I have lost many years of life because of bipolar disorder. No, I don’t mean that I have a decreased lifespan because of bipolar disorder (although that’s likely true, too). What I mean is that there are years of living that are missing because of bipolar disorder. At 46, I can look back at the decades and see these lost years of life very clearly.

What Are Years Lost to Bipolar?

“Living” is in the eye of the beholder, I guess, but living, to me, is getting out and doing the things you want to do and achieving the things you want to achieve. No time, of course, is perfect. We don’t get everything we want either, but living is the process of going after it.

So, “lost years” are the years when I couldn’t do that. While you can lose years for many reasons, my lost years are the years taken up with illness and illness treatment.

My Teens Lost to Bipolar Disorder

I was undiagnosed and certainly untreated in my teens. They were mostly spent in a horrible spiral of depression, self-harming, and suicidality with occasional pops of the insanity known as hypomania. Other teens were worried about boys (or girls) and what to wear while I was in therapy, trying to survive until I was old enough to leave home. (At the time, it was thought that most of my depression and instability were due to home issues. A mental illness was never considered. While these issues undoubtedly complicated the situation, I suspect I had bipolar disorder back then, too.)

My 20s Lost to Bipolar Disorder

I can say not all my 20s were lost to bipolar disorder. For part of my 20s, I was getting a university degree (although while I was still quite sick). For part of my 20s, I was working at my first tech job. For part of my 20s, I was skydiving, scuba diving, and paragliding.

That is the good news. The bad news is that I also spent time in a psychiatric ward. I also spent part of my 20s suicidal, self-harming, and in a deep depression. Those sorts of states will steal your days, weeks, and months, no matter what. While other young people were out partying with their friends, I was working with huge concerns over the effects that lack of sleep and alcohol would have on my mood.

The 30s Lost to Bipolar Disorder

My 30s were worse. When I was 29, I got a job at a big, fancy tech company in the United States (I’m from Canada). This was the biggest opportunity of my career, so I took it and moved to Washington State. But there was a price to pay for working in such a high-stress environment and in a group where backstabbing and politicking were common pastimes. I ended up having to take time off for short-term disability within six months of joining the company. I then got vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) implantation surgery to treat my treatment-resistant depression. That didn’t work. I went back to work anyway. My time there was very difficult. I dedicated every moment to the job and wore myself out to the point where I needed to lay down on the floor of my office and nap in the afternoons just to keep working.

I got laid off after three years. I tried electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) at that time to try to treat my depression. That didn’t work either. The depression and surrounding drama led to a suicide attempt. Surviving that experience didn’t feel much like “living” either. While other people were getting married and having kids, I was white-knuckling everyday life.

My 40s Lost to Bipolar Disorder

I’m now midway through my 40s, and bipolar disorder just keeps doing its thing – it just keeps consuming my life. There are few options left when it comes to treating my bipolar disorder, and bipolar just keeps chomping down on my daily existence. I spend far too much of my days employing bipolar coping skills and demanding complete control over the thoughts in my brain at all times to keep myself upright. I rarely live at all. While other people have hit the peak of their careers and are settling into long-term relationships, I am unable to climb a career ladder or make the connections that others have had for years.

What I Haven’t Lost to Bipolar Disorder

All of the above is true and horrible. But it’s important to put that into context. In my teens and 20s, I got a bachelor of computer science. I kick-started my career. I flew with the eagles above Venezuela. In my 30s and 40s, I also launched a writing and speaking career. I wrote and published a book. I bought a condo. I testified before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). I built relationships with companies like HealthyPlace and Health Union. I created a podcast. And I accomplished many little daily goals. I didn’t lose my best friends. I didn’t lose my kitties. I didn’t lose my life. These are no small things.

So, while I grievously mourn all the days lost to bipolar disorder and bipolar disorder treatment, there are other things to think about and remember. Context matters. Achievements, however small and unlike my peers’, matter. The people in my life matter. The things that I have held onto matter.

I Will Always Lose Life to Bipolar

What it comes down to is it, no, I don’t have a life like other people. Most of my day is spent dealing with a brain that is trying to kill me. That drastically impacts what I can do in a day. It also drastically impacts how I interact with the world. Those are just facts. I will keep losing parts of my life to bipolar disorder. That is a fact, too.

However, bipolar disorder hasn’t stolen who I am as a human. It hasn’t stolen my gifts. It hasn’t stolen my worth as a person. And while years of my life have been taken by this hell of an illness, I have still eked out a few things in spite of that. That is what I will keep doing. I will keep finding small moments and small ways to really live.

Image by Flickr user Mike Mozart.


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