I am bipolar. I have bipolar. When "outing" myself to people, I've always vacillated between these two sentences. But I think I've finally settled on the former. "I have bipolar" sounds like "I have tapeworms", and after 14 years of symptoms, I'm ready to say that my relationship with my disease/illness/condition/insert-word-of-your-choice-here is symbiotic rather than parasitical.
Does this mean that Bipolar Affective Disorder (BPAD) and I are frenemies, dating, married or just friends? If I had to specify on Facebook, I'd choose "It's complicated". How so? Let me count the ways.
1. I'm not sure BPAD exists the way psychiatrists say it does.
I think that story of the five blind men who try to figure out what an elephant is, is very apt for our understanding of mental illness. I don't think bipolar disorder is an incontrovertible reality. I don't have a problem with people who say, "You need antidepressants like diabetics need insulin." But I think there's much more to it than biochemistry. Not everything shows up in an MRI. I just use "bipolar" because it's a convenient way to convey the horror in one word.
"I want so badly for mental illness to be normal, everyday, ordinary, that I think it should be made an identity."
2. But I do see a psychiatrist.
On one level, I'll do anything to stop the endless, violent crying fits. So I go to a psychiatrist. And take two antidepressants and two anticonvulsants every day. If you've got a problem with that, be around to hold me every time I cry.
3. I don't necessarily want to be "cured". Just treated.
My symptoms began at 16. BPAD is inextricably part of who I am. If it were suddenly taken away from me, I could, of course, live without it, but at first I wouldn't know who I was without my moods. I don't want to have what I would call a plastic zombie brain or life, and even if I did, I don't have the willpower for it. (That willpower gets used up in brushing my teeth every day.) But I don't want to be Alice in Wonderland either -- crying so hard that everyone around me is drowning.
4. I often look around me for ulterior interests.
What's Big Pharma's role in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders? Is mental illness a reflection of the worst aspects of our culture? If acne is a symptom of a deeper hormonal problem, then how come we only treat each pimple topically?
5. I want this relationship to be "normal".
I want so badly for mental illness to be normal, everyday, ordinary, that I think it should be made an identity. Maybe then we could start talking about discrimination in the workplace, at home, in the world. Maybe we could call it brainism, like sexism, sizeism and ageism. Maybe one day we can have a movie like Philadelphia about someone who's fired from the workplace because of mental illness.
6. I want to be able to laugh about it.
Soon after my first suicide attempt, I started taking antipsychotic medication for schizophrenic symptoms; I was 19. I experienced the usual side effect of muscle rigidity. It would take half an hour for my muscles to warm up enough for me to be able to get out of bed. My parents would pop their heads in from time to time, asking, "Has the rigor mortis passed yet?" In those straits, I'll take my humour where I can get it. If it horrifies politically correct "sane" people, all the better.
"I think mentally ill and mentally differently-abled people have their own perspectives to contribute that could change the way we see and do things."
7. I think we're "special" -- and not just in the usual way.
I think mentally ill and mentally differently-abled people have their own perspectives to contribute that could change the way we see and do things. We think that the delusional and the schizophrenic need help -- and yes, they do, because they suffer -- but they also need an interested ear (how interesting, I was just going to mention mad creative geniuses like van Gogh, and the ear metaphor came up). There's a lot we could learn.
And last but not least, this "complicated" relationship makes me ask the big questions with urgency. The increased risk of fatality for sufferers of bipolar precipitates a premature midlife crisis. As Andrew Solomon, a sufferer of depression, says in The Noonday Demon, "The unexamined life is unavailable to the depressed." Mental illness isn't often an "I come bearing gifts" sort of friend -- it's more of an "I'm going to sit here with you and hold your hand silently" sort. But it does bring me a little something from time to time. Insight is one of those little somethings, and I wouldn't exchange it for anything in the world.