From the North Pole of Depression to the South Pole of Mania – the lives and stories of people with bipolar disorder

We all exist between two emotional “poles”, extremes that we often never reach – and that is, as a rule, neither anyone’s fault nor merit. Because, in general, the onset of a mental illness is dependent on so many factors, some of which are uncontrollable, that we can only revolt against chance.

But people are living among us who have travelled, throughout their lives, to the South Pole and the North Pole of human emotions, not just once.

These people have seen their minds torn apart by their extremes – like a magnet that, unable to withstand its energy, explodes. Some of them face the shame of having been different, the lack of empathy of those who cannot imagine what a depressed Antarctica looks like where no trace of life can survive but remains frozen, what the hot lava of a volcano feels like which erupts a consuming energy.

The only way to understand, at least in part, the stories that follow is to look at ourselves and discover, one by one, the saddest and scariest moments in our lives, then the happiest, uninhibited and impulsive of them. Could we have remained standing in such earthquakes?

In the case of the present stories, minds collapsed. Then the people to whom they belonged set about rebuilding them. They crashed again. They resumed work – perhaps they had missed something?

Most of them have been stable for years – proof that medicine, therapy, their efforts and those around them have finally paid off. To think that just because such an earthquake has not yet appeared in one’s life is a sign that the edifice of one’s mind is stable and strong is sometimes just an impression.

The present story is one of those that confirm this and evokes hope and confidence – the hope that people can rebuild themselves, piece by piece, like a puzzle even after disintegration. And it’s no wonder – in fact, for someone suffering from bipolar disorder, with or without psychotic episodes, the story is as common as can be.


Alina (not her real name – n.r.) is 30 years old, has a stable job and lives in an apartment somewhere in the south of Bucharest, with an exit to the boulevard. She receives me, one late winter day, in the kitchen of her rented apartment.

He sees his life divided into two: before the first psychotic episode and after.

Now, her life has become “a different normality”. This “other normality” actually requires taking care of herself: she is careful to adjust her schedule so that she can rest as much as she needs, she follows a drug treatment and tries to avoid excesses.

“I think I was a child, a lively teenager, expansive in personality. I made friends wherever I went, talked more than now and had the joy of living. After the first episode, that was the most obvious difference in the first year. Some didn’t recognize me immediately after the episode. (…) I was slower in my studies, in everything, I had difficulties in everything and I made everything much more difficult, so I no longer had that agility that I had and the joy of being among people. I felt the need to withdraw, to be alone because I had a state of inner anxiety that manifested itself socially, that is, I felt the need not to be seen by the world.

So from that point of view, yes: I could see my life split in two.

When we think about our mind, psychosis is a kind of “fever” of the human psyche – a manifestation of something deeper. It can be caused by serious diseases, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder, but it can also come together with personality disorders such as borderline disorder or affective disorders such as depression.

Alina thinks about herself that she was a teenager and a child like everyone else. He dug into her past for a while to identify anything that might signal a further problem, but found nothing that seemed out of the ordinary. He sometimes had more intense experiences, in adolescence.

The first psychotic episode happened in the first year of college. She had exams, she was stressed about them, she says she “took everything way too seriously” and was constantly worrying. He lived in a dormitory for students and, there, he met a boy to whom he became attached “from one day to the next”. The boy, she says, was more indecisive, though – he seemed to be paying attention to her, but randomly. In other words, it was sending mixed signals. And as she grew more attached, he distanced himself and eventually got closer to another girl – perhaps a classic college story.

But when Alina saw him with another girl, she had a very strong feeling, a shock.

She describes this shock as follows:

“Since that day, I haven’t slept. I mean, I felt that something was broken, my film was broken on a cognitive level. I entered the room, the dorm room, I got into bed, I was cold all the time, I was trying to wrap myself, I was not getting cold, I was going to the shower with hot water, I was not getting cold… Since then, I started to decline.”

Time makes the difference in such cases in terms of recovery – the shorter the psychotic episode, the faster the recovery will be.

Alina says she went through several states – hypomania, mania and hallucinations.

“It was quite a long time before I received help and I received forced help. I was already hallucinating at that point and it was very noticeable. I was disconnected from reality when I got help, and if I had gotten help sooner, I’m sure recovery would have been much easier. I was in a pretty serious case when I got to the hospital and, I pray, I got to the ambulance..

Mania is one of the common symptoms of bipolar disorder, one of the two poles we were talking about at the beginning of the text – the volcanic eruption of energy, a state of psychic overstimulation in which the subject, as a rule, is euphoric.

Around the time she started experiencing mania, Alina’s dorm mates, alarmed by her behaviour, called an ambulance.

Thus, he ended up in a psychiatric hospital, hospitalized involuntarily. This means that the state took her into care without her asking for it, deeming it lacking the discernment to care for her.

The experience at that hospital remained the “blackest” of her life – she was hospitalized together with several other people, each with a different pathology. Unable to understand what was happening, she faced daily paranoia, fearing the doctor who was supposed to be treating her.

But, she says, the most difficult experience was being admitted with other people, a common practice in psychiatric wards.

“Besides the fact that I was with all these people, it was an indescribable abuse. Everyone was screaming at the same time, they were sedating you with three different types of tranquillizers to make you sleep and you couldn’t sleep deeply because you were always hearing screams and they wouldn’t put earplugs in. I could always hear someone screaming. (…) In addition to that, I wasn’t able to keep any oranges, any sweatshirts, everything was stolen. Being the way I was, psychotic, sedated, dizzy, she took advantage of that.”

After the experience at that hospital, which was a provincial one, she arrived in Bucharest, at the Obregia Hospital, where she was hospitalized for a few more days. The conditions, she says, were different, in the sense that Obregia Hospital looked decent compared to the provincial one.

But the real challenge began when he got out of the hospital. The hallucinations were gone, she was still recovering.

“I was sleeping 14 hours a day, I was no longer human. I was a vegetable, my vision was blurred and cloudy and I was slow, jerky. It was hard for me to find joy in living. I was afraid to walk alone on the street, I felt very confused. The noise bothered me, the rumble of cars on the streets. (…) I felt my brain slower, more tired. When I started taking antipsychotics, I gained weight very suddenly, 17 pounds in less than six months. They gave me psychomotor agitation, I couldn’t bear to sit still. The first three or four months after discharge I could not sit down, I tended to cling to people, to sit with me.”

However, he says he “vehemently refused” to take a break.

“I was only off for a month, while I had the episode and already on April 1st I went back to college. In the summer I gave the whole session and got high marks, but it was three or four times harder for me. My mother came with me to the dormitory, helped me and rehearsed with me, that’s the only way I managed to give the session.”

Another sensation was that her mind had regressed.

“I felt that I needed more care and supervision as if I had dropped a few years in age. That was the more meaningful thing, so to speak. In college, in the same way, I said: Mom, if you don’t come to stay with me, I can’t give the session. That was the only time in my life when I felt like I needed babysitting and not being left alone. They were hard, especially the first six months after hospitalization, the hardest period of my life, harder than psychosis itself”.

After another two years, he had a second episode. She was admitted to a hospital there.

An important difference between the system in Great Britain and the one in Romania is the fact that, once the patient is discharged, he is visited at home, periodically, by a team of specialists who make sure that he stays well.

“When I was discharged, I somehow had the obligation, towards their Ministry of Health, to have a team see me every day for a week at home, it was called the Homecare Crisis Team. They would call me or come to my house to see that I was taking my medication and that I was ok. I don’t know, but it was a very ok experience and there I received the official diagnosis, bipolar I disorder – mania with psychotic elements.”

The last episode was in December 2016, in Romania. She went to the hospital alone.

“This would be my advice – for those who recognize the clinical picture, know themselves to be bipolar and have the feeling that it is possible to have an episode, ask for help! Don’t be afraid! The damage after is much greater. Plus, during an episode, many processes are destroyed there. I almost didn’t have the third one. At work I told them that I had the flu, I didn’t have anything, nobody knew. Then, I didn’t even have that thing anymore and I didn’t feel any joy anymore, because they put me on lithium. I haven’t taken lithium since.”

Lithium is a drug in the class of emotional stabilizers, recommended for people with bipolar disorder. It is not found in Romania, so Alina buys it, based on a prescription, from abroad.

The onset of the disease came to her with shame. In the meantime, he says he’s come to terms with what happened to him.

“Now I’m more open, I no longer hide it as something very taboo, only I don’t go into details, I keep it more factual: I’m bipolar, I’ve been taking treatment for a few years and I need to sleep. Or, if I’m more irritable, not to take it personally, because that’s how the disease manifests.”

She sometimes thinks about the long-term effects of the drugs on her body, but she believes it is “worth” the price she pays for a healthy mind.

“I don’t think that an episode is the worst thing that can happen to you in this life. To not feel and not have the joy of living seems to me much worse than an episode.”

An interview conducted by Iulia Marin as part of the Spring Tides project, an initiative of Alexandra Bălășoiu integrated into the program 4 Corpuri – collective for dance, a multi-year program coordinated by the Gabriela Tudor Foundation and co-financed by the Administration of the National Cultural Fund. The program does not necessarily represent the position of the National Cultural Fund Administration. AFCN is not responsible for the content of the program or how the results of the program may be used. These are entirely the responsibility of the beneficiary of the funding.

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