Friday, January 21, 2011

BEING BIPOLAR, Part 2: Sketching Unquiet

This is the second installment of an ongoing series about living with bipolar disorder. It is well advised that if you have not done so already that you read Part 1: The Tale of the Two Chris Knights before proceeding with this chapter...

There are two difficulties that arise when writing about bipolar disorder, as one who must live with and manage the condition.

The first is: My own experiences and struggles with bipolar should not be taken by those reading this series as being one hundred percent "typical" of everyone who suffers from bipolar disorder. Neither should it be considered as professional opinion or diagnosis for your own medical purpose (there, that should stave off the malpractice lawyers 'cuz this blog has already seen way more legal nonsense than most...).

The best physicians in the world will tell you: Just as every person is his or her own unique individual, so also can it not be said that there are two patients suffering the same condition who will be exactly alike in expressing symptoms or will require the precisely identical medical ministrations. There are just too many physiological elements involved that keep matters from being that simple. And that bipolar disorder is a mental illness – with factors ranging from physical to genetic to environmental – only complicates matters.

All I can do in that regard, is to share as best I can what it has meant for me to live with and work through my own condition. Will my experiences with bipolar resonate with many people who also have suffered in one way or another because of this illness? I've no doubt that it will. And based on the astonishing amount of e-mail and other correspondence that has come in since I posted Part 1 of this series two weeks ago, it's already happening. That is one of the reasons why I chose to do this. And as I said before, I will strive to be uncompromisingly honest and sincere about what I have had to endure because of bipolar... and what I have learned from it.

The second problem is one that I am becoming increasingly aware of as my situation improves, and especially during the past number of months. And that being: It is becoming harder for me to recollect, with the detail and clarity that I would desire for this endeavor, precisely what the experience of a bipolar episode is like.

I don't think that's unfair though, to anyone. I mean, c'mon: this really is the most freedom and liberation that I have ever been capable of enjoying in, literally, my entire life. I can not possibly express with words the wonder and elation... and optimism and hope... that has filled my life in these past few months. No longer do I have to fight against my own mind to keep it from overtaking me, from hurting me and those that I care about. After decades of not able to know any better, and I am...

...well, I feel like a kid in a candy store, to put it mildly.

So I think that most people will forgive me if I disclose now that although I do remember all too well what bipolar has done to me, that I'm thankful that Lord willing I'll never have to endure it firsthand like that again.

But that said, I think that there's plenty that I can write about being bipolar...

Defining An Illness

So... what is bipolar disorder, precisely?

It is actually a broad variety of mental illness that are specifically referred to as "mood disorders". Sometimes it is called "manic-depressive disorder", or just "manic depression". Diagnosed types include bipolar I disorder, bipolar II disorder, cyclothemia, and "borderline" conditions that do not fully meet all the criteria of full-bore bipolar. In my own case, I have been diagnosed with bipolar I disorder. It's thought that 1% of the population may have it to some degree or another.

The exact cause of bipolar disorder is still not known. However there is very strong evidence that genetics and heredity are a substantial factor. I have no reason to doubt this and in fact have firsthand evidence: my grandmother exhibited symptoms of bipolar, as did her father. My own father, happily and thankfully, has not ever demonstrated any symptoms of bipolar whatsoever (incidentally he is one of the most creative people that I have ever been blessed to have in my life... and is especially talented with his hobby of handcrafting knives). So it's altogether possible that bipolar could skip a generation or two if it conforms with what we know of heredity. But environmental and physiological factors apart from inherited traits are also thought to play some role in the onset of bipolar. It is possible that genetic predisposition for bipolar disorder is triggered by such things as severe trauma, emotional or sexual abuse, inordinately high levels of stress, or chemical abuse (i.e. drugs and alcohol).

"Bipolar disorder" most often brings to mind spontaneous outbursts or radical mood swings, usually uncontrollable anger (and all too often worse). And that is part of what it means to struggle with bipolar (well, it has been for me anyway). But that is only part of the bipolar experience. "Bipolar", by definition, entails mood swings between two drastic extremes. Sometime the pendulum veers wildly toward heights of emotion that a normal person can barely, if ever, function productively with. And that can be emotions of anger. But it can also be emotions of ecstasy, of desire, of carnality... and of confusion, of sadness, of hopelessness.

And then the pendulum swings the opposite direction. And instead of the far end of expressive mood, a person is then thrown into long bouts of depression. I'm going to write more about this a bit further down the line but please know this from the getgo: there is a huge difference between depression, and bipolar depression. Believe you me, I know what I'm talking about 'cuz I've had to endure both during some time or another in my life. "Run of the mill" depression is something that is significantly easier to abide and manage than depression stemming from bipolar. And somehow it seems as though there isn't much said about bipolar depression and how debilitating it is.

It is commonly thought that people with artistic and creative talent suffer from bipolar disorder at a much higher percentage than most other people. This notion is not without a tremendous amount of evidence. Indeed, bipolar disorder seems to be a common factor among many well-known artists, writers, musicians and scholars throughout history. Vincent van Gogh remains the classic example. Kurt Cobain also struggled throughout his life with bipolar. Carrie Fisher has spoken openly about being bipolar (going so far as to write a successful book and produce a stage show about it!). Kay Redfield Jamison – a world-renowned clinical psychologist and professor at Johns Hopkins – has bipolar and turned her own condition into a matter of study, culminating in her bestselling memoir An Unquiet Mind. Being one with a background in history I cannot but also be reminded of Iris Chang: the brilliant and beautiful author of The Rape of Nanking (I think everyone in Elon's history department read that book when it came out) who tragically took her own life in 2004 at the age of 36. Chang, also, suffered from bipolar. And it is thought that Ludwig van Beethoven and Sir Isaac Newton may have had bipolar to some extent or another.

I could also tell you what bipolar disorder isn't. F'rinstance: having bipolar doesn't mean that a person is "crazy". It doesn't mean that a person is "evil". It doesn't mean that a person is necessarily a danger to self or others. It's not something that someone... that any one... can do anything to prevent from happening. Bipolar is not anything more or less than a disease: one as real as any other medical condition that can afflict any of us.

But, all of this is pretty academic. Material that you could just as easily find in a textbook of modern medicine, or with a Google search. And if that were strictly the case, then your being here reading this blog isn't going to give you any more insight or understanding into what having bipolar is about.

'Course, me being the blogger that all two of my faithful readers have come to know and love, I aim to go further than that. Much further...

The Fountain And The Minefield

Without the regimen of medication and counseling that has finally allowed me to manage my bipolar, a manic episode could begin at any moment... but that doesn't mean that I am or have ever been the proverbial "ticking time bomb" of mental illness. However, let's just say that I am very thankful that my own condition found intervention and treatment before it could worsen to that point.

There were some days when I could wake up and feel... off. And that was a signal to me that my mind was "primed and armed" and that it could be triggered. Most of the time, I knew that I could keep that from happening to one degree or another. After a day or sometimes even a few hours, the feeling would pass. The instinct came to me over time that I should lay down on a bed or a sofa and let my mind "quiet itself" or "work things out". And usually I could proceed from there to have a normal, routine and productive day.

There were other times though when there was no warning at all that a manic episode was imminent. And invariably, those were the days... and weeks... of my worst episodes.

The triggers could be anything. Too often it was something that in any normal circumstance would be nothing at all: a mistake, a careless word, an unexpected change in plans for the day. There were even triggers that, I am sure, most people would never think of as "setting off" someone like me. How would you like it if a certain scent - no, not every time it wafted into my nostrils, 'cuz again there was no telling when I was about to have an episode – was enough to send your mood into an uncontrollable emotional tailspin?

That is what it was like.

One person who spent time living with me said that to be around me was like "walking on eggshells". That one false step would cause me to come unhinged.

I can appreciate that analogy. But it comes nowhere close to what it means to be the person suffering from bipolar disorder. "Walking on eggshells"? I had to navigate a minefield. For practically every waking moment of my life. With barely any notion as to when I would be making that one false step within my own mind that would detonate all semblance of a happy life.

Nobody should have to live in fear of that. And nobody should have to waste so much precious effort – time and energy and passion that deserves to be spent on living life to its fullest – just to keep from being overtaken by his or her mind turning against one's self.

How do I describe the agony of a bipolar episode?

Well, for the longest time now I have envisioned it as... of all things... a fountain.

A fountain in my brain. And that might be the perfect metaphor, based on what I've learned of bipolar and its neuro-chemical mechanics over the years. The image of the fountain first came to me in 2000, a few years before I was formally diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It's like a fountain that erupts dark, angry and bitter water… and it just. Won't. Stop, until it has run its course.

Sometimes the fountain would flow for a few hours. Other times, it would erupt for days. For weeks. Especially for weeks, toward the time of my hospitalization in 2008.

And what was I like during those periods?

I wasn't anyone that you would want to know. If you've read Part 1 – and I hope that you have – you already have some idea. But bipolar wasn't only about the anger. There were also lengths of time that I fell into extreme bouts of sadness. Bouts of despair. Bouts of utter and unrealistic happiness. Bouts of... yes, hyper-sexuality. If you can name an emotion, I was compelled toward it full-throttle and against my will.

(But those were emotions. They weren't coming from who I really was... as I hope I can articulate to you soon enough.)

And then there were the days and weeks when I wasn't driven toward extremities of mood. Those were the times when I had to linger through the agony of bipolar depression. If bipolar disorder on one hand sent my mind racing with the barest restraint (if any at all) then the depressive episodes were periods completely absent of mood, or interest or motivation of any sort.

For a person who thrives on being creative and who does want to live life to its fullest, the times of depression stemming from my bipolar... in some ways those were most often the times when I did most want to die. Because those were great lengths of life without life. Vast stretches of time when I didn't, when I couldn't see a reason to live or have an interest in anything... even when I knew in the core of my soul that I really did have every reason to live and to want to live.

My Own Mind, My Own Mistakes, My Own Life

How could anybody know that his or her emotions aren't stable, when they have never enjoyed real and complete emotional stability?

Can you imagine what it is like to go from constantly monitoring your own mind for all of your life, in large part being unaware at all that you were having to do that, to suddenly not being burdened by that necessity?

I don't have to imagine it. Because I'm living it.

In Part 1, I said that the past few months have been the very best of my life. Maybe not totally "perfect", but God has brought me through so much and I can see that. I am thankful for that. I am excited about not only what life has in store for me but that I can and will be making the most of it from now on.

But along with the hope and happiness, I have also had to experience a lot of inner turmoil. During these past several months I have experienced a wide degree of emotion. I have been incredibly sad. I have been exceptionally angry. I have felt bitter about how some things have gone in my life that in retrospect, I could not have helped.

None of those are emotions that we ordinarily want to experience. Especially not when you are crying out to God for days and weeks on end for answers. Answers which, I still don't possess.

But – and this is gonna be something else that longtime readers will assume that I'm being somewhat perverse about – I am thankful for those emotions.

Because for the first time in my life, they are my own emotions.

I am glad for those feelings now. Because at last they are coming to fully complement the very heart and soul of my being, instead of being in contrary to it.

I make mistakes. I will always make mistakes, as long as I live. But for the first time, I know that they will be my own mistakes. That I can and will learn from them. That I have the opportunity to grow from them, and to continue growing into the person that God made and needs me to be. And on that note, I am even more thankful than ever for the grace of God.

The worst thing that bipolar disorder did to me, was to cause me to hurt some of the people that I have loved and cared for most. Who I really am would have never wanted that to happen. The real me was hurting, in ways that I hope nobody will ever have to understand, that my condition was causing misery and grief to those closest to me.

That was my soul that was hurting for them. Because it was my soul that loved and still loves. And bipolar, in a very curious way, has taught me something that I might not otherwise have ever come to understand...

That love... that true love... is not an emotion. And it is not a mood.

Love is a choice.

And so is hope.

And my soul has chosen to love. My soul has chosen to hope.

Bipolar disorder threw my mind and my emotions into disarray. But it couldn't do anything to the uttermost core of my being.

And now, at last, I can choose to love with all of my mind and all of my soul. I can choose to hope.

I can... and I do... choose to live.

Part 3 of Being Bipolar will be published in approximately two weeks.


SilasSt said...

It can't be easy to lay bare your soul like that. You have my respect.

Anonymous said...

Chris part 2 made me cry just like part 1 did. You have a beautiful and anointed voice in you writing and thanks for using it to write that will be very meaningful for so many people!

Erica Jones said...

I am more and more coming to understand what a bipolar person has to exist with. Chris thank you again!