Carlton M Davis

The Bipolar Coaster

Seesawing on the Bipolar Coaster

Up and down with Two minds

Posted Sep 15, 2010

Seesawing on the Bipolar Coaster: Riding the Edge of Madness with Two Minds


Imagine a teeter-totter with a person on each end, and combine it with a roller coaster. This is my experience of bipolar disorder. I ride up the escalator and plunge down the descent, seesawing back and forth. At the summit I rise very high - higher than in the coaster car alone, higher than others go -- then do a double descent rocking back and forth into the coaster valley where I go lower than anyone else typically does. I take this ride not alone but with a second self. The person on both ends of the seesaw is me. At the manic high end of the seesaw I feel a different self from the self at the low end of seesaw. The situation is unstable because I am always changing. Once I become the manic self, I begin the descent into the different depressed self. A shift up or down begins and the two trade places through out this ride. When one is up, the other is down. When I am A; the other is B. When I am B; my other is A. My A and B coexist with each other. They are always aware of the each other.

When I was a young man, I attempted suicide. I took 150 aspirin tablets and drank a bottle of scotch while listening to a second self urge me on to death. The voice was silent, but insistent. It spoke to me about how life was not worth living. I struggled with the voice, trying to convince it and myself that I had reason to live on. I was isolated and failing in my courses at college. The future looked bleak to me. Drunk and gradually more tired of the persistent urging, I swallowed the aspirin in large handfuls. I became nauseated and lay down thinking death would come with welcome sleep, but I did not sleep. A terrible ringing began in my ears, a ringing so bad I could neither think nor hear my second self. A barely audible voice told me I had screwed up, and begged me not to give in to death. I somehow staggered to the telephone and got help. The campus police came. I was rushed off to the hospital. My stomach was pumped. I lay in the critical ward all night listening to the ringing in my ears and the voices compete for my life. The orator for death said "Give it up." The narrator for life said "Hang on." The debate went on while I heard a third noise. The man in the neighboring bed was dying. I heard his death rattles as he fought and finally gave in to death. His death gave the final victory to my voice for life. I survived my attempt, but the voice for death stayed with me, especially when I was in the deep valley of my roller coaster in severe depression. Only my other voice that loved life kept me from doing the death ride again.

The concept of two minds directing behavior is not new. The psychologist Robert Firestone has spoken eloquently about this link between suicide and an inner voice. The inner voice drives suicidal tendencies deceptively convincing people that it is better to end their lives than to find an alternate solution to their suffering. There are many others who have studied this concept of two minds. Perhaps not specifically linking it to the behavior of suicide as Dr. Firestone had done, they have looked more generally at the concept of two minds - or brains -- determining that it is a basic condition of our biology.
The brain has two hemispheres. The left hemisphere controls the right hand and right eye and has been shown to be the locus of analytical thought and verbal communication. The right hemisphere controls the left hand and left eye and is the center of emotional and non-verbal communication. These two brains work together in a complex -crisscrossing relationship between rational and emotional, verbal and non-verbal communication. What if this cross wiring is different or abnormal? I have always thought I thought differently from my compatriots. When they thought A; I thought B. When they reacted one way; I responded the opposite. I posited once that the biochemical electro-circuitry of my minds was connected in untypical fashion. Could this be wiring of the unusual person? Could this be the underlying structure of the bipolar condition?

Much study has proceeded in the past ten years, the so called "Decade of the Brain," into the nature and interaction of our two brains. Dr. Allan Schore and Dr. Daniel Siegal of UCLA and Pat Ogden of the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute in Boulder, Colorado, lead the way in terms of how our brains work in relationship to neuroscience and psychiatry. They talk about the development of the brain. They study young children who develop their right brains first in non-verbal and emotional ways. They found that before they acquire language skills kids react non-verbally and emotionally out of the right brain. The left brain develops after the child is three. But what if two brains don't develop at the typical pace? What if one brain grows faster or more slowly than the other or if one is more sensitive to biochemical stimulation than the other? What would be the result? This could cause a fundamental difference in kind and quality of thought and action.

The conclusion of these researchers and others have reached is that emotional trauma and thus neurotic conditions are largely centered in the right brain. This could be true. I have found that in my worst states of great depression the right side of my head hurt. I suffered from deep aches inside my skull on the right side. I had trouble thinking, and moving. My arms were heavy. My legs didn't want to operate. My body became stiff. They do of course ultimately work. I can eat walk and do things, after considerable exertion. I feel as is I am not wired up properly. Somehow the neurotransmitters get hooked up to the wrong receptors and there is not enough juice flowing through the connectors. However, in mania I felt no such pain or discomfort. Everything is working perfectly - better than perfectly. I can think fast. My mind is going at top speed as if it were the fastest microprocessor in the world. I have all kinds of energy to do physical things. I want to do everything. My wiring is in super shape. Every neurotransmitter is properly connected and the biochemicals are flowing without impedance. Something biological was obviously going on as I seesawed back and forth between my super highs and my catastrophic lows.

On every seesaw there is a point of equilibrium when both ends of the balancing beam are even and the seesaw can stop teetering. Everything is level and equal before a force throws one end of the seesaw up or down. I would feel this way regularly somewhere between my manic highs and my depressed lows. As I see it here the biochemical balance is even and neurotransmitters are functioning smoothly. The system is without excessive electric force or too little electric force flowing through it. This is the point where one who feels split into two becomes one. The person is neither one way nor the other.
He or she has reached wholeness. I have reached that point through a whole gamut of resources. I have a support system of psychiatrist, family, and fellow riders on the bipolar coaster. I meditate. I take medication. I still totter a little this way and that. Everyone does. I would consider myself enlightened if I didn't. I don't ride the Bipolar Coaster anymore burning up synapses and alternately starved for fuel or gagged by it. I no longer go up and down on the roller coaster in my up and down on the seesaw. No longer does one side of my seesaw scream "Give it up and die," while the other yells, "Life is good and live."