Stories of Recovery

Marja's Story

BIPOLAR DISORDER: Living with It - A letter from someone who has been there

To receive a diagnosis of bipolar disorder – also referred to as manic depression – is a difficult pill to swallow. As someone who has lived with this for forty years, I would like to share with you what I have learned and how my quality of life has been affected.

I first became sick when I was nineteen, at a time when medicine had not made the advances it now enjoys. Looking back I can say that, in spite of some severe past difficulties, my life has been full and – for the most part – happy. In my case I wasn’t able to cope with the structure and stress of a traditional full-time job. I chose to freelance as a photographer and writer, which allowed me to work as my health permitted. My friendships, creative activities, and responsibilities in the home and community bring me much joy and satisfaction.

The ease with which you can accept this diagnosis will be determined by how you look at it. The stigma society has towards such disorders makes them appear to be the worst possible thing that can happen to a person. But I don’t believe our problems to be much different from many other chronic conditions, especially not when actively treated. Bipolar disorder is caused by a chemical imbalance. It is a physical problem and has nothing to do with your character or intelligence. The main difference from other illnesses is that it happens to affect the brain and, in turn, how your thought processes work. There is no reason to feel shame.

You need to remember that who you are has not changed; you’re the same person you always were. Where you differ from the average is that you experience a greater fluctuation in your moods. Your highs and lows tend to be extreme, making you ultra-sensitive to the world around you. This can make life difficult and, at times, hard to bear.

Fortunately though, bipolar disorder is treatable. There are many good medications to help stabilize your moods and make them more manageable. Never before has there been as much help available. For most of us it is possible to live a close-to-normal life.

We share this illness with many accomplished people in history: writers Hans Christian Andersen, Mark Twain, and Victor Hugo; U.S president Abraham Lincoln; composer Robert Schumann; actress Patty Duke. Few of us are going to be famous, but it’s comforting to know that this will not have to hold us back from reaching high potentials.

For me, symptoms arise once or twice a year now and I’ve learned much to help me deal with them. The biggest thing that keeps me from coping with an episode is fear or anxiety. My faith in God has been the key to keeping this fear under control. But regardless of your belief, it is important that you trust your doctor, the medications he prescribes, and your own ability to be well. There is much hope today. If you can embrace that hope and believe that you can contribute to the world you live in, your life will have meaning for you and the people around you.

There's no denying that your condition will affect what you can and can’t do, but it won’t necessarily be in a negative way. You may – or may not – be able to have the job or career you were hoping for. Individuals’ abilities to cope vary. But if you’re one of those who aren’t able to follow a traditional life plan, there are alternative avenues that can lead to fulfillment. Living with bipolar disorder is a challenging journey, but it is also one with many possibilities.

I wish you all the best.

Marja Bergen

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