Mental Meteorology: Why Bipolar and Depressed People Are So Damn Slef-Absorbed

September 19, 2009 at 3:57 am | Posted in Cognitive Problems, Dealing with Depression, Dealing with Mania, Sociability | Leave a comment

Depression and manic-depression create the conditions for violent inner storms.  Is it any wonder, then, that we're experts in our own internal weather?

Depression and manic-depression create the conditions for violent inner storms. Is it any wonder, then, that we're experts in our own internal weather?

I was conversing with a friend the other day about a fact that I regret, and that humiliates me: I’m self-absorbed.

On the rare occasions when I’m hypomanic, my ideas seem too brilliant and urgent for me to be bothered to wait for others to catch up. I’m so focused on the sparkling web of interconnected words and the supernovas of thought that I can’t pay attention to others’ feelings and needs.

Depression is the much more common state, and when depressed I suffer from an exquisitely painful focus on my own thoughts — thoughts of guilt over everyday slips and stutters, of terror that others will discover the bizarre nature of my thoughts, and ultimately, thoughts of death and deliquescence. The voices in my head offer furious criticism of my every word, move, and passing notion, assaulting me with cruel jibes and threats. When I’m in this frame of mind — often and often — I find it difficult to spare much time for the concerns of my friends, family, and coworkers. It feels like I’m living in the gray tunnel of a carnival ride where shrieking creatures fly at me with instructions to touch.

I’m most fascinated, though, by the self-absorption that lingers during my more normal periods (and I have been feigning normality with some success for three years now). When I’m well, I’m constantly and not totally consciously monitoring myself for signs that the illness is returning. If I laugh a little too heartily or take a corner in my car with tires chirping, I hope for a few days of mild mania; if I feel heaviness in my chest and find myself staring blankly at a to do list, I start scanning anxiously for more depression. No matter how clear the skies, I’m always scanning for storms.

In his book Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder, John McManamy characterizes this state as follows:

Yet even with our brains firmly held in place by the best medical science has to offer, there is no peace of mind. At any minute, any second, at the slightest provocation, we are all too aware that the insides of our skulls can break loose from their pharmacological moorings and indiscriminately tear down what took us a lifetime to build.

Simply losing a night’s sleep may trigger a manic episode, not to mention the stress from work or a relationship breakup. And past trauma, bad lifestyle choices, and failure to manage stress conspire to set us up like sitting ducks.

Hence the need for vigilance. Many people with bipolar disorder are encouraged to keep mood journals, which they and their psychiatrists track like meteorologists keeping watch on hurricanes in the Caribbean.

Yes, exactly.

And yet bipolar and depressed people remain capable of unusual compassion and empathy, and generally delight in offering help and advice to friends trapped in grief or sadness.

My friend (remember the triggering conversation) told me that he had suffered from a near-fatal heart infection, and that for some time after, the slightest murmur or chest pain could send him into near-panic. He believes that for months or years he was self-absorbed in much the same way as I am. As time passed, so did his vigilance, and now he is able to interact with people more freely, without that constant inwardness.

I, on the other hand, am probably under a life sentence.

Those of you who are bipolar or depressed, do you find yourselves scanning anxiously? Do you find it difficult to pry your attention from your suffering and to focus on others? Please leave comments if you wish.

Love to all.

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