“9-1-1, what is your emergency?”
Through shaky breaths I said, “My sister is going to kill herself. Please send an ambulance.” I reread the text from my sister:
I don’t know how to say this, so I’ll keep it short. I don’t think I can continue on like this. You have always been my best friend and I will always love you.
In May of 2018, my sister tried to kill herself. That summer, she was diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder, and she reached out to the internet to find resources and advice. Today, she is thriving in online friendships with bipolar bloggers and activists. The world wide web saved my sister’s life.
“I was so lonely, man,” she tells me about her life before her diagnosis. “I had always felt like something was wrong, even when we were kids. I just felt so different. So…alone.”
Many people with the disorder report they feel alone and trapped inside their own head. Online discussion gurus like Julie A. Fast, a lifestyle blogger with Bipolar II, describes her experience with the disorder on her blog, saying, “My bipolar disorder is so intense it rips through my entire body like a tornado. Other times, the bipolar literally makes me catatonic. It’s as though all the life has been sucked out and all that’s left is the shell.”
My sister, Lauren, is a 20 year old college student at the University of Arkansas. She’s majoring in Marketing and struggling with the challenges of young adulthood like Tinder and calculus. At the time of her diagnosis, she was heavily involved in a sorority on campus, serving as a Student Ambassador and managing college as well as most other young people. Or so it seemed.
In reality, she was struggling to stay afloat in a world of due dates and high expectations.
Lauren on her first day of class at the University of Arkansas
After I called the police to perform a “wellness check” on her, she was forced inside an ambulance for a medical evaluation. She was transported by ambulance to Washington Regional, where she was strapped to an operating table and emotionally poked and prodded by a multitude of physicians.
A day later she was considered mentally sound and stable for release. My parents immediately moved her back home in Dallas where she was under near-constant surveillance and psychiatrist evaluation.
Many tearful therapy appointments later, she was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, a debilitating mental illness that has a suicide rate 20 times that of the general population.
To better understand her diagnosis and the implications of medication, my sister’s psychiatrist recommended she find discussion boards online. She had no idea that she would soon enter a world of acceptance, understanding and explanations she had been seeking for years.
Fast is my sister’s favorite online blogger. She has a podcast where she answers user questions about Bipolar Disorder and writes an award-winning blog, Bipolar Happens: Straight Talk on Managing Bipolar Disorder.
Screenshot from Julie Fast’s blog, the first bipolar website Lauren found.
What spoke most to Lauren was the Just Diagnosed?section of her website which offers advice for medications and recommends other blogs to visit. She writes her own testimony:
When I was finally diagnosed in 1995 (after a slightly manic trip to China!), I was very relieved to have an explanation for why I had been so odd for so long. Many questions were answered.
If you were just diagnosed, you may be very scared, worried or even incredulous. What? I have a serious mental illness! No way! Then you read all of the symptoms and it makes sense.
If you love someone with the illness, you are probably scared and worried.
She’s written books called “Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder,” and “Get it Done When You’re Depressed.” She writes for a multitude of online communities, engaging directly with people that comment on her posts.
She tells “J-P,” a blog respondent, “I just went through a two-week suicidal episode where I thought about death all day…I fought the desire to isolate.” Another commenter thanked Fast for creating this post, saying, “There is comfort in knowing I’m not the only one with absurd thinking.” The bipolar community is one based on support, advice and advocacy.
Bipolar disorder affects 5.7 million adults in the United States. Of those cases, 83 percent are classified as “severe.” This disorder affects people of all ages, however it is most commonly diagnosed when the person is in their teens to mid-twenties.
Lauren’s suicide attempt is unfortunately common amongst people with bipolar disorder. Over 30 percent of those diagnosed with the disorder will attempt suicide at least once in their life.
Fast says, “Suicidal thoughts can be a comfort. They seduce you and talk to you and obsess you to the point that you literally think of nothing else.” If people are left alone with these thoughts, they may take drastic measures to end their pain.
Loneliness is a contributing factor to suicide, with some studies reporting that people who are lonely are 50 more likely to die before their time.
To cure this loneliness, many sites recommend engaging with other people, some sites even directly rank chat groups in order of significance and topic. Under their Self-Care Strategies, the Harbor of Refuge bipolar help site says, “Don’t let yourself become isolated — seek out support from family and friends (including, of course, the support available to you at the Harbor of Refuge).”
This blog is one of many that offer advice, sympathy and a general sense of camaraderie for people suffering with bipolar disorder. The bipolar online community has saved lives. I know because it saved my sister’s.
Lauren and I see each other constantly, and there’s usually food, coffee or wine involved in our meetings. This February, I wanted to learn more about her journey to self-acceptance and how she is handling life-after-diagnosis. After a little poking and prodding, she agreed to let me interview her.
We used these meetings as an excuse to see each other, and they were filled with tears, laughter and excessive amounts of Sauvignon Blanc.
Lauren at one of our meetings.
“I think I kind of freaked out at first,” she told me. “I didn’t know anyone else who was bipolar. I thought, ‘there’s no way I’m one of those crazy people on Dr. Phil.’”
Growing up, Lauren was always eccentric, dying her hair with Kool-Aid and managing a multitude of alternate reality profiles.
Lauren as an awkward pre-teen.
In middle school, she was known for her dark eyeliner and poorly cut bangs.
In high school she could usually be found in her room, sleeping at odd hours of the day and waking up with a disgruntled demeanor. We thought she was just being a teenager. Little did we know she was struggling with a severe mental illness.
When she graduated high school in 2017, we hoped college would be her shining moment where she’d find her niche and finally feel at home.
Lauren and I at her high school graduation.
When she expressed interest in joining a sorority, my parents were supportive and encouraged her to find friends involved in similar activities. Unfortunately, Lauren’s activities consisted of erratic, drug-fueled mania and debilitating depression.
“It’s like, I was trying so hard to be normal,” she said. “I tried everything. Then it all stopped,” she said to me in our interview. Her eyes went dark from the memory. “It was like everything came to a screaming halt. The future just seemed…like blackness.”
During this time, Lauren found the internet toxic. “Everyone else had it all together,” she said. “Making friends, going to functions and having fun. I was just trying to exist.”
Dr. Rudorfer, a medical doctor involved in bipolar research, describes mood swings as, “severe, long-lasting and maybe most significant of all, they interfere with some important aspect of functioning, such as the ability to work at one’s job, or manage one’s home, or be a successful student.” Lauren was spending hours on toxic social media sites and dating apps like Tinder and Seeking.com, a site where young women look for rich older men to “spoil” them.
“It’s just gross,” she said. “I wasn’t even making any money, I just wanted attention or someone to talk to. Even if they were creepy.”
Today, she considers the internet her safe haven, a place of acceptance rather than rejection.
Natasha Tracy, one of Lauren’s favorite bloggers says the internet helped her open up about her disorder. “I can be honest about it, I can talk about it, I can talk about how I’m feeling because of it and people can actually help me get through things both in person and online.”
My sister does not use her real name in any of her posts, and mainly scrolls through pages without interacting. Sometimes just knowing other people are out there is enough to make her feel less alone. Lauren said she now prefers self-help sites to chat rooms, as she feels her medication and therapy program are working for her.
Lauren said she really likes selfand bp hope, two sites that offer mental health advice and self-help activities to regulate your mood swings and behavior habits. Sites that are not specifically bipolar-oriented are also helpful, as she says she’s trying to live a normal life, making her disorder less influential in her life.
When Lauren was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, her psychiatrist recommended my family and I watch two YouTube videos, “Up/Down” and “Living with Bipolar Disorder” Each video is a documentary-style informative account of what it is like to live with mania and depression.
Before we watched the documentaries, my family was overwhelmed by definitions and social stigmas.
Will she be able to hold a job?
Graduate from college?
Be completely independent?
The first documentary features interviews from 30+ people who live with the disorder, from various backgrounds and experiences. They each discuss the implications of their diagnoses and obstacles they’ve overcome, offering advice for those struggling themselves.
Chat rooms, support programs and online counseling are just a few of the resources offered to people with this disorder. You can skype in for group therapy, message a therapist online and create appointments to be carried out in real life or online.
Whenever my sister was diagnosed, the easiest way for us to understand her was through YouTube. People post their own stories, participate in documentaries and discuss their issues in real-time with YouTube’s streaming option.
The blogger, Nancy Tracy writes, “What gets me [about bipolar disorder] is the insistent, unending, every-moment-of-the-day effort required just to survive.”
The internet is what you make of it. For my sister, the internet has been a place of education, advice and opportunities to understand herself better. While I don’t recommend you use the internet for things like WebMD or Ashley Madison, it can be beneficial to your health if used the right way.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts please seek professional help.
For help, call 1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-SUICIDE
Or consult these Web sites for expert advice: