Children are naturally attuned to their senses: they learn the world through their eyes and ears and fingertips. But there are some children -- and I was one of them -- for whom such sensitivity becomes almost too much to bear. This can be true for many children with bipolar disorder, a mental illness which causes intense mood swings and heightened emotional reactivity.
In my new book The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar, I describe what it was like to go through childhood and adolescence besieged by an illness which at that time had no name. This was back in the sixties and seventies, before early onset bipolar disorder became a familiar diagnosis. But even if I didn't know what to call it, I always knew that there was something seriously wrong with me: I felt too much. I wasn't like the other kids, who enjoyed a good gruesome horror movie or a rousing game of chase. Too much stimulation, even in play, upset me. I couldn't regulate myself, bring my emotions back down to square one.
As I wrote in The Dark Side of Innocence: "Lush as it was, there were times when I regretted this acute sensibility. Late at night, a branch scratching my bedroom window was a witch's fingernail, trying to get at me. When the Santa Ana winds blew into town, my eyes glowed too bright and my skin felt like kindling, crisp and dry and ready to burn. One morning, I took a walk through our backyard, and the beauty of the bougainvillea along the pool fence proved too much for me: I lay down in the grass and sobbed."
I was like this for as far back as I can remember. My every emotion seemed amplified, as if blared from a loudspeaker. I didn't just get happy, I got giddy, silly, woozy with joy. I didn't get sad, I got sodden and morose. And like many bipolar children, anger was nearly my undoing. I could throw one hell of a temper tantrum: kicking, screaming, beating my head against the sidewalk so viciously the blood would run down into my eyes. My mother hated my "theatrics," as she called them, and I was no stranger to spankings. But I couldn't help it: feelings made me punch drunk and I didn't know how to act sober.
As I grew older, I tried to tone down my emotional extravagance by watching how other kids reacted and mimicking them as best I could -- a technique which has served me well most of my life. (When in doubt, steal normal from a stranger.) But just because my wilder feelings went unexpressed doesn't mean they went away. To the contrary, they screamed for an outlet. Our family dog bore the brunt of it.
Every night after dinner I'd run out to Mischief's dog house, sweep her up in my arms and tell her everything. I'd inevitably wind up crying my heart out, my face buried deep in Mischief's soft golden fur. But she didn't seem to mind. She loved the taste of my tears, and she'd lick them off my cheeks with unbridled enthusiasm.
Until one night when my mother followed me out after dinner and found me clinging to Mischief and bawling. "Stop it," she snapped. "You're making the dog neurotic."
I'm sure she didn't realize that she was depriving me of sanctuary, that without Mischief to turn to I'd be overcome by all the inchoate sensations that swirled around inside me. Bipolar children desperately need to express their feelings somehow, or else they run the risk of acting out or imploding.
But I got lucky, incredibly lucky. Right around this period, my father discovered my secret poetry stash and decided his baby was the next Emily Dickinson. Poetry became the perfect antidote for the too much-ness that tortured my daily life. I found containment and safety in meter and rhyme. And I found acceptance and validation in my father's shining eyes.
He couldn't have possibly known it back then, but he was saving my life -- for the rest of my life. Now, whenever bipolar disorder and its flagrant emotions threaten to overwhelm me, I turn to the page. It never fails to welcome me home; and it only rarely accuses me of theatrics.