This Is What Bipolar Depression Feels Like

by Kimberly Zapata
An artwork made of paper representing a state of bipolar depression

It is Thursday, and I have only showered once this week. I’m not proud of this fact. My armpits are odiferous. They smell like onions, vinegar, and assorted meats — an Italian delicatessen. My scalp itches. Oils have collected, mixing with dead skin and dried bits of hairspray, week-old gel, and flakes. And my clothes bear both food and sweat stains. It’s been nearly 48 hours since I removed my hoodie or changed my undergarments and pants. And the reason? Well, the reason is that I’m hurting. I’m struggling. I’m really fucking depressed, and sometimes when you’re depressed, showering hurts. It feels like a goddamn chore.

Of course, I am no stranger to depression. I have been here before and will undoubtedly be here again. I live with bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and PTSD and one of the symptoms of the former is depression. It is something of a hallmark trait. And while bipolar depression feels very much like regular depression — when I am in the midst of an episode, I am sad and lethargic; hopeless, helpless, and completely apathetic — there are nuances to my condition which only individuals with bipolar depression experience.

You see, when I am depressed, I’m irritable. I become snappy and short-tempered, yelling without provocation or cause. I slapped my son’s hand this week because he was too giddy. Too happy. His energy was peak. When I am depressed, I cycle — consistently and constantly. I vacillate between periods of hypomania and apathy. I wrestle with racing thoughts and feelings of sheer and utter despair. When I’m depressed, I want to be left alone, which is pretty much par for the depressive course. It’s not that I want to be by myself; I just want to run and hide. To disappear. And when I’m depressed I have no energy or motivation. I sleep throughout the night and nap most of the day not because I need to, but because I want to. Because being awake is too damn much.

I cry and no one sees me. I scream and no one hears me. And it feels like I’m drowning. I’m kicking and flailing, fighting wave after relentless wave. I also feel emotions more intensely than my friends. Everything is turned up and amplified. My “mood swings” — which traditionally occur during bipolar disorder — are intensified.

Of course, I am not alone. Bipolar disorder is a relatively common disorder. In fact, the mental health condition affects 5.7 million Americans, or about 2.6% of the U.S. population aged 18 and older. I am one in nearly six million. I have lived with bipolar disorder most of my life. And while bipolar depression is difficult to live with — I am struggling not just to function, but to want to exist; being depressed and alive is a goddamn chore — it is not my baseline. Most days I am well. Thanks to a combination of medication and therapy, most days I am okay.

“Proper treatment helps most people living with bipolar disorder control their mood swings and other symptoms,” an article by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, explains. “Because bipolar disorder is a chronic illness, treatment must be ongoing.” But with treatment, the outlook is promising. Most people with bipolar disorder lead happy, healthy, productive lives.

“People with bipolar disorder can experience long periods of even, balanced mood called euthymia,” Healthline adds. Or, to put it another way, people with bipolar disorder can go long periods without symptoms at all. “Conversely, they may experience what’s referred to as a ‘mixed episode,’ which has features of both mania and depression at the same time,” and that is the case with me.

My depression is not straightforward. I often zone out and numb out when I’m depressed, drinking until I black out — which is a symptom of my mania. Reckless behavior is a sign that I’m cycling. I lack emotional regulation and impulse control. As I previously mentioned, I am irritable, another acute sign of mania. My temper is short. I burn like Anger from “Inside Out.” But I am also sad. My sense of purpose is gone. I feel helpless, hopeless, and wish I would die.

Yes, I regularly have suicidal thoughts. I acted on these thoughts twice.

The good news is that most days, I am normal. I am okay. I also know myself well enough to know when an episode is near. I felt this current wave of depression coming on days before I fell into it. I told my therapist preemptively, I emailed my psychiatrist for management tools, but it still happened. I slipped. Depression consumed my body and mind.

But I’m trying to remind myself that falling, while troublesome, isn’t the same as failing. I’m not giving up — or in. Depression, while painful, isn’t permanent. This too shall pass. And it is okay to not be okay. Sometimes stillness is necessary, as are the naps. Sometimes just getting up is a win.