Writing Out of Madness: Using Writing to Cope with Bipolar Disorder

Star LaBranche

February 2016

By the end of 2007 I was halfway through my senior year of college. I was studying at Mary Baldwin and planning on graduating with an English degree the following May. My world, however, was imploding. At the beginning of the semester I started struggling with mood swings, suicidal ideation, dysphoria, disorientation, memory lapses, and hypersexuality. By the time December rolled around, I had reached my breaking point.

I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I had no idea why I felt the way I did, why I couldn’t just be normal like the other young women who attended my college. I had suffered through depression before and it occurred to me that what I was going through was definitely not depression. I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know if it had a name. But I knew if I didn’t get help, it was going to kill me.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder a few days after I returned home on winter break. I was already overwhelmed with the havoc my undiagnosed disease had caused during the semester. At that time, learning that I had an incurable mental illness and that I was in the middle of a mixed episode rendered me incapable of even pretending to be a human being for several weeks after.

I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know how to react. I ended up doing the only thing I did know how to do, and that was to write.

During the time leading up to my diagnosis I had been writing extensively. As a result of my fragile mental state, my work was erratic, dark, and filled with a suffocating sadness. I had started a semi-autobiographical novel entitled Portrait the previous year that, unknowingly, chronicled several episodes of hypomania and depression I had suffered before getting help.

I wrote poetry about my confusion, memory problems, thoughts of harming myself, and an obsession with a man who I thought could save me from my current situation. This was also the time of Myspace, and I posted blogs in prose which blurred the lines between fiction and nonfiction about events that were happening in my life and my thoughts of hopelessness and despair.

After my diagnosis, I read over some of my old writing. I realized then just how sick I had been and just how many episodes I had been through prior to my diagnosis. As I came to terms with my bipolar disorder and started to adjust to the changes going on in my life, such as taking daily medication and attending regular talking therapy, I continued to write.

Between 2007 and 2008 I wrote more words than I care to count about my bipolar disorder and my struggles with accepting and living with it. I wrote angry poems, I penned desperate prose, I composed macabre short stories, I journaled feelings of isolation and abnormality, and I scrawled thoughts and rhymes onto scraps of paper and hidden pages in notebooks.

Although there was no cure for what I was going through, writing helped me to express the overwhelming crush of feelings and concerns I had. During that time, I struggled to identify my emotions and give form to impressions and fears. For some reason, I felt better when my thoughts were contained on a page. It made me feel calmer, as if they were safer there than in my head.

At the end of 2014, I was in a hypomanic episode, and I fell in love with someone who didn’t fall in love with me. A lot of bipolar individuals feel emotions on a cuttingly different level than neurotypical people. For me, being rejected wasn’t just a simple rejection, it became a life-altering experience. The sting of unrequited love was overwhelming and I felt as if I were drowning in my feelings. So I started writing. Through writing and recording my emotions, I was able to keep my head above water, and the end result was a book called Into Love and Out Again.

The process of writing the book kept me from being overpowered by my soft mania. The book I wrote is a record of my highs and lows, my joy and sorrow, through the entire ordeal. Without the book, my emotions would have had nowhere to go, and my memories would have become distorted through my illness and the passage of time. Writing helped me to not only deal with the pain of rejection and feelings of being unlovable, but it also helped me to look at the situation from different angles.

Because I had acknowledged and written about my feelings so clearly, I was able to realize when my brain was telling me things that weren’t true. My brain would question whether I was worthy of love, and after writing down the feeling, I realized just how distorted it was. Of course I deserved to be loved. Everyone does. Seeing words I had written about myself and the situation I was in helped me to gain perspective and fight negative feelings. It’s a horrible experience to think of yourself as undeserving of love. Writing all of my feelings, the negative and the positive, helped me to reflect and think hard about reality and the effects of my hypomania.

Now I see my writing as a tool to use, not only when I’m getting overwhelmed, but as a daily duty to keep me healthy. Writing helps me to think about my actions, reflect on my feelings, and put my raw emotions into words. Sometimes writing about my bipolar disorder is terrifying. It strips away every pretense of politeness and socially acceptable behavior and delves into the darkness of the human psyche. But doing so is rewarding, not just for myself, but for those around me.

When I started a personal blog, I knew that I wanted to talk about my life with bipolar disorder and openly discuss living with a mental illness. My writing helped to start a dialogue among friends and acquaintances and also inspired others to take charge of their mental health problems. There is still a stigma against bipolar disorder and those who suffer from it, but I find that presenting myself as a fully-realized human being, and not a stereotype in a straightjacket, forces people to reconsider their prejudices.

In the end, my goal in writing is to record the human experience. Every gritty, horrible, beautiful, painful detail of it. This is my experience as a woman with a mental illness. In the depths of my depression and the highs of my mania, my writing records me, causes me to reflect, helps me to learn my brain’s inner workings, and gives me hope that whatever I can put on paper is something I can deal with.

Star LaBrancheComment