Local lifestyle blogger Karen Zainal tells us what it is like to live with bipolar disorder.
Lying in bed and unable to sleep, Karen Zainal’s mind started recalling every positive memory she had. Instead of feeling comforted, her mind darkened every sunny memory, leaving her feeling worthless and pathetic.
“I remember wondering what would happen if I just ran out onto the street into oncoming traffic. I mean, once you’ve decided that you would be better off dead, there’s very little else that you can do,” said 25-year-old Karen matter-of-factly.
Little did Karen realise that the nightmare, which was a daily occurrence, was one of the first symptoms of bipolar disorder. It took her four years and a misdiagnosis to discover that she was suffering from Bipolar II, a mental illness that causes extreme mood highs and lows.
Bipolar disorders come in two forms. Bipolar I comes with maniac episodes, where patients experience hallucinations and need to be monitored. When left untreated, this is more dangerous than the hypomanic episodes those with Bipolar II face. With treatment and the correct medication, patients with either form of the disorder can live a relatively normal life.
Today, Karen, who is working as a special needs teacher, knows a lot about her condition, so she is able to manage it. Despite having to rely on mood stabilisers for life to keep her highs and lows in check, the spunky young woman feels happier than ever.
Her harrowing encounter with Bipolar II started in 2010, when Karen moved from Singapore to the United States to attend her dream school, The University of Chicago.
She was then 19 and everything seemed smooth-sailing. She had wonderful friends, a great roommate, and was doing well in school. Things were going better than planned, until she experienced her first nightmare in 2012.
Two years into her four-year course, Karen started to feel things she could not fathom.
“I was starting to feel sad and hopeless, even though I had no reason to be upset. I was struggling to get out of bed in the morning and I just couldn’t explain it,” said the sociology major.
With the help of her roommate and friends, who forced her to get up and be accountable for her studies, Karen slowly worked her way through the dark period. To help her cope, she started a blog, Karen Writes Here, where she posts heartfelt entries and illustrations about her struggles and her successes.
However, towards the end of 2012, Karen experienced a sudden shift in emotions.
“I started functioning on less sleep. I understood my school work faster, and I was generally excited about life. I was so happy about trying new things and going out. I’m [usually] an introvert, but suddenly, I started becoming very extroverted,” recalled Karen.
Following a few months of this unexplained “high”, Karen started to crash again.
“I started feeling everything that I felt during my last depressive episode, and it was horrible,” recounted Karen.
When her friends urged her to get professional help, a doctor told her she was suffering from depression. This turned out to be a misdiagnosis. Despite being prescribed with anti-depressants, she still suffered repeated cycles of extreme highs and lows.
“Towards the end of my university education, I was in such a bad place that my then boyfriend had to sit with me as I wrote my thesis and drag me over the finishing line,” said Karen.
After her graduation in 2014, Karen realised she could not keep going through the motions of her depressive episodes.
She decided to take her mental health more seriously and started to see a new doctor regularly.
“My new doctor suspected that I had bipolar disorder, so I was put on mood stabilisers. After a few sessions, he diagnosed me with bipolar II disorder,” Karen said.
Karen was crushed when she learnt about her diagnosis.
“I could get so happy, inspired and productive during my high periods. To be told that this ‘happiness’ was actually an illness that needed to be controlled was difficult,” she said.
Last year, Karen returned to Singapore to work.
Now that her condition is stable, she hopes to inspire other young people who may be struggling with a mental illness. She updates her blog regularly with thoughts about her episodes, what she has learnt, and encouragement for others who have similar struggles.
“We all have this script that we plan for our lives, and we usually never factor in a physical or mental illness. Don’t be afraid of the uncertainty. Just keep moving forward, even if you don’t know what’s ahead.
“Be open to all possibilities, and don’t be afraid of saying that you need help. You are never alone in your problems,” said Karen.
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