Bipolar: (My) Duality dance with my devil

By Tina Cole-Mullins Angel n'Hell 

Photo Credit: James Clark-Swalla of DigitalCrumbs: Photography, Media, Art & Design

"You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body." - C.S. Lewis 

My name is Tina, and I am a locally published journalist. I have been a participant in the Heinz C. Prechter longitudinal bipolar studies since 2009, and recipient of the Stockbridge Community News 2021 Readership Award acknowledging my ongoing coverage of mental wellness issues and series 'Faces of Mental Wellness.'

When I first received my diagnosis of bipolar I had an array of natural mixed emotions (not to be confused with bipolar emotions). At the forefront of these feelings relief comes to mind. After all, I first sought help on my own and answers were what I wanted. Although I felt relief it was short-lived; I at least had an “a-ha'' moment and disillusion I would soon be better. This was soon followed by unanswered questions, medications, and then a spiral into confusion as if opening a Pandora's box of unexplained emotions I had never experienced, let alone felt all at once.

My journey into the mental health world did not come on gradually, and I did not appear to have telltale signs growing up, although I should have. I thought I had truly escaped the traumas, grief and tragedies of my past, the alcoholism, addiction and abuse within my family, and my childhood memories, including that of the actual events creating my family's burning legacy, The Burning Bed. That was their story and this is mine.

When I first sought help for myself, I was in my late-20s working in a high-pressure job in education working with ‘At Risk Kids’ while facing multiple situational stressors including marital infidelity and my father's terminal illness. The stress caused me to notice the instability within myself. I sought out a co-worker familiar with the mental health system and asked for his help. 

It was the high-pressure job that gave me the ability to see in myself the issues and have the accessibility to professionals in psychology as co-workers. I know I am truly lucky to have had this support. It was at this time I was diagnosed and began treatment for bipolar disorder and overlapping disorders that tend to go hand in hand, and so the dance began.
When maneuvering through serious chronic illnesses such as bipolar it can be both challenging and also all-consuming; within the chaos of our own mind and emotions we can become imprisoned. Having gone through the inpatient Community Mental Health hospital stays and escaping with my sanity intact literally gave me the will, strength and determination to survive. It is also during this time I became an ‘attempt survivor', a stigma that may forever shadow me, but a darkness I will no longer allow to define me.

The lost years drug out in a haze – With each label came its own little pill; pills to help manage, maintain and enhance my quality of life. Labels – not only that of bipolar NOS, but also borderline personality disorder, PTSD from childhood trauma(s), residual trauma from a teen date rape, grief, generalized anxiety, situational depression, an extreme bout of agoraphobia and tardive dyskinesia from one of the medications.

Time slips away – As another day of nothing comes to mind; as I finally make my way to the bathroom. If not for my therapy appointment within the hour, I would just go back to bed where most of my days were now spent, in a medicated depressive haze. There were occasional bursts of energy, labeled as a manic state in my psychiatric profile along with varying degrees of one or more overlapping diagnoses. I was trapped in a way of life that was once a foreign concept to me – the life of the mentally ill and bipolar world.

At that time my current psychiatrist had told me this was my life now; it would never be like it was before. The sooner I accepted this, the easier it would be. I could not and refused to accept that; there had to be more. My reply, “I am not a numbered patient, I am not a statistic, I am not my diagnosis.” I feel that is why the C.S. Lewis' quote resonates with me so deeply.

This was the point in life when I chose to advocate for myself, and try a new approach to my treatment. My therapist and I had been discussing varying approaches for the past several months. Experience from my past training and work in education had taught me to help create IEP’s (Individualized Education Plans) for kids and I already had various forms of safety plans in place for myself. Why not an ITP? (Individualized Treatment Plan) That was my approach, with the support of my therapist.

One good thing I can say about my Community Mental Health treatment was that my therapist, the one I had at my most unstable period of time, was exceptional. They helped me create my treatment plan, as it was individualized I will not get into all of the specifics, but will say this is when I started my med-free journey and I have stood firm on that through my psychiatric treatment plan although I am labeled non-med compliant as a result. With this individualized alternative approach I was closely monitored by a therapist; tripling up on weekly appointments to monitor my coming off my medications.

I also have to add at this time – I will reference living a psychiatric medication free life.  I absolutely do not advise or encourage this approach. In fact, I recommend the opposite, and I did not impulsively make this decision. I never did the on-again, off-again because I feel better – many have experienced and done this with their medication. This was a one time decision I made and stuck by. Med-free does not mean treatment-free.  In my case it simply means an alternative approach.

It was at this same time in transition that the infidelities of the marriage could no longer be overlooked and my husband asked for a divorce after almost sixteen years together. My mind was clear enough now. I did not fight it and returned to my home state.

Beyond the haze – from 2004 through 2009 – I gained five years of stability while med-free, which was by no means an easy task. I continued to advocate for myself to receive therapy through a personal care provider instead of Community Mental Health. My provider was at the campus of Chelsea Community Hospital,  a therapeutic setting itself. In 2009 I transitioned off disability and returned to the workforce full-time, however this was short lived.

Although my wellness journey began after my divorce in 2004 and just prior to my return home to Hell, Michigan, it was that return to my hometown that really moved me forward. In the comfort of this beautiful scenic hamlet nestled between the acres of lakes near Ann Arbor I truly began healing. Its beauty has always given me grounding and balance, a feeling of being deep within a refuge of my own, and seclusion for healing from so many traumas no child or adult should ever have to experience. 

It was at this time I began to find my footing in the world of mental illness. Although Hell was often a metaphor for both my life and my physical residence, it is where I began finding my own balance in the duality of my two existences of mania and depression. It was also at this time I reconnected with an old friend and support system, a relationship few accepted – let alone understood. The bond was undeniable  and made up not only of love and long-standing friendship but that of co-dependency and a shared trauma bond.

Moving back home also brought to the forefront more extreme symptoms of my other diagnoses of PTSD and borderline personality disorder, both trauma-based and/or caused by environmental issues, easily triggered if not addressed properly and therapeutically.

My intense soul cleansing journey began to manifest within letters to that best friend. Through this not only did the journalistic letters become a coping skill, but also allowed for me to acquire the skill of independence, learn to live single, and discover who I was outside a daughter, girlfriend, wife, mother or mentally ill patient.

But journaling was only one of several skills I had learned to carry in my bag of coping skills. One constant coping skill was in my external support system. One support system I had created for myself in the very early years of my diagnosis involved the internet. Long before support was easily accessible via social media platforms and apps, there was the online AOL mental health support group. This group no longer exists, but many former members have transitioned over into a newer platform where I now host a Mental Wellness blog and offer ongoing daily peer to peer support. Another support group I participate in and find very beneficial and supportive is a nonprofit on Facebook titled Beautiful Purpose: A Bipolar Community

Through my journaling letters and extensive ongoing and long-term therapy I found a cyclic pattern to my bipolar. Symptoms came quarterly as if seasonal in nature, and I still experience the highs and lows of a cycle, but my symptoms were not typical of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder).  In fact, my feelings always gravitated to the exact opposite. On dreary, gray, ominous days I present as more calm, while sunny days tend to irritate me as well as make me more withdrawn into myself. Recently I discovered I am not the only one who experiences this, and in fact it is a reverse occurrence of SAD, according to Dr. Melvin G. Mcinnis and director of the Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Program.

I have gone through many phases of my journey into mental wellness and stability, as if a true dance: one step forward two steps back. After a life-altering dark spell in 2009, I began what I call my reflective phase and marked my introduction into the Heinz C. Prechter longitudinal bipolar study. It was also at this time I had my last evaluation from a private psychiatrist and was told I have the coping skills to manage long-term stability as long as I apply those skills.

One of my first tasks in this new reflective phase was to break the codependent relationship I was in, and remove myself from the toxic environment triggering my lack of stability. In doing this I had to restructure my social circle, cut familial ties, and set and enforce boundaries. This did not make for a pleasant time, but it was crucial.

At that time I once again lost my private healthcare insurance and encountered a conundrum – I was too stable for Community Mental Health without being med-compliant and on a long waiting list for therapy. But both inpatient and Community Mental Health providers confirmed I had achieved manageable stability within my mental health long-term, which is where my conundrum arose.

Managing this stability takes diligence, patience and everyday work as if it were a full time job. I recently learned this from my current therapist and my return to the private sector of therapy I once had. At this time we are treating my anxiety and stressors that create adrenal insufficiency and working on how to regulate and manage day to day stressors and those within my diagnoses most efficiently. 

Many bipolar individuals are prone to have amplified emotions from external stimuli overloading even when not in an episode, and being an HSP (highly sensitive person) adds to that. Being an HSP is not the same as being oversensitive. It feels as if I am constantly on alert unless I filter that external energy and stimuli – I refer to it as ‘observe and reserve’- I now observe my situations and emotions while reserving reactions, use of energy, and judgments on others and myself.

I have achieved a higher functioning level within my bipolar through tremendous effort and self development. I maintain a healthy sleep routine and know when to disconnect from social media and the internet in general. I refuse to engage with the stressors that could upset my balance and well-being. I incorporate day to day reading and mindfulness activities to help manage daily stressors such as anxiety and panic that can limit my productivity. However, this higher level of functioning does not mean I do not struggle within my stability, and through that I have discovered there is strength in vulnerability.

Through my self awareness and strong coping skills learned within CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and the more in-depth scope of DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy) which I am currently taking, I have learned to adjust my skills regularly. I create, build and apply new skills as needed. Wise mind is not always a happy place, but it is a healthy place.

I view my DBT class, skills and support as if it is a 12-Step program and if I don’t work the skills, they work me. I am at a phase of my life where I am taking a moral inventory in this self reflective phase and now find myself at forgiveness and amends, not only with others but myself.

While reflecting and regulating the emotions that have arisen while working on this piece, there is one thing I need to point out. No matter how bad my bad years were, they were just a few years in the scope of my 51 years. No matter how bad my childhood was, many other family members' lives were much worse and still are if they are still alive. I have recently found healing (but not yet closure) in the previous trauma bond relationship even though I have not spoken to the individual in a decade. I am preparing for the day to come, and can now smile on our once happier times.

My husband and I have reconciled, and although we have been divorced for many years we still remain close friends and co-parent our children together, who are now grown and have given us grand-children. My husband thankfully has always been part of my support system, and even in times when he did not or does not know how to support me he has tried and he has always been part of my therapy plans.

Today I have accepted that I am disabled, but I still have a purpose in life. I found it as a volunteer Community Outreach Facilitator and contributing writer for our local paper with my ongoing work in mental wellness. I always refer to mental illness, treatment and stability as individualized. You and I could have the same diagnosis, could be family, been raised in the same home, have taken the same medications, been in the same hospitals –- and still our experiences would be completely different.
Although I have danced with the devil, as if in a decade-long battle for my soul in my own duality, it is in this past year of reflecting and skills learned within my DBT group with a special group of ladies that I have gained a higher level of clarity and growth that, in turn, has left me in a place of healing. My past is my past; I do not live there anymore. I cannot change where I am in life but I can change where I go in life!

Photo Credit: Tina Cole-Mullins

 Disclaimer Authors Note: This piece is not meant to be used in place of professional or medical advice. I reference living a psychiatric life med-free, however I do not encourage this approach; in fact, the exact opposite. Med-free does not mean treatment-free. In my case it simply means an alternative approach.

Finding help: If you feel you need help, please contact:

Crisis Text Line: Text “Start” to 741-741.