Sometimes, when I think about my diagnosis of bipolar disorder, I focus on the things it’s kept me from doing. Other times, I try to focus on the things it’s allowed me to do, and the surprising opportunities it’s afforded me along the way.

Of those opportunities, nearly all have come to me simply because at some point I chose to open myself up and share my diagnosis and my story with others.

It began with my family. But the more I trusted my friends, co-workers, partners (business and romantic), and even acquaintances with information about my diagnosis, the more I was able to mitigate and avoid misunderstandings.

I realized that I had to afford others around me who weren’t living my daily experience the possibility to understand how it shapes my relationships and my life.

That has been such an important and crucial lesson on this journey: Give people a chance to understand you.

Ryan McCulloch as a young childShare on Pinterest
Photography courtesy of Ryan McCulloch

My journey began when I was a teenager growing up in rural Georgia. I wasn’t an unhappy child, but as I developed into my teens, a change began to occur. Some described me as having a perpetual raincloud above my head, like a character from Charlie Brown.

School became harder, not necessarily academically, but socially. At age 15, I had my first suicidal thoughts, and I told my mother that I needed to see a therapist. The day after, I saw a therapist for the first time, and I continued seeing her for nearly 2 years.

I was originally diagnosed with depression and prescribed a standard generic antidepressant. It seemed to work for a while, though I recall having to increase the dose a time or two. School never really got easier, and I still struggled to go.

Within a year or two, it felt like I wasn’t taking medication anymore. I was back to the same place I’d been before, perhaps even worse. I was nearly 18. I’d recently lost my dog and my grandfather, and I’d withdrawn myself from the small local school I was in.

I instead attended a technical college in the next county over where I took the GED test and passed with college-level scores. Turns out I wasn’t being challenged enough to keep me interested, hence my problem getting through school. It was around this time that I switched to a second antidepressant, which also worked for a little while before losing effectiveness.

Over the next few years, from 18 to 21, I tried multiple antidepressants and anxiety medications with varying results. It was also around this time that I noticed almost polar shifts in my mood, every day, sometimes from moment to moment.

I had many triggers, and sometimes I didn’t realize something was a trigger until it happened. Noise was always one. Sudden, unexpected, loud noises — voices, music, fireworks, car engines — any of these could send me reeling from a completely level mood into a pit of frustration, anger, and rage.

Consideration was another one. I was raised to be a considerate person, so inconsiderate people or acts have caused that flip to switch for me as well.

Sometimes, it wasn’t anger; there would be other extremes. I would physically shut down and become nearly unresponsive when a “low” would take me over. I would sit for hours, unmoving, despite those around me begging for me to move or to speak.

It was like I couldn’t, like my body wouldn’t obey what my mind was telling it to do. It was as if I was being forced into this miserable mood, unable to escape. Mostly it was anger though, and it was all-consuming.

Twenty-one to 25 saw me married and divorced, moving 3,000 miles across the country (and back again), learning how to meditate and practice self-care, making and losing friends, and struggling to understand how I’d yet to find a treatment plan to help me live with this terrible depression that felt wildly out of my control.

I started feeling this otherness inside me. That’s the best way I can describe it. Almost like another me, but darker, sadder, angrier.

It was a shadow version of me that seemed to fill my body and sit on my lungs, dimming the world to a muted gray. My mind would constantly tell me the worst things about myself, and I’d believe all of it. I’d live with this feeling for years without a decent reprieve.

Around the age of 26, I reached a defining moment in my life. I was working a factory job on the graveyard shift and sleeping during the day, trying and failing to maintain healthy eating habits. I started dealing with intense ups and downs in my daily moods again. Life became darker during that time, and it was around then that I lost a friend of mine due to a misunderstanding.

I hit one of my lowest points and had almost daily suicidal thoughts. I made a decision. I talked to my psychiatrist at the time, a wonderfully caring man, and told him what I was feeling. I decided I wanted to go to a center where I could finally figure out what was going on with my mind.

He had a connection at a local adult behavioral rehabilitation center, which was just what I wanted, and I voluntarily admitted myself later that day. I stayed for a total of 7 days.

During my stay, I was heavily encouraged to take part in group activities and meetings. I met with many nurses, doctors, and other health professionals. I encountered some of the most interesting people and made some of the unlikeliest friendships.

But perhaps the most important thing that came from that 7 days was my diagnosis of bipolar disorder, along with a treatment plan that worked nearly immediately and has continued to work for me since.

I learned a lot from this experience, and I try to share these learnings with others. This is why I tell my story — you never know who needs to hear it, and you’d be surprised how often someone does.

These are some of the most important things I’ve learned while managing bipolar disorder:

Eat and avoid the ‘hanger’

Hungry turns to hangry very fast. While hangry is an everybody emotion, it can send me into a downward spiral that can last for hours. Keep some snacks on hand, and if you need to break for one, don’t be afraid to communicate this. Most people understand.

Set a sleep schedule

Twice in my life, I’ve had a rigid schedule, and both times taught me how beneficial they can be, especially for someone with bipolar disorder. Sleep is important! Make sure your body and mind get the rest they need.

Stick with the meds that work for you

When you find a treatment plan that works for you, stick with it. Do what you need to remember to take your medication, morning and night. Set alarms on your phone or alerts on your calendar or get a fancy pill caddy.

Just stay on top of taking meds, even in the times when you start to think you’d be OK without them. That means they’re working.

Find your people

I’ve been so immeasurably fortunate to have a loving and supportive family. My mother especially would (and has) gone to the ends of the earth to help me out of the darkness that was my life.

She never stopped believing in the version of me I couldn’t see for most of my formative life. She rallied around me and pulled every resource she could find to help me along this journey, and I can never truly thank her enough for all that she has done.

My advice is to find that. Find those people who love you, see the very best in you, and lift you up every day even when you feel like you don’t deserve it or believe it.

Someone is always there to believe in you. Believe in that version of you, the one they see, the good and kind you that’s buried under a weight that feels too heavy to pull yourself from. Find those people, and find yourself.

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Photography courtesy of Ryan McCulloch

I used to think that talking about my condition was a way of using it as an excuse for my behavior.

Now I see that talking about bipolar disorder is the best way to help others understand it. It’s the best way to end the stigma around mental illness. Showing others what mental illness looks like in all its forms, good and bad, allows them the grace to learn and expand their views.

Talking about your diagnosis with others can be scary. It can feel intimidating and nerve-wracking until you do it. Once you start telling your story, you’ll see that everyone has a story, and most people are just looking for someone to hear and understand theirs.

I don’t have it all figured out, despite how it may sound. I’ve been fortunate to find the help I’ve needed along the way, and I’m grateful for everyone who has played a role in helping me to become the version of myself I am today.

Bipolar disorder doesn’t have to define my life, but it’s something that I must live with, intimately. Every day I get better at affording myself some of the grace and understanding I give to others.

Ryan McCulloch was born in Savannah, Georgia. He’s an avid reader, writer, thrift shopper, and social media plant dad. You can find him on Instagram or in front of his light box where he’s shooting fun unique vintage items for online reselling. If you can’t find him, he’s probably got his nose stuck in an Anne Rice book. He lives outside of Detroit with his partner and their ragdoll cat but longs for the warmth back home in Georgia.