How Bipolar Disorder Has Changed Me

December 3, 2009 at 4:22 am | Posted in My Fascinating Mood, Philosophical Problems | 1 Comment

This post to Bipolar Beat got me thinking. The author asks, How has bipolar disorder changed your life? I started scribbling away, making a numbered list, in fact, as usual.

As I wrote, though, I became aware that bipolar disorder hasn’t changed my life; it is my life. Or, at least, it’s the resistant canvas upon which I’ve painted my bright life.

I hate to say that. It seems like a bad idea to identify totally with the disease, to say that I am the disease, or that if you subtract the disease, nothing remains. Consider this, though: I had my first depression at 13, panic attacks and near-catatonic depression at 19, hypomania within the next two or three years. I started taking psych meds at 20, beginning with antianxiolytics, then moving on to antidepressants, then, at 27, to mood stabilizers. I had my first ECT at 29, and was on maintenance ECT by 35. Now here I am, a sort of mental health activist at 40. I have been seriously mentally ill my entire adult life. In many ways, my childhood was the happiest and most trouble-free part of existence. Thus it annoys me when therapists try to suggest that my problems stem from childhood — my childhood beat the hell out of my adult years.

And yet … I was a pretty weird child, too. In elementary school I spent most of recess in my “special place,” a sunny corner of the dodge ball court. I wrote in the dirt, looked at leaves, ate clover, and generally enjoyed my solitude. When I had friends, I had one at a time. By high school I was a fairly social creature, running with the kids one tier below the in-crowd, participating in a dizzying range of activities: tack, cross-country, swimming, speech, editing the school newspaper, and so forth. Looking back, that was probably the most normal phase in my life. Things changed in college, obviously.

Ever since — essentially my entire adult life — I’ve been bipolar. (I like to think that’s why I can’t pass algebra or trigonometry — the trauma, you know.)

Many people who use wheelchairs are very athletic — they race, which seems fun. I think that asking me how bipolar has changed my life is a bit like asking someone in a wheelchair how that’s affected their athleticism. People without the use of their legs can achieve amazing things, but they face very real limits, too. They will never walk, run, or dance. My barriers are psychological, but no less real.

As I write that, I realize how odd it sounds. It seems like with the right therapy anyone should be able to transcend a mere mental barrier. But it’s not true. Manic-depression is a disability in the true sense of the word: it takes away one or more crucial life functions. I have done amazing things — getting a Ph.D., traveling to Costa Rica on my own, reading my poetry in Scotland, and so forth — but I’ve always been held back by these withering blasts of depression.

I can’t help but think, then, that for me the question “How has bipolar changed you life?” has no meaning. I’ve never had a non-bipolar life. And that thought makes me sick.

Before letting this rest, I’d like to address another aspect of the question. I am inclined to be adventurous — I love the outdoors, and I love crazy schemes. I’ve rafted the Salt River at midnight. But I do know that I’ve avoided many life experiences because I sensed that they could send me completely off the rails. So there’s a paradoxical element in my personality: on the one hand, I’m constitutionally extreme; on the other, I’m deeply inhibited by the very real sense that I could lose it all on a single throw of the dice. So no drugs or alcohol, for example. I feel that I could easily wake up in a Vegas fleabag hotel married to a stranger without actually drinking, so I’ve never felt inclined to get drunk.

That’s not the life I want for myself. I want to be dependable, consistent, conscientious, responsible. Probably I make a fetish of these things precisely because they’re out of reach. But there is that part of me that always wonders what it would be like to live spontaneously, to give in to impulse. To experiment.

Love to all.


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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Bipolar Love, Steve Austin. Steve Austin said: How Bipolar Disorder Has Changed Me « Revolt and Resignation: This post to Bipolar Beat got me thinking. The au.. […]

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