The Never-ending Amusement Park Ride: How it Feels to Have Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder

Thursday, May 21, 2015 by Meg   •   Filed under Mom Stories/Opinion

In previous posts, I have talked at length about the genetic triggers to Bipolar Disorder, the evolutionary advantage of Bipolar and the link between Bipolar Disorder and creativity. But rapid cycling Bipolar Disorder feels a little different, so I have invited a dear friend of mine to tell you about her experiences with this condition. 

By: Misty Browne

The rapid mood changes associated with Bipolar Disorder are like my favorite carnival ride: the big swinging pirate ship suspended in mid-air. As a young girl I loved the way it felt to be lifted to one side so quickly you hardly had time to catch your breath before you were suddenly swinging back the other way. 

But if I relate this carnival monstrosity to the rapid shifts in mood I experience these days, I imagine myself backing away from the ride. Stumbling over other children and adults, looking for an exit. Fighting the urge to run as fast as I can away from the looming evil in front of me.

But you can’t get away when the monstrosity is inside your head. 

I pride myself on being as what I call high-functioning Bipolar. I have a career as a nurse. I go to work everyday, complete my job tasks in a professional manner, troubleshoot issues with patients and work side-by-side with physicians without anyone having the slightest clue that chemical warfare is being waged inside my brain. The only way most people know that I am even diagnosed with Bipolar II, Depression and Panic Disorder is because I tell them. 

A Day In The Life of Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder

“What if I actually kill myself.” I whispered it quietly to myself one early morning sitting at the desk in the nursing home I was working at. “I’m going crazy.”

Tears stung my eyelids for no discernible reason. Moments ago, I had been laughing with my co-workers. Now I was so sad I could barely fathom the feeling, though I didn’t actually want to die. I looked back at my charting trying to see if something I had read or written had triggered this moment of uncertainty, but nothing. I was just sad. So. Damn. Sad.

It is unnerving to go from happy to crying in a heartbeat. It is difficult for me to explain how it feels to have your emotions be that out of control. 

Most days are great for me: I either wake up depressed or happy. You might think that waking up depressed is shitty in itself. How can I categorize my day as “great” when I’ve woken up depressed? Easy: knowing what kind of frame of mind I’m going to be in for the next sixteen hours is great. It’s very hard to concentrate or focus on the next minute, the next hour of life when I don’t know what emotion I’m going to be feeling. Accepting depression for the day helps immensely. 

It’s the times when I’m smiling and have an upbeat outlook one minute and find myself drowning in despair the next that really screw with me. What’s worse is having no idea where that deep, black loathing for life is coming from. It’s easy to say, “I’m depressed or crying because I just found out my dog died,” or “I’m elated because Publisher’s Clearing House just showed up with balloons and I never have to work again!” What’s not easy is saying, “I have no fucking clue why I’m about to break down even though I was just telling you what a wonderful weekend I had with my son.” All I can say is that I’m rapid cycling, and most people don’t know what that means.

There are the days that I don’t rapid cycle. Those suck too. I gain this false hope that everything is great and that maybe I won’t shift and then suddenly something pulls me to one side or the other and I’ve got my psychiatrist on speed dial. Except I don’t actually call her; I wait until my next appointment because I know what is happening. I may not understand WHY, but I know it’s not life threatening for me, that it will pass and that huge carnival boat ride will be swinging the other way.

So what if I do call her or tell her during my next appointment? 

There’s always another medication I can take. Pills that make me lethargic, void of emotion and passive. I’ve been on them and on those meds I am not high-functioning. I barely function at all. And not functioning is a choice I cannot make. I have a job to do, patients to care for, a child to worry about. 

It’s a tricky thing, these medication choices, these emotional highs and lows. I imagine the war in my brain right this minute, two pirate ships with booming cannons and flags that read: “Depression” and “Happiness.” I can almost hear the narrative in my head:

Depression: BOOM! “Take that! Cry, little girl, cry!”

Happiness: “Oh hell no!” BOOM! “We’re happy, damn it! HAPPY! Laugh! Laugh until you are crying!”

Depression: “Crying? I’ll show you crying!” BOOM! BOOM! BOOM BOOM BOOOOOOOM!”

Does that sound a bit melodramatic? Good. It is. 

Today the battlefield is neutral. There’s a sentry on each side, awake, while the others are sleeping, just watching. Waiting for the time to signal the battle cry. 

Who will win? For me there is no winning or losing. Just a little nap and quiet time between swings of a giant amusement park ride.

Misty Browne is a mother of one who splits her days working full time as a pediatric nurse and sobbing about the fact that her child will soon turn eighteen. You can find her obsessing over goats and fighting to end the stigma of mental illness (not necessarily in that order) on her blog, or on Facebook at Rustic Musings of a Scattered Mind or We're Not Crazy, You're Just Normal

Topic-Relevant Resources

The Bipolar Disorder Survival Guide, Second Edition: What You and Your Family Need to Know
Great resource for understanding and living with Bipolar Disorder.

The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook: Practical DBT Exercises for Learning Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation & ... Tolerance (New Harbinger Self-Help Workbook)
Easy to read and complete worksheets to practice and perfect DBT skills.

Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation
New techniques for mindfully altering the wiring of your own brain, leading to increased happiness.