Tragically Optimistic: finding healing in the diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
I want you to imagine one of your happiest moments, it could be the winning of an award, an accomplishment at work, or spending time with a loved one. Most people would feel happy, most would feel a sense of accomplishment, something positive. My experience of Bipolar Disorder, as I write this 12 years after my first major collapse from a severe manic phase (more on that later), has often been that those moments of greatness were met with less than “joyous” feelings on my part, in spite of how good the moment was. Conversely, there have been times in this illness where I should have been looking at life bleakley, but I was charging forward with uncontained enthusiasm, when the circumstances called for the opposite (like being cheerful to others at a funeral).
My goal in these series of writings is to give people without a diagnosis of any mental health issue a sense of what it’s like to live in the mind of someone with it, hopefully dispelling myths about these various invisible diseases. I also hope that people learning to live with their own diagnosis can find some hope that they can live and lead productive, normal (whatever that means) lives.
According to the CDC, more than 50% people will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder in their lifetime. 1 in 25 Americans lives with a serious mental illness (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression). Finally, since 1999 the rate of suicide has increased by 35%.
Not only have I been affected by my disorder, but I’ve watched as other people’s lives have been damaged: relationships irreparably harmed, people ending up homeless, violence, suicide, addiction. I feel like the burden I carry in this life is having the front row seat to the bad stuff that happens when mental illness goes untreated and yet I know that’s not entirely true.
Modern medical and psychological science is imperfect; it’s the best we have in order to understand and treat these diseases, the truth remains is that we barely understand the mind and the nervous system. Spirituality can provide comfort to some, but can go oh so wrong when an illness goes unchecked. One could say that in this cultural climate, we’re exposing our brains to stress and stimuli that we aren’t built to manage, but this competitive culture creates a certain obsessiveness with work and not enough obsessiveness with proper nutrition, exercise, etc. Finally, (and this is coming from a guy), most of us don’t like having the “feeling” talk or “addressing our emotions” even though they exist and impact our beliefs, actions, and other behavior.
There are so many (often conflicting) perspectives on what the nature of mental illness is, what contributes to it, what causes it, and how to treat it, and even if it’s a real thing to begin with. Whatever the case is, we should learn to be more responsive to prolonged or unusual mood changes in the people in our lives, be willing to create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable expressing what they’re going through, and to not give up on those “difficult” cases (unless it’s about to cause us severe harm, but you decide your own boundaries).
In this journal, I will share my experiences, research, and encouragement in the hope that people can find their footing quicker after a diagnosis, families will understand how they can help someone in crisis, and people can learn to thrive through a diagnosis.