Press "Enter" to skip to content

On bipolar disorder, shame, and self-forgiveness

Image: prettysleepy1 on Pixaby

I have bipolar disorder, but my most difficult moments haven’t been defined by my mood swings. The biological experience of deep depressions and euphoric manias are painful, yet the aftermath of the storm is the hardest part — the shame I feel after a mood episode. Missed deadlines, embarrassingly effusive text messages, and inconsistencies in interpersonal relationships pile up and make me feel as if I have failed as a person.

Brené Brown, a researcher and professor of social work at the University of Houston, describes the difference between shame and guilt in this way:

“Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.”

Shame is deep and dark. It calls me to burrow deeper into my comforter, to draw my blinds and to burn bridges with the best friends I’ve ever had because I don’t want them to see the inside of my mind. I’d rather keep them safe from the dark and loud thoughts in my mind. I oscillate between solitude and desperate bids for connection once I’ve come to my senses and seen the love and pain in my friends’ eyes. I suddenly realize that they didn’t want to be “safe” from me — they wanted to be there for me. But sometimes, it’s too late for that connection. I’ve let shame claim another friendship, another opportunity, another goal.

The biological experiences of bipolar disorder can be treated with a high degree of success by medication. This can be a challenging process, but it is a well-documented one. From rudimentary lithium pills to newer medications like Lamictal, hope is ever-present for leveling out the chemicals of a bipolar brain. In my experience, a pill-and-a-half of Lamictal with my morning tea has made a world of difference.

While psychologists have concocted chemicals to help those with bipolar disorder, the feeling of shame — being inherently flawed as a person — associated with the disorder is far less discussed. Even with medication, therapy, and a commitment to self-growth, the shame of my past experiences with the disorder linger. I brace myself for any event that may disrupt my mental balance enough to send me back to my pre-treatment mood swings.

And those mood swings do occur. After the depression, I look at my messy room and dozens of unread text messages, and after mania, I examine the wild half-finished projects strewn about my space and feel the soreness of my muscles from being awake for 48 consecutive hours. In both circumstances, I regret the things I’ve said to my loved ones. I realize I’ve pushed them away or made grandiose plans I couldn’t keep. I’ve sent various iterations of this text message hundreds of times: “I’m sorry, I love you. I didn’t mean what I said.” I then wonder to myself, “How can I finally get myself together and be a good person? How can I show my loved ones the respect and consistency they deserve?”

And finally, the kicker: “How can I make myself easy to love?” I sit with that gut-punch of a human need to love and be loved, to accept and be accepted.

For so long, I let myself hold on to my darkest moments and regrets as if they were an identity. I invited them to live with me in my everyday life, to haunt me as I’d go about my daily tasks. I realized I needed to take accountability for, and then forgive myself for, the times I hurt others with my own hurting. My personal understanding of trauma is that it is both unintentional and cyclical: as humans, our actions are informed by our own wounds, and they inadvertently wound others in the process. We cycle our traumas to one another in a seemingly endless merry-go-round. My soul yearned for nothing more than to break that cycle. I pictured my future daughter wrapped in my same shame-comforter, and the image saddened me so much that I knew I needed to forgive myself for my past hurt and step out of the darkness of shame. I needed to believe that I was easy to love and worthy of love.

I ruminated on the possibility that, perhaps, I can be worthy of love without being “easy” to love. My visions of an “easy to love” person were that of someone who never seeks excessive emotional support, says things they don’t mean, or worries others with their strong and sometimes frightening emotions. That person isn’t me — at least, not yet. My perception of “easy to love” was unrealistic. I needed to start where I was, and I was in a state of vulnerability and imperfection. But perhaps, if I am willing to commit to managing my illness and minimizing my past harmful behaviors, someone might meet me and love me in the midst of that imperfection.

Bipolar disorder is a genetic condition that runs through my bloodline almost as plainly as my nose or my eyes. It is ancient, and I am not the first — nor will I be the last — person to battle bipolar. Shame will only hold me back. I often recall what a hospital chaplain once said to me: “This is not your fault, but it is your fight.” Bipolar disorder may not be my fault, but I am called to fight it with lifestyle management and self-compassion.

But here’s my honest caveat: I can’t wrap this article up with a bow. I don’t know how I am going to continue my journey of self-forgiveness, only that I need to, and I hope that any reader with bipolar will embark on that journey with me. Perhaps Brown’s words will help again:

“If we are going to find our way out of shame and back to each other, vulnerability is the path and courage is the light. To set down those lists of what we’re supposed to be is brave. To love ourselves and support each other in the process of becoming real is perhaps the greatest single act of daring greatly.”