Iwas diagnosed on the day of university commencement. My mum remembers seeing balloons streaming from the ceiling, celebrating the intake of freshman students. Mere hours before, we had come out of my psychiatrist’s office with a new label—bipolar 2.
Bipolar used to be called manic depression, and my first bout of depression happened when I was 19. During a gap year while studying in China, my moods suddenly became very low. I was losing my appetite, not wanting to get out of bed, and had lots of negative thoughts about myself, including thoughts of suicide.
Up until that point, I had been a successful, well-liked student and a happy church girl. So it took those around me by surprise when things started to unravel.
There were many stressors that could have triggered this first episode. I had expected that my academic achievements would get me into a top university overseas. However, after sending out my applications, I didn’t get any scholarship offers, and was struggling to let go of my overseas university dreams. Meanwhile, my group of close friends had entered university, while I opted for a gap year to serve on a missionary ship, and then a short stint in China. Having spent months away from home on adventures around the world, I was struggling to re-enter my “old life”.
Over time, I became frustrated with my life in China too. While already feeling disconnected from home, I felt I couldn’t speak Chinese well enough to truly express myself, and never found a church I was comfortable with. As depression set in, I condemned myself as a hedonistic sell-out, doing whatever made me feel good, in contrast to my time on the missionary ship where I had tried to put God first.
Deep down, a part of me felt like I couldn’t say something was “wrong”, since everything I had at that point had resulted from my own choices. If anything was wrong, I was to blame. And so, for hours on end, these thoughts would go round and round in my head—
During our Skype calls, my parents began to notice that I often looked confused, shaky, and on edge. My memory became patchy in places, affecting my self-awareness so much that I once walked out of my dorm room forgetting to put shorts on over my leggings. Three months into my study programme, my parents convinced me to fly back to Singapore.
I was initially diagnosed with anxiety and depression. The doctor then put me on anti-depressants, which helped me think more clearly. My memory became less foggy, and even my mood felt less heavy. It was amazing!
But when I went back to the doctor after a couple of weeks, he noticed that I had become very chatty, which was vastly different from how I was on my first visit. This made him suspect that mania was involved (and was triggered by the anti-depressants), so he changed my medication.
I remember Googling “bipolar disorder”, reading words like “debilitating”, “life-long condition”, and quickly closing the page. I didn’t want to read any further.
While it was a relief to be told that there was an explanation, I continued to struggle with thoughts of self-blame and denial. It took a long time before I gave myself permission to understand what my condition entailed.
During the manic period, you can get racing thoughts and grand ideas. You might take uncharacteristic risks or see patterns and connections that no one else does, reinforcing the grand idea that you are a genius.
Once, when I was experiencing hypomania (a muted form of mania), I was convinced I could read French. Another time, I couldn’t sleep and decided to call a friend from Germany in the middle of the night. I told her we were going to start a company, and began detailing my business plan for an international video conference counselling service, targeted at people who had just migrated to new countries.
Being manic can be dangerous because you’re not seeing things the way they really are. One time I started crossing the road on a red man because I was completely caught up in my excited thoughts.
It’s important to note that there are different kinds of bipolar. Everyone’s experience is different, and every personal experience is just as important to understand as the diagnostic label.
Medication in low dosages has been helpful for me. For the first four years, I was on a cocktail of pills that evolved along with my manic and depressive episodes. Sessions in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) also taught me to unearth my subconscious fears (“no one will like me if I’m not successful”).
When I was at my lowest point in China, I had angrily shut God out, because thinking about Him made me feel guilty. Yet I was drawn back to the truths of the Bible. They gave voice to my fear, pain, and sadness, even if I did not like everything I read.
One evening at a Bible study, I remember studying an ancient poem which talked about two groups of people, those God loves versus evildoers (Psalm 36). I was troubled by the poem. From my perspective, the way I sometimes refused to help myself or lashed out at my parents when they were trying to comfort me had made it clear that I wasn’t a good person.
What I understood that night was that the Bible acknowledges that we are many things at the same time. I cannot know what people will see when they look at me, whether perpetrator, victim, guilty, forgiven, sinner, or saint. Yet God promises that when He looks at me, the one label that will cover everything else will be “in Christ”, as I trust Jesus’ death has paid for all my evil deeds and that by His raise-the-dead power I can change.
Where depression threatened to trap me in a negative spiral, Jesus broke through with forgiveness, giving me the freedom to feel God’s love again and to share that love with others.
God also showed me His love in action through people who knew and cared for me. The unfailing love and presence of my parents and the wisdom of my doctor was especially vital to my healing. Even though my friends did not always know what to do or say, they stuck around and were there for me in various ways.
Contrary to the misconception that people diagnosed with mental illnesses are weak or unstable, my day-to-day life is pretty normal as bipolar doesn’t disrupt it all the time. Last year, I had no manic episodes, and the year before that I just had one. I currently see an outpatient psychiatrist every three to six months and am reducing my medications.
By God’s grace I have been able to graduate from university with honours, lead two student groups, play competitive sport, and work in a high-stress corporate job. Even so, these accomplishments don’t define me.