Three Things I Learned From Living With Bipolar Disorder

by Sheila O’Shea

Living with bipolar disorder has been a challenge for me—especially when I spent years with the wrong diagnosis—but I’ve learned a lot from it. I carry those lessons with me to this day.


If there’s one thing hypomania gives you, it’s confidence. It gave me the confidence to book a flight to Japan with nothing but a hotel reservation and a list of English schools to potentially teach at. It gave me the confidence to drive from Atlanta to Hilton Head, South Carolina, and back on a single Saturday with time to take a dip in the ocean. It gave me the confidence to make 10,000 seem like an achievable number of flowers to draw.

Hypomania also put me in some difficult places, like the last-minute flight to Las Vegas I booked that wasn’t fully refundable when I was talked down from it. I’ve since learned that such confidence is better tempered with…


When I went through my mental health diagnosis at Skyland Trail, I took several cognitive tests. When I looked over the results, I was disheartened to discover that I was not, as hypomania had convinced me, a genius. My intelligence was average on one test and high average on another. I didn’t even make it above average. I also learned that the sense of mighty destiny for greatness that I sometimes had was, in fact, a symptom of my condition and not necessarily an accurate assessment of my situation. It was actually a bit of a relief. It meant that when things didn’t come easily, I could make an effort to make them happen instead of waiting for that mighty destiny to bring them to me.


Humility can veer into shame if one isn’t careful. Self-forgiveness helped me to live with all the reckless things I did in the midst of my mood episodes. I reminded myself that I was under the influence of a mental illness when I did the things I did and literally was not thinking clearly. My life has been a very bumpy road because of bipolar disorder, and I could drown myself in regrets if I really wanted to. I don’t. Self-forgiveness allows me to let go of regret and continue forward.

Having my bipolar symptoms under control doesn’t mean I have to stop being bold. My attempted trip to Las Vegas from all those years ago is finally happening soon, only this time planned out instead of done on impulse. I continue to draw flowers, even though I know it will take much longer than I calculated in my initial burst of enthusiasm. The humility and self-forgiveness I’ve learned still help me, even as I no longer have the extremes to come down (or up) from.

Living with bipolar disorder has taught me many things. Some of these lessons haven’t been easy to learn, but they’ve been necessary. If you’re living with a mental illness, you’ve probably learned from the experience as well. Don’t think that the knowledge you’ve gained has no value because it comes, directly or indirectly, from your illness. What you now know can help you for life. Embrace it.

A portrait photo of Sheila O'Shea

Sheila O’Shea is a writer, recovering poet, and one of the first graduates of the Creative Writing program at Emory University. She acted in Theatre Gael’s production of Waiting for Godot, sang on the album The Mod Mod Sounds of Middlesex, and DJed for Emory’s college radio station. She’s currently working on The Ten Thousand Flowers Project, in which she draws flowers and gives them away to people, with the intention of drawing and giving away ten thousand of them. She’s halfway through and still going! You can find out how to get one at She also works as a freelance copywriter, with an emphasis on narrative marketing. You can find out about her writing services at