I'm Bipolar.  You too?

I've always liked the term manic-depression.  Bipolar screens the truth.  Manic-depression tells it like it is.  And boy, do we keep our secret.  Until we don't.

Ever since I published my memoir last May, I've learned about so many people in my small town who either live with this disease or have relatives with mental illness.  I usually ask if they take medicine, and I'd guess about 30% of them do.  The remaining are not willing, or tried and nothing worked.  What I've learned, however; is that every person with the dreaded mental illness has their particular thumb print of behavior.

Mental illness falls on a spectrum. On that much we can all agree.  But that spectrum is three dimensional.  Even my psychiatrist agrees with me, and with a little thinking, the complex nature of us human beings makes this idea a no-brainer.

Say you've had one huge psychotic break, so severe that you landed in the psych ward for more than seven days.  You'd be diagnosed as Bipolar 1, just like me.  But unlike me, you may have been raised in abject poverty. Or your parent(s) may not have known how to advocate for you.  Or you may not have graduated from college.  Or you may have been living on the street.  While the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) would put us in the same place on the mental illness spectrum, our struggles — and recovery — would be entirely different.

I lived in a small town, came from a family of wealth, privilege, and secrets.  My genetics afforded me intelligence, creativity, and self-indulgence. My upbringing gave me few tools for building friendships, sharing, or helping others.  I've since learned that a basic kindness toward others can yield survival skills for us bipolar humans as much as any college certificate or art project ever did for me. 

A couple things I bet most of us have in common?   We've got our secrets about how we really feel.  We keep these feelings under lock and key. We become the socially acceptable image of what we think other people expect.  We can forget who we really are. 

Many of us learned to relieve our mental anxiety with drugs and alcohol.  Maybe all of us didn't abuse liquor, pills or street drugs, but we used an immediately available substance or activity to counteract when our brains dripped their various chemicals.  If a beer and a football game was enough for you, you can't join our club.  Sorry.  A glass of wine with dinner?  Sorry. 

I also believe that us bipolars minimize our mental gymnastics, provide a normal image to society, try to fit in,  Ultimately, some of us pretended to be what everyone else looked like for so long we forgot who we were.   That's me.

I had two traits going for me that eventually morphed my bipolar curse into a gift.  First: I hadn't drank or ingested drugs for fifteen years prior to my diagnosis. (Long story)  Second:  I was pretty open minded and willing to change.  I was willing to try medicine if medicine could make me happier.

Lucky for me, I got connected to a brilliant psychiatrist.  With my sober help, we could determine what emotions/thoughts were chemically induced and which ones were behaviorally generated.  It only took three and a half years to settle on the right medication for me.  I've been taking that medicine now for over 20 years. 

I hate the stigma Hollywood perpetuates about mental illness.  I hate that the best-seller books are only about the extremes of our brain disorders.  Drama sells, but it also stigmatizes our disease.  Society gives us a label, and fears us, so we keep our disease a secret, or we deny it.  We continue to anesthetize our anxiety with other substances and pretend that everything is fine, couldn't be better!

With all the research good people have accomplished, with all the doctors, pharmacists, and health insurers who make a living trying to do good, with all the help available; we choose to criticize and distrust.  We justify as if we know more about brain science.  We rationalize that people are out to screw us, or they are unqualified and aren't really trying to help.  They just want to make a buck.  Society reinforces the belief that somehow the experts are the villains.

I'd love to turn this social convention upside down.  So would a lot of other people.  The National Institute of Mental Illness (NAMI) is one of them.  Check it out.  And if you're from Hollywood, find a best-seller plot that doesn't glorify the extreme of bipolar diseases.  And if you've got the issues I'm talking about, think about willingness, becoming your full potential, living a peaceful and contented life.  The journey isn't easy, but it's worth it. 

  

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) puts the Bipolar disorder into Bipolar four categories.  Bipolar 1: A full-blown psychotic episode requiring hospitalization for longer than seven days.  Bipolar 2:  No psychotic  episodes, but long lasting hypomania and major depression at least once. Bipolar 3: A bipolar 3: Gets vague.  It's basically the same as bipolar 2 only less severe.  Bipolar 4 is also called Cyclothymia, which means rapid cycling of mood changes.  Many internet sites will provide more detailed explanations.

 

Margot Genger, author of Shift Happens — Breakdowns during Life's Long Hauls

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