Between Heaven and Hell
Living With Bipolar II Disorder
by Terri Renee Moore
The Mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
- John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)
Being born is the easy part. To live, that’s another story. It’s not easy for anyone, I imagine — living that is. But when you go to bed unsure of the person you will be when you wake up in the morning, well, it’s just very little fun indeed.
I am reborn every day. I truly never know what to expect. Who to expect. Will I want to open the shades and sing with the birds? Or will I moan at the thinnest strands of light that sneak through, and turn over, telling Emma to stop whining and cross her legs? If it weren’t for Emma, my two-year-old Lhasa-poo, I don’t think I would get out of bed, till nature forced me to, much of the time. But there are those days, sometimes weeks, those little gems that keep me going, that surprise me with their beauty. Even a gray day can be beautiful. Even I can be beautiful.
Today I am not so attractive. It has been a couple days since I showered and a week since I shaved my legs. Not a pretty picture I must say. Unfortunately for my poor neighbors, I have to take Emma for five walks a day, and not even my embarrassment can make me take a shower. I do brush my hair however. Fat lot of good that does. I suppose it’s like a falling-down drunk straightening his tie — maybe they won’t notice.
Hopefully they won’t ask how I am either — if they are so kind as to speak to me. I don’t like to lie, but there is no better answer than “fine.” Sometimes I’ll go so far as “good,” but I really feel guilty after such a bald-faced lie. They don’t really want to know how I am, do they? Once I actually said “I’ve been better.” An understatement to be sure, but just enough honesty to bring a look of horror to the inquirer’s face. So, now I just say “I’m fine.”
But I can remember those days when I actually had a spring in my step and a song on my tongue. No reason really. It’s just the way I woke up. It’s the weirdest thing. But that’s when I get to bring “great” out of mothballs. “I feel great!” Seems a million miles away at times. Today the idea is a little hazy — a bit out of focus. But I’m glad that I can remember that good days have happened and they will most likely happen again.
Why they don’t stick around, that is the perplexing question. Or why they come at all. That is the debilitating part of having a bipolar disorder — not having continuity. Continuity of purpose, of emotion, of being. How can you make plans when you don’t know who you will be that day in the future? How can you hope when hope has been smashed a thousand times? But I do. I hope. I hope that an upward swing will hang around long enough for me to get a whole semester of school in. I hope that I will feel well enough to get out of bed on the day of my appointment with the psychologist. I hope that one day there will be that pill that actually works, straightening out those damnable waves I’ve been riding for twenty years.
I’m almost afraid of beginning to take lithium or Depakote, the most common drugs used to treat bipolar disorders. Not only is there a stigma attached to it, and the possibility of organ damage, but what if they level me out at my lowest level or even in the mediocre range? After having the taste of energy and genius, of having a quick wit and boundless drive and self-esteem, how can I give up even one day of that for a lifetime of mediocrity? But what good does this flush of creativity do if it is unable to sustain itself long enough to create a lasting impression? It is consistency that makes its mark. Like the mighty Colorado carving the Grand Canyon, or our very average yellow Sun nurturing the ages of our civilization, a continuity of purpose will shine on longer than the most brilliant supernova.
But the ups feel so good. I am not full-blown manic-depressive. Bipolar II disorder has mild highs of hypomania, and relatively mild lows of depression or dysthymia. Relative that is to clinical depression and its suicidal ideations and total loss of hope and all memory of hope. Rarely do I think of suicide. But when I think I’ve finally turned the corner and made strides to a fulfilling career and happy life, I wake up. I wake up on the downswing of that pendulum and all my plans seem to fade. I wonder how much more of this horrific disappointment I can take. I don’t often reach the bottom of that pit, but I do fall far enough down to make the Sun a distant memory.
I am thankful that I don’t get psychotically manic nor suicidal — but that just means that I can’t even get bipolarity right. Nothing ever gets done — rarely does anything even get started. I lament that my God-given gifts waste away within the walls of myself. It’s embarrassing when people ask me what I do. I really don’t want to tell them how impossible it has been to keep a job. So I give them answers to the literal question. Sometimes to save face I’ll say that I am a writer and a scholar — not complete lies, but when they ask “have you been published?” I can honestly say yes, although I am reluctant to add that it was through self-publishing. And a scholar? What does that mean? I read a lot, and I synthesize the thoughts that come from it. Is that good enough? Can I be a scholar without a degree? I don’t know, but these questions are only important when considered by my fragile self-esteem. I don’t want to be known for my weaknesses. But these weaknesses have defined my life, keeping me tied down, unable to hold down a job or have any kind of relationship. They force a definition upon me that I would never choose for myself. I am disabled. The word makes me cringe and makes me feel as if I am cheating those who are obviously physically disabled. I can run and jump and sing and dance and write. What gives me the right?
The fact that I have the capability to do something doesn’t necessarily mean that I am able to call on that facility at my desire. Something else is in charge here. Chemicals, hormones, whatever — it isn’t me. How frustrating to have ambitions and a certain esteem for myself that is contradicted by this unseen force at every turn. I am not free — for I am not in control. I feel so weak, so ineffectual, so impotent.
Is Bipolarity a weakness? I suppose it could be considered a physical weakness, yes. Similar to any genetically endowed illness I would say, although it is invisible. But it is also my strength. It’s not a moral weakness, or a flawed character, or weakness of will. This makes it harder for others to understand. Especially when all they’ve known is my “up” self. This is somewhat likely since I am more apt to go out and do things when I am feeling well. I seem to be this brilliant dynamo spewing a fount of ideas and laying fantastic plans. These acquaintances are sucked in by the centripetal force of this whirlwind of energy and thought. But then is defined the difference between capability and ability. I fall. Like a red giant imploding, it all comes crashing down. My mind is still in there somewhere, but I can not find the strength to escape the gravity of my depression and fear. It can still think smartly, but certainly more slowly and more cynically. If this down period lasts more than a couple days, I may never go back to those people. I will avoid the phone and any outside contact and just fade away. Until the brightness returns.
There comes a time when the fear emerges that a downswing will occur in the midst of an endeavor. By then, the fear becomes as debilitating as the reality. Many promising paths are not taken for the fear that the mind and body will fail partway down that path taken, leaving me in unfamiliar territory, lost, lonely, and burdened with those new responsibilities gathered along the way. I began one semester as a laser — confident in my abilities in two most difficult subjects — advanced chemistry and microbiology. I maintained the highest grade in each class for seven weeks, garnering the accolades of my professors and peers, until one day I awoke a different person. Timid, unsure, disinterested entirely in laboratory work, and unable to write one sentence in my notebooks. I withdrew — both physically and mentally. Halfway through nine credit hours, I quit, causing me to lose my grants and scholarships. What could make one do such a thing? A year later I continued my studies, but not a single laboratory science was on the schedule. I changed my major and my life due to an unexpected change of mind. And now I question my destiny. Fate being the outcome of tough choices, I cower in fear in the face of such choices, not knowing what I truly want or who I will be in the end. It becomes a torrid cycle of hope and fear.
My family has witnessed the cycle. Dozens of times. It is a monstrous roller coaster that seems to offer such joy at the tops of those hills. But at the bottom, I become lazy in their eyes. I become lazy, weak, inconsiderate and irresponsible. They forget who I am, just when I need them to remind me. My family has just recently become tired of the ride and given up on becoming excited when I am up and rolling. They know that all my grand plans and intricate inventions will most likely never come to fruition. At least I am more fun to be around during those high times. But my family knows not to get sucked in anymore. That is a sad day. When even your mother loses faith in your abilities to reach your potential. It was a sad day for both of us.
But until I lose faith in my own abilities — in my hopes and dreams — I will keep on planning. How could I not? How could I not continue to learn for the day that I may use that knowledge and intelligence as a teacher or creator or discoverer? How could I not continue to hope for the day that the road ahead evens out — leading to a life of consistency and peace. Perhaps I will one day live in a world where my thoughts become action, and my dreams become the future. I will have tamed the capricious world that exists between heaven and hell.