mental illness issues
Earlier I wrote about the realities involved in bipolar relapse and now I want to address the question as to how to plan for a future when relapse of bipolar disorder tends to hang over your head.
I understand this question and this uncertainty. It’s very hard to live with a disease like bipolar that you know can bite you any day, any time and often without any provocation. And it can be very hard to see yourself as a serious professional, with a 24/7 career, when you know that relapse is almost a certainty, at some point.
It’s trite to say that, “no one knows what the future holds for any of us.” It’s true, but it’s hardly helpful, and it’s unfair to compare the uncertainty that the average person faces (ie, I might be hit by a bus tomorrow) to the uncertainty that a person with bipolar faces when, in his case, bipolar relapse is very likely.
So how does one plan, or even make big life decisions, when bipolar relapse means an uncertain future?
I give presentations on mental illness in different places, and one of those places is in schools. Kids aged 12-18 get to hear about mental illness, stigma and my personal story of bipolar disorder. This takes around an hour. And after hearing an hour of me speak about my personal challenges and about how I have faced down bipolar disorder are a myriad of treatment failures, the teens often feel a certain closeness with me. I suspect it is for this reason that after the presentation, so many of them come up and talk to me. They talk about how they have been in the hospital or how they have a friend with bipolar or that they think they might have a mental illness.
And, of course, if a teen thinks they have the symptoms of a mental illness I always say, “Have you talked to your parents about this?”
And I always expect them to look at me like I just said something ridiculous because when I was their age, I sure would have found the notion laughable.
But they generally don’t. Many, many of them have, indeed, talked to their parents. And what have the parents done?
I started thinking about alcoholism the other day because of some stuff going on with a friend and I started to think about how high-functioning people often don’t consider themselves alcoholics because they’re high-functioning. How can I be an alcoholic; I have a job? A family. A wife. Friends. Money. A house. And so on…
And the same is true for people with bipolar disorder. People think to themselves, “I can’t have a mental illness – I have a job.” Or, “I can’t have a mental illness – I’m a good mother.” Or, “I can’t have a mental illness – I have a degree from a top-tier school.”
But as I have told audiences over and over – mental illness happens, and it can happen to anyone.
I have attempted suicide. This is not a fact that I wish to wear on my sleeve. This is not a fact a want on my resume. This is a fact that I wish was shoved in a trunk, thrown in a closet and locked away for all eternity.
And I think that most people who have attempted suicide feel the same way. There are many reasons you might want to forget but one of them is the shame associated with a suicide attempt. Many people around you and you, yourself, might consider attempting suicide shameful.
We get the notion of shame from those around us. Imagine looks of scorn if someone happens to belong to a religious community that considers suicide a sin and has no compassion for those who have attempted it. Imagine embarrassed parents forbidding their children to wear short sleeves so that the scars on their wrists are never seen. Imagine the person arriving home from the hospital, after a suicide attempt, not to a welcome home party but to pained silences and looks of pity and contempt. These are the realities that people who have attempted suicide face. And do we feel shame about what we’ve done? Many of us do.
Sometimes I’m Just Mad
As I have stated, over and over, that to experience bipolar disorder is to experience such inflated emotions that they swallow you whole. Bipolar emotions are bigger than you and the particularly nasty ones are bigger than any therapy or coping skill could ever be.
However, not every emotion is a bipolar emotion. Just because I feel a strong emotion like anger, sadness or elation, that doesn’t mean it’s a bipolar overreaction I’m feeling. It’s not necessarily depression, mania or hypomania. Sometimes, people with bipolar disorder feel just like everyone else. Sometimes we’re just reasonably mad.
I have written a lot about what to do before, during and after a suicide attempt. I guess that’s because the people who read my work are the survivors and the loved ones, mostly, of suicide survivors.
But there’s a very underserved community in conjunction with suicide and that is the loved ones left behind by suicide. They are suicide survivors too. These people are left with a void. These people are left with a hole in their hearts and a hole in the information that’s available. But there are things I think you should know if your loved one commits suicide.
Among many things, I have been accused of dismissing the pain of psychiatric patients. Oh, excuse me, “psychiatric survivors.” And I would like to clarify something – I have done no such thing. I, personally, have my own painful stories about psychiatry and I don’t dismiss mine so why, exactly, would I dismiss anyone else’s?
The Bipolar Burble blog welcomes Missy Douglas Ph.D, a British artist and writer with bipolar disorder who works under the studio name ucki ood. Her latest project, the 2:365 Art Book, is available now on Kickstarter.
It’s a commonly held belief that there are close links between bipolar disorder and the creative voice. If you just type the words “bipolar” and “artist” into any Internet search engine, the names of Vincent Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock and even Michelangelo scream out at you like the painted hero of alleged fellow sufferer, Edvard Munch.
Much as I hesitate to mention myself in the same breath as these four great artists, I do believe this theory to be true. As a girl, I walked the unstable line between anxiety and precociousness. If I was charming and witty, I was also withdrawn, furious and conceited in equal measure. Yet one thing was unerringly constant: the crayon in my hand. Despite various professional flirtations, what I was to become – an artist – was never really in question. By the time I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 19, it didn’t really come as a shock. I was an artist, and all artists were “crazy,” right?
And when we look at these reactions, the emotions, thoughts and actions involved form a chain. I call this the emotional chain. And this chain drives bipolar reactions both mentally and physically. But what is an emotional chain and how can be break it when need be?
I recently posted an article at HealthyPlace where I recommended some New Year’s resolutions for people with bipolar disorder. These resolutions included:
- Resolving to deal with anger
- Resolving to initiate a bipolar routine
- Resolving to track your moods
- Resolving to reduce your stress
- Resolving to learn anxiety- and stress-reduction techniques
I believe that all of these are solid, serious, doable resolutions that can improve 2014 for someone with bipolar disorder.
But when I look back at my 2013 and ahead to be 2014, I can only think of one thing: I just want my bipolar to be better.