My name is Mike Vosters. I’m a 29-year-old social entrepreneur, nomad, and DJ. I’ve lived a relatively normal life. I grew up in Kansas, went to college on an academic scholarship, then moved up to NYC where I’ve had a solid career in tech.
Oh, and when I was 19, I was diagnosed with Type II Bipolar Disorder. (I was also diagnosed with ADHD, but to keep things focused, I’m just going to discuss my bipolar journey in this post. If you want to read about my relationship with Adderall, click here.)
“Wait, does that mean your personality changes like Jekyll and Hyde? Are you an addict, suicidal, or what?”
Statistically speaking, I do run a higher risk of some of those things, but for me, that’s not the case. My case of bipolar type is relatively mild. I don’t have any desire to harm myself or others, and while there are two distinct sides to my personality, I’m not two different people like Jekyll and Hyde. There’s Manic Mike, the outgoing, optimistic dreamer who wants to take over the world; and there’s Melancholy Mike, the pessimistic, slightly awkward and somewhat critical man who just wants to be left alone. While these fluctuations were apparent long before any diagnosis, I just thought that’s who I was, and anyone who couldn’t deal with it could hit the road. As you can imagine, that perspective didn’t bode well for most of my relationships and led to a rather lonely life.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s my story.
To be honest, life pre-diagnosis was pretty ordinary overall until I got to high school, and even then from the outside looking in, things seemed pretty normal. I was a good student, captain of my soccer team, and president of the Student Council. I don’t say that to brag, just to show that mental illness doesn’t discriminate.
During junior year, I had my first episode.
After some high school drama unfolded, I went into a downward spiral. I was severely depressed and began separating myself from former friends. In the depth of this depression, I wrote a journal entry that began “I am all that I need,” followed by paragraphs of similar isolationist rhetoric. For the next four years, I would re-visit this journal entry every time I was down and it rang just as true.
While there were various other episodes over the years pre-diagnosis, let’s skip ahead to the final episode that caused me to seek help.
I was in my university cafeteria figuratively high off the beginnings of a new venture. I was starting an online campus newspaper and spouting dreams of grandeur to a group of friends. This wasn’t abnormal by any means. I was constantly ranting about ideas that I believed could change the world, make me rich, or both and then going to work for days on end with little to no sleep. That’s just who I was and what people came to expect from me.
But this time was different. I was really on a roll, and I must have been yelling because when I finally looked around the table, I saw something other than the expected amusement on my friend’s faces. It was fear.
Shit…have I gone too far? Was this normal? Did I need help?
After talking with my mother and a few friends, I decided to visit my campus’ mental health services, which were provided for free or else I probably never would have gone. While the incident was relatively tame in the scheme of potential episodes and could have just as easily been written off as the emotions of youth, with my family history I didn’t want to take any chances. And I’m very glad I did because this is where my path to happiness began.
Diagnosis Is Important, and Therapy Is Awesome
After multiple visits to the campus psychologist and psychiatrist, I was diagnosed. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Sure at the time, it felt like my life was over. I was scared that I was destined to be an outcast, ostracized from society, unemployed and unloved. Then I got educated on the matter and everything got put into perspective.
The National Institute of Mental Health defines bipolar like this…
“People with bipolar disorder experience periods of unusually intense emotion, changes in sleep patterns and activity levels, and unusual behaviors. These distinct periods are called ‘mood episodes’. Mood episodes are drastically different from the moods and behaviors that are typical for the person. Extreme changes in energy, activity, and sleep go along with mood episodes.”
People having a manic episode may:
- Feel very “up,” “high,” or elated
- Have a lot of energy
- Have increased activity levels
- Feel “jumpy” or “wired”
- Have trouble sleeping
- Become more active than usual
- Talk really fast about a lot of different things
- Be agitated, irritable, or “touchy”
- Feel like their thoughts are going very fast
- Think they can do a lot of things at once
- Do risky things, like spend a lot of money or have reckless sex
People having a depressive episode may:
- Feel very sad, down, empty, or hopeless
- Have very little energy
- Have decreased activity levels
- Have trouble sleeping, they may sleep too little or too much
- Feel like they can’t enjoy anything
- Feel worried and empty
- Have trouble concentrating
- Forget things a lot
- Eat too much or too little
- Feel tired or “slowed down”
- Think about death or suicide
The first time I read that description I thought “…wow, this may as well be an autobiography”.
In colloquial terms, bipolar is like steroids for emotions. The routine happy is the best day of your life, and the routine sad is the worst day of your life. The common misconception about these emotions is that they instantly snap back and forth in a Jekyll and Hyde-like fashion. In reality, it’s not like that. People with bipolar disorder do indeed have two separate sides like I previously described, however, it’s periodic, often in a week or month-long fluctuations — and sometimes they’re even mixed. So if your friend all of a sudden snaps at you, don’t call them bipolar, it’s more likely they just haven’t slept — or maybe you were just being an asshole.
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Once I understood my diagnosis, I understood myself and the opponent I was up against. This clarity changed everything, and was the first step towards a happier, more fulfilling life — and I wouldn’t have gotten there if I hadn’t asked for help.
Medication, Relationships, and the Pursuit of Happiness
Before I got diagnosed by a psychiatrist, the campus psychologist told me the one recurring theme in my life was loneliness. Well, of course I was lonely. No one understood me. No one could understand why the guy they met last week running around the party talking to everyone refused to leave his house all of a sudden. So while I was constantly surrounded by people, I was alone. I made a mantra out of “I don’t need anyone but myself”. I convinced myself that it was what I wanted…yet I was miserable.
If I ever wanted to be happy, I knew I needed to learn how to build relationships, both platonic and romantic, and to do that…I needed medication.
After my diagnosis, the psychiatrist wrote me a prescription for Lamictal, and I actually took them. A few weeks later for the first time in my life, my mind was at peace. My thoughts slowed down and my emotions leveled out. Life became easier, more fluent, more routine. Once this happened, I was able to build relationships that I never thought I’d have — that I’d never desired to have. Long gone were the days of me being sketchy (for the most part). I became a reliable friend, a generally consistent personality whose relaxed demeanor and level head was much easier to love. As for my professional life, my productivity shot through the roof. I could focus like never before, and objective decision-making became a strength. It was awesome.
But after a while, I started questioning if the medication was the right move. Was contentment the same as happiness? Was me with stifled emotions still me?
To be honest, contentment was super boring. I missed the rush of mania coursing through my veins spewing crazy ideas and charisma. I missed the siren sounds of depression coaxing me into a sad, introverted, and often artistic self-awareness. I missed the emotions that had made me who I was, what had defined me for my entire life. But I loved my new healthy relationships. I loved kicking ass at my job. I just wished there was a way I could have both, and luckily there was.
The Weekend Trip that Changed Everything
I went on a weekend cabin trip with a new group of friends and forgot to bring my Lamictal, and then “forgot” to take it for a few weeks upon return…and guess what? My dreams came true. I was happy while being the real me. My emotions came back, and thanks to my newfound diagnosed self-awareness, I found a way to manage my relationships and work life simultaneously. Was it easy? No, it was ridiculously hard. I had to constantly keep myself in check to battle against the bipolar inclinations that had made me so miserable in the past. But it was worth it.
Now, the last thing most family members and close friends want to hear from their loved one that is bipolar is that they’re going off their meds. I’m not here to say it’s a good idea for everyone (hell, I debate if it’s truly a good idea for me sometimes). Everyone’s case is different, but for me, I feel it was the right choice. That being said, I never would have been able to live a fulfilling life if I hadn’t gone on medication. It showed me what my emotional baseline was, how much controlling my emotions could improve my standard of living, and helped me build the routines that allowed me to stay on track once I went off.
So…while I stopped taking Lamictal years ago, I can’t emphasize enough that I couldn’t have done it without being on them consistently in the years before : )
The Power of Community and Why I Think Everyone Needs To Share their Story
One of the biggest reasons I think I’ve been able to live a fulfilling life with bipolar is community. Humans have an innate desire to connect with other people, and without that, life can get awfully dreary — just as it was for me pre-diagnosis. Being disconnected from your community is hard for anyone, and even harder for those affected by a mood disorder. Mood disorders make you feel different/weird/lesser than others, causing you to seclude yourself, which then causes you to feel even more different/weird/lesser than others, which causes you to be even more secluded. It’s a vicious cycle that can lead to tragedy if not resolved.
So how do you resolve it?
As always, I can’t speak for everyone, but this is what I attribute my communal good fortune to…
You can’t fix something if you don’t know what it is.
It’s hard to get to where you want to go if you don’t have a map. Medication is the map that helped me visualize my goal and achieve it.
I communicated my diagnosis to close family and friends, which helped them understand who I was, how they could help me when they just needed to give me space, and when they needed to call me out on my bullshit. If I wouldn’t have done this, I never would have been able to maintain healthy relationships.
Realize that your mental health journey is a marathon, not a sprint. — Tweet this.
For most people, mental health is a lifelong journey. There is no quick fix. You have to dedicate yourself to constant self-evaluation and self-improvement to figure out how to keep yourself happy and healthy. Just because a solution is working for you today, doesn’t mean it will work for you forever. Tolerances build up, environments change, and life throws all kinds of shit at you. You need to analyze all these inputs and adjust your game plan accordingly. If you don’t, you’ll be amazed at how quickly your opponent will come back and bite you in the ass.
Where I’m At Today
To be frank, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, but not because things have gotten easier, only because I’ve learned to accept who I am and committed myself to try to win the day…every day. I’ve not only taken the time to build community, but also to really look at my emotions on a day to day basis and uncover the triggers that bring me up and those that push me down. As I’ve uncovered those, I’ve built a lifestyle (aka routine aka community’s BFF) that has given me the best record I’ve ever had. I still don’t win every day, but that’s okay — no athlete ever does.
As you may have guessed, this mindset is part of what inspired me to start the Mental Health League.
Mental health is a sport. It has no off-season. — Tweet this.
If we can get everyone to see that, the stigma will lose, and those playing the game will win more than ever.
In Conclusion: Share Your Story
Thanks for reading my story. I hope it helped you in some way. For those with a story of their own, I hope it inspires you to share yours. It’s the first step to a happier, mentally healthier, stigma-free society.
Currently, the only time we talk about mental health is when tragedy strikes, which only reinforces the stigma and can act as a trigger for others’ tragedy. We need to talk about mental health in good times and in bad — before it’s too late. We need to hear tales of success, triumphant comebacks, entertaining anecdotes, and everything in between. We need to take the shame out of the game and turn stigma into strength. The story of mental health is the story of everyone; of society’s collective pursuit of happiness. So let’s stop hiding in the shadows and start speaking out. The world needs this now more than ever, so what are you waiting for?
The views expressed in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Mental Health League. This content is for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. If you need help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255 (TALK) or go to speakingofsuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources. Please follow our Community Guidelines when commenting below.