In the words of Aaron Olsen, these are his thoughts and insights on how he's dealt with Bipolar Disorder. All photos taken and edited by Laurence Boswell.
Depression - (Jeremiah 20:18) Depression is such an overused word. It’s invoked to describe everything from bad hair days to breakups. But it is so much more than just feeling sad for a short time.
Depression is a ball and chain locked to your ankles that you have to drag through work, school and social events. It is a leech that sucks the desire and joy from your soul. Depression is a gray, sunless sky that won’t blow away. It is the sensation of constant suffocation without the release of unconsciousness. It is nauseating, exhausting and deadly. Depression is a lot like getting soaked every morning in the clothes I’m wearing. I still have to get up and go to work, go to school, say hello at the party. I’m constantly shivering, and few pay close enough attention to notice, let alone offer me a towel. It is a lonely and embarrassing place to be, but after so many long days that fade into months and years, I’ve gotten used to it.
Depression keeps me away from friends, has forced me to quit school halfway through semesters, has led to unemployment, romantic breakups and the hospital. It's not cute, it's not a phase, and it's very, very real. The average length of my depressive episodes through the years has been somewhere between 4-6 months of daily intrusive thoughts, low mood and very little energy.
Mania - (Proverbs 14:13) Mania is supposed to be the “fun” side of bipolar. It is anything but. Mania is nothing like the media shows it to be. When it hits, I know the next few days are going to be awful. I won’t be able to sleep. I’ll lose my grip on rational, measured thinking and decision making. I’ll start to talk far too much and too fast, stammering over my words and disclosing and saying things I’d never say if I was healthy.
This comes out in a lot of ways. I’ll email famous people, thinking they’ll hire me or strike up a friendship. I’ll buy far too many things, justifying the cost by planning on one of my many business or invention ideas taking off. I’ll start a new hobby or job thinking that I’ll become the world’s greatest talent in a matter of weeks, or that I’ll lead the company by the end of the year. Inevitably, these frantic and jumbled attempts to start some grand adventure fail. The most colorful and vexing examples of my exuberance come out on the field of romance. If I am not careful to control it, I’ll say extremely odd things. I’ll flirt, sometimes inappropriately, without much inhibition. I’ll often disclose far too much too early, giving my history the legendary oratory I feel it deserves. Or I’ll simply panic, mumble and talk to myself loudly, stammer or just flee from the situation entirely.
It’s one thing to be nervous around pretty girls. It’s quite a deal more challenging to contain a sober drunkenness around them at the same time. Mania can be euphoric (lots of energy, lots of activity) or dysphoric (irritability peaks, anger comes fast and hard). A lot of claims are made about creative geniuses who are dead. "They must have had mania because they wrote a symphony in one night!" Yes, I've done that too. But more often than not, I'm stable in my creativity and productivity when I'm stable emotionally. When your brain is firing on all cylinders, full bore for 24 or 48 hours, that leads to all sorts of bad decisions, empty bank accounts, hurt dates and weird things said.
Please don't encourage anyone with mania to go into it. It's more disruptive and overwhelming than anything else.
Psychosis - (D&C 50:23)
Not a lot of people know that bipolar disorder can include delusions and hallucinations. As a teenager, I began to experience intense paranoia. I thought agents of the state were following me, I believed that anchors on television were sending coded messages to me specifically, and I was sure that my peers at school could read my mind if they looked into my eyes. Those are delusions - false beliefs, often paired with extreme fear, with no basis in reality. I also used to hear voices. It started with a few, but eventually whittled down to one angry man. He wanted me to hurt myself, badly. I could hear his yelling just as if he was a person standing next to me, but it was all happening inside my mind.
That was a hallucination - stimulations of the senses that feel real, but are not in response to any actual stimuli, whether visual, aural, tactile or otherwise.
Together or separately, these symptoms constitute a state of psychosis, or being separated from reality. It’s dangerous, debilitating and terrifying. I take medicine that eliminates all of this entirely. This is why I become furious with anyone who is careless enough to suggest medication has no place in treatment, or who look down their nose at me for taking it.
No exercise or diet can stave off something like this. Medicine works, and is vital for me to keep a job, stay in school and function day to day. Since I’ve been treated, I’ve never had to experience the horrors of my high-school years, and if I keep with, never will again.
Suicide - (Job 3:20-22, 7:7) [Trigger Warning - this post contains references to suicide. If you or a loved on are struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or chat with an agent at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/] More frequently than I'd like to admit, intrusive thoughts of death come to my mind. They sound a lot like this:
"If I died tonight, would it really matter? Would anyone miss me, or would the world be better off? Does dying end this nightmare concoction of pain and confusion I have to swim through every day?" "Why can’t I just… go?"
These and worse thoughts plague my mind, frequently. Little else is more jarring than having to sit up straight and smile to coworkers and clients at work while inside I’m cutting down hordes of violent thoughts bent on my destruction. Sometimes a major life frustration will tip the scales from wanting to die to trying to die. At other times, the sheer exhaustion of the emotional toll of my disease will just slowly scratch away my defenses until I simply surrender.
You might think suicide is a selfish act, the collapse of a weak soul too lazy to pick themselves up or too cowardly to face their fears. That has never been my motivation. My will and efforts to die stem from false beliefs, a conviction that I am too much of a pain or burden to people who deserve better, a confidence that leaving this world will brighten it, a faith that I am a monstrous demonic presence leaching love from my sphere of influence and a knowledge that the road ahead will only ever be muddy, arduous uphill terrain.
I try to die when I most feel I am doing a noble service to the world through the act. I try to die when the intoxication of pain and grief convinces me they will never end. What has stopped me in the past? Timely interventions by friends and family. Access to appropriate health care, including medicine and hospitals. And if I’m being honest, limited access to conveniently lethal means, especially firearms.
Sharing this has been terrifying. I don't know what you'll think or feel about me after this. But this is not something unique to me. I really do not want any personal attention from this. I just hope someone out there reading this will know that first, you are not alone in feeling this; second, you are not weak or immoral for feeling suicidal; and third, that there are other ways out. There are better escape hatches from your pain than death. There is hope and sunshine after an attempt, too. And finally, there are plenty of reasons to go on, from family and friends who want to keep you around to precious, joyful, healing moments and memories that do and will come in time. Take it from someone with experience here - suicide is not worth the trouble.
Help - (Ecclesiastes 4:10)
We were never meant to bear our burdens alone. I believe that God has the power to heal. I believe that God watches over us all. And I firmly believe that God is a nimble craftsman, able to rebuild us with any number of instruments. Therapists are one of his sharpest, most agile tools. I have been in therapy, on and off, for years. A few were not well suited to me, and some have told me after meeting for just a few sessions that they could do nothing for me. But those that were well versed in their craft and gave me room to fail and grow… those professionals saved my life, as truly as if they were surgeons replacing my heart or oncologists removing a tumor.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy has brought me to become a better version of myself, as well as equipped me to fend off my nasty thoughts, honestly evaluate where I’m at when my mind wants to lie to me, and taught me how to love myself.
That’s just one of many options. Some versions of therapy are better than others, some therapists may not fit you, but if you’re struggling with darkness and depression I urge you to seek one out. They, in addition to medicine, have made these long years of illness and suffering bearable, and have provided frequent infusions of hope when I could not create it myself.
Life is ultimately a struggle between truth and error. Whether by bullies, detractors, allies or your own mind, the challenge will come to you one day to swallow the lie that all hope is lost.
It is a sadistic and yet tempting thought. It comes in many flavors. From, “I can’t do this.” to “When will this pain end?”, this nagging fear with a thousand faces has the power to drag you to destruction. Don’t let it.
The years grind on. Some weeks and months the grey skies seem to drift on forever. Life has handed me more heartache and misery than I ever deserved, and it will continue to serve to me pain, disappointment and defeat.
But it does not have to beat me. With God’s strength, it won’t. Wherever I wander, no matter how deep I am in the morass of sin and darkness, He is there. He’s in the loving arm of friends and the soothing wisp of summer breeze. He’s in the quiet assurance and reverent stillness scripture study provides. He’s in my heartbeat, my creative spark, my aching, my tears. He’s in His House, always.
He bore the agony. He knows my pain and yours. Come to His House. Come to His peace. He may not release you from the pain, at least not yet. But the same arms that sculpted mountain and sea certainly have the power to lift you out.
I’m grateful He hasn’t given up on me, even in my rebellion, my neglect of His gifts, and my constant, unchanging neediness. I’d like to think He designed my life this way because He knew I’d need Him. Thank you for loving me when I loved no one, including myself. Thank you for your grace.