The stigma that mental illness carries, while slowly being eroded, is still not all that far removed from the days when we tried to exorcize demons out of the schizophrenic or just tossed anyone who seemed “off” or mentally disabled into a cell, only offering treatments of sedation and torture. People are by and large not comfortable sharing their personal mental health issues publicly because of the way they’ll be looked at, talked about, or treated. And it’s true; once that cat is out of the bag, it can really screw with you, especially in your professional life, which is depended on by most people to pay for their basic food, water, and shelter.
Nobody would ever treat someone who was missing a limb or had cancer like that, but there’s our culture for you.
I’ve mentioned this before in my ongoing series of “Artist Journals” published here in The Corvallis Advocate: I have a somewhat brute-ish case of bipolar disorder. Even though this runs the risk of sounding like a jackass, I feel obligated on some level to take advantage of my own openness by sharing my experience on behalf of those who can’t share their own. Or really, even just in some flagrant attempt to create awareness surrounding a cause that has shaped my life like the tide shapes the beach.
Growing Up Ill
I started to lose control around the age of 16. Losing control might sound like a strange choice of words at first, but you’ll come to understand the accuracy. It’s possible that it started earlier, but that’s as far back as I can remember having fully manic or depressive episodes, as they call them. At the time, it didn’t even register as something to think about. I’m not sure why, but it took many years to even recognize that I had a problem, let alone know what to call it.
Over the course of just a year or two anxiety became a very real and persistent threat. I started sleeping only about four to six hours a night with occasional bouts of two to three-day long insomnia. Sometimes even longer. It became easy to get pissed off at people, inanimate objects, or just “because.” It didn’t take much to start dropping into these week to two-week periods of depression every time I had a reason – and good lord, do teenagers have reasons, or what?
The only thing that seemed to help was to keep an ongoing cycle of constructive achievement. This came in the form of technical pursuits that I’d later realize were more creative than anything else. Accomplish something I felt was big, something I could slap my name on? Enter the mania – I’d get a ton of stuff done, clean my room out, organize my computer, excel in school (and actually attend school) and generally feel good, zero sleep… for about a couple of days. Rinse, repeat. It came with an inherent and complete inability to appreciate anything for more than the short period of time it let me feel good, but on the upside, that sort of insane ambition is what led me to find a lot of the things I love to do in life. Most importantly, staying manic kept the depression away. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t give thanks for what artistic ambition has done for me.
Actually, there’s a long list of confirmed and suspected individuals with bipolar disorder that let productive but tumultuous lives in the arts. To quote one of them, Frank Sinatra, “Being an 18-karat manic depressive, and having lived a life of violent emotional contradictions, I have an over-acute capacity for sadness as well as elation.”
The F Word
Mental issues are often discussed in terms of being functional and non-functional – the former suggesting that an individual can still manage to get along in life, to some extent autonomously. The thing about staying functional while suffering from most mental illness is that it warps you over time; it’s all about teaching yourself to compensate. Compensation and adaptation are human strengths. Someone with extreme anxiety might wear a watch so they have something to look at to pass time in nervous situations. In my case, I learned to bottle everything up and just ride it out, kind of like a really extreme version of just weathering that Richard Gere film you had to compromise with your wife about.
I traveled back and forth to Europe a lot in my mid-20s. Fourteen hours on a cramped plane and your anxiety level is so high you can’t even read? Just buckle up, hunker down and weather it. Can’t continue language classes because you’ve flipped out too many times and have fallen hopelessly behind? Go sit by the river for four hours, then go back home, bottle it up and watch your attempt at getting a work permit disintegrate, embarrassing your girlfriend in front of her overachieving family. Like a vampire hiding under the dirt until the sun went away, this behavior of just swallowing it all ruined a large portion of my life, as it kept me from even recognizing that something might be wrong that could actually be “fixed,” or at least worked with. It also prevented me from ever learning how to communicate feelings into words, which, of course, becomes a huge pain in the ass down the road in life for everyone.
A Pizza a Day Keeps the Doctor at Bay?
The first time I went to a doctor about what was happening was at 25 years old. She prescribed me pizza and beer. Looking back, it isn’t as funny as I thought it was. My first attempt at speaking out about what was happening to me was met with a few slices and a Paulaner wheat ale. Delicious, but not helpful.
The next time I tried was after a relationship cataclysm, when I was about 28. Given a pen and worksheet, I scored off the charts for this “bipolar disorder” thing as well as some other random anxiety disorders, and was immediately started on handfuls of white, green, pink, and orange pills, which all rotated like a merry go ’round until finally settling on a blend of lithium, Prozac, and a few other doodads to dot the I’s, cross the T’s, etc.
Without going too much into just how twisted up the health care industry is when it comes to this stuff in particular, let it just be said that it took about five years to even find the right doctor – and then about two more to get on a pharmaceutical regimen that didn’t make me want to fall asleep behind the wheel or worse. And compared to others I’ve known with the same problems, I’ve been lucky.
What’s It Like?
Probably the most important thing to do when trying to break down barriers of perception is to make an attempt at communicating experience. When an “episode” washes over a person, it changes the world they live in. It can take someone with a 150 IQ and fail them out of school, destroy a relationship or drive someone to suicide over time (see: Kurt Cobain). Manic episodes for those of us with severe symptoms can come complete with psychotic party favors, such as delusions or hallucinations. Fighting your feelings is often futile… have you ever been depressed and just snapped out of it because you felt like it? Or happy, and decided it just wasn’t for you so you wiped the elation away with a snap of your fingers? Doubtful. Now try having these feelings occur, sometimes randomly, and often dissociated from anything rational.
It is absolutely possible to feel terrible for no real reason, and be helpless to change it even when you’re fully aware of what’s happening. It sounds a lot like a prison, because it is. Only nobody really has a key for the cell. Just pharmaceuticals and perhaps therapy to add amenities to it.
When people try to describe bipolar as “simply extreme ups and downs,” it sounds to those of us with it as if someone is explaining that trees are made of “stuff.” Sadly enough, you’re going to see these “sad face, happy face” graphics all over health websites.
The Daily Grind
Even with effective medication, I still have mini episodes on a weekly or sometimes daily basis; they’re just tuned down. Eight pills a day and some serious vigilance keeps me on track. When I’ve deviated, whether by my own stupidity, a lack of money for prescriptions, whatever… it goes very badly after a week or so, and takes weeks longer to get back to “normal” even after getting back on everything. I think I might be done with that particular brand of lunacy for a while, thanks to being slapped around by some loved ones. Having support from other humans is immeasurably important. My wife seems to have developed the ability to differentiate when I’m acting like a jerk because I’m a jerk, or because I can’t help it. Everyone should be that lucky, right?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 5.7 million American adults currently suffer from some form of bipolar disorder or another. Fifteen years ago, there’s no way I could hold down a job or a relationship or a hobby. Not for more than six months to a year, max. The help I’ve since gotten should be a hell of a lot easier to get–so that those who are far worse off than I am don’t end up in jail or living on the street.
At 2.6% of the population, that’s a lot of people that are struggling – and that doesn’t even include those suffering from the myriad other mental illnesses that affect millions of others. Add that to any other persistent affliction and you’d have to be lucky to find anyone that has gone untouched. Having to worry about openness and perception should be the last worry on anyone’s plate.