Bipolar disorder is the rollercoaster that takes you to the most dizzying height before plunging you into the deepest abyss. This writer tells us how she manages to hold on, despite not knowing if the track is about to come to a sudden end.
There has been a bit of a storm in this insular little teacup recently. Someone wrote a ‘funny’ piece mocking celebrities that featured descriptions of the symptoms of actual mental illnesses. That made some other people justifiably angry.
Their anger led to some outraged mudslinging. The mudslinging led to a gut-wrenching piece by the daughter of a woman with bipolar disorder. The gut-wrenching piece led to heartfelt messages of support from other people who have lived with, treated or lost someone with bipolar disorder.
As a woman with bipolar disorder who has felt the contours of her own life as daughter, wife, mother etc be irrevocably molded by it, I am not surprised to see that the other illnesses the piece referenced have been completely eclipsed by it.
Thanks to the pervasiveness of pop culture, and the mythologising of the illnesses’ association with creative giants like Plath, Woolf, Byron etc, in the (westernised) public’s imagination bipolar disorder is the rock star of mental illnesses. It is the one that always has an entourage, groupies and a nifty skull and crossbones tattoo on its ass.
Am I mocking the disease? I am. Having lived with it for about 17 years, time enough for the illness and the self to come to a respectful if uneasy impasse, I am now what I call post-victimhood.
I don’t feel compelled to share the litany of my woes with you because they are not relevant. I don’t need to tell you the frequency or outlines of my ‘cries for help’. There is no ‘I am more bipolar than you!’ contest with sequined chicken wings as a prize.
If we fall into the trap of making it so, stridently, we imbue it with precisely the kind of romanticism we need to discard if we are to lead full, meaningful lives. Like the people in wheelchairs who will not let their disabilities keep them from tasting life’s pleasures, we who live with ‘an unquiet mind’ must also learn to expect nothing from anyone but our selves.
Because I don’t believe the narrative that says all those with this illness will never be able to keep a job, have a (relatively) happy family or cross a road without looking both right and left, I’d like to share with my fellow bipolar rollers how — despite several full-blown episodes at both ends of the spectrum — I have managed to be largely functional without constant medication and with only the occasional trip to a headshrinker. This is in no way meant to be a substitute for professional help. In fact, these are conclusions I have come to despite, not because of, aforementioned professional help.
1. Wait till you have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder before deciding that you have bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is not a fashion accessory you can pick off the rack in a supermarket for neurosis. According to an expert, “Manic-depression distorts moods and thoughts, incites dreadful behaviors, destroys the basis of rational thought, and too often erodes the desire and will to live.
It is an illness that is biological in its origins, yet one that feels psychological in the experience of it, an illness that is unique in conferring advantage and pleasure, yet one that brings in its wake almost unendurable suffering and, not infrequently, suicide.” If you think you need help, ask for it. If someone in your life thinks you need help, consider seriously the possibility that they might be right. Go to a clinic, a hospital, a psychologist, a therapist or an online directory that can point you in the direction of any of them. Once you have a diagnosis — there are different types of BD — learn all you can about it. If your doctor happens to be one of those ‘voice of God’ doctors, get another doctor.
2. Don’t buy the hype. Having bipolar disorder does not always mean you are smarter or more creative than anyone else. If 1 in every 10,000 people with bipolar disorder is more than a little out of the ordinary, there are 9,999 people who are not. Stay with the herd. Don’t let the delusions of grandeur pick you off. They’re fun to catch up with once in a while, but up close they have teeth that aren’t meant for brushing.
3. Unless you are a phenomenon like Kay Redfield Jamison, forget about educating other people. First, because chances are you will never be completely objective. Second, because in this day and age, for those who are placed to surf articles like this, there are opportunities and resources available for those who really want to know you to do what they need to do to know you. Those who don’t are really just not that into you. Have compassion for both. In moments of levity you might feel that you are special, that you are worth it. But there are no Bipolar Olympics. Not everybody has the stomach for the emotional evisceration a roller in full swing can unleash on those around them. Don’t judge them, afterwards. Most of them fight every second of every day to not judge you.
4. Educate yourself. The net is everybody’s friend. Stay abreast of the latest treatments being favoured in more developed countries (Carrie Fisher currently says there’s nothing like Electroconvulsive Therapy, by the way). This is very important considering the next point…
5. Don’t let woefully unethical medical professionals use you as a guinea pig. Psychiatrists can be a slippery lot. To some of them, you are a petri dish with legs. The local breed in particular tends to chuck pills at you the minute you walk through their door. They don’t know how to do anything else. Have some respect for the miracle that is your brain chemistry. Don’t let anyone who has demonstrated little but a morbid curiosity about it mess with yours unless you have testimonials about their exceptional effectiveness or it is an exceptional time. If indeed it is an exceptional time, any support system you might have should research their remedies before approving it for you. Sometimes they might find that the anti-psychotic, anti-depressant or mood stabiliser they want you to take is banned in seven countries.
6. Exercise. Exercise. Exercise. I can’t stress this enough. Exercising, even something as simple as a brisk walk in fresh air, releases enough feel good chemicals to tide you over small swings. If you catch a swing as it begins, you can conceivably play a part in deciding how high or low it will go.
7. Make sure you have no vitamin or mineral deficiencies. Take steps to remedy those if you do.
8. Express yourself. If you do not write, sketch, sing, dance or speak the language of the body in sport, talk about your feelings. They don’t have to be your feelings about being bipolar. They can be your feelings about the spiritual ramifications of kitchen sinks. In most places, psychotherapy is part of frontline treatment after any kind of episode. Make a friend if you can’t afford a therapist (not surprising, considering how expensive therapy is here). If you can’t make a friend, get a dog. Or a pigeon. And when you do express yourself, don’t inhabit victimhood. Inhabit experience. Your illness is not a crutch for you to beat the rest of the world into submission with. Any support group you decide to participate in should subtly reinforce rather than dilute that perspective.
9. Don’t cry wolf. You know why.
10. Self-interrogate. Pitilessly and ceaselessly. Whenever you can. You might find, like I did, that if you work towards developing a strong sense of self, identity markers like flash cards, there will come a time, even during those highest highs and lowest lows, when the part of you that is the core of you is audible. Listen to it. Focus on it. Even if you find yourself unable to listen to that disembodied voice, fight to keep a link with it alive at all times so that, once you have finished doing that really stupid thing it was telling you not to do — jumping off a roof, say, or thinking you and those six stray dogs are a pack, or inappropriate physical contact with someone you really should not have physical contact with — you and that disembodied voice can have a conversation about what a really stupid thing that was to do. You might not enjoy the conversation, there will hopefully be a bit of egg face and shuffling around on your part, and you might find you have lost a spouse, broken a limb or gained a debt the size of Lichtenstein’s GDP, but in that conversation lies your strength.
11. Tell the people who choose to be around you that you love them. Tell them often. Tell them loudly. Say it with words. Say it with flowers. Say it with food. Say it with limbs. There is a reason bipolar disorder is considered a home wrecker. If there is anything else that carries within it the seeds of such catastrophic interpersonal destructiveness, I don’t want to know about it. Make sure that the children you raise, the mates you love and the parents who struggle to understand you know how much they mean to you because, when the dust settles on the apocalyptic emotional wasteland your last episode will leave behind it, that feeling is the only bridge they might trust enough to make their way back to you.
Or the idea of you.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 4th, 2012.