The Bipolar Lens

My view from the rollercoaster.

Petting the Pain

The problem with feeling too much.

I've always felt too much, ever since I can remember. Playing hide-and-seek was nothing short of agony; I was certain that if I hid too well I'd be lost from sight forever. Tag was even worse. I couldn't stand the suspense of being chased, so I'd just stop dead in my tracks and refuse to run. It infuriated my playmates, who teased me no end. I'd take refuge in the doghouse and cry my heart out—I cried a lot as a child—until my mother forbade it. "Stop it," she said. "You're making the dog neurotic."

I still feel too much. When you're bipolar, life is always bigger than life. Emotions are never just feelings for me, they're grand scale productions. Joy isn't joy; it's sheer ecstasy. Sorrow isn't sorrow; it's utter anguish. Frankly, it's exhausting—and it wears out the people around me.

Why does everything have to matter so much? Why couldn't I have been born with a beige disposition, that didn't go soaring up into extremes, or plunging down into absolutes? But I wonder if I would be happy with that. I can't help but think of the great old movies I loved so much and watched so intently when I was growing up. Having lived life in glorious Technicolor up until now, would I feel robbed of the spectacle if I were "normal?"

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

It's hard to say, but the promise of normal still haunts me.  So lately I've been trying to work on my emotional intensity in therapy.  I don't want to become an automaton, just tone things down a little, embrace the even keel.  It's been surprisingly difficult – emotions are like cranky children; they don't like being told what to do.  Then last week, after a particularly frustrating session, my therapist said something that struck me right between the eyes (every once in a while he belies his kooky Hawaiian shirts and comes out with something truly amazing).  "Pain is inevitable," he said to me.  "Suffering is not."

I nodded, trying to look as if I got it, wanting him to feel good about his advice. In truth, I didn't understand. Pain and suffering—weren’t they the same thing? That's how we always referred to them in the law: "Plaintiff is entitled to x amount for his pain and suffering." I couldn't see the difference. But his words felt important to me somehow and I kept mulling them over long after I left his office.

Later that night as I got into bed, it hit me: the essential distinction was time. Pain is abrupt and immediate; it strikes like a rattlesnake, sharp and sudden. Suffering evolves; it's what we choose to do with that pain. Do we embrace it, make room for it in our hearts and bodies, allow it to come in and make itself home? It seems strange that anyone would ever adopt a rattlesnake, but that's what suffering is: petting the pain that bit you.

The question was unavoidable: had I been petting my pain?

The answer was unavoidable, too: hell, yes. I was, after all, the author of two memoirs about my psychological struggles. I attended therapy, two writing groups, and a support group. For years I'd mined my pain for raw material. I'd examined it from every angle and wooed its every nuance. I was by now a bona fide connoisseur of pain. But was scrutiny the same as suffering? No, it couldn't be. It was catharsis. Right? Right?

I squirmed in bed, uncomfortable with my epiphany. The covers felt too heavy, and I kicked them off. But it was chilly that night, and in a few minutes I started to shiver. Damn it, I thought, I can never get the temperature right in this house. My teeth started to chatter and goose bumps prickled my exposed skin, but it was easier just to lie there and suffer than to get up and retrieve the covers. Easier just to feel too much, than to make the effort to fix it.

I felt intensely guilty about this. Ah, guilt: a familiar feeling. Guilt and I curled up together and I felt warmer somehow.

That's the rotten thing about epiphanies: they're supposed to make a difference. I knew I was in for a long, hard road of discovery, but I didn't have the slightest idea how to start. So I did what I have always done when emotion overwhelms me. First I stopped dead in my tracks and refused to run. Then I reached into my bedside drawer and pulled out a pen. 

"I've always felt too much, ever since I can remember," I wrote. And so the journey begins. 

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

more...

Subscribe to The Bipolar Lens

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.