The Bipolar Lens

My view from the rollercoaster.

My Top Five Pet Peeves About Being Bipolar

And Other Cranky Insights Into Mental Illness

Sometimes it's damned fine being bipolar.  When you're manic, you have access to all the world's secrets, and the world isn't shy about whispering them into your ear.  As study after study shows, bipolar individuals are often highly intelligent and empathetic, and there's a powerful connection between the illness and creativity (it's all those hush-hush secrets – we write them, we paint them, we put them to music). 

So sometimes being bipolar is actually a lark.  But sometimes isn't all times, and it isn't today.  Today I'm 100% certifiably cranky.  And I'm none too thrilled that this heightened irritability is a common symptom of the disorder.  It happens most frequently in that bizarre no man's land called "the mixed state" – which, as should be obvious from its fuzzy name, is a condition nobody really understands.  Some say it's where depression and mania collide (actually, I think I said that in my book Manic, so I'm okay with that theory).  Others define it as "agitated depression."  Still others call it "dysphoric mania."  It's also a concept in quantum statistical mechanics, so there you go:  nobody really knows what a mixed state is. 

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But I can tell you how it makes me feel.  It makes me feel like breaking things, particularly glass.  At the moment, there are some tempting vases not an arm's length beyond me, just begging to be shattered.  But I like those vases.  So instead of smashing my way through the house, I'm going to take out my disquietude on the page and present you with the following rant:

My Top Five Pet Peeves About Being Bipolar:

1)    Boyfriends who tell me I must be manic when I disagree with them.

For good reason, most bipolar people are shy about their illness – even me, and I've published two tell-all memoirs.  The problem is, we never know when stigma will erupt.  So we live in silent secrecy, too much of the time.  Even I don't discuss the details of my condition with just anyone; I choose, quite carefully, who gets to know what.  But I'm thrilled when people close to me want to know more, and start putting names to my various moods and idiosyncrasies.  It's an easy litmus test:  when a man educates himself about my illness, I know he really cares for me.  But when that same man uses his knowledge as a weapon – watch out.  We're in for big trouble.  Knowing about my illness is a sacred trust; don't abuse it.

2)    People who insist I try this or that remedy because "it's natural."

"It can't hurt you – they sell it in Whole Foods."  How many times have bipolar individuals heard that one?  And how many times have they gone out and bought the vitamin, the supplement, the herb, etc.?  Only to find out that it precipitates mania, or dangerously interacts with their prescribed medication, or is in some other way deleterious to their mental health?  It's axiomatic:  just like drugs, these substances can affect the brain's chemistry, and therefore can also have nasty side effects.  And of course, manufacturers of non-prescribed substances don't need FDA approval to market their products.  According to the New York Times, "there have been several reported cases of serious and even lethal side effects from herbal products."  I know people mean well, but enough is enough.  Stop playing doctor – it’s dangerous, and bipolar people are sometimes too desperate to grasp that.

3)    People who cajole me to exercise when I'm depressed.

I know, I know, I know.  I know all about that clinical study that showed exercise can be just as effective as anti-depressants for moderate depression.  I think it's wonderful.  I'd be out there in a minute pumping iron and doing push-ups and swimming laps and working myself up into a therapeutic lather, if only I could move.  Unfortunately, my depressions aren't moderate, they're severe.  And they're characterized by a horrific phenomenon called "psychomotor retardation" – meaning my brain sincerely wants my body to move, but my body refuses to listen.  If I could manage to do a yoga Warrior One, I wouldn't be depressed.  So let me rest.  It's as much as I can do to breathe when I'm really, truly stricken.

4)    People who try to kill my buzz when I'm hypomanic.

This is a very close call.  Hypomania is not mania, but near enough so that you have to be careful.  So doctors and friends look at me with worried faces and warn me that my mood is changing, that I'm too happy for my own good.  They don't get it because they haven't lived it.  In hypomania, you feel absolutely marvelous – not just good, you understand, but absolutely marvelous.  Everything you touch turns to gold because you yourself are golden.  You have all the charm, energy, wit, and productivity that were stolen from you in depression.  And here's the kicker:  your judgment is still intact.  You're not inclined to the reckless, self-destructive excesses of mania.  This doesn't last forever, alas; what enchantment ever does?  I know that eventually I'll sink back down to depression, or skyrocket up to mania.  But for that time when I'm hypomanic, please:  let me enjoy it.  I've probably earned a brief tryst with happiness.

5)    Bi-polar.

Enough said.

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

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