Living With Bipolar Disorder

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Iman is a photographer who, through her unique process of coaching and photography, can show a woman what other people see when they look at her. She is passionate about teaching other photographers how to live and be a professional and making change in the world. She dreams of changing the way women look at their bodies and how the world defines beauty. She also thinks being an instructor on CreativeLIVE would be incredible. Iman battles Lyme disease and shares her unique view of dreaming while fighting for her health. Her post day is Wednesday. Iman Woods If you aren't sure how to comment on this story, click here.
Living with bipolar disorder. We may look whole on the outside, but we're often trying hard to hold everything in check.

We may look whole on the outside, but we’re often trying hard to hold broken pieces together.

My life-long dream to create change in the world is partially due to something I’ve tried very hard to keep secret.

I toiled over the decision to talk about it here, finally deciding that one more voice against a damaging and often ill-informed stigma could be a tiny ripple in the pond of understanding. At the very least if someone identifies with this and feels less alone I will feel like this blog mattered and was worth the risk. There needs to be more awareness so that people can talk about what it’s like living with bipolar disorder and what it’s like to be around someone with bipolar. Much of this blog will be new to even my closest friends and family.

Since the age of 19 I’ve been living with bipolar disorder.

Bipolar is famous for being a disease that affects creative people. I’ve certainly had a prolific career that fits that aspect of it. I do believe some of my drive to connect with people and create change in the world is due to my experiences with illness. Any illness can severely alter your self-esteem. It makes me more empathetic and able to understand when others struggle.

At age 31 I was diagnosed with chronic Lyme including psychiatric Lyme.

Since I have never completely fit the manual for bipolar and my symptoms have lessened dramatically since starting Lyme treatment I believe (as my Lyme doctor does) that I have psychiatric Lyme. Lyme goes to every part of your body. Brain included. My Lyme has had 20+ years to grow in my system.

I called my doctor and he told me based on my increase of symptoms that I was in a very bad relapse. I’ve been so busy with the move that I started to block out the increased pain. I live with quite a bit of pain daily but feel blessed that I can still walk and function. The relapses usually creep up on me. It’s been very difficult to stick to my diet while traveling. I have to make it more of a priority. The next couple of months are going to be difficult. Relapses usually take me a few months to recover from. I’m trying to count my blessings and not be bitter.

But for the purpose of this blog, I’ve spent the last 13 years with a bipolar diagnosis and terrified that if people knew they would shun me. Or judge me. Or look at my behavior through a lens of misunderstanding and preconceived notions. I even had a publicist warn me that it was professional suicide to admit I had it. Society wants those with pretty much ANY illness to trudge through each day and keep quiet about our symptoms. They want to hear about people with disease as heroes who suffer quietly and triumph. So I did keep quiet.

Living with bipolar disorder. When the pieces start to fall apart we struggle to hold it together.

When the pieces start to fall apart we struggle to hold it together and look “normal”.

One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to file for divorce was because I was afraid I might lose my son just because of the diagnosis. Even though I work very hard to take care of myself. I take my meds. I go to all appointments. I attend therapy. I make sure I’m getting enough sleep. There are heart breaking stories in the news of bipolar mothers harming their children. I can’t comment on the details of each case, but I believe that if the stigma wasn’t so alienating and shaming many of these women would have been able to access adequate help and precious lives might have been saved.

In our society bipolar stigma is best described with a slang phrase: “Don’t be so bipolar.”

“She is crazy! SO bipolar!” “Ugh the weather is so bipolar today.” Our relationship and understanding of bipolar is never from the point of view of the person suffering from bipolar. It’s always from the point of view of how someone bipolar makes someone else FEEL. It is an accusation that the bipolar person is pushing unwanted behavior on someone else. It also takes the classic swings from high to low and dumbs them down into a cliche of dramatic and unwanted behavior. Many of us don’t experience awesome highs and low lows. We struggle with becoming disregulated and treading water during depressed episodes.

I know for a fact that a manic or depressed episode is hard to bear for the non-bipolar person. But I can tell you living with bipolar disorder and feeling your body change during an episode is the epitome of losing control. It’s downright awful.

When you have a mood disorder, you can’t trust your own thoughts and feelings.

Living with bipolar disorder. Everything from our feelings to physical sensations can feel off or wrong.

Everything from our feelings to physical sensations can feel painfully off or wrong.

Things that wouldn’t bother you when you’re stable will seem insurmountable. Imagine suddenly waking up as Dr. Jekyll and realizing how much damage Mr. Hyde created while you didn’t have control of your body.

I recently hurt a loved one during a depressed episode. My worst in a very long time. I said hurtful things that “sorry” can’t take back. No amount of words can take the sting away. But I realized something was off and called my doctor. Then I made sure I was getting extra sleep and doing the things I need to do to nurture myself. After the episode, I’m torn with feelings of knowing how I felt and wishing I could take my behavior back. It plays over and over in my mind as punishment.

This depressed episode made me take a hard look at myself and the relationships I’ve had. I can see that there is something inside ME that has played a part in the end of many relationships I’ve had. I can see there were times that I didn’t foster a healthy relationship… This is hard to admit. It’s hard to look back on your life and realize you weren’t doing your best. It also makes a single person wonder if they are even worthy of a relationship or if it would just be easier to do this alone. Less chance of disappointing myself or my potential partner.

A quick Google search will turn up page after page of people who loved a bipolar person venting about how awful they were.  The descriptions of their former lovers are hateful, frustrated and depressing.

One thing we should delineate between are the people who know they have an illness and refuse to treat it, and those who have it and work around the clock to manage it. There are many of us who monitor our lives, sleep, diet, alcohol, meds and appointments to a degree that another person would find exhausting.

“I’m fine, but I’m bipolar. I’m on seven medications, and I take medication three times a day. This constantly puts me in touch with the illness I have. I’m never quite allowed to be free of that for a day. It’s like being a diabetic.”

Carrie Fisher

This is our burden, this is how we can function in a society that doesn’t understand. Like any disease, we have to work hard to manage our symptoms. And all of my friends that have bipolar keep it a tightly held secret because of common myths about how we are less of a person.

One friend counseled me to warn friends, family and prospective partners what to expect. I would LOVE to do that, but even I have no idea what to expect. That is what is so frustrating. Based on the past here is a description of what it’s like to love me:

If you’re going through something difficult, I will be your biggest cheerleader and advocate. I have empathy for miles. Most of the time I’m rational but when an episode hits, I can be irrational and not even realize it. I love with all my heart. But when that heart gets hurt during an episode, I want to run far far away. I may hurt you in the process of trying to run away. I want to be happy, but sometimes I get depressed. It’s completely chemical and I wish I had control of it. I’m terrified you’ll see what I’m really like and decide you don’t want me in your life. I’m generous to a fault, with my time and photography. But during an episode I can be selfish because I need reassurance. I’m terrible at asking for TLC.

Many people don’t realize that there is a spectrum for bipolar. Some have it more severe, some less. Just because we’re diagnosed with it doesn’t mean you have to be terrified we will some day act like a “bipolar” person from a Lifetime movie.

Another bipolar misconception is that it just affects our mood. When we experience a manic or depressed episode we feel it in our entire bodies. It’s physically painful. I tend to get edgy and can’t handle physical touch. My skin hurts. I have trouble thinking straight and being in crowds is scary. Many years ago when the bipolar was bad (before we found out about the lyme) I couldn’t leave the house.

Despite the fact that this is inside me I refuse to say, “I am bipolar. I am Lyme.” I am not those things. I have them and work hard to manage them. No one says, “I am cancer. I am epilepsy.” 

Many people mistakenly believe that someone with a disorder (depression, bipolar, OCD, ADHD) has the ability to choose to be in a different mood. There are numerous quotes about changing your thought process to be more positive. Can a diabetic choose to have healthy blood sugar? Can a Lyme patient choose to reverse joint damage? I do so much to prevent an episode, but sometimes they come despite my best efforts. Our fearless leader Cath has Hashimotos disease and described it as this:

“How I describe to people what Hashimotos is like (or any disease like this) is what you feel like just as you are coming down with the flu — you feel off but you can’t put your finger on what is the matter until you wake up the next day completely sick and you go, “Oh, that’s what I was feeling.” We feel like that “almost coming down with something” feeling everyday, and just like any virus we are not in control of how it hits us. You can’t change how getting sick feels, you can only support it with rest, liquids etc., but you do not control it.”

Once treatment kicks in, there is such relief. My brain goes from hurting to being able to process information. Then I’m faced with the repercussions of losing control.

I am wracked with guilt and trying not to fall into self-loathing about my recent episode.

Living with bipolar disorder. When things fall apart, we struggle to put all the pieces back and move forward. But the cracks are still there.

When things fall apart, we struggle to put all the pieces back and move forward. But the cracks are still there.

As with all of life, there is importance in trying to repair. I will try to repair this relationship to the best of my ability. If I can’t I won’t be angry, just extremely sad. From now on (starting with this blog) I’ll try to better educate the people in my life to understand that there are times I’m not the confident woman I portray professionally. At those times I need extra understanding and empathy. I may need space. Or I may need to help them accomplish something. Helping loved ones grounds me. Sometimes my limitations make me a terrible friend. This has made me realize that I can’t tell people what I need if I’m keeping this a deep dark secret.

Living with bipolar disorder has affected my professional life. I feel like this episode came about because I’ve pushed myself so hard for so long. I’m balancing being a single mom, just got divorced and moved across the country, I’m trying to run a business, grow my social presence, blog here weekly, deal with Lyme disease and be a source of support for the people that reach out to me privately. In all honesty I’m not doing all of these very well. I have girls ready to book shoots and I haven’t booked them because my studio isn’t unpacked. I haven’t unpacked my studio because I’m weak as hell and will need someone to help me move things around. I need to get my bookkeeping in order. I need to find an assistant. I need to get my son in a good pre-school or daycare.

Part of the reason I’ve pushed myself is this list lives in my head like a blinking neon sign that I’m not up to par. I see contemporaries booking jobs, traveling, photographing beautiful things and I wonder if I will ever be able to do what they do. So I push myself to pretend I don’t have an illness. I have many dreams of ways to help people grow their confidence. But I don’t have the strength or time to put them out into the world.

One friend cautioned me against writing about it for fear of losing custody of my son. And because of stories of mothers losing their children, I strongly considered not writing this blog. But I know that I am a loving mother who puts her child first. I have proven it time and again. And I need to write about this because I know that I’m not alone.

I didn’t choose this. I didn’t choose to be sick. I’m doing my best, but there are times my illness gets the better of me.

One blog won’t change such a widespread stigma.

It will however start conversations. It will make someone who is living with bipolar disorder (we so often forget that these are diseases not behavior choices!) from feeling alone, from feeling damaged. The stigma will never change unless those of us that work to manage these diseases actually speak up.

So. Here I go. I hope you’ll come with me and help turn the tides.

Comment about what it’s like to keep something a secret because you’re ashamed of what people might think. Please share this if you’re silently suffering. Please share this if you love someone who is living with bipolar disorder.

For more information:

8 Ways to Help Your Bipolar Loved One Cope

Helping a Loved One with Bipolar Disorder

Could I Have Bipolar Disorder?

  • Debbie

    You have truly captured the reality of bipolar disorder. I love some one who is bipolar. Yes, his manic and depressive episodes can drive me nuts. But I understand why he has them and I have learned to accept them to the best of my ability.all of his other wonderful qualities far outweigh the ups and downs of being bipolar.
    I too am angry that bipolar is a label that is slapped on so many things. When someone does something bad, the comment becomes”oh they must be bipolar.”that could not be farther from the truth. It does,however, take love, understanding, and empathy to be a good friend or a good spouse or a good parent to someone who deals with bipolar disorder every day of their life.
    Not only and I’m married to someone who is bipolar, I have a friend of 20 years who is bipolar and for many of those years did not realize it, and then I have you. I admire and respect each of the people in my life who are bipolar. Just as they have enriched my life, I know they have enriched the lives of many others.I LOVE THEM just the way they are!

  • Krista Kent

    Iman, thank you SO very much for sharing your story. I too live with bipolar disorder and am also a mother of three beautiful children who keep me alive. In fact, I often tell their dad that if it wasn’t for them I would probably be dead. I applaud you for the courage it took to write such an emotional and honest account of what its like for you living with the illnesses; and I can relate to damn near everything you expressed. For a long time I kept my bipolar disorder a secret for fear of being rejected. But.. this is me. This is who I am. And I am not ashamed of something I did not choose for myself. Bipolar mothers, in my opinion, [as long as bipolar mothers are managing their illness] are DAMN GOOD MOTHERS! We feel more, love harder, empathize, and are aware of things others are not. And you my dear are no different. Love and blessings to you and yours!

    • ImanWoods

      Krista, thank you for reading! I know not every bipolar case is the same, but it’s good to share notes and feel like someone understands. And I fully agree about bipolar mothers in treatment!!! Love and blessings back at you.

  • realmaria

    i love you. you continue to be my hero. you also have given me the courage to write about something i’ve struggled with for many years as well. it’s in the same vein. god and the universe are with you.

    • ImanWoods

      I love YOU Maria! You always write from an open heart. I look forward to reading about how you’ve dealt with your struggle.

  • ImanWoods

    (This is a comment that was emailed to me by another person struggling with bipolar. I felt it added much to the conversation.)

    “But I can tell you living with bipolar disorder and feeling your body change during an episode is the epitome of losing control. It’s downright awful.”

    It’s like the Moro reflex, but for adults, for your MIND. That moment in “The Matrix” where the full impact hits Neo and he’s overwhelmed to the point of being physically ill.

    “When you have a mood disorder, you can’t trust your own thoughts and feelings.”

    Or when you’re completely stable & asymptomatic, others rush to discount your valid thoughts & feelings by chalking it up to having been diagnosed, which is infuriating.

    “Imagine suddenly waking up as Dr. Jekyll and realizing how much damage Mr. Hyde created while you didn’t have control of your body.”

    “Many people don’t realize that there is a spectrum for bipolar. Some have it more severe, some less. Just because we’re diagnosed with it doesn’t mean you have to be terrified we will some day act like a “bipolar” person from a Lifetime movie.”

    I’ve found Lifetime takes generally favor the typical “woman’s” Type II version. Especially if they are related to the mid-trial dramatic reveal of an infanticidal mother having struggled “undiagnosed” for years. How convenient for the accused and decidedly inconvenient for me. Some women have the typical “man’s” Type I you know. Do we hear about that as much? No, because men with Bipolar Type I are extremely productive, brilliant, and probably CEOs. I’ve been told by doctors, “if we could just bottle hypomania, it would be a designer drug, much in the same way Adderal is prized and coveted among non-ADHD college students.”

    Very relatable. I’m lucky to have so many around me who are “trained” to pick up on the subtle changes in increased energy, depletion of social filter (even MORE than usual, lol!) and guide me back. I am genuinely lucky that a single, heavy dose of one particular med serves as a perfect “reset button” so my condition is so well controlled, more often than not, myself and others doubt I even have it. Then yet, it’s so well controlled, a single dose of the wrong decongestant can bring about an episode. I do not miss the Jekyll & Hyde days one bit, nor the medications that went with it. I am sorry you’re going through the uncertainty/not-as-predictable stage again.

  • Kaiya Jasmine Kramer

    Thank you for sharing this. It helps me to read this, as I just had an episode that I deeply regret and guilt trip myself over constantly. It’s so hard to heal from an event, this helps me one step, thank you.

    • ImanWoods

      Kaiya, I’m so sorry. I know how the guilt feels. Sending you hugs and understanding. I catch myself going in circles about moments I could have stopped and I have to try to let it go. I definitely needed a med change so hopefully that will stabilize things. I hope you have a good doctor and support system.

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  • kellyswanson1

    Iman, I share your tears, and your fears, and your heartache. I applaud your courage to open up your heart to strangers. This vulnerability will unlock broken places in other people – even those who don’t suffer the same way as you. One of the things I love most about this country, and I continue to find true over and over the more I visit it – is the amazing compassion of its people. Sure you have your butt holes. But for the most part Americans are a compassionate people. You hurt, and strangers hurt with you. You call out and they answer. You whisper a need and we pray. Continue to share your heart. I have learned that the more I share those things I’m most afraid to share, the more love I receive – not judgment. I’m proud of you. Reach out if you need me. And please stay proactive like you are. I’ve known people who ran into real issues because they felt like they were okay without the medication. You are strong and you are brave. And you are loved more than you know. You are not broken. You are beautiful – and not any “less than” than the rest of us. And knowing you – you will find a way to make this heartache a blessing. You already have. Just by this one post. I will share it now – where I am sure your circle of love will grow. (And on another creative fellow dreamer note – I’m seeing this story of yours somehow being told through the lens of your camera. Not sure what that looks like – but that is the vision appearing in my head. That the two of these things – your bipolar disorder, and your photographs – are related.)

    • ImanWoods

      I’ve wanted so badly to invite you over but this was coming like a tidal wave and for the past six months or so I’ve felt “off”. I’ve been on medication for 13 years. It’s always baffling when what previously worked suddenly needs tweaking. Thank you so much for your words of understanding and encouragement! I actually had a series of self-portraits in mind but I was too sick to finish it before the blog published. Maybe you can help me. ;)

  • I think this is one of the best posts ever written on 8 Women Dream ~Catherine

  • That was so beautiful that I cried. Iman Woods you are my hero today. And you will touch and change so many lives with this one post. I may have more to say later, but I wordless in the face of such writing, such honesty and such love.


    • ImanWoods

      I cried too, Cath. Thank you for creating this space that I could share. I wrote it knowing it would have a home here and know this blog wouldn’t exist without your hard work too. Thank you.

  • Iman – thank you for telling your story for us all to support. Understanding is key. Sharing and knowing how to support the people around us who need it is essential.There are so many stigmas we could all have pinned to us daily. This step of sharing is so heartfelt and appreciated – thank you!

    • ImanWoods

      The links I posted for how to help a loved one both start with education. For yourself and your family. I’ve been doing myself and my loved ones a disservice by pretending I’ve got this totally under control. Step one is done!

  • Christine Bennett

    Dear Iman, thank you for writing this so honestly and bravely. Sharing honestly is a form of “coming out” and that is when the healing starts, I believe. Educating people honestly is so important, it takes away the stigma and fear about things .

    • ImanWoods

      Thank you for reading and commenting, Christine! I truly hope the healing will happen.

  • Guest

    Thank you so much for sharing this Iman. If more people were able to speak up about mental illness, we’d be much better off as a society. There are so many people suffering in shame and isolation, but no one should ever have to be ashamed to say they have a disorder, whether it’s a physical illness or a psychiatric one. I so appreciate you stepping up in the battle against stigma!

    • ImanWoods

      Thank you. Maybe we can change what people don’t understand. But we have to talk about it to understand it, right?

  • Guest

    Iman, I truly admire you for sharing this. It’s also very well written, so informative and real. I, too, have a health condition that few know about. I have just struggled with trying to comfort those who I’ve told, and handling their reactions of horror, pity, and utter disbelief. You’ve inspired me to strongly consider being more public. LIke you, I have vascillated between thinking (and being advised) that keeping it quiet is the best choice, and with believing that just putting it out there would be a service to myself and possibly others.

    • ImanWoods

      I think people WANT to understand better. They’ve been so curious about the Lyme. And I was comfortable talking about it. Then I realized I was still keeping the bipolar a secret and wasn’t helping anyone, including myself. So those looks of horror, pity and utter disbelief might be different if they had more information. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I’m glad this inspired you in some way.