How An Episode Unfolds, and What It Feels Like

conv fishes sophie2.jpegIn case you don’t already know, I have bipolar II, mixed state, rapid cycling episodes with psychotic features. I get hallucinations as well as paranoid delusions during manic and depressive episodes, which is part of having mixed state episodes. A mixed state episode can lean one way or another so it can be helpful to refer to them as manic or depressive for purposes of communication, but every mixed state episode has features of both mania and depression.

A real-life example of a troubling psychotic episode would be that I can hear the clouds above me whispering (hallucination) and even though I can’t hear what they’re saying, I know they are talking about me and are going to come down and hurt me (paranoid delusion). This happens often in episodes that lean toward mania. In an episode that leans toward depression, it is common for me to believe that there is an intruder in the house (paranoid delusion), or to feel very afraid and not know why (paranoia). Every episode has features of both mania and depression at the same time often in conjunction with hallucinations or paranoia. My episodes are rapid cycling, which means that they are short and intense, usually between 4 hours and 12 hours, and I have them three days in a row at about the same time of day, unless I am able to get 14 hours of sleep in a night, which interrupts the cycle and prevents an episode the next day.

I usually use the metaphor of a thunderstorm to explain how an episode unfolds. Continue reading

How Outsiders Can Help

One of the biggest worries of a mentally ill person is that they are a terrible burden on their friends and family. As an outsider, most of what you can contribute is verbal. Regularly remind your loved one that they are not a burden, they are not going to lose you, you love them, and that it’s okay to be upset. Physical contact is also very powerful: a hand on the back, a squeeze of the hand, or a hug can make an enormous difference in the current mental state of your loved one in crisis. If it’s appropriate to your relationship, lay with them and hold them, or let them put their head in your lap so that you can pet the side of their head. This sounds very basic and very infantile, but the difference you’ll make is enormous. Just being present with your sick loved one is powerful. Try to listen without judgment, and try not to give advice, only reassurance that they’re safe and loved. If your loved one is very sick and not making good choices, keep them at home. Even a trip to the grocery store could be catastrophic for their state of being. If they’re not making sense, do not let them cook or drive, and keep a close eye on them to keep them safe.

If your loved one is suicidal, take them immediately to the emergency room, because they’re going to need to Continue reading

Practical Advice For Living Successfully With A Mental Illness

There is a multitude of things I had to learn to manage when I got sick. There are many practical, everyday tasks that must be fulfilled in order to stay in the game. In all of my trial-and-error learning, I’ve figured out some very crucial things. If you’re mentally ill, I hope you learn to do all of these things too.Above the Spiral CC

The first and biggest is managing medicine. You have to take every dose at the right time every day, or it’s not going to work for you. If you feel like your medicine isn’t helping, this may be the culprit. Even the perfect medication only works if you put it in your body on time, every single day, and that is a much bigger undertaking than one would assume. I strongly recommend putting alarms on your phone for every dose-time. When I started, I had to put a backup alarm on, too, for ten minutes after my dose-time, because I got used to hearing the alarm, turning it off, and then forgetting about it and not taking my medication. If your memory is impaired (as mine is), this will be even more challenging, but if you stick to this routine, you will eventually Continue reading

Sometimes I Can Only Sit And Feel Hard Things

Since my mental illnesses presented 12 years ago, I haven’t been able to do much. This website is the largest thing I’ve accomplished since I was 19, and I’ve only been able to do this by building it slowly, little by little. It has taken me over a year. There are whole weeks when I make no progress. The past year has been more productive than I’ve been in a long time and has been the easiest year to handle since I was diagnosed. For that, I am incredibly grateful. Living well with mental illness takes skills, and I’m working on mine every day. I am making progress.Sunflower CC

In college, I abandoned school in the middle of spring semester four out of four years. Springtime always makes my symptoms more intense and sometimes even unbearable. Most of my time at Oberlin I couldn’t do simple self-care tasks like laundry, or go to class or parties; I basically could do nothing but stay in my room, sit, and try to cope. Sometimes I’d use an episode to make a painting, and god, those paintings born of episodes are the darkest ones I’ve made. None of them are on this site yet, and I burned many of them one night during a manic episode. I thought it would be cleansing. It was just destructive. I get a lot of “great” ideas when I’m manic, and Continue reading

My Paranoia, Delusions, and Hallucinations

Delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia. I can only speak to my own experience. During the delusions of grandeur during mania that I’ve had, I felt really, really good about myself and thought without a doubt that I could achieve very difficult things, like using a chainsaw to illegally cut down all the trees on a road near my house overnight because the trees had grown to block the formerly beautiful view of the lake, and I was outraged. I believed that was a good idea, and that it was achievable. Fortunately, I got distracted from that plan. I also had a recurring delusion that I was going to write a book about bipolar and publish it. It would be so meaningful, insightful and true that it would become a best seller, and I’d go on a book tour to publicize it. I’d end up telling my story to Oprah herself. I started that book about five times and didn’t get far, but now I have a website about bipolar that has all my best wisdom in it, and I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me lately to share their stories and tell me that my words have helped them. Educating people about bipolar was always a goal, but during a delusion of grandeur I took it to the extreme, and I felt good about my future.

Now, what is it like to have these delusions of grandeur in the first place? All I can explain is how it feels to me. In the very few times that I have had pure mania with delusions of grandeur (almost every episode I’ve had is mixed-state, with features of both mania and depression at the same time. I get dysphoric mania, the opposite of euphoric) I have buzzed with energy, felt like I could lift a car, been quick to make witty remarks, laughed often and too loudly, talked too fast and believed I could do many different extremely difficult things if I just put in the effort. I also believed that I could put in that effort, ignoring the fact that my illness precludes me from even having a job because keeping myself alive is a full-time job itself. It was such a positive headspace that anything felt possible. I was just along for the ride, trying to have as much fun as I could. Of course, this has only happened to me a handful of times, since most of my episodes suck very much, even manic. Continue reading

What Is Madness?

I’ve been asked what the difference is between mental illness and madness. I absolutely love language, and words are important and fascinating to me. While some people find the term madness to be outdated or even offensive, with me it is a word that resonates deeply. I do not want to step on anyone’s toes here, because there are many valid ways to view mental illness, especially if you have it yourself. My answer is mine alone, meant to reflect my own experience and opinion.

I have mental illnesses, and I sometimes experience madness. Madness feels like the world is burning down around me. I can see things others can’t, I know truths others never will, and I can feel the source of universal pain flowing through me and out into the world. Madness is powerful. Madness is bold.

If I experience madness in a grocery store, I can hear the thoughts of all the shoppers, and I know deep within myself that they are all in danger, and I cannot save them. Continue reading

The Abnormal Life


A person with multiple severe mental illnesses, like myself, will never lead a “normal” life. We are not neurotypical, and cannot lead neurotypical lives. We live our own special brand of lives. These lives can be worthwhile, rich, and rewarding, even though they do contain immense suffering.

Of course, trying to get as close to normal as possible is the first big goal of treatment. Medicine, therapy, and coping skills are meant to help minimize symptoms and pain. Medication is more than half the battle, so seeing a psychiatrist and making sure you keep up to date on prescriptions is the biggest single step you can take. If you do not yet have medical treatment, you will need to work out a plan to get to a psychiatry appointment. You can involve loved ones in this. Do not be shy about asking for help. Your quality of life is on the line, and I guarantee you that you have at least one person in your life who does not want you to suffer. Ask that person to take you to the doctor. You deserve to have treatment. You deserve to live in less pain. You deserve to have your needs met.

Finding the right medicine can take time, but sticking with it until your cocktail is correct is worth the time and suffering of the trial and error process. The long-term goal is remission, and the short-term goal is the amelioration of pain. It can feel hopeless, but please don’t give up. Continue reading

Can A Bipolar Person Ever Be Happy?

I’m happy. Not always. Not even every week. But my life has meaning, regardless of how ill or healthy I am in the moment. Because of this, on days when I feel normal, I am happy.

I’m from Texas. I’m on disability income because of bipolar, and I live in my hometown. I have a healthy sense of self, loving friends, a cat, a good psychiatrist, a great therapist, and parents who live nearby. I also have mixed-state episodes, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, psychotic episodes, dissociation, random pains and sometimes insomnia. Sometimes I also have suicidal ideation.

My life now, at 31, is better than it has ever been.

Episodes are awful (I’m heading into one right now, and I am not at all excited about it). My brain’s response to stress is to shut down completely, dissociate, hallucinate, panic, and cry. My body shakes and spasms, I get dizzy and lightheaded, and I have very uncomfortable physical sensations. Because of this, I do not hold up at all in the workplace. No one really appreciates that kind of behavior on the job. I was lucky enough to get granted disability, which lets me live with just enough money to get by. I can’t make any “fun” purchases, but I can pay for my rent, electricity, and Netflix. I save what I can to make occasional “major” purchases, like getting an eye exam for a contacts prescription, which is what I’m saving up for now. I do struggle sometimes. But I’m satisfied.

When I was 18 I was on top of the world. I graduated high school in the top 5% of my class, I had won several contests for classical singing, and I was accepted to a handful of colleges, including Oberlin Conservatory, which is world renowned for their undergraduate vocal program. I had tons of friends, and I had high self-esteem and a fun life. I went off to college at Oberlin and the fun intensified. There were so many interesting people and ideas that were brand new to me. I turned 19, and after a couple months, bipolar presented. All of those happy and wonderful things, bit by bit, were taken from me.

Between 19 and 30, I longed to go back to age 18. It was the happiest I’d ever been. When I turned 31, I shifted into the new “best” time in my life. I am happier now than I was at 18. My happiness is deeper and more fulfilling. My life is beautiful. But that is not the important part.

The important part is that I still have episodes. I still have depression. I still have severe psychosis, dissociation, anxiety, paranoia, and panic. I have to find my happiness in the time between episodes. I am so lucky that I get to have those times now; for years I did not. It took 11 years to find the right combination of medicine, and 4 years of weekly therapy to learn enough coping tools to not jump straight to suicidal ideation in episodes. But I did it. Now I’m here.

Not having a job is not the worst thing in the world. I used to feel guilty for accepting government help as well as the help of my family before I realized that societies and families exist for the purpose of us keeping each other safe and alive. That is the point of communities and social support systems. I would have died if I did not accept the help that was offered.

My work is keeping myself healthy. I have to exercise, eat well, stay on a sleep schedule, take all my medicine on time, shower, do laundry, go to all my appointments, and socialize with someone in person at least once a week. Those things take up every bit of my ability, and I can’t achieve all of them every day. If I’m depressed, for example, I can eat and sleep, and maybe shower. My overall goal is to do all those things when I am expected to, but it is important and healthy to lower your expectations of yourself when you’re struggling with mental illness symptoms. I do all the work I am able to do, and I adjust according to my current capabilities.

I’m glad to not have a job. I would be having episodes every day, and I don’t like that idea at all. I also like being able to determine my own priorities for how I spend my time. In the time between episodes, things can feel so wonderful, and I’m free to do things like write on Quora, go for walks, or work on my website. I am very sensitive to the moments when I feel okay or calm. I’m able to be grateful for a happy thought or feeling. I can pay close attention to the good. Mindfulness helps me tremendously with that.

Even though I can still feel miserable, I am at peace with my symptoms. I will probably have them for the rest of my life and will need to stay on top of my treatment. In all the healthy minutes, hours, or days I am granted, I am able to see how lucky I am. I’m living my own personal happily ever after, just with the addition of episodes of misery. When the episode goes away, my happiness comes back. My real life is beautiful. I often can’t see that in episodes. Sometimes I believe things are so bad that I should kill myself. But when the storm passes, I get my life back, and it’s still beautiful.

So yes, there are bipolar people who are still sick and have good lives. I can be happy, and then sick, and then happy again. My life’s work is staying alive, and I’m even starting to get good at it. This website is a byproduct of exactly that. It’s all about survival at first. Once you get past survival, it becomes about living. Here I am, happy. Here I am, living.


Continue reading

What Is Madness?

I’ve been asked what the difference is between mental illness and madness. I absolutely love language, and words are important and fascinating to me. While some people find the term madness to be outdated or even offensive, with me it is a word that resonates deeply. I do not want to step on anyone’s toes here, because there are many valid ways to view mental illness, especially if you have it yourself. My answer is mine alone, meant to reflect my own experience and opinion.

I have mental illnesses, and I sometimes experience madness. Madness feels like the world is burning down around me. I can see things others can’t, I know truths others never will, and I can feel the source of universal pain flowing through me and out into the world. Madness is powerful. Madness is bold.

If I experience madness in a grocery store, I can hear the thoughts of all the shoppers, and I know deep within myself that they are all in danger, and I cannot save them. I weep as I walk the aisles because surely they don’t all deserve the fate that only I know awaits them. Some of them stare at me, my red eyes and snotty nose, and one even asks if I’m okay. That makes me cry harder. In the produce department, I feel hope when I see the oranges because they came from the earth. I realize that all the fruits and vegetables came from the earth, and a calm settles over the department. As soon as I turn away from the produce, waves of hostile anxiety rain down on me, and the other items in their bright-colored cardboard boxes and plastic containers are more toxic and threatening than ever.

Madness, for me, happens during psychosis. Not all of my psychotic experiences feel like madness, but madness only happens when I’m psychotic.

Words are very important to me, which is why I wanted to address this concept. I identify with the word madness because to me, madness is a concept that goes back into ancient civilizations as a common experience among a small minority of people. I know how some of the ancient prophets, shamans, and mystics felt. I can feel the rich inheritance of my insight, regardless of whether it is currently productive or not. Geniuses, artists, and mystics down the ages have experienced madness. Some were revered for it. Others were executed. Madness is as old as human history.

The difference to me between madness and mental illness is timing. Mental illness is something that is with me all hours of the day and night. Even when I have no symptoms, mental illness is with me; it’s just resting. The goal is for it to rest as often and for as long as possible, but it’s always there, waiting for me to falter so it can wake up again.

Madness only happens sometimes. I do not feel I have gone mad just because I’m currently psychotic. There is a specific feeling that I identify as madness. It happens when I’m having hallucinations and delusions (psychosis) that are particularly intense. During madness, my emotions are overwhelming. I am at the mercy of my episode. There is no calm inside of me to hold on to while my world spirals out of control. I need my partner to watch over me because I have no reasoning power left. My mind is madness. The world is madness. I cannot differentiate between my thoughts and reality. I am very frightened but unwilling to back down from the chaos around me.

My psychosis during normal mental illness, the psychosis that happens outside of madness, is easy to manage. I’ve had 12 years to learn how to keep myself safe during episodes, and I’m fairly competent at self-care. I can use coping strategies effectively, and I can self-soothe. I still suffer and hurt immensely, but I have skills now. Psychosis doesn’t have to disrupt my entire day. It may just be a couple of painful hours of self-care while doing nothing externally productive before returning to real life to wash dishes and nag my partner to pick up his socks.

Madness for me is much further removed from my control and subjective reality than most of my psychosis. There is an intense feeling inside of it that contains vast knowledge and deep pain. Everything else is just mental illness. Mental illness, I cope and manage. Madness, I merely observe.


By Emily Harrington, The Goldfish Painter


My disclaimer:

I am not a doctor or any sort of mental health professional. I am a psychiatric patient with multiple mental illnesses that I have survived for 12 years now. My secondhand knowledge comes from doctors, psychologists, therapists, books, college courses in psychology, and the internet. My firsthand knowledge comes from the feelings, experiences, thoughts, symptoms, problems, and solutions that I have lived through. I know myself well, but again, I am not a professional. The information on this site is not a replacement for getting an actual diagnosis or professional help. Coping skills are fantastic, and I hope you learn some here and that they help you, but please seek and continue real medical treatment if you are struggling with mental illness. I wish you the best. You can do hard things.

How Mental Illness Affects My Life

I am disabled because of my mental illnesses. I have bipolar II, major depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. I was diagnosed when I first presented my bipolar symptoms at age 19, 12 years ago. I also dealt with major depression as a child.

I am disabled because I have mixed-state, rapid cycling episodes with psychotic features. That means I have episodes with severe depression, mania, and anxiety all at once, in addition to having hallucinations, paranoia, and delusions. What an episode looks like for me is here: What Is a Mixed-State Episode? – The Goldfish Painter

One way my mental illnesses affect me is by reducing the number of things I can do successfully. I cannot work a job, because my episodes are not safe or appropriate for a workplace. I frequently need monitoring if I’m trying to complete tasks. At home, during an episode, there is a long list of things I can’t do, including driving, using knives, mowing the lawn, washing dishes, and lighting any of the gas appliances, because if I make a mistake with any of these tasks I can accidentally hurt myself or others. I have no desire to burn down the house. If I have an episode in public, I need help from a loved one to Continue reading