I began behaving erratically — staying up all night, shoplifting, and dating around. Turns out, there was a name for what I was experiencing.

  • In 2019, I began behaving erratically — staying up all night, shoplifting, and dating multiple men.

  • I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which explained my behavior.

  • Finding the right medication and channeling my emotions through music helped me get my life back.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Charlotte. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

I've always been a musical person. During elementary school, I started piano and voice lessons, and in middle school I began studying classical music and guitar. In my late teens, I started writing my own music. Now, I write and record indie pop songs. This practice has always been an important creative outlet for me, but it became even more important during my mental-health journey.

While in graduate school studying for a business degree, I started to behave erratically. I'd stay up all night for multiple nights without sleep, leaning into my newfound energy and motivation by writing music all night. I also got into car crashes, totaling two cars — thankfully, no one was hurt. I started stealing from stores. I even dated three men at the same time without their knowing about each other.

I thought my behavior was just part of 'growing up'

All of this was so out of character for me, but I didn't understand what was going on. At first, I thought all of this was just part of "growing up," so I didn't see my questionable behavior as an issue. My family and friends were the ones who brought attention to the fact that I didn't seem "normal."

The symptoms lasted almost four months, and my family became really worried. At the time, I lived with my parents and younger sister, so they saw much of this playing out in real time. In January 2020, I was working at a school for kids with special needs when my mom showed up and told the school I had a family emergency. We got in the car, and she told me she was taking me to the hospital. I was surprisingly calm, and I agreed getting treatment for my mental health was a good idea.

Receiving a diagnosis was scary but explained my symptoms

When I got to the emergency department, doctors evaluated me and I was ultimately admitted.

In the hospital, I was immediately diagnosed with bipolar I, a mental illness that causes episodes of depression and mania. Manic episodes usually involve an abnormally elevated mood, which can cause people to do things they normally wouldn't — even dangerous things. This explained my actions for the previous four months.

Although the diagnosis was scary, it was comforting to finally have a name for what I was experiencing, along with a hope for treatment. My doctor prescribed an antipsychotic medication called olanzapine, which helped at first. I was in the hospital for about a week, and at that point the doctor decided I was stable enough to go home. It felt so good to sleep again and just feel more like myself.

Music helps me channel my emotions when I can't find the words

Of course, medication and therapy are the cornerstones of my treatment plan. But I also found additional ways to cope, especially through playing and writing my own music.

It's not always easy to open up to people about what I'm going through or to find the words to explain what I'm feeling. Music is a channel for me to express myself. I don't have to talk about my experiences directly to anyone; instead, I can just write a song. It has been helpful for me as I've adjusted to life with bipolar.

With bipolar disorder, it's really important to stick to a predictable schedule. Writing and playing music every day creates a routine for me, which I believe helps keep me stable. I try to play my guitar every morning after I wake up, and I notice myself feeling a little anxious if I don't get to play.

The right medication helped me get my life back on track

Like most people with bipolar, I've had a few ups and downs since my diagnosis. I was hospitalized again in March 2022, but I've been stable since then. It took some time to find the right medication for me due to unwanted side effects. In total, I've tried six medications, and I'm now on one called Lybalvi, which seems to be helping.

My mom says I'm like myself again, thanks in part to my music. When I got the diagnosis, I had been teaching music lessons for six hours every night. After my diagnosis, I had to stop working until I was stable. Now I'm getting back to teaching again, which feels good. I'm not full time, but I'm working my way up to it.

I've also continued creating my own music. I've recorded several indie pop songs recently, and I'm planning to release an album soon. I've also been performing vocals with other musicians and hope to perform my original music when I can.

My mental-health journey has been difficult, but I'm so grateful for the medical care I've received and the way music has provided a support system. When everything feels so intense, it gives me so much comfort to have an outlet for my emotions and to do something that feels familiar.

Update, 11/14: The subject's last name has been removed to protect her privacy.

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