*Naughty language ahead.
Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about mental illness, shall we?
I was recently diagnosed with bipolar depression, and that’s been a real kick in the pants for me.
As for Karen, she is a woman who I envision sitting in an Ohio conference room pouring over the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Model of Mental Disorders) to see what labels, categories, and conditions can be added. She is the mother-of-all-label-lovers, and I think she super sucks. Karen has painted me into a corner and slapped a stigma on me, and I won’t have it.
My mind is a menagerie, a photo album, a safe deposit box, and a creative toolkit all in one. In my mind lives a devoted mom, a guilt-ridden daughter, a rejected 13-year old, and a terrified little girl. My mind is like a movie theater that plays certain films on loop. It used to only play tragedies, snooty intellectual films, and rom-coms of impossible hilarity. Now it pretty much only shows dystopian and horror films, sprinkled with the odd nature documentary.
Inside my brain are emotions too powerful to contemplate. Love that heals and rage that eats everything it touches. My mind imagines and plans books, curricula, road trips, and remodeling plans so fast it dizzies and frustrates the onlooker or bystander. My mind is so active it literally hurts. This, it would seem, is what bipolar depression looks like.
And it lives inside my head. At least according to Karen.
Our home houses volumes of my journals dating back to adolescence, and we have a storage locker filled almost entirely with books. Books to be read and smelled and reread and fondled with loving recollections of how they changed our lives. My books are where I find my favorite people—Thoreau, John Irvin, Dante, Plato, Shell Silverstein. My books represent all the additional information I am desperate to know but cannot make either time or space for in my mind. I would have to let something else precious go.
This is the story I tell myself even though I know we don’t run out of headspace. The truth is, I am consumed by more pressing priorities. This is bipolar depression.
I have no time for leisure reading since Karen took over. She makes me do three hours of therapy three days a week, and if I were in a more cerebral place, I would break down the significance of “three” for you, but you’re not an idiot and that’s not the point of this post. I do nine hours of online therapy, plus I participate in three support meetings. I am learning about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and reading modules on everything from “The Basics of Bipolar” to assertiveness in relationships. I have new CBT coloring books and workbooks, and I will probably buy (but not read) a copy of the DSM to make sure Karen isn’t making shit up.
It is exhausting. And maddening. My mind is no good at being still. This is bipolar depression.
“Being still and doing nothing are two very different things.” This sage nugget of wisdom came from Jackie Chan (obviously) from the new “Karate Kid.” It hit me like a ton of bricks. I am incapable, it seems, of doing nothing. I cannot watch a TV show without multitasking and simply “sitting around” makes me feel like I am suffocating. I crave stillness but can’t be still in anything less than ideal conditions. I will sit down and be present if things are tidy, and if you don’t offend me, and if I perceive no threats. There are so many “if” conditions on my list that I must appear a self-absorbed creep to many. But I have no desire to be rude.
With the restlessness of a child, I suffer through others’ agendas. I sit, trying hard not to flinch, and even resort to sitting on my hands, as I go through my mental checklist of all the things I will do when my beautiful mind is free. There is a lot of ego in my condition, which tells me my ideas are not only quicker but also better than others. I see solutions for world peace and for home budgets, and I just cannot understand why everyone cannot see them. There is something wrong with you, not me.
This is what I tell myself. And this is bipolar depression.
I have been up all night (or most of it) putting my ideas into words the average human can comprehend. I bullet it and sketch it and talk aloud to myself to refute any objections I might anticipate. And then I’m ready for the hard sell. “Come on. You know it’s going to be awesome.” “Why won’t anyone trust me?” I am constantly baffled by how others cannot fully see and share my view of things.
If you reject me (or I perceive that you reject me), I will carry on with my plans. I have to, you see, for several reasons. First, you have to know how capable I am and regret not having trusted me in my infinite wisdom. Second, I have to prove to myself I am not crazy, but instead, you simply lack the energy, intelligence, or vision to understand me. I am able to pull off ridiculous feats, from writing books to starting businesses, without any help. I love these fits of creative energy and inspiration, and the ideas that come feed my soul. But they also feed my ego and solidify my belief that I am better than you. This is bipolar depression.
When the project is done and the gloating has passed, Karen’s labels are like daggers. Bipolar depression. Bipolar depression. If you haven’t guessed by now with a name like “bipolar” depression, my condition cycles between two extremes, often in rapid succession. This gave Karen the fucking brilliant idea of adding some more words to my label so technically I have “Rapid Cycling Bipolar Depression.” In other words, my highs and lows cycle a lot.
When my ideas or feelings become too wildly incongruous to yours, I began to feel really scared and rejected. The depression sets in, and thoughts of brilliance, self-reliance, and innovation vanish. “You were right, Karen. I am a mess.” This is what happens on the down cycle of my emotional roller coaster.
For every heart-pounding high, there is a gut-wrenching low. A low of self-loathing and doubt so deep sometimes it seems easier to quit the ride completely than to put myself out there again. Ever. Keep in mind, I detest roller coasters. I like road trips. I crave predictable terrain, wide-open vistas, and possibilities that go on forever. This is bipolar depression.
Finished with roller coasters permanently, I withdraw into myself. Down comforters, smoked almonds, Oreos, and coffee are the supplies I need to sink into myself for days. “No one understands me,” I say. “How could they?” Karen queries. “You’re fucking crazy.” See, I told you she was a bitch.
My depression flips my ego like a seal who is about to be an Orca’s dinner. I go from the smartest to the dumbest, the fittest to the fattest in record time. The leap from, “No one understands me” to, “No one even likes me,” happens with terrifying speed. Not so much a roller coaster really, as the ascent was a while back and the floor just dropped out from under me. Thud. I am all the fear and loathing that Hunter S. Thompson talked about, minus the Vegas bit. My body image matches my view of my insides—revulsion. Meritless. Unworthy. A fucking unlovable mess. This is bipolar depression.
I can sometimes catch a sliver of sunlight through the towel curtains that blacken my room, and I dare to look outside. Often, the light hurts my head so much I withdraw back into myself. But eventually, the pull of the light is irresistible, and I’m on my feet. Shower running, music playing, hopeful thoughts return. It is often in the shower with music blaring that the best ideas come. And the cycle begins again. This is bipolar depression.
As for Karen, she looks an awful lot like my mother, and she wasn’t trying to be hurtful with her labels. She was just doing the best she could to be helpful and to help me understand myself. But she should know better than anyone that labels are almost always a bad idea. And here’s why. Just because I have bipolar depression, doesn’t mean I am bipolar depression. You refer to a cancer patient simply as “cancer,” unless you deeply loathe and want to hurt them. The same should be true of mental illness. I am not my condition.
I am not bipolar. I have bipolar depression. If Karen spent any time with you, she would find a label or two for you also, my friend. We are all a little bit crazy, and I love my crazy, wild, overactive mind. So, yeah. Fuck you, Karen. (And thanks for everything!)