Monday, November 22, 2010

Bipolar Means Always Having to Say You're Sorry

My original plan for writing about being bipolar was to do one big, long entry about it, but I think it might be more effective to give a little glimpse into different parts of being bipolar, maybe just a little at a time.  Because even reading about what it's like to be bipolar is overwhelming, which means actually being bipolar feels something like getting hit head on by an eighteen-wheeler, over and over and over again....well, you get the idea.

One of the worst parts for me about my illness is my inability to let go of an idea.  Bipolars are not only obsessive, once they get something stuck in their heads that they think is a good idea, they are also uncannily like a dog with a bone.  Once I decide I need to do something, particularly if it's something that I know might be a bad idea even though it seems like a fantastic idea to me, it's kind of like being the conductor on a train without working brakes.  You can see the car stuck ahead on the tracks and know there's a horrible collision about to occur, but you are completely unable to stop it.  Even though I have that sinking feeling in my stomach that there will be hell to pay for whatever it is I'm about to do, I know that I'm going to do it anyway.  Lack of free will is part and parcel of this disease.  Even though people think you're choosing to act a certain way, your brain is actually forcing you there, against your will.

Part of my bipolar illness is something they call "hypomania."  I never go into those floridly psychotic, run down the street naked, waving an American flag in front of the White House, yelling "sic semper tyrannis" manias, but I will think too fast, talk too much, be unable to go to sleep at night, spend impulsively, and latch onto an idea that I absolutely cannot let go of, no matter how badly I try (or the people I love try) to talk myself out of it. 

There is a difference between Bipolar I disorder, which is how most people think of the disease and Bipolar II, which is the form I have.  If you have Bipolar I, you probably should accept that no one is ever going to understand your behavior, because "just" being Bipolar II, which I am, often leaves people, at best, irritated, annoyed, and tired and, at worst, never wanting to speak to me again.  I can't imagine if I were to have the more rabid of the two forms of the disease, because having the less intense form costs me dearly on a regular basis.  Although I'm not going to quote statistics or talk about this subject much here, I believe that the reason people with bipolar are so much more likely to commit suicide than the general population is that they are constantly alienating the people that love them, pitching themselves into a black hell of depression where life no longer seems worth living.  Just my opinion.  I have nothing scientific with which to back this up.

My own journey down the bipolar path has led to some very terrible ends to relationships and repeated instances where I have had to say I'm sorry.  I burn a lot of bridges because, although I usually allow Justin's better judgment to prevail for me since I no longer trust my own, sometimes I don't listen to him and, once the damage is done, I am always both immensely ashamed that I have hurt someone and horribly sorry that I've once again forged ahead against both Justin's advice and my own better judgment, something that has been trying (a tiny, unheard little voice called "reason") to scream at me that I should just stop before I hurt someone.

Having bipolar disorder creates a lot of embarrassment for the person who has it.  Because it affects the way you behave, people don't tend to see it as an illness, but rather as a series of bad choices.  For me, those choices are usually in the form of insisting on carrying through on an action, even though I can kind of see there will be a train wreck if I insist on staying with my present course.  No matter how much I recite the Serenity Prayer, particularly the line about accepting the things I cannot change, I continuously insist to myself that whatever it is that I think I need to do is what I am going to do and wonder why no one else can see why it is such a great idea.  The fact that other people don't think it's a good idea should cause bells and whistles to go off loudly in my head, but that ability to listen to reason seems to have been left in the dust and debris that is the course of this disease.

What really bothers me is the incredible stigma that is still attached to this disorder and the fact that people who know I have it can believe my behavior is a series of choices made of free will.  There is absolutely no free will attached to anything I do while hypomanic, but the effects of my behavior are the same as if there is, and I have lost more friends and damaged more relationships while in this state than I care to remember.  Telling people I have bipolar disorder does not seem to help when I am moving forward at full speed, similar to the running of the bulls in Pamplona, and the results of my insistence on doing whatever it is I am hell bent on doing are always disastrous. 

The only thing that has ever grounded me in my life (besides medication, obviously) is my wonderful, incredibly patient husband, who serves as a steadying force, a sympathetic ear, and a guiding hand, always there to rein me back in and tell me when I am not acting rational.  And if he believes I am actually thinking logically, he will always support me and back me up.  He's a great anchor and an even better barometer for me.  If he says it's a bad idea, I try to believe him and let it go.  I don't always succeed and, when I don't, I'm usually back in the position of having to say I'm sorry once again and hope the person will understand that I didn't make the choice to do whatever it is that I did rationally or of my own free will.  Sometimes, I've just got to do what I've got to do, conseqences be damned, which leads to the inevitable black depression and the need for the apology.

Being bipolar is embarrassing, which is why I haven't, until now, shared that I have it with a lot of people.  But I'm tired of being ashamed of having something as out of my control as heart disease or diabetes would be.  Nobody asks for an illness and nobody should have to be ashamed they have it.  I am lucky enough to have found a wonderful therapist and psychiatrist, both of whom understand the best way to treat me and, between their good care, improved medication, and my husband's rational mind, I am usually able to act, for the most part, "normal."  But it aggravates me that I have to hide the fact that I have a disease because of the fear of someone's reaction.  I have been astonished to find the stigma still present even among people practicing in the psychology field, never dreaming someone who knows this is a disease would still actually make fun of it.  Until we remove the stigma from mental illness, we might as well go back to the 19th century and throw people who have it into the stereotypical sanitorium for life, because if you have to be embarrassed about a "condition" you are unfortunate enough to have, what's the point in even trying?


  1. Great article thing bipolar doesn't do is effect your writing ability and talent!. Everyone has a great part of their life and a not-so-great part of their life...I am blessed to be able to put my thoughts (and other peoples thoughts) into pictures, but I am a terribly jealous man when it come to love and an obsessive eater who loves food, but not the size of my stomach...but we learn to deal with it and try to use or good points and work on the troubled parts.

    But reading this shows you know writing, your good at it, your entertaining with it and you should be proud of what you write...thanks for sharing

  2. Aw, Chris. Thanks so much for putting it into such good perspective. I always hope the creative part of my "illness" stays with me. And I always hope to share that part with you and your artistic talent, because we make such a great team!


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