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  • Writer's pictureAngie Carel

The Mysterious Beauty of a Bipolar Brain: Amanda McNamara's Story


 

Disclaimer: The following blog discusses topics related to suicide and mental health disorders. We understand that these subjects can be sensitive and potentially triggering for some individuals. It is important to prioritize your mental well-being while engaging with this content.


The purpose of this blog is to raise awareness and provide information, but it is not a substitute for professional advice. Reader discretion is advised.

 
Amanda McNamara

Amanda McNamara is a personal friend of mine, an incredible painter and artist, and was diagnosed with Bipolar 1 disorder at 19 years old.


In May 2023 I had the unique opportunity to ask Amanda questions about what it’s like living with bipolar disorder, her mental health safety plan and experience in the hospital, and how she uses art to cope with both the depressive episodes and manic episodes that come with bipolar disorder.


Amanda is raw, open, and incredibly thoughtful in all of her responses, and the full video of our chat together can be found on YouTube!


Amanda McNamara and Angie Carel

Amanda McNamara (left) and Angie Carel - me! (right)


Bipolar disorder is a chronic mental health condition that affects a person's mood and energy levels where the individual will experience extreme shifts in mood. These shifts will go on for long periods of time as either manic episodes or depressive episodes.


During manic episodes, individuals may feel highly energetic, confident, or irritable. They may engage in impulsive behavior and get less sleep. It also can lead to a superhuman-like boost in creativity and productivity.


During depressive episodes, individuals may experience persistent feelings of hopelessness and a loss of interest or pleasure in activities they used to enjoy. It’s common to be low in energy, have a difficult time getting off the couch or taking a shower, and can lead to thoughts of worthlessness or guilt.


It’s important to note that the experiences and symptoms of bipolar disorder can vary from person to person, but we’re thankful to Amanda for sharing her personal experience with all of us!

 

What a depressive episode looks like for Amanda:


Amanda is very candid about what depressive episodes look like for her and how it has affected her relationships with family and friends. Sometimes it can be brought on by lack of routine or changes in medication, and the episodes last for months. She describes it as having “squishy brain.”


“What I call squishy brain is when I feel like my brain is play-doh and it's just got a rock on top of it and it's just smushed. It's like when you're trying to find something to eat, what sounds good? Nothing. Or even the radio when I'm depressed, what sounds good? None of this music sounds good to me. There's nothing that clicks.”


“Being diagnosed when I was 19 years old, and knowing that my family has hardships of seeing, you know, constant medication changes to find the right medicine, constant doctor visits, coming over just to do my dishes because I couldn't even get off my couch…. Taking my dog out for a walk because I didn't want to go outside…. All these heavy things – or even light things – it feels like I am a burden. I have now taken up your time. I know you love me and you would do anything for me, but I have now consumed your life as well with my heavy brain.”


Feeling that she was a burden understandably made Amanda feel intense guilt and shame that worsened her depressive episodes. In the past, this also contributed to suicidal thoughts.


For Amanda, these experiences eventually helped her form a safety plan for when her depressive episodes take a turn toward suicidal thoughts.

 

What a care and safety plan looks like for Amanda:


For many people, going to the hospital is the first thought for a safety plan when suicidal thoughts arise.


In fact, Amanda highly encourages others of this. If they don’t have a tribe of friends or family they trust, or have a current safety plan they’re happy with, Amanda says, “go to the hospital.”


However, the hospital experience ended up being more disruptive than helpful for Amanda at the time:


“Trazodone is a sleeping aid, but typically when you go into the hospital, at least from my experience, that's the first medication they'll put you on. They'll wake you up at 6:00 or 7:00 AM and say, ‘all right, morning meds.’ And then you either take the medication you’ve been on, or maybe it’s now a completely new regimen because you're in a hospital under the care of another provider than your own.”


“Then they tell me, ‘Everyone is playing Skip-Bo in the group room.”


“I basically told them I'm going back to bed, since this was Day 1 of waking up in the hospital. And they told me, ‘Well, if you don't participate in group activities, it looks like you're not trying.’ It was more disruptive than helpful.”


“And then we had group therapy, which I feel is the dumbest concept ever for mental health because everyone is on a different path in life. Especially being in a hospital, let's say I'm on Day 4 of being in the hospital and starting to feel much better, but the woman sat next to me is on Day 1 – losing her marbles, and wants to do something hurtful to herself, and is expressing how down she is, how terrible it is, where she's at…. And it's like, okay, well now I feel horrible again too.”


“For me, my personal care plan is to always have Trazodone and lithium on hand, and I have a safe place. I just felt like if that's what they're gonna do in the hospital, I'd like to do that in my own safe environment… With my dog and my bed, and just take my days of rest to regroup.”



 

What a manic episode looks like for Amanda:


“I'll wake up at 5:00 AM jolly on the spot with some song playing in my head, as if the radio was on. And I'm like, I'm ready. Do hot girl shit today. Clean, clean, clean, clean, clean. I'll start creating art. I'll just start wanting to do, oh my gosh, everything.”

When Amanda is in a manic episode, she feels like she can do anything and everything, and is eager to help others. She’s offered hygiene kits to people on the street without a home and stops at nothing to ask others what she can do to be overly helpful.


Her brain receives major hits of dopamine and serotonin spikes, and she also sees a notable shift towards a manic state of mind as summer approaches and her body becomes sensitive to the incoming Vitamin D.


During mania, her art gets created faster, she feels very productive, doesn’t care much about sleep, and feels amazing euphoria and confidence.


Reading all of that, you might think… What exactly is the downfall to this endless energy?


“It’s also like a lack of control. You're very impulsive and paranoid. You sacrifice your sleep, your eating habits. The intrusive thoughts can be repetitive and horrible. There’s irritability. And I’ll feel like I’ve aged four years. I feel like it has absolutely beat the crap out of my body.”

I asked Amanda, “if someone said to you tomorrow you can decide if you wanna live a stable or a manic life. What would you pick?”


She chose stable with no hesitation.

 

How art impacts Amanda’s mental health:


Amanda’s therapist of 5-6 years told her that she does a good job living through the process of depression without letting it consume her.


Part of what helps Amanda live through those moments is purpose, routine, and most especially – art.


Showering, hygiene, taking walks, etc. are not guarantees that you will feel better. Amanda says that purpose is a much better drive during depressive episodes, and that

“routine and consistency is the core of maintaining stability when you’re bipolar.”

Amanda used to only create art when she was manic, as the creativity and movement came quickly and easily for her in those times. When she was in a depressive episode, the creativity wasn’t flowing as effortlessly and she’d find it took much longer for her to complete her piece. She would get frustrated, but recalls what her art teacher used to tell her:


Done is better than perfect.


It’s one of the really important tenants we hold at Simple Daily Drawing! And “done” doesn't have to mean forever, either. It just means stepping away, and maybe coming back. You could come back to it at any time.


About 4 years ago Amanda started to focus on her art as a primary coping skill for consistency in her emotional toolbox, which she calls her “Fanny pack full of knowledge.”


Her primary focus is acrylic on canvas mixed with art history book pages for her collage process. However, to get her gears turning, she simply paints with her eyes closed!


Amanda fully accepts that her brain is quirky, artsy, and creative – and she owns it!


But there is one last important distinction to be made, and Amanda says it best:


“Bipolar is not who I am – it’s just a part of me.”
 

You can watch my full chat with Amanda here.



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