What It’s Like To Go Through A Depressive Episode When You Have Bipolar Disorder

ByAJ Mendez
Cathy and David Photography/Courtesy of AJ Mendez

In this op-ed, AJ Mendez, New York Times bestselling author, mental health advocate, and former wrestling champion, explains what it's like for her to go through a depressive episode as someone who lives with bipolar disorder.

It’s almost noon on a weekday, and I’ve just woken up. I’ve overslept, but somehow I still feel restless. As my eyes adjust to the afternoon sun, I realize this will probably be the happiest moment of my day. In a flash, I am fully aware that I’m in a depressive state, again. A ton of invisible bricks drops onto my chest and the air leaves my body.

It’s been about a decade since I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder — bipolar II to be exact — a type of mental illness characterized by cycling between mania and depression. And yet the arrival of a cycle still manages to catch me off guard. The sudden onset of a new depressive cycle forces me to scramble into what I call “survival mode.” It's a state of mind I use to protect myself, to disassociate from the negative energy trying to consume me. While using breathing techniques, I imagine I am somewhere else, somewhere quiet. I constantly repeat to myself, “Survive today. Tomorrow will be different.”

Cathy and David Photography/Courtesy of AJ Mendez

For every person living with bipolar disorder, no two experiences are the same. Some experience a depressive cycle once every few years, some a handful of times each year — each cycle itself varying in length from days to months. I have become quite familiar with my cycles, since they make an unwelcome appearance every few weeks. So familiar, in fact, I’ve given them a nickname: “my dark days.”

I get up to go to the bathroom, feeling as though my legs are encased in concrete. On an average day, I would exercise first thing in the morning. I would leap out of bed and land inside yoga pants. I would front-flip onto a treadmill and start the day with a bang of motivation, my ponytail gleefully swinging behind me. But today, working out seems insurmountable through this fog. I can barely lift my toothbrush to my mouth, so the mere thought of curling a dumbbell feels as impossible as lifting a car.

I look up from brushing my teeth and stare at the mirror in front of me. When I’m depressed, my reflection is warped. As a depressive cycle veteran, I’ve narrowed down exactly which mascara, eyeliner, and foundation can withstand the emotions I'll experience throughout the day.

When I’m in a depression, I know I need to go outside as soon as possible. I need to step outdoors and feel the sun’s soothing rays on my skin. That warm touch, on a day when I am a raw wound, serves as a tenderly applied Band-Aid. But when I'm in a depression, the idea of walking out onto a lively, shop-filled, sun-drenched street sends my heart into a panic. For 30 minutes I approach my front door, then quickly shrink away. More breathing exercises help me slowly crack it open. The desperate need for a cup of coffee pushes one foot in front of the other.

I make it outside and pull a baseball cap so low on my face the sidewalk ahead is obscured, in an attempt to avoid eye contact with passersby. But as I wait for my order at the coffeeshop, I begin to feel every intimidating presence in the room, like a child surrounded by bullies on a playground. Each glance I think is sent my way is a gut punch. Can these strangers see the grime on my skin, the heaviness curving my spine? Are they all laughing at me? Or could they be as afraid of me as I am of them? I feel my chest begin to tighten. I rush home and collapse back into the safety of my bed. My husband always asks me what’s wrong, but I can never find the words. It just is.

Being questioned only reminds me that I don’t have any answers. Asking what I need only reminds me that I cannot yet help myself. Not today. But the one thing a depressive cycle cannot distort is my hope for tomorrow. “I just need to get through today. Tomorrow will be different.” I say as I close my eyes.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. You can also call the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 or the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386.