Christine Anderson, 35, first started experiencing symptoms of bipolar disorder when she was in college during the early ’00s. She felt depressed, irritable, and experienced bouts of rage. In between depressive episodes, Christine occasionally felt highly motivated and energized—to the point of eventual exhaustion.
At the time, Christine believed she had depression. But in 2013, during a very severe depressive episode, she started attending an intensive outpatient program (IOP) at a local hospital, where a psychiatrist diagnosed her with bipolar disorder II.
As the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) explains, there are various forms of bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder II causes dramatic mood changes from emotional highs during a hypomanic episode to lows during depressive episodes. (Hypomania is a less intense form of mania and can manifest with symptoms like overconfidence, a rush of energy, and racing thoughts. As Christine notes, it can feel good at the time but often preempts a depressive episode.)
Christine manages her condition with medications including antidepressants and mood stabilizers. She also attends regular therapy sessions, which are now remote because of COVID-19. During the pandemic, she’s experienced two hypomanic episodes and a depressive episode. Although the pandemic has made managing being bipolar harder in many ways, Christine says she’s also experienced some positives too. Here’s Christine’s story about how the pandemic has affected her life with bipolar disorder.
I started worrying about COVID-19 before most people in the U.S. In January 2020, some blogs I was following were recording what was happening in China and saying that it was going to have a big impact here. I started stocking up on toilet paper and frozen food and sounding the alarm with friends and family. No one really believed me. Honestly, I wondered if I was overreacting too. I’ve always slept pretty well, but I started having problems with insomnia around that time, which I think was related to being anxious about the virus.
When California went into lockdown in mid-March, I was strangely relieved. The thing I’d been dreading for two months was finally upon us, so I could just deal with the reality of it rather than the fearful anticipation.
As the months wore on with no end in sight, the pandemic had several major negative impacts on me. I was scared about what would happen if I contracted the virus. I was especially concerned about the long-term symptoms some patients have experienced. As a foodie with more than 100 cookbooks, I worried about losing my sense of taste and smell. I was also concerned that if I got COVID-19 and developed lung damage, then I wouldn’t be able to exercise, which helps me manage my bipolar. Then there’s the fact that I already have so many chronic health conditions. In addition to bipolar, I also have ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Frankly, I don’t need long-haul COVID-19 too!
As many people can probably relate to, the pandemic has cut off or limited access to many enjoyable activities. In my case, these comforts are important to managing my bipolar. For me, self-care is a part-time job that includes daily exercise, regular meals, sleeping 10 hours a day, seeing friends, and regular in-person therapy. The gyms closed, which limits how I can work out, and now I only see friends outside and socially distanced, or virtually. Interpersonal connection is so critical for maintaining a positive sense of self, and for getting out of our heads. For me, talking to people helps me stay grounded in reality. We’ve all had to shift from getting together with friends and family in person to staying in touch by Zoom or text, but it’s just not quite the same.