overestimate yourself, which could translate into lots of other things. For me, it is usually driving way too fast and recklessly and spending loads of money on things I don’t need. Sometimes only to brag about it. Call it the asshole side of my mania.

And not to forget the incredible energy I have. Let’s say: I can go without sleep and without a break for some time. There were times when I moved houses twice in a day, built furniture, basically drove around Berlin 5 times, and then went to a dance party until 7 AM. Just to wake up at 11 AM again.

Q: What about the lows?

T: Just like the highs, the lows range from weak to strong as well. Everything is possible, from simply being upset, to numbness all the way up to suicidal thoughts. I don’t think there is much to explain about that. For me, it is mostly this feeling of numbness. Everything suddenly sucks, even if it was fun the day before.

I would have this strong urge to distance myself from everything. Nothing matters and I just wouldn’t care about anything. All I would want to do is lay in bed. I don’t take care of myself, I don’t leave the house, I don’t clean, I don’t eat, and more.

”Imagine it like you are floating underneath the ice. You can see everything on the other side, but you can’t react.”

Sometimes, the low phase distinguishes itself through a feeling of strong sadness. That would translate into emotional and mental breakdowns or anxiety. It would warp my view of myself, my performance, my achievements, and all of that. Although all this could also be linked to a different issue. 

Just like with mania I also have strong impulses during these phases. For instance, I would want to delete all pictures I took on a trip because I didn’t like how I edited one of the pictures. Although these could also be interpreted completely differently.

Q: The most common treatments for bipolar disorder seem to come in form of medication and/or talking therapies. What does your treatment look like?

From Tom’s personal archive.

T: I started a treatment plan with medication. But I quickly stopped taking them again after I felt like I lost my own personality. Lots of my close friends would tell me that I am not the way that I used to be or “should be”. That gave me a lot to think about and I simply stopped taking the medication.

At the moment I am following more of a therapeutic approach to treating the disorder. I try to live a balanced life, with sports, friends, and somewhat healthy food. I am also working to accept myself and my flaws more. Sometimes ignoring or getting rid of it is not the way to go. You have to listen to yourself and find a compromise with your inner voice.

That seems to work quite well, at least for the moment.

Q: Is there a massive difference between Tom on medication and Tom off medication?

T: Yes, there is a massive difference. Tom on medication will stand at the edge of a bridge in the rain and just stare at the water for 15 minutes without saying anything. If he is not sleeping that is. I get much, much calmer and so much slower. It is like Tom, but without spices.

Tom off medication is the typical lunatic that everyone knows. He plasters the wall in his room with terrible start-up ideas, starts painting and building furniture at 3 AM, and screams the Taylor Swift lyrics at the top of his lungs while going 30 over the speed limit.

Q: Romanticization/glamorization of mental health issues on social media (such as influencers creating merch with it etc.). What are your thoughts on that? Does it spread awareness or dismiss it in public light?

T: Sure, it helps to spread awareness in some way. It grabs your attention, and rightfully so. But we can never forget that most attention-grabbing things on social media simply exist for that. They are a way to profile yourself. Get 5 minutes of fame. More and more people are misusing mental health issues in that way. They don’t pay enough attention or don’t care about the actual content, as long as they can make themselves look more important. They want to stand out. After all, social media is just one huge fight for 10 secs of attention.

Currently, I feel like people are pushing the limit on this. It seems as though everyone is a self-proclaimed expert on mental health.

Lots of people are self-diagnosing without properly reflecting on the issue. And step by step people start to perceive social media posts for awareness as a way to garner attention. That takes away credibility from those, who are actually suffering from these issues. They start to look like they only talk about it for attention.

It is actually one of the reasons why I didn’t really want to address it. I was scared people would think that I was just misusing it to get attention. And I was right – to some extent at least. Often you get back these “expert” responses of “everyone has these issues nowadays”, “you read it online and exaggerated it for yourself” or, my personal favorite, “OMG same, I am so moody, I am probably bipolar too”.

Q: What is one thing (or a few things) you wish people knew about what it means to live with bipolar disorder?

T: There are actually a few things:

1.         We are not making it up.

2.         We are not exaggerating.

3.         Sometimes it is not our fault, and we don’t intend to do certain things.

4.         It is more than just being moody.

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