Bipolar Explorer

Jeff Porten discovers that sanity has its downsides.


Imagine for a moment that you might wake up tomorrow to find that some fundamental, foundational aspect of your personality has changed. You’re a skydiver with a sudden fear of falling. Your taste in genders has swapped, expanded, contracted. Or, God forbid, you have a sudden, deep urge to join the Tea Party.

To some extent, and only a partial one, I’ve just described my experience of being bipolar. Each day — or rather, each time one wakes from a sleep cycle, as that cycle might not take place overnight — brings with it either a good Jeff or a bad Jeff, both of whom may be dysfunctional in subtle ways, but always seemingly at random.

That said, there are certain constants that I can rely upon, so it was with some real fear that I called my shrink to say, “This new personality that’s coming out with the new meds — I’m depressed in ways that I’ve never been before. It’s terrifying.”

And she said, as gently as she could, “Sweetheart, this is what being sane is like.” What she didn’t need to say: put a sane person into the life structures of an insane person, and he’ll react exactly as I have. A sane person requires stability and assuredness from his life, and a bipolar person spends every moment of every day breaking those structures down into rubble.

Say what you will about bipolar Jeff — and I refer to him in the third person because he very much feels like someone else — he had, on good days, a joie de vivre. An unshakeable optimism that things were going to work out, eventually, given enough time, the right meds, and the application of new strategies. A willingness to take risks — most of which were self-imposed, of course, due to the unsustainable lifestyle he lived.

In comparison to him, I feel like a newborn fawn from a Disney movie, compulsively checking the horizon for the incoming forest fire that I know is about to sweep over me. Mind you, my current situation is one which bipolar Jeff would have found comfortable, even stimulating: a little money in the bank, but not enough; a little work on the agenda, but not enough; a working road trip where I juggled some things successfully and let other balls drop into a deep chasm.

Bipolar Jeff would have, on good days, congratulated himself on the balls he kept in the air. Sane Jeff can’t seem to stop looking into the chasm, because it’s disproving something I always took for granted — sane me isn’t naturally superhuman. Somehow, I thought once the stumbling blocks were removed, I’d finally be the person that “well me” should have been from the beginning.

Well, my shrink says that’s who I am now, and it’s not surprising that I need to learn how to walk on my new legs. Nor is it surprising that the life bipolar Jeff left for me is extremely depressing, one which a sane person could look at and say, “Man, this really sucks.” At least, these things aren’t surprising to a professional — but to me, I’m getting walloped by them just when I could really use some quiet time to acclimate.

Is this really how you sane people have been living all this time? Worried about money, scared of the future, anxious over whatever might be looking over your shoulder? Because if that’s the case, sanity can go lump it. I’ll take insane me, for all of his faults and flaws, if I can get back that fundamental lack of concern that marks the irrationally optimistic.

Yes, I can spend upwards of 72 hours without getting out of bed. Yes, a single night without sleep can cause a solid week where I know better than to make any big decisions with my irrational brain. Yes, I can remember many months of my life when a big daily victory was showering and eating a meal.

But dammit, that’s better than being scared. Which is better: a scary life where you’re too dumb to notice, or a safe life where you’re too damned anxious regardless?

My doc says that this will go away, that it’s a matter of time before I learn to look at things with my new eyes and accept them as they are. To change what has so desperately needed changing since I first went mad over 20 years ago. To embrace which parts of me, in fact, I can still rely upon, even if they seem distant to me now.

But it would be easier, oh so much easier, to just fuck with my meds a little bit, to try to become less healthy, to get back some bit of the old crazy. To get back the me that I miss, and hopefully permanently jettison the me that I don’t miss at all. To find the neurochemical mix that lets me have the best of both worlds, as if such a thing could exist.

I could try that.

But that would be crazy, and I’m not crazy any more.


Jeff Porten is an Internet and Mac consultant, serial entrepreneur, and freelance writer. He can usually be found at a conference, or at a point along the Philadelphia-Washington-Atlantic City triangle. He wrote “Manufacturing Luck” for Issue #29 of The Magazine, November 2013, about two decades of eking out part of his living as a professional gambler.

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