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What You Can, When You Can

Bipolar disorder is hard to get your head around — hard for those of us living with it, and hard for those who share our lives; even harder for those who are only aware of the condition in a more distant way.

The very concept is tough for some people: they get hung up in the idea that people get depressed about something and in the idea that mania is like happiness on steroids (which it can be, but not always). Bipolar doesn’t work like that: depression isn’t sadness per se, though sadness may be a symptom of depression; mania sure as shizzle isn’t happiness, though sometimes it can feel like happiness for a little while.

Life stressors can trigger manic or depressive episodes, but so can stupid little stimuli — one too many lattés and a night out dancing followed by poor sleep; one too many pilsners on a night out with friends. One too many pilners on a night out is nothing to be sad about: but depression isn’t sadness. It’s brain chemistry.

Likewise, it’s easy to get hung up in conceptions about ability. We tend to think of people as either able or disabled, when in fact things are way more complex than that.

There are days that I’m immensely able (usually, those days happen on the upswing of a manic episode, before things really go haywire).

There are days when I’m absolutely and fundamentally disabled (at the top of a manic crest — I can’t concentrate long enough to get through anything in that state — or at the bottom of a depressive trough — during which I can neither summon the energy to begin anything nor concentrate long enough to follow through).

There are days that even making it ballet class — which functions as a central, organizing principle in my life — seems nearly impossible, and everything else (like eating food; like showering after ballet class) seems absolutely impossible.

There are even days that making it to ballet class seems impossible, though most of the time I manage anyway. Then there are the rare days on which making it to ballet class is impossible. In my case, disability is primarily a question of mental capacity: ballet does not require me to think, so I can pretty much always manage, provided I can figure out how to get out of bed and put clothes on and somehow physically get my body to the studio. Once I’m there, my brain doesn’t have to do any more work, or at least not the kind of work it finds difficult.

Then there are days like today: days when I seem to be shifting back into a more functional modality, but I’m far from 100%. Days on which some things are possible, and other things are not.

In the past, I’ve tended to regard days like this one with perhaps an undue level of optimism: I would start being more productive and immediately decide that everything was going to be okay. That I would magically grasp how to be an adult in a consistent, thoroughgoing way. That I was going to be Able, with a capital A, from now on. Forever.

Then, of course, the dizzying crash back into reduced ability would follow, and I would find myself shocked, like, How could this happen? How could Iletthis happen? Surely, if I was doing anything like managing my condition, I would magically be Able all the time!

Seeing it through that lens made coping with the rise and fall of my daily ability level a lot harder. It also made me a lot harder on myself.

The thing is, that’s now how this condition works. It’s like a lot of chronic conditions: there are good days and bad days. People with arthritis are more able on some days than on other days. People with Parkinson’s are more able on some days than on other days. People with MS are more able on some days than on other days. And so it goes. Same for bipolar disorder: some days are just better than other days, even when you’re managing the condition as well as you can in your own individual case.

I’m slowly learning to accept my immediate level of ability: to sort of live by this principle of “Do what you can, when you can.”

It’s frustrating sometimes. But when I’m frustrated with it, sometimes I can remind myself that even the most able people want to be able to do more; even they find it hard to say, “Meh, that’s good enough for today.”

It’s still hard, sometimes, to get from, Why the hell can’t I get anything done? to Hey, I got this one thing done, and that’s something. But being able to say that, even if I say it grudgingly, makes a difference.

So does the ability to understand that tomorrow I might not be as able: if I expect consistent ability, crushing disappointment is inevitable. If I expect fluctuations; if I expect to be wildly, amazingly able sometimes, and really very unable at other times, I can be okay with it. I may not be happy about it — but there’s a lot of ground between accepting a reality and being happy about it.

If I know that there will be fluctuations in my ability level, and plan my life accordingly, things are likely to go more smoothly. I can work on reducing the limitations in my life later, if opportunity arises (I’m not sure that it will, but that’s a post for another time). Pretending they’re not there hasn’t done any good.

Sometimes “I can do this thing” means write I can ten thousand words, fire off a blog post, finish a week’s worth of homework and an SI session plan, make a gourmet meal, and pay the bills.

Sometimes it means I can put on a shirt and whichever tights (yes, I run around the house in my ballet clothes about 99% of the time) are the least dirty, run a couple loads of laundry, and make hot dogs.

Sometimes it means crawling into the bathtub and staying there for two hours, reading and occasionally changing the water, and eventually ordering pizza from the internet.

Sometimes it means admitting that I’m essentially not going to make it out of bed, but that at least I’m still alive and breathing.

Sometimes it means admitting to someone that I don’t want to be alive and breathing anymore, and accepting whatever course of damage control is possible.

Where was I going with all this?

Our culture is hard on those of us who are not terribly able to be consistent, especially when the disabilities that underlie our inconsistencies are invisible. Last I checked, bipolar is pretty invisible (though I’m pretty sure that Denis can spot mania in me at a hundred paces).

Our lives are harder because our culture is hard on us.

For me, at this juncture in my life, the best strategy I’ve found is to learn to do what I can, when I can without being hard on myself about it.

This isn’t possible for everyone. It isn’t even possible for me all the time. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with finding a different strategy, or even no strategy. We all survive in the ways we are able to.

I’m writing this down because it’s working for me — writing it down so I’ll remember. If it’s helpful to someone else, that’s awesome.

It’s hard for me to imagine, right now, why things are worse when they’re worse (a lot of people have better insight than I do; I find it hard to imagine mental states when I’m not experiencing them). Why it’s so hard to do things when I’m less able; how I’ve let so many things slide. Being hard on myself about all that doesn’t help: I’m present enough right now, mentally, to know that I haven’t done any of this on purpose. To know that I’m not lazy or indifferent; that I just haven’t, for several weeks now, been terribly able. To know that I’m not as able right now as I’d like to be, and that’s fine.

If I can keep that in mind going forward, maybe I’ll beat myself up less.

And if there’s any one thing I think might be universally useful for those of us living with bipolar, it’s learning not to beat ourselves up. Other people do it enough.

So that’s that. Now this is one thing I’ve done today, and I’m off to try to do another thing. Maybe I will, and maybe I won’t, and either way, it’s okay.

I will do what I can, when I can.

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