The Stranger Within: It Does Get Better

Two years have passed since the day I was diagnosed with a serious mental illness. Needless to say, I was devastated and thought life as I knew it was over. But while it took a long time to come to acceptance, a wonderful doctor and an amazing support system have made it possible for me to believe in myself again. Nurses Announcements Archive Article


The Stranger Within: It Does Get Better

On my computer desk stands a brightly painted wooden figurine of a toucan, a souvenir of a part of Mexico I've never visited and probably never will. His garish red, green, and pink feathers are reminiscent of a certain tank top I bought a couple of summers ago that I would have laughed at had I been in my right mind at the time. (I don't know where the garment is now; I'm afraid it'll leap out of the closet one night and try to strangle me.)

Yes, it really happened: my psychiatrist gave me the bird. And the colorful critter serves as a good reminder that the illness he's treating me for requires constant vigilance, and that mania is NOT my friend.

It's been a long, hard road to this relative state of wellness. Many AN users who have been around for awhile know something of the process I've been through to wrestle the bipolar beast into submission, and some of them have become part of what I consider to be the most awesome support system on the planet. That support system is the reason I'm still here, the reason I've been able to reclaim a good portion of my life. I would never have learned to believe in myself again without it.

That's not to say that there haven't been losses. I am weary of losing bits and pieces of myself to this illness, and the fact that I'm a lot better than I was doesn't negate the fact that it imposes limits which have been difficult to accept. I didn't want to leave clinical nursing, but with my anxiety and inability to focus, I couldn't hold peoples' lives in my hands anymore. I don't like having to take a fistful of meds twice a day or go to bed by 11 PM every single night, even on the weekends. And I hate it when I have to go to a healthcare facility where they don't know me, and the doctor wants to go over my psych history before he even looks at what I came in for.

But there have been a great many opportunities for growth, too. I used to be a very angry person before therapy and medications; now there are few things worth getting worked up over. Once in awhile the process slips and I start arguing politics, usually on social media; when I do that, it's a good clue that I'm becoming manic and my friends and/or family will call me out on it before I can do too much damage. I've also gotten much better at catching mood episodes in the early stages and being proactive by using my PRNs and/or calling my doctor.

During a recent appointment, I expressed some frustration with the fact that I still have breakthrough episodes; it seems inconceivable to me that one can take as much medication as I do and continue to have symptoms. Actually, I had a meltdown and cursed the unfairness of it all, which wasn't very adult of me, but after two years in his care I'm comfortable enough with him to let it all pretty much hang out.

Fortunately, he has studied me very thoroughly and knows most, if not all, of my little quirks; he also respects me greatly as a nurse, and that puts the therapeutic relationship on something of a higher plane because we speak the same language. Even when I'm acting like a bratty ten-year-old because I want to be FIXED, dammit!

I am still coming to terms with the knowledge that I can't be fixed, although my condition can be managed. As he reminded me yet again, I have an illness that is episodic in nature and will recur from time to time, no matter how strict I am with myself regarding meds, therapy, and sleep. And no matter how hard it is not to beat myself up for it, I didn't ask for this and it's not my fault that I have it.

Those are difficult concepts to grasp when you're fifty-five years old and didn't even know you were sick until you were fifty-three. That was a lot of years to go untreated, but it just goes to prove that with good care and lots of support, anyone can get better.

All of us who live with mental illness have a stranger within: someone we don't like, someone we may not even want to acknowledge exists. But the only way to make peace with this person is to bring her out of the shadows and introduce her in a safe place, like a psychiatrist's office or mental-health clinic. Maybe even at your dinner table.....after all, the chances are pretty good that your family and friends have already met her.

It DOES get better. Be happy. Be well.

Long Term Care Columnist / Guide

I'm a Registered Nurse and writer who, in better times, has enjoyed a busy and varied career which includes stints as a Med/Surg floor nurse, a director of nursing, a nurse consultant, and an assistant administrator. And when I'm not working as a nurse, I'm writing about nursing right here at and putting together the chapters for a future book about---what else?---nursing.

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Ruby Vee, BSN

47 Articles; 14,026 Posts

Specializes in CCU, SICU, CVSICU, Precepting & Teaching.

Hugs!!! I'm so glad you're doing better!


2 Posts

My husband who was a nurse was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder rather late in life, he had a diagnosis of depression for years. Devastating disease, but can be manageable with medication and psychotherapy and a great deal of support. I too am a nurse and find so many in the healthcare field, have very little knowledge or compassion for what these people go through in their lives. Yes, going to a new doctor is very humbling, as most I took my husband too were looking at his med list and when no narcotics were listed they questioned him automatically. If I had not been with him, to explain his illness and his will to stay well, he would have walked out, as I think many do, when they are categorized in such a manner. Mental illness does not always equate to drug use. I know the ones we see in the hospital are more likely to be drug users, as they are the ones who are less successful in managing there illness, but not all people with mental illness deserve the stigma that we as health professionals sometimes project. I am glad that you have the support you need, keep strong, as it does get better.


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Specializes in LTC.

Viva, What an uplifting read! Thank you so much for sharing. I was diagnosed with bipolar in my early 20's, over 25 years ago. What an amazing coincidence that the day I decided to come here looking for advice on whether I should return to nursing ( I left due to my illness), the very first thing I see is your post. It is always comforting to know that someone else has "been there, done that."

I hope and pray that you continue to be strong, courageous and well.

Long Term Care Columnist / Guide

VivaLasViejas, ASN, RN

108 Articles; 9,985 Posts

Specializes in LTC, assisted living, med-surg, psych.

Thank you! And welcome to Allnurses!

There is actually a small but quite vocal group of members who are very open about their experience with bipolar disorder. If you scroll through this forum, you'll find a lot of posts/threads which discuss the issues we face as nurses living with a mental illness that's still very much stigmatized in the healthcare professions.

I left clinical nursing late last year after realizing I was basically unsafe at any speed---between the memory loss, being easily distracted, and getting overstimulated by rapidly-changing conditions, I could not, in good conscience, care for patients anymore. It almost broke my heart, because nursing and health care are all I've known for the past 20 years. Now I'm a nursing facility surveyor for the state, which is proof (even to me) that it's ALWAYS possible to resurrect a career. :)

Specializes in Correctional, QA, Geriatrics.

As always your will to not only survive but thrive awes me Viva. I don't have a mental illness but I have a couple of auto immune disorders that play havoc with my energy, mood and pain levels. It can be so frustrating to try to explain to someone that, yes on Monday I did 12 hours of driving and work but on Wednesday it took everything I had to do 4 hours without killing someone due to being labile from fatigue and pain. To be told that I should be better about monitoring my own subtle shifts in hormone and stress levels is demeaning. Actually I am usually quite self aware but I could drive myself off the proverbial cliff if I only focus inward and over analyze every twinge and strong emotion. Thank heavens my husband and long term friends know me well enough to tell when I need an adjustment to my routine meds or am simply having an especially trying day. They serve as my bodyguards in every sense of the word. Alas I have run into quite a few co workers through the years that say one of my conditions is a myth and that the other one can't possibly be that difficult to manage. One would think that fellow nurses would realize that many chronic conditions do not act like the textbook description and that by the very nature of being chronic usually do worsen through the passage of time.

It is so popular with many posters on AN to bemoan the lack of compassion among nurses. On a whole I don't believe that is true with the exception that we aren't always so quick to extend that to each other. Nurses demand a lot from each other but being less than perfect is not a sin. Indeed a mental illness or chronic health condition can make us better nurses because not only do we know first hand what it is like to live with something but we also know that we can still be successful even if we are not perfect of mind and body. I try to pass on that lesson whenever I have the chance. I am not the disease. It does not define me in whole or part any more than my eye color or height.


167 Posts

It is always wonderful to read your articles and to hear about mental illness from your perspective. I have a close family member who I am sure has a mental illness (my guess is BPD) that has yet to be properly diagnosed/treated. Although I had all but given up, your post inspires me to try yet again to suggest that she get the help she needs. Thank you.


5 Posts

So many employers offer verbal "support" of needs for pain management but do not follow through when it comes down to actual nitty gritty. BUT should you add the mental health issues you will feel the constant supervision, question and other demining attitudes to the point of questioning your ability to care for patients. At some point we are forced out of a profession we love, unable to care for the patients who desperately need our care. In the end the employers wonder just what happened.... :dead:

zacarias, ASN, RN

1,338 Posts

Specializes in tele, stepdown/PCU, med/surg.


I loved your essay. I hope that I can also salvage my nursing career. I don't know if I can continue to be a floor nurse and this scares me more than anything. The other thing is I want to go back to school but many schools require that you be working as a nurse during your coursework.

I'm glad you're doing well and that you're still working in nursing!!


Long Term Care Columnist / Guide

VivaLasViejas, ASN, RN

108 Articles; 9,985 Posts

Specializes in LTC, assisted living, med-surg, psych.
zacarias said:

I loved your essay. I hope that I can also salvage my nursing career. I don't know if I can continue to be a floor nurse and this scares me more than anything. The other thing is I want to go back to school but many schools require that you be working as a nurse during your coursework.

I'm glad you're doing well and that you're still working in nursing!!


There's a place for you in nursing. That's the thing that continues to amaze me after all these years.....there may be a gazillion nursing jobs that aren't suited for a person, but all it takes is ONE that is. You'll find it. Just be willing to consider trying something that's outside your 'comfort zone'; after all, if your current job type isn't working for you where you are, it's not apt to work for you elsewhere either. No point in jumping from the proverbial frying pan into the fire.

I wish you much luck in re-energizing your career. ?


1,026 Posts

I'm so happy to know that you are feeling well. It does remind me that life is unpredictable. We should always be happy, all the time. Because being happy makes life perfect.


124 Posts

Thank you for the assurance that I am not the only nurse in the world working hard to stay "sane" and be a nurse to help others. It's a difficult balance when you have BPD... the gift that keeps on giving. I have learned it's like managing any other disease. You have to constantly monitor symptoms, take meds, see your doctor, take care of yourself and monitor your actions. Not every day is a good day, and not every attempt is successful. But there is hope that when you are down, you can get yourself up by the boot straps and go again. Letting other nurses with BPD know they are not alone and we all struggle is a powerful thing. Thank you!

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