Lots of people make ill-advised purchases. That’s probably why there are so many barely used treadmills languishing in family basements. But for me and many others living with bipolar disorder, rash purchases can go too far.
Bipolar disorder is a brain disorder characterized by sometimes drastic shifts in mood and energy levels. People with the diagnosis can go through periods of extreme moods, both high and low, that can last weeks or months and are interspersed with times of feeling normal.
Sometimes we experience depressive lows that can drastically lower our motivation and enthusiasm for life. On the other end of the spectrum, we can enter phases of what’s referred to as mania or hypomania, often characterized by high energy and feelings of total euphoria.
In my experience, mania is like having an elastic view of reality, where regular limitations seem negotiable, including the balance in my bank account.
Mania can manifest in different ways depending on the person. A common symptom for me is entering the mentality that I have more money than I really do, which can lead to overspending.
During a manic episode, people with bipolar disorder may have an inflated self-esteem, less of an urge to sleep, and they may be easily distracted. They also may be more likely to engage in risky behavior, according to the American Psychiatric Association—and for some, that includes spending impulsively.
People experiencing mania sometimes buy things they can’t afford, or buy too many things. Others may make risky investments, gamble recklessly, or donate excessively to charity.
Of course, money troubles are not exclusive to people with bipolar disorder; but people with all sorts of mental health problems are more likely to face financial difficulty than others. In a survey conducted by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute (a nonprofit established to help people understand the link between financial difficulties and mental health) of nearly 5,500 people with mental health issues ranging from anxiety and depression to borderline personality disorder, 93 percent of respondents said they spend more when they’re feeling unwell.
Before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I made the sudden decision to go to France with my boyfriend, despite the fact that I didn’t have the funds to spend on such a glamorous trip.
I lived in Australia then and was a full-time university student, so the cost of air travel alone was exorbitant for someone in my financial position. I was also hoping to do the trip halfway through the academic year, despite the fact that I had loads of work to do. I had the very strong sense that everything—money, my studies—would work out somehow. But what was more important was for me to go to France. It didn’t seem like an unrealistic plan—the universe wanted me there. I hadto go. The rest was just details.
My thoughts at that time were coupled with other behaviors often associated with mania: I barely slept or ate, I spoke too fast, and I spent a lot of time convincing my friends to go out with me because the idea of a quiet night in bored me. I was constantly working on some random creative project or trying to learn French.
So, at 20 years old and as a student with a low-paying part-time job, I got a credit card and I went to France. But by the time I got there, I wasn’t manic anymore. I liked being there, but I now had a clearer mind-set and started to think rationally about all the things I’d failed to consider earlier. The worry and regret set in.
France was by far the biggest impulse purchase I’ve made. But for me, mania and overspending go together even in smaller-scale ways. Sometimes my purchases are a way of living out fanciful ideas. For instance, the last time I was manic I bought a CB radio thinking it would be amazing to transform the invisible radio waves around me into meaningful language. I used it once.
In general, I tend to buy lots of little trinkets and jewelry that I feel could be lucky charms or amulets. I mostly shop online because it’s easily accessible and available at all hours, perfect for when I find myself awake in the middle of the night.
The consequences of manic overspending can be devastating. Sometimes when I think of some of the things I’ve bought, I cringe with embarrassment and guilt.
In a qualitative study of British men and women with bipolar disorder conducted last year by researchers at the University of Southampton, survey participants reported maxing out credit cards and selling possessions in order to fuel their purchases, even turning out thousands of dollars in debt. Respondents also said that the financial problems that came about from manic spending episodes worsened anxiety and triggered bouts of depression and even suicidal thoughts.
It never got that bad for me, but my savings dwindled and I went in and out of credit card debt over a number of years. It felt like I was constantly alternating between veering off course and trying to get my life back on track.
My cycles of mania and depression became so exhausting I could no longer ignore them. In 2013, I finally saw a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 23.
Since being diagnosed, I’ve gotten better at predicting the times that I’m more likely to overspend and developing tricks to make it harder to spend impulsively.
Things have gotten better, and finding treatment methods that work for me—therapy, a regular yoga and meditation practice, and medication—has led me to have fewer and less severe manic episodes.
To prepare for future episodes, I take small (but important) preventive measures, like never saving credit card details on my Internet browsers and turning off one-click payment options on websites. I’ve learned to pay attention to my feelings and sleep patterns and recognize when I am at risk of tipping into mania, which then allows me to implement strategies to short-circuit the overspending before it happens, such as avoiding malls, staying off of Etsy, and not going grocery shopping by myself.
When I encounter strong impulses and feel richer than I am, it’s challenging to rein that in—but it’s not impossible.
One mental exercise that helps me control my spending impulse is to pause and remind myself of my values: the things that are important to me regardless of how I’m feeling, the goals and aspirations that I’m working towards long term. Financial security and eventual home ownership have places in my future; debt does not.
So, when I recognize that I’m feeling overly exuberant, I’ve started to take a breather and ask myself: Is this object really want I want? Mania makes answering no harder, but if I concentrate on my goals, I can pull myself back to reality.
With support from those around me, I can practice being scrupulous and honest with myself. And every time I manage to pull it off, I show myself that just because I have an impulse doesn’t mean I have to act on it. It hasn’t happened overnight, but with time, I’ve learned that I still have power over myself, even alongside my illness.