Being Bipolar

From the latest edition of Paper magazine

Growing up, I aspired to be rich, successful and famous. I dreamt of becoming a human rights lawyer who would fight all wrongs against humanity and be lauded for it. I also wanted to be a famous novelist, rich enough to own her own island. Like all children of rich, ambitious parents, I equated financial success with happiness. As an adult, I realised how wrong I was. Currently, I’m not working myself into the ground and as a result, am always blissfully broke. Money comes in, money goes out, but slowly it’ll start to trickle in more. Instead of freaking out about not being able to make any savings at the moment, I remind myself daily, how grateful I am that I’m happy. And that’s what matter, that’s what counts.

At the age of 24, I started to take my mental health issues very seriously. I was always a troubled person so when my doctor confirmed for me that years of depression were a misdiagnosis and that I was really bipolar, it all started to make sense. Weird, too intelligent for my own good with an imagination that had a life of its own, I was always living on two planets at once: this world, where I physically belonged but didn’t love, and my own little planet in my head. I hated this vicious, cruel world and aspired to change it. I didn’t belong but I desperately wanted to. I hated this world so much, that the thought of it ending never upset me. The thought of dying and leaving seemed appealing at times. I’ve kept some of the suicide notes I’ve written over the years to remind myself that even when I’ve hit rock bottom, I’ve managed to pull myself up again. They disturb me but they also comfort me and remind me that I’m a survivor and that is something to be proud of.

But I wouldn’t be here, writing this, and sharing my story had it not been for some major life changes and many years of painful therapy. Had I not changed my life, had I not made the effort to overhaul a major part of who I am and taken all the medications, I am convinced I would have been dead. I do not expect you to understand or even comprehend what it is that I go through, but I’m hoping some insight into my condition will help you develop a sense of empathy towards those of us with invisible disabilities.

At the same time as I was being diagnosed and tested for bipolar disorder, I was working at a bank and was downright miserable. I was only working there to please my family who I had a strained relationship with. I desperately wanted my parents to be as proud of me as they were of their “normal” children so even though I was miserable, crying myself to sleep every night and waking up with a sense of dread, I continued. I hated my job and had extreme ethical issues with much of what I was being asked to do and put up with. Other than the work politics, which I later realised was nothing compared to the education industry, being placed in service and treated like an object was dehumanising and made me incredibly angry. Day after day customers got away with abusing me when they were in a bad mood. Aunties got away with grilling me about my love life and marriage plans. Men stood at my desk and stared at me like a sex object. No matter what I wore, no matter how conservative my clothes, I was ogled, glared at, asked out and felt more like a sex worker than a banker. There was nothing I could do. Whenever I attempted to complain, or told my misogynist boss that I wasn’t happy, he told me to suck it up because the customer is always right. I didn’t like him and as a result, when I did something good and was praised for it, it didn’t feel good. It just felt empty.

In order to cope, I started self medicating with alcohol and partied hard to relieve all the stress that had accumulated over the week. Needless to say I did incredibly stupid things that I later regretted and actually had no control over my impulsive need to drink when in the company of drinkers. I only gave up when given a choice: alcohol or mental health. The medications I was taking wouldn’t work if I continued to drink so reluctantly, grudgingly, I stopped. Luckily, they helped control my impulse so I was easily able to say no. I instantly started to feel better. My unquiet mind, with its constantly racing, distressing thoughts, was at peace. I was able to sleep. The ticks in my head didn’t keep me up and the silence allowed me to focus. It was probably the best decision I ever made even though it lost me many friends.

When I stopped drinking and decided I would sort my issues out, I realised what a toxic circle of friends and relatives I had around me. Instead of being supportive, many judged me for not drinking and partying excessively like they would. Indeed they only wanted validation and my refusal to give it to them strained our relationships. Many would get drunk and abuse me, killing off the tiny bit of self-esteem I had built up. They never apologised and eventually, instead of forgiving them for it over and over again, I simply cut them out and decided I didn’t need such people in my life. If people who claim they are friends choose not to support you and deliberately aggravate you, there is either something wrong with them, or they simply are not worth investing in emotionally.

At the same time, I made a major career change. I started teaching, something I never thought I’d do. I had a degree in women’s studies and didn’t think teaching would be a career choice that made me happy. Yet it did. Even though I never loved the environment or politics, I loved teaching. It was immensely rewarding and made me feel good. It also allowed me to be creative and forced me to remain open minded. Through teaching, I could change the world like I had always wanted to. It also inspired me to start blogging and writing on a regular basis.

Because of teaching, blogging and activism, I also met many wonderful people who I am now proud to call friends. The elite bubble I had earlier associated with slipped away into oblivion and there’s no going back. There’s no going back to a culture that I personally find toxic. Most of the elite I know have a sense of entitlement that makes them supremely unsympathetic to the horrific world around them. I have heard them make statements so callous that they have left me wounded. They judge me based on how much money I’m making and most have told me, to my face, that teaching is noble but not enough. They cannot comprehend that the pursuit for money is not something everyone aspires to and they judge those who don’t. They don’t understand any perspectives other than their own, and as a result, I find that culture toxic and intolerant.

Another form of support in my life other than my doctors and family are many other bipolar people around me. I’ve been active on bipolar forums and support groups for many years now and they have served as an incredible form of strength. Therapy, along with medication, is crucial for recovery but doctors can’t always be available, nor is it feasible to rely on just one doctor alone. Support groups are a form of group therapy and we provide each other with a lot of motivation. We keep each other going through the hard days and we all provide support, without judgement, because we can truly understand unlike those who have never experienced severe mood shifts.

I teach critical thinking and believe in constant self-reflection which most people in this country resist. We don’t admit our wrongs. Instead we point fingers and blame others. I honestly feel we suffer from a collective psychosis and if you have mental health issues, this attitude is dangerous. It is dangerous because the process of recovery and learning to cope in this world necessarily requires self reflection and being forced to confront your mistakes. Unless you can do that, you cannot get better. It’s easy to convince ourselves that we aren’t the problem. I know. I’ve been there. But that state of mind, when one is nothing but just a victim, is counterproductive and doesn’t lead to any healing. Instead it only leads to pain, bitterness and anger.

I turn a blind eye to those who judge me for who I am. Years of teaching, writing and part time activism have made me a thick skinned and strong woman who knows her strengths. I’ve also made the effort to study my illness, to understand it, to do what I need to in order to stay functional and happy such as avoiding all triggers. I decline late nights, no matter what, because unlike others, I need a full eight hours of sleep. Those who love me truly understand and do not mind my absence. Without restful sleep, my day is ruined and there’s a danger I will have an episode.

These days I only work part time. I no longer associate with any schools and quite easily gave up a very prestigious teaching position because it was making me miserable. I now work when I can and when I can’t; I do not have to medicate myself into a stupor just to function. I’ve learnt to value and crave stability over financial gain or societal approval. It honestly doesn’t mean much without happiness. Sadly, I still see so many bipolar people stuck in this vicious trap, miserable and in immense pain. As a success story, I’m hoping this inspires them to become pro active and take their life into their own hands. If I can do it, anyone can.

Download PDF: Being bipolar

Paper’s latest issue is available now & also available on ipad.


22 thoughts on “Being Bipolar

  1. So glad to read such an honest and insightful read on existence of mental health disorders and the day-to-struggle to triumph over it in our rather toxic society. Perhaps such writing will force our ‘educated’ and their family members to acknowledge the very real factors behind depression ( to name one disorder) and take the right step — the one that leads to diagnosis and recovery.

    • I sincerely hope so. That’s my aim. I don’t enjoy writing about my issues all that much because people box me & being so honest in the teaching community means one can potentially lose jobs. But who said the ethical path for those who wants to change the world in their own little way would ever be easy?

  2. Nabiha. I have read everything you have written since I am following your writings. I must first of all again salute you for writing so candidly what you feel and your past. I am a father who has lost a bipolar son by committing suicide, I have undertaken to write upon him, for him, be his mouth piece. Hope he will forgive me for sharing his work. I try my level best to write through his writings, but I know I am not doing justice to what actually was going through his mind. When I read your work I am barely scratching the surface. I have only his letters and poems to write on and from. I write so that I be a part of bipolar family,even if it is on the fringe. I may not be visible to many but I am there. You say so many things which are right inside my heart. You have written “invisible disabilities” that is what I as a father failed to discover and realise. In my “self reflection” (your word) I have a guilt of not doing enough. But what is done is done. I am now writing in whatever way I can, in my not so eloquent expression as yours, but write I must. I have chosen rather a blog or other medium to share my son Nasir (Moody’s) ‘literature’ I have. I am also not using the word “sorry”, because I feel inside my heart it is insulting. You have a gift, you are special. You are an astounding brave woman who has been subjected to torment by idiots which we find in plenty around us. Please let me know if you would like to read and be shared with my son’s stories. my email is reflected may be with you; nonetheless it is Hope it is not infringing in your domain for which I seek pardon. Stay well Nabiha and do what you like to do and what makes you happy – damn be the rest.

    • Thank you for this wonderful comment Sir! I will email you next week for sure.

      Be well. I’m sure your son will realise that sharing his work will benefit humanity in the long run. We are all grateful to you for this gift.

  3. Loved this post Nabiha…. Its great to see someone speaking so openly in Pakistan, where mental health issues are so Taboo…
    in a country where people prefer not to acknowledge such things, bloggers like you are certainly a breath of fresh air, and the first step towards changing attitudes. Keep writing!

  4. “I was only working there to please my family who I had a strained relationship with. I desperately wanted my parents to be as proud of me as they were of their “normal” children so even though I was miserable, crying myself to sleep every night and waking up with a sense of dread, I continued.”

    This feels so much like where I am now, in my life. I see no way out, no way I can take, at least.

    • Really is there no way or can you not see one in your current state? Speak to your doc. Mine was the one who encouraged me to switch careers & even though my parents weren’t happy at all, she made them get on board.

    • F ~~~~ I have read the comment in quote and your admission how you feel. In Pakistan, sadly every one is trying to make every other person happy. Compromising everything one stands for, feels inside and in the process be miserable himself/herself. After all I have been through as a father of a bipolar, I only have one advise for the parents … you need to be more than normal, patient and also accommodative. Do not take every thing and every one for granted.

  5. Thank you for writing such an inspiring article. I am a young woman, a doctor in the west. I am struggling a lot, to cope and all the bad feelings you have described I fight everyday. I know that I have bipolar disorder but I am so scared of being diagnosed, scared for my career and scared that people will judge me and think I am ‘possessed.’ I don’t know if I can email you and talk to you? I don’t know. Wish you all the best, you are a beautiful strong woman and I hope I can be like that one day.

  6. Hi Nabiha,

    Thank you for writing this article and bringing the issue of mental health to the forefront. Although I don’t suffer from bi-polar disorder, I have however suffered from anxiety, depression and OCD since the age of fourteen and know just how debilitating it can be. Even here in the West, there is still a stigma associated with mental illness. Many sufferers do not feel able to disclose this information especially in a work environment for fear of reprisals.

    There are times when I feel as though I’m from a different planet.

    I can really relate to your point with regards to the suicide notes you have written to yourself. I have myself been in that dark place and understand how lonely it can be.

    Keep doing what you are doing Nabiha. You truly are an inspiration and a credit to women across the world.


    • Thank you. Even though I’ve faced a lot more judgement and people indulging their confirmation bias to try to discredit me because I was open about it, I do not regret it. It seems to have helped bipolar people and that’s all I care about, not our haters.

      All the best 🙂

  7. Hi Nabiha,
    A very great article, I feel the need to share my side of the story, not so eloquent though, but still a true story:
    I was diagnosed with Hypomania in April, 2012, ( sued, fined and punished academically for unethical behavior) but the medication prescribed to me turned me robotic in nature. I am prone to rebellion in every walk of life, so shunned the medication when I had the episode of severe depression late that year, my family was quite supportive. I cant imagine my parents having an only son and diagnosed with a mental disorder but my parents and my sisters supported me well, I was able to graduate Electrical Engineering from UET, Lahore (Not an easy job, Trust me on this!) and landed an above average salaried job of a fresh engineer within 10 days of graduation. This triggered my mania. In the meantime I had left medication again (summer 2013). Then my doctor specifically diagnosed me with Bipolar disease. I love the way my doctor treats me and makes me take the medication I hate because they turn me robotic in walk and talk and I literally hate the psycho therapists because they are too dumb to understand what I am going through. SO, never been there.
    2nd cycle of depression(Late 2013) I dealt with medication and left again as soon as I felt no need of it (Now, I feel bad about it).
    Some weeks earlier I begin to experience more passion and confidence and became sarcastic to dumb comments and replies of coworkers. But yesterday boom! I insulted a coworker in a manner I did when I was Hypomaniac in 2012. Soon after, I apologized. Felt that need to leave the place and came to my room. Since then I have been searching and researching about my disease seriously. I have found a good number of articles but I want something to CONTROL my confidence, passion, wit and sarcasm not to finish it like the medications do.
    If possible please let me know, I want to benefit from your research. I hope you know this is different from anger fits and stuff.
    Now I realize, my subordiantes and colleagues are at the threshold of absorbing my BullShit. I love my job and dont want to lose it.
    Aleem Ullah
    P.S: I too have shifted careers only because the previous job ( programming/ App development) drained me too much to carry a normal life. I used to hallucinate about the code and computing algorithms. you cant imagine the impulsiveness to find a solution of a problem and not be able to implement it because you are in your bed at 2 am. I left after 2 months and got a Maintenance job in an industry located near Mianwali
    P.P.S: I love my self too much to even think about suicide, I care for my family and I want to live healthy enough to do something for them, this is the only difference I have carved out of your medical profile and mine.

    • Hi,

      I’m unable to stomach views on suicide that aren’t sensitive. None of us who have considered it don’t love or care for our families. Nor do we necessarily hate ourselves. I certainly don’t.

      Thanks for sharing your story but I would sincerely urge you to educate yourself on suicide and become more aware.

      And bipolar is a spectrum. What is your full diagnosis? E.g. I’m Bipolar type 2 rapid cycler.

      • I dont mean to hurt you Nabiah, I am sorry if you felt that way, but with a series of family psych problems I was already educated enough (religiously) and strong enough (emotionally) not to even consider killing myself (except early teens, was not even diagnosed with any psych problems back then)! I am such an attention seeking whore I casually tell people I have a biploar disease and stay away from me, etc etc, I really just dont have control over my impulsiveness to insult people, thats what I am afraid of in my work life. My family seems to understand or atleast pretends it does; friends dont care sometimes, sometimes they sit down and calm me down sometimes just make fun of me
        yeah I did found the spectrum thing today, I had to debate with my doctor( summer 2013) even to make her tell me I have bipolar, she just told me u r fine and nothing to worry about. I read and researched pharmacology of the medicines she gave me and threatened her not to eat my tablets if she is not going to tell me clearly what is wrong with me. with my next appointment I might be able to make her tell me whats my spectrum, 1 thing I know for sure, its seasonal (Mania in Summer: July, August and Depression in Winter: November, December)

      • again! This is so judgemental. You’re implying people who lack faith will commit suicide and reinforcing norms.

        Ok so you don’t have a diagnosis and you are self diagnosing? I’m sorry but I’m unable to stomach self diagnosed bipolar. It is not acceptable to me.

      • I told you I had to grill my psychiatrist to make her tell me whats my disease, then she told me I am bipolar and you understood I have self diagnosed bipolar, thats kind of unfair Nabiha! I might not have a detailed diagnosis but a diagnosis, yes!
        Moreover, I only wanted to imply that I am not suicidal in nature, I have other problems, like severe guilt trips, hypersomnia, etc, I hope you understand my condition. I was asked questions about suicide and self harming by every psychiatrist I consulted with ( 3rd since April, 2012). I am a science person myself and wont ever be adamant about not getting help.

      • Good luck getting help. You seem to blind to it and are so insensitive and callous about suicide. I’m not approving further comments. You don’t sound manic so I’m assuming you’re like this in general, which is sad.

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