I wanted to write something brief about bipolar disorder and how it has affected my life since I first had a manic episode, seven years ago now. I find overly personal accounts about this stuff to be cringey, so I won’t go into too much detail, but I wanted to try to explain some of the stuff that’s involved with the illness that perhaps will help someone who hasn’t experienced it to understand a little better.
Firstly, something I have seen written regarding mental illness before but that bears repeating; these type of illnesses are not overcome by just “manning up”. Some people seem to think they can be, that people who struggle with mental illness are just lazy or unwilling to overcome it. Certainly the attitude that somebody takes to an illness can have a big input into how they deal with the illness, but that’s really about how a person will manage an illness that is there, and will remain despite one’s intentions, or will-power. I think some people have that attitude to people with mental illnesses because they perhaps see somebody who is depressed and doesn’t seem to be making much of an effort at anything. To think that somebody is ill because they’re not trying is backwards, however; the reality is that the person is not trying because they’re ill. Depression is an illness that takes away a person’s motivation, and without motivation nothing happens. But the idea that overcoming mental illness is a matter of will is unfortunately not the case. As someone who has been dealing with this stuff for a while, I can tell you that nobody wants to be this way. If it were just a matter of will, nobody would have mental illness.
Regarding bipolar however I find the manic component to be worse than the depression. When I am depressed I withdraw, from family, friends, society. It is a pretty miserable experience, but the affect this has on other people is limited. A depressed person is no fun to interact with, and it must be very hard for those close to people with depression to see them that way. But a person in a manic state is harder to deal with, certainly this has been true in my case. During times when I have been manic I have caused problems, both for people I am close to and for people who barely know me. I have been extremely hurtful to the people close to me, saying the most hurtful things I could think of, being completely self-centred and behaving in ways that must have been extremely worrying, quite apart from being a complete embarrassment in very public ways. The people who are close to me know, however, that this is not how I normally behave, that just isn’t who I am. And so once the episode is over, and I have apologised in a complete state of mortification, they are just happy to see the normal me again and can forgive me.
It’s more of a problem with people who don’t really know me. I have at times been a complete arsehole to people I barely know. Worse than behaving in a way that is embarrassing, I’ve behaved in ways that made people think I had some problem with them, and have given people cause to think that I was a threat to them. This is the worst part of how this illness has affected my life. I am not a dangerous or threatening person, and I have no problem with anybody, but when I am in a manic state I become delusional and paranoid. The delusions and paranoia I am experiencing when I am manic cause me to act in ways that anybody would find worrying. And because these people don’t really know me, they don’t realise that I am not a malicious person at all, and that the last thing I would ever want to do is to cause anybody to be worried about me.
The way I see this illness is that it is mine to deal with. I hate that it has had a negative impact on other people, and it is for that reason more than any other that I do my utmost to manage my illness responsibly.
Apart from all that negative stuff, however, I am doing OK right now. I am lucky to have a cousin who is a good friend also, he rang me a couple of weeks ago to ask me to help him fix a boat. I’ve spent the last two weeks fixing things, which is perhaps my favourite thing to do. I also might get the chance to sail with the boat when it leaves, and see places that I never expected I would. A common feature of mental illness is rumination and a fixation on the past. I am now finally looking to the future however, and hope to be well and active and engaged with the world for as long as I possibly can.