A writer's personal experience with the highs and lows of manic-depression.
Kay Redfield Jamison, the patroness saint those with bipolar disorder, dislikes the name of the illness. She prefers the term manic-depression as one can experience both extremes simultaneously. This oxymoron may baffle the outsider but as one who has suffered mixed states throughout my life there is no contradiction.
Opposites negate in math, but they compound in the real world. Drink six beers and six cups of coffee simultaneously. Will the stimulant - caffeine and the depressant - alcohol negate one another, leaving you relaxed and sober? No. You will become drunk and wired at the same time and your body will shows signs of both. THAT is a mixed state; depression and mania combined.
John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, William Tecumseh Sherman, Winston Churchill, Lyndon Johnson, Vincent Van Gogh, Alfred Tennyson, Ted Turner, Edgar Allen Poe, Ludwig Von Beethoven, Kurt Cobain, Ozzy Osbourne - I know my brethren. They stand out as bonfires on the pages of history, literature and in popular culture.
I only mention men because I can easily see the thing in them. Women are tougher read. The actress Catherine Zeta Jones sought treatment for bipolar disorder, which I never would have guessed, as her public persona is remarkably composed. Maybe the thing manifests differently between the sexes.
People like me add the color to the world's blank canvas. Perhaps evolution selected us for our creative ability; to entertain and enrich the monotonous lives of the masses. Or maybe bipolar disorder is a genetic error, like an extra chromosome; something that serves no true purpose.
I think bipolar disorder is as much a personality type as an illness. It vividly and luridly colors my reality. It provides speed of thought and the quick wit that I can spew. At times it provides a streak of creative brilliance. It also causes my worst deficiencies, my haunting self-doubts and my constant inner pain. It drives my endless search for meaning in all things, however trivial.
Calmly focusing in the moment has been my impossible dream for as long as I can remember. Now, with a supportive loving wife, medicine and the wisdom of a gifted doctor, I can usually calm down and focus. But old habits die hard. My natural inclination is to daydream and lose focus upon the boring external world; my inner world being so much more vibrant with color, sound and experience. Finding matching stimuli in the real world is evasive and fragmented. Walter Mitty, I feel your pain.
Insatiability is a characteristic. A good thing is never enough. The world is not enough. One more loop on the roller coaster; one more repetition of weight, one more mile on the treadmill; one more song; one more drink of alcohol, one more anything. The elusive end is never here but always over the next hill, or the next, or the next. Satisfaction is impossible.
I have always assumed my genes were poisoned and not to be passed on to another generation. Perhaps they are. Maybe I removed myself from the gene pool, with good cause, by not fathering children. But maybe life dictated that decision for me in too many ways to list. Did I have agency or did events control me? It seemed the latter, but I suspect there was some of the former too.
I'm surprised that I didn't die somewhere along the mad trip, but here I am. So stricken; so much despair and hopelessness; so empty the daily toil; so many terrible thoughts; so immovable the object in front of me. Death didn't sound so bad then. It does now.
I possess a permanent gnawing feeling to improve and compensate for a non-linear life dotted with wasted gaps. I try to estimate the lost time that illness took from me and I usually round it off to a decade. Ten years of my life sporadically wasted. One fifth of a lifetime. Even more is the damage inflicted by the condition on my life and other's lives. So much of my past is humiliating and depressing to dwell on. At least I remember it that way. Could the filter be faulty that my memories pass through? Or are they accurate reflections of past events? I try to forget my past, but images reappear periodically like ghosts in an old house.
I must become a new man - broken down and reformed into something better. The parts are makeshift and patch work. But like a refurbished machine I could still operate effectively. Perhaps with a brilliant flair of 'je ne sais quoi'.
Bipolar disorder is the overriding, defining trait of my life. I can no more imagine life without it than life without being left-handed or blue eyed. It has been with me from my earliest memories. My childhood behaviors were textbook. Thank God time machines don't exist. I would cringe observing me as a boy, so obviously affected. The child is father of the man.
There is no end to the recovery until the day I die. A volatile, dynamic force lives within me; at times demonic, at times incredible. The thing cannot be excised without killing the patient. It is the patient; woven into the tissue and dyed in the blood. But if I can control it, with doctor and medicine, then I can live with it and within it. Maybe I can even use it to serve me, not destroy me, as it nearly has so many times.
Is bipolar disorder an evolutionary trait chosen for its creative, dynamic aspects? Or is it an evolutionary dead end to be selected out of the human genome over time? My heart feels the former while my head thinks the latter. I usually go with head over heart in logical matters, but my head is where the demon resides that has caused so much pain in my blameless heart. Therefore, I will side with my heart on this one. All models are wrong, but some are useful. It may be useful to think there is a greater purpose to my condition, even if that is wrong.
There is a reason I have been touched with fire by this terrible privilege called bipolar disorder. There must be. It is now my purpose to find that meaning, or create it, it even if that takes the rest of my life, which I think it will.
All that said, it is now time to walk my big dog Abe. He has been pawing at me while I write this letter. Abe wisely brings me back to the external world after I have spent some time writing about my troubled and dynamic inner world. Knowing when to switch between realms is sometimes difficult and a scratch on the leg is my cue to put down the keyboard. Good boy.