Experiencing the Roller Coaster of Bipolar

I’m going to start this post out by confessing something… I LOVE roller coasters. My favorites are the ones that zoom around with twists and turns and maybe a couple loops. I am not a fan, however, of the ones that launch you in the air like a rocket and then drop you just as fast.  Those are just too much for me. Why does this little fact matter? Well, one of the most common analogies for bipolar disorder is a roller coaster ride.  As always with mental illnesses, not all will find this accurate, but for me it works pretty well. Let me explain why.

At the Station

Imagine “normal” is the station.  This is life as lived by those who don’t suffer from chronic mental illnesses. Here you wait in line for the ride.  For some people, those who don’t relapse very often, the line can be incredibly long.  You watch a video on your phone, chat with your friends, watch the clouds go by, just generally enjoy life while you wait. Maybe sometimes it’s boring, but it’s steady and predictable.

For those of us with bipolar, and especially those that relapse more frequently, the line is shorter. We may still get time to chat with friends, enjoy some time to relax, but it’s not a long wait.  Far too soon, we’re sitting in our car, strapping in, and climbing that hill.

desert mountain roller coasterThe Climb

Depending on your view of roller coasters, this can be the best part of the ride.  It’s the anticipation of the thrills to come. You’re slowly inching your way up, waiting for that thrilling moment when your stomach drops and you’re speeding off. When you hit the top and the train stops for a second, you hold your breath, and then whoosh! You’re off, and screaming and laughing with glee.

For others, say the friend that was coerced into climbing aboard or the kid that was goaded into it because they didn’t want to look weak, that climb is horrifying. Each click of the car ratchets the fear up one little notch until suddenly, you’re at the top and time stops for just a breath. You exhale. You pray.

You crash. It’s the inevitability of the up, that there will always be a down.

There are different ways to look at this stage through the lens of bipolar. The climb is the elevation of your mood.  It’s slow, sometimes too subtle to notice, but it’s there. Eventually, you peak at the top. You are above everything, looking out to see the beauty of the world and you know you can do absolutely anything. This is the mania. This is the point at which most people with bipolar tend to do the most damage to those around them. When you’re on top of the world, anything is possible, even if it really shouldn’t be.

at the top of the roller coasterOr maybe that climb up means you slowly grow happier and more engaged. Maybe you’re finally getting things done. Maybe you’re chasing dreams, and it’s amazing until that moment when you reach the top. And then…reality sets in, and you realize why you’ve been feeling so good. You realize what’s about to happen. Everything is about to fall apart. That’s what it is for me when I’m in a hypomanic state. I don’t typically realize it’s happening until I hit the top and see the inevitable fall before me.

One Wild Ride

A common theme you’ll hear from those of us with bipolar is that with every up, there comes a down. Our manic, or hypomanic, episodes tend to be followed with a swift and brutal depression.  Everything becomes harder. It’s like the pressure you feel as you’re whipped around that coaster right, forcing your head back into the seat and causing you to hold on desperately to the car. If you’re at all nervous about that roller coaster, chances are this is the time when you pray that your restraint holds, and you envision all the terrible ways you are about to die.

Yeah, let’s be honest.  That’s a pretty literal translation of what it’s like to experience bipolar depression.  You’re just holding on, praying that you stay safe, and envisioning all the ways that you won’t. It’s terrifying.

Returning to the Station

Eventually, though, things stabilize again.  Your train car pulls in to the station, and you get off the ride. You can finally relax, unclench your fists, take a deep breath, and walk away. At least, you can in a real roller coaster.

For me, though, that exit leads straight into the entrance and I’m forced back in the line. With proper medication, therapy, and support, I might end up with a long wait before I get on the roller coaster again. But no matter what, I will eventually be forced on it again.

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