The Bipolar Lens

My view from the rollercoaster.

A Day in the Life of a Rapid Cycler

Up, Down, and All Over the Place

Even I have to admit I'd been a little weird the week before my birthday – soaring toward exaltation one minute, sinking to dejection the next, my emotions flitting too quickly through me to be properly felt.  Mood instability is the classic hallmark of bipolar disorder, and I wondered, briefly, if I should call my doctor and ask him to adjust my meds.  But I just chalked it up to birthday nerves.  Everybody gets them, no matter what.

I never like to admit I'm symptomatic.  It makes me feel weak and deficient somehow.  If only I was stronger, I think, I would just master my moods and be done with it.  None of this up and down, hither and thither, all over the place emoting.  There's a clinical name for such intense volatility – rapid cycling – but that doesn't make it any more palatable.    

The morning of the big day I woke up feeling just fine – delicious, in fact.  My cheeks had a slight natural flush and my eyes were extra bright.  I was looking forward to the birthday lunch my girlfriends had scheduled.  I arrived early at the restaurant to pick out our table:  a cozy nook under an arching bougainvillea that would perfectly frame my face.  When you're bipolar and worried about hiding your symptoms, you think a lot about self-presentation.

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The minute my friends arrived, I started to talk – about everything and nothing, and why not?  It was my birthday, and I had the floor.  The topic turned to travel, and I offered up my adventures in Kenya in considerable detail.  I knew I was talking way too fast when my friends stopped asking me questions and simply stared at me.

Mania loves to hear itself talk.  But I wasn't manic, I told myself.  Just naturally exuberant, because it was my birthday.  And to prove it, I forced myself to slow down and ask my friends about their own travels.  It was incredibly hard, like wrestling a kite with no string down out of the sky, but I did it.  

My friends countered with stories about India and Kyoto and Cairo and Bali.  And China.  And Thailand.  And Tibet.  By the time Himalayan spas entered the conversation, I found I had run out of things to say.  I grew quieter and quieter, feeling ever more out of place and provincial.  No one noticed.  There's nothing worse than being forlorn among friends.

The sun had shifted by then, and the bougainvillea cast a shadow over the table.  I felt the gloom invade me.  I was suddenly tired, so tired I could barely signal the waiter for the check.  Rapid cycling -- it sounds like strenuous exercise, and it is.  I felt exhausted.

Driving home down Sunset Boulevard, I started crying so hard I barely escaped a collision.  I should never try to socialize, I thought.  It always ends badly.  When I opened my gate, I stumbled over a long cardboard box.  Yellow roses, two dozen of them.  From the right guy.

As I arranged them in my favorite vase, I started to hum.  Softly at first, then what the hell – I broke out into a rousing chorus of Cabaret.  A thorn pricked my finger, and I went into the bathroom to wash off the blood.  The mirror made no sense to me:  my eyes were luminous, lit by my smile, but they were shrouded by long black streaks of mascara.  It was a most undeniably bipolar face, and for a moment, I thought again of calling my doctor.

I went back into the kitchen instead, and inhaled my yellow roses.  I would still be bipolar tomorrow.

 

Terri Cheney is the author of Manic: A Memoir and The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar.

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