Category Archives: biploar

A Kind of Evolution

I’ve been thinking about my thinking again.

Also about my feeling.

There’s a deeply superstitious part of me that hesitates to make further prognostications about … well, anything really, but especially my mental health. Likewise, the streak of stubborn pride that so dislikes being wrong doesn’t want to make any blanket statements that I might have to retract.

But, although I suppose I’ve “known” this for much of my life, in the sense that I could echo the phrase and tell you what it literally means (or, well, what I think it literally means?), I haven’t really known in the past that the only constant is change.

Ask me twenty-five years, fifteen years, ten years, five years, five months from now what that means, and I suspect I’ll give you a different-ish answer than I would give you today. My answer will change because my understanding will change. At least, I hope it will: when our minds cease to change, we are either literally or metaphorically dead.

So, anyway.

I’ve had a longish–for me, anyway–run of relatively smaller troughs and peaks in my mood. I wouldn’t describe my mood-state as “stable,” exactly: the lows just aren’t as frequently bone-scraping, and the highs aren’t quite so knife’s-edge glittery and wrathful.

I mean, nobody’s is enitrely stable (with the possible exception once again of people who are literally dead … but since we can’t ask them, we can’t know). Though maybe that’s a function of this particular phase of my evolution: I think I used to understand the neurotypical mood-space[1] as a lake, rather than a tidal basin[2].

  1. By which I mean the area occupied on a graph between the lowest of my lows and the highest of my highs.
  2. I might be using “tidal basin” incorrectly here. I’ll try to double-check it before I publish this post, but I’m afraid if I try right now I’ll fall down a rabbit hole about tides and forget to finish writing this.

The water levels of lakes are disturbed from time to time by droughts or storms, and are subject to some degree of seasonal rise and fall, but on average their levels remain fairly predictable and fairly constant.

The water level in a tidal basin, on the other hand, varies more frequently. Ebb and flow is the major constant, though its degree varies–a spring tide may bring the waves washing far up the beach; coupled with a storm, it may send the waters flooding into the streets of the nearby towns.

Perhaps most people’s mood-space is like a fairly typical tidal basin, while mine has often more closely resembled the Bay of Fundy.

A pier and a boat on the Bay of Fundy showing the water levels at high and low tides.

The Bay of Fundy at high and low tides. Screenshot from Wikipedia, because I’m lazy.

I think the rate of change from low tide to high is still greater for me than it is for many people, but it’s frequently less than it often was in the past. I am learning to manage my life and to see the imposition of boundaries that protect my mood-space as tools that enable me to do the things I love doing rather than as chains confining my wings.

I suppose it helps that I have something, now, that I love doing, and that I must do just about every day if I’m going to do it well. Ballet is a demanding mistress.

Because life is never a controlled experiment, I can’t say which of variable or combination of variables has been most responsible for this particular phase in my personal evolution. Physical activity has always been central in keeping me on a more even keel, but prioritizing good sleep hygiene is also crucial. A much-stronger social circle, a reasonably happy home life, and work that I enjoy certainly contribute as well. Likewise, it’s difficult to overstate the role that hormones play in all this, and I shouldn’t overlook hormone therapy as a factor.

Being able to identify the sensation of an uptick in mood that’s about to jump the track, and to take steps to either prevent the derailure or at least mitigate some of its harm makes a world of difference. Being willing and able to unburden myself when the dark closes in would, undoubtedly, help to reduce the time I spend in the depths of despair, and would probably lift the floor a bit, so to speak.

I’m still working on that last one.

Everything we do changes us constantly on the most literal and fundamental level: our bodies and our brains adapt. Undoubtedly, my brain has been changing all along. I hope its current configuration is wired for a bit more stability: but it will continue to change, and I think I would be foolish to conclude that my brain is now much better at braining in this stressful modern world and that I don’t need to keep working on it.

In the hardest, darkest moments, that knowledge is almost unbearable. It seems like so much work, so much effort, for so little return.

Right now, though, in this moment of clear, calm light–a kind of pearl-grey springtime light–I realize that what seems, at other times, like so much work and such an exhausting struggle seems, right now, like simply life and living.

This is a change. I’m not going to shout, “Aha! I’ve figured it out!” because I’m quite sure that I haven’t. There was a phase in my life during which I’d reach a kind of equilibrium and feel like I’d reached the end of the novel and now all the struggle and confusion was behindme and it would be clear sailing (feel free to have a chuckle). 

Another phase followed in which I rather violently distrusted the sensation of equilibrium because it felt like a bait-and-switch: I had learned enough to know that it was almost certainly going to end, but not enough to stop resenting and fighting the end of equilibrium.

Now I’m in a phase where I can accept the idea that although this equilibrium is pleasant, it’s also temporary; that something is going to come along and trouble the waters. I don’t know if I’ll manage to keep my composure when that happens: maybe that’s another phase. I hope that if I do lose my grip a bit, I’ll treat myself more compassionately than I have in the past.

Change is going to come. Hell, change is happening right this very moment. I’m not going to make any silly statements about how one must be ready when it comes: frankly, we can’t always be ready.

Besides, the eruptions that change us most profoundly for the good (though not, I am forced to admit, always for the pleasant good) are often those for which we are least prepared. In other words, we learn a lot more from kludging together a solution with paperclips and gum than we do from effectign one with a full tool-kit and a generous array of spare parts. Likewise, we can’t  learn or do much from within an intact eggshell.

The shattering of our worlds, of our illusory senses of permanence and control, is at the same time a powerful force of creation. 

I know this isn’t a new idea. I know people have been telling me this for years.

I know I understand it differently than I did a year ago.

I know that later I will understand more differently still.


On Bipolar, Ever-Evolving

I have, as is my habit, been fighting a depression that wins a little ground each day. My strategy, generally speaking, is to put a brave face on it in hopes that nobody will notice, and then, when I can no longer manage that, to beat a hasty retreat into the nearest isolated cave, emerging only to dance.

I’ve decided to pop the rest of this behind a cut, both because of strong language (“He said a-hole, Mom!*”) and because of subject matter that maybe could be a little on the triggery side for those of us currently wrestling mood disorders.

Read the rest of this entry

Two Weeks Without Class: Insomnia and Inarticulate Paranoia (Or, My Brain Hates You Right Now, But Don’t Worry, It Hates Me, Too)

I have had insomnia all my life.

Mostly it’s the simple kind — function of a skewed circadian rhythm; hours off the daily solar cycle, weak and unsteady, but amenable to hard physical effort. Mostly, when I dance, I sleep. (It also helps if I take my Adderall correctly.)

Sometimes, though, it’s complicated either by hormonal anomalies, mania, or both — and then it’s strange, hard. Not so much that I’m not tired as that my alertness stays turned up to 11 no matter how tired I get. I close my eyes and my brain goes whirling on, or worse, I feel wide-awake, like I could go run a marathon or dance the tarantella or something (which I could, if I knew how to tarantella, to be honest — though if I tried to run a marathon, I’d probably just strain something because Dammit Jim, I’m A Dancer, Not A Marathoner). When I open them, sometimes I can tell my body is tired. Sometimes, I can’t.

This is far less amenable to exhaustion, obviously. In these spells I can take a hard class on four hours’ sleep, walk home from the grocery store, clean the house, make dinner, run up and down the stairs doing laundry, and still I find myself wide awake at 2, or 3, or 4 AM.  Sometimes I’ll finally drop off around sunrise only to awaken at 9.

Sometimes, though more rarely now than in the past, since my schedule allows a great deal of freedom, I just don’t sleep at all. Once, I didn’t sleep for eight days. That was a bad time.

I’m having one of those spells. Hormonal weirdness coupled with mania (happy winter, y’all) coupled with no ballet class coupled with a bout of mild, inarticulate paranoia, as I’ve been calling it: not that “I can’t leave the house because the CIA has planted listening devices in all the telephone poles”  kind, or even the “people are laughing at me”  kind, just the kind where my brain days, “NO CAN HAZ PPL PLZ. KTHXBAI.”

image

Hataz gonna hate.

So, anyway. Insomnia: I has it, is I guess what I’m saying.

I’m less disturbed by it now than in the past, since I realize that class will resume and I’ll get it back under as much control as it’s ever under.

For now, though, it’s weird and it sucks.

In other news, I’m writing my arse off at the moment, making up for lost time, but still way behind on posting stuff.

It’s coming, though, sooner or later.

The Wave Rolls In

This morning, I can’t say that I was doing brilliantly well, emotionally speaking.  Although I am still wearing my chipper facing-the-world persona, I’ve been wrestling a depression.

Today’s calf injury, coupled with a message about a bill I apparently forgot to pay, has pretty much capped it off.

The call injury shouldn’t be a big deal, emotionally.  Shouldn’t, but it is.  I can’t explain why because I don’t understand why.   It’s not even like I can’t go to class for the duration; it’s just that I have to back off the pace.

I try to stay upbeat and keep a positive attitude and all that.   Somehow, though, this just feels like a setback I didn’t need.

I could get all emo about this, I guess, but this is about as much as I feel comfortable writing, today.   This is the point at which it starts to feel like whining into the wind.

So that’s that.

Please enjoy this picture of my cat mucking about with some poor, deranged bug that thinks it’s suddenly spring:

image

Bipolar as Unexpected Gift

I’ll begin, here, with a caveat: bipolar disorder is hard, makes life harder, and really sucks a lot of the time — but sometimes that makes the ways in which it’s a gift all the more startling and meaningful (at least, it does for me).

As such, take all of this with however many grains of salt your own experience requires at this time. Just because I feel like I’ve discovered a secret bonus doesn’t mean that’s everyone’s experience, or that everyone needs to feel the same way. To borrow an aphorism from the kink community, “Your Bipolar Is Not My Bipolar, And That’s Okay.”

~~~~

It has become somewhat de rigeur to talk about bipolar disorder as, perhaps appropriately, both a curse and a blessing.

With it come harrowing depressions and dizzying (sometimes terrifying) manias, instability that can wreck careers and lives, a powerful predisposition to addiction, the very real possibility of significant cognitive decline, and a staggeringly high rate of suicide and attempted suicide.

With it come also blindingly brilliant creativity, periods of super-human productivity, and minds that work rather different from the norm, which in turn sometimes bear stunning and unexpected insight.

It has become the done thing to acknowledge that latter set of realities, though too often only to dismiss them: Yes, you have these gifts, but holy cow, look at these costs. What are we gonna do about these costs? This isn’t to say that defraying the costs (metaphorical costs, here, not the actual costs in actual money) of bipolar disorder isn’t immensely important — it is.

Yet, too often, it’s done without any consideration for the losses incurred; the surrender of the holy fire in exchange for a more-stable life.

Too often, those of us with bipolar are expected only to embrace damage-control, and never to mourn the loss of the gifts of sacred fire.

That, however, is a post for another time (albeit an important one).

I’m not writing about those gifts today.

Instead, I’m writing about the unforeseen gift of mental illness itself.

~~~~

I grew up in a family that was both very privileged and very gifted. My sister and I were both subject to high expectations — very high expectations. We both attended selective prep schools; we were both ear-marked early on as future alumni of elite colleges or universities. We were, it appeared, destined for “success.”

We were the kind of kids who would most likely have been subject to enormous pressures related to the pursuit of that narrow definition of success — except, in both our cases, everything went off the rails, fast.

For my part, I struggled from early grade school with hyperactivity, executive function deficits (if you think I’m bad at planning now…), serious social difficulties, and what were probably the symptoms of early-onset bipolar disorder (labile moods, fits of intense and uncontrollable rage that came and passed like summer squalls, and the same bouts of wild creativity that characterize my life today, among others). Nonetheless, I was early identified as a kid with a very high IQ and strong academic and creative aptitudes, and until the beginning of high-school, I was on the Ivory Tower track.

And then, in ninth grade, everything shattered.

My first hospitalization happened less than one month into my ninth grade year. Following that, I spent a total of more than six months over the next three years as an in-patient at three different psychiatric institutions. The rest of those three years, I spent in intensive day treatment.

Freshman and sophomore years were the hardest: those were the two years during which I was in and out of the hospital (where, perhaps a bit ironically, I enjoyed an almost-normal social life for the first and probably the last time). Those were the two years during which things were at their worst for me.

As a junior, I was able to attend a public arts magnet in the afternoons; I graduated from that magnet program as a regular senior (albeit one with no social life, no friends at school, and probably much vaguer ambitions than 99% of my peers) — but by then the Success Train had already jumped its track.

This isn’t to say that the arts magnet program wasn’t rigorous. It was: extremely so. It was selective, rigorous, and demanded an enormous time commitment. However, I was able to handle it mentally because I’d completed most of my high school course work in very low-pressure schools(1). I was able to handle it because, in a very real sense, the pressure was off: there was no chance of ticking off boxes on a list of prerequisites for some arbitrary definition of success.

There was only surviving and following my passions.

I spent the first three years of high school at very small, selective private schools — private schools whose selection criteria were based not upon academic performance, but upon severe mental illness. Private schools which focused not so much on grades or on preparing their students for ivy-league futures, but on, you know, preparing their students to have some kind of future at all. Any kind of future.

The first two schools were basically full-on survival-mode schools attached to psychiatric hospitals: academically, I would have been falling behind my age-mates if I hadn’t spent most of my education up to that point in a selective prep school with an academically advanced curriculum. Academics weren’t the foremost concern at that point: the foremost concern was surviving, not starving myself to death, not committing suicide, becoming stable enough to stop winding up back in the hospital.

None of the schools where I spent my first three years of high school were focused on trying to get kids into top-notch universities. In fact, they really weren’t all that concerned with universities at all — they were focused on helping kids survive and not wind up in the hospital, rehab, or prison.

Just getting through the day without losing “points” — that was success. Being able to go on the end-of-week outing to the bowling alley — that was success. Eventually making it back to a mainstream high school or on to a community college — that was a gigantic win; a true cause for celebration.

If a student felt confident and stable enough to apply to colleges, that was an achievement — that would make the teachers and administrators at these schools immensely proud, but it wasn’t a major focus of any of these programs. Likewise, there was a real recognition that one’s worth had nothing to do with such markers of material success — so there was no pressure about it at all.

And so, with the pressure off, I learned a couple of things.

First, I learned that “success” was a pretty flexible idea.

Second, I learned that failing to tick the check-boxes on the road-map to a more typical kind of “success” doesn’t mean you can’t get there. There is, after all, usually more than one route to a given destination.

I applied to six or eight small, highly-selective colleges (including Amherst, Bennington, and Marlboro) when I was graduating from high school. I figured I didn’t have much to lose, so I wrote very frank, honest admissions essays about my experiences as a queer kid who had been through the psychiatric wringer.

I was accepted with scholarship offers to every single school I approached, and I suspect that my frankness about the path I’d trod to reach the point of application had a great deal to do with that.

Ultimately, I chose not to go, just then: I knew I wasn’t ready, which represents an entirely different kind of success, one that might feel very alien to most people from my particular background.

It’s weird how sometimes our weaknesses become our strengths.

Bipolar disorder derailed my life. It also afforded me the opportunity to discover that going off the rails isn’t the end of the world; that, in fact, as so many people wiser than I have pointed out, the greatest adventures take place when you wander off the map.

Bipolar taught me that you can, in fact, choose a new path; that you can redefine success; that you can always start over.

I learned that it is possible to make a comeback — and also possible to decide what “making a comeback” really means. I learned that success can be defined in many ways, and that sometimes you change your mind mid-stride about what “success” means.

Sometimes, when I’m frustrated about being “behind” my peers (who are, by now, completing graduate school or out making their way in the world) in terms of worldly success, it helps to remind myself of this fact.

Part of me still vaguely regrets the fact that I didn’t go to either Amherst, Bennington, or Marlboro. I think any of those experiences could have been awesome. They also might have been more conducive to a more typical path to a more normal kind of success. Then again, they might not have. I chose not to move on to higher education at the time because I knew there was a high likelihood I’d crack and flunk out, after all — and then I’d probably be right where I am now, anyway.

If you’d told thirteen-year-old me that I would wind up at a branch campus of a public university in the Midwest and that I’d be happy with that outcome, I probably would have looked at you as if you’d grown another head. I didn’t really have a coherent long-term vision at that time, but that sure as heck wouldn’t have matched any shred of a vision I did have. For that matter, I had only the vaguest sense of what and where the Midwest really was (at the time, I was all about Vermont).

So, basically, what I’m saying — here’s the TLDR version — is that one of the greatest gifts bipolar has given me is the gift of derailing my life.

That gift has allowed me to redefine success, to pursue my own definition of happiness, and (not insignificantly) to meet and marry the love of my life.

Yes, bipolar has made my life harder than it could have been. It continues, at times, to make my life hard. If I had the chance to wake up tomorrow without bipolar disorder, I might take it (if it didn’t come with side-effects and didn’t mean sacrificing the creativity that drives so much of my life).

And yet, at the same time, while bipolar has made my life harder, in a way it has also simply made my life.

And that is an unexpected gift.

So there you have it.

The next time I’m haranguing myself over how I have no right to even consider becoming some kind of psychotherapeutic professional, I will try to come back here and read this: because, I suspect, this is the gift that I have been given that I am meant to pass on to the world — the gift of understanding that a crashing derailleur can become the beginning of a beautiful journey, and that maybe the best thing that can happen is to simply lose the map.

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