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Bipolar: My Cynicism About My Cynicism

Right now, I’m somewhat depressed.

It’s the kind of depression that doesn’t readily identify itself: listlessness, restlessness, an inability to focus, a rampant cynicism that has to be at least as irritating to the rest of the world as it is to me, or would be if my cynicism about my cynicism didn’t mostly prevent me from sharing it.

I don’t feel particularly hopeless about the future. I couldn’t really say if I’m experiencing emotional pain — in short, I’m experiencing a sort of emotional blankness; a sense that most of the range and brilliance of human emotion is right now unavailable to me. It’s like someone has knocked out the antenna of my emotional wi-fi receiver. Emotions are out there; I just can’t find them. I am experiencing the grinding effect of being stuck constantly on scan and finding nothing.

Well, that and cynicism.

Have I mentioned that I generally abhor cynicism?

Cynicism seems like a coward’s response to the challenge of living in a world where bitterness and horror sit cheek-by-jowl with redemption and beauty. It’s “nothing gold can stay” without the reverence for the first green that is gold; it’s skepticism seasoned with a dash of self-serving bitterness.

I’m fine with skepticism by itself; there’s plenty of room in the world for a healthy skeptic — but I feel like I could do without cynicism, especially my own.

In short, I am not normally a cynic. Hell, I’m not even really much of a skeptic, outside of an appropriate dose of scientific empiricism that drives my academic pursuits. There is something in my nature that believes (for lack of a better word, since “belief” implies a conscious process) in the essential goodness of the world and of mankind — an essential goodness that is not tarnished by the fact that lions eat gazelles (which is, to my mind, an amoral reality) or that people sometimes do abominable things.

There is something within me that normally regards even enormous, egregious acts of human cruelty as small and powerless in the face of cumulative, ordinary acts of good (this doesn’t, by the way, mean those egregious acts are insignificant; that’s a philosophical argument for some other time). It might be irrational; it might not (cogent arguments have been made along both sides) — that’s irrelevant. It is what it is.

Right now I am a horrible cynic. I am the worst kind of cynic — not the pithy, engaging cynic whose ability to frame his or her cynicism in the language of dry humor makes for charming repartée, but the grinding kind who harbors an unkind thought about every little thing (though, curiously, not as much about human motivations). Nothing is good enough because nothing is good — and I don’t mean that in an philosophical sense, but in the sense that right now I seem to suffer from the delusion that the world has been shoddily constructed from the elements of decay.

Bike tubes are made from crappy rubber and will fail, and the process of putting the studs on the Karakoram for winter will be insufferably frustrating, so why bother? It should be no surprise if my dinner is less than delectable. My computer is slow because everything in the world is faulty and awful. Characters in the book I was enjoying just fine a week ago seem flat, weary, stale, and unprofitable not because something has miraculously changed the writer’s ability, but because the circuits in my brain that recognize good stuff and enjoy things are down right now. There is no point in going to the effort of making something to eat other than peanut butter and jelly when I am evidently no longer capable of noticing and enjoying flavors. Etc.

We saw Interstellar this weekend. I guess I enjoyed it reasonably well, under the circumstances: I was sometimes able to click into the visual magnificence of the film, and I didn’t automatically hate every single character. Too often, though, I found my will to suspend disbelief flagging. The sense of wonder that normally allows me to make stunning leaps of faith just isn’t here right now. I found myself unable to feel connected to the settings, the characters, or the plot. I realized halfway through that it wasn’t the movie’s fault, transparent though some of its would-be plot twists were. Normally, that doesn’t bother me as long as the rest of the movie is basically coherent (I figured out the secret of The Sixth Sense very early on, but still enjoyed it immensely; most of the time, I can enjoy the same joke over and over again as well).

Right now, there are things that are funny, but the humor seems a million miles away. Everything else seems sort of pointless. I want to work on fiction or on my research, but can’t concentrate. Even though I know I will probably enjoy my math homework once I get around to working on it, the idea of doing so seems insurmountable. Some of these perceptions are cynical; some are just, you know, depressed.

For the first couple of days that I was feeling this way, I found my own cynicism disgusting. Is it progress that I now realize that it’s just an artifact of a moderate depression; one that will wane as the depression wanes? It feels like progress. Every time I feel myself reacting with disgust against my own cynicism, this sort of voice in my head reminds me, “Hey, this is just a symptom. Don’t sweat it. It’s okay.”

I even feel cynical about writing this post, especially since I can’t seem to do anything I actually want to do. Instead, here I am, adding to the sum of the internet’s misery. But there you have it: that is the nature of the beast.

Yes, somewhere within, I am in fact laughing at myself about all this. I wish I could actually feel that laughter.

For what it’s worth, that’s one of the beautiful things about dancing. Ballet class doesn’t give a rat’s asterisk about the relentless and irrational turmoil in my head. It doesn’t ask for my opinions. IT asks that I show up and do my very physical work at the barre; that maybe I interpret the music a little — something which I seem to be able to do because it circumvents my language circuits, which are shoddy at best and just pitiful right now (I realize it might not sound like it, reading this post: what I mean, really, is that the connection between Heart Coprocessor and Language Coprocessor is currently severed; when I attempt to work through the realm of language, I feel nothing but dead air).

There is something eminently healing in being able to feel your feelings; to let them course unbounded by the clumsy efforts of language to contain them. I can do this when I sit down at the piano; I can do this when I dance. I’m sure it’s neuroscience, but who cares? It feels like magic.

So there you go. For reasons, I won’t be able to hit up class this week ’til Saturday. Okay, something in me feels the need to enumerate the reasons: I will spend the rest of this week analyzing data that I must present at a conference on Friday, doing math homework, and preparing for next Monday’s math exam. Once that’s over, we’re done until after Thanksgiving, then we come back for a week of class and one day of finals (well, I only have one day).

The end is in sight, but I’m kind of bonking: so today I’m resting a little before the storm. Later I’ll bang out some homework, and later still, who knows? I don’t think I feel like cooking tonight. Maybe we’ll order in.

So that’s it. A long, rambling, unfocused post about feeling cynical and unfocused. I’m handling it with an epic dose of escapism and “this too shall pass.”

Tomorrow will be better, and the next day after that — or, if they aren’t, eventually a better day will come.

Low, Low, Low

In the past I’ve written a bit about my bipolar disorder, though I’m not sure I set the posts in question to be viewable (I’ll have to check on that; some of them should be) during the recent Great Blog Reboot.

Anyway, I’ve spent the past year trying to learn to understand not only the particulars of bipolar disorder in general (of which, as a student of psychology with a strong interest in neuroscience and abnormal psych, I had a fairly keen grasp already), but of my bipolar in particular.

Like, what factors influence my mood shifts? Do they follow any particular pattern? Can I influence them? Can I detect their approach?

For the past several weeks, I’ve been on a pleasant, mild upswing — the kind that I wouldn’t mind having more often; the kind that makes one more creative and productive without making one too wildly unpredictable, irresponsible, or out of control. There were a couple of odd perceptual blips, but beyond that, it’s been like riding along on an elevated express train with a great view.

Now, it feels like the train is slowing down — and like it’s preparing to dive into the network of subterranean tunnels that it occupies when I’m depressed. And, honestly, because my perceptions of my own mood are poor, that probably means it’s already in the tunnels, though not in the deep tunnels yet. We’ll belabor the analogy and say that these are the L1 tunnels, which still have light wells from the surface every now and then.

To further explain, I’m in the state that I usually pass off as “just tired” — ran out of steam last night much earlier than I expected to, fell asleep earlier than usual, woke up this morning feeling groggy and bedraggled instead of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I wasn’t ready to take on the world, didn’t want to go to school, and felt daunted by the very idea of ballet class. At this particular moment, I still do.

Too bad, depression. I’m going anyway.

In fact, I’m hoping that going to class tonight will help head this thing off at the pass, as it were. For whatever reason, ballet seems to work miracles in that regard (for me). When I make it to class at least three days a week, my keel stays much more even (Egads! From train analogies to boat analogies? Enough, already!)

We’ll see how this all works. The days are growing shorter, now, and waking up with the sun at a low angle (or, worse, in full darkness in the winter) is tough for me. I might try bringing the light therapy box online a couple of mornings each week and see if that helps.

Anyway, that’s it for now. I hope to resume my usual run of class notes, such as they are, this evening.

Quickie: A Hundred Pounds of Rocks in the Tour (Not So Literally); Ballet Dreams (Literally)

I’m taking a more conservative approach than I have in the past to managing my bipolar disorder.

This means that I haven’t returned to a three-classes-per-week schedule yet, or even a two-classes-per-week schedule. I wanted to go to class last night and did not feel ready, end of story. I need to learn to listen to that voice or reason, even though sometimes it feels like it’s standing between me and my dreams and goals.

I try to tell myself, instead, that it’s like not pushing yourself too hard on the bike when you’re recovering from a serious physical illness (like the last time I had pneumonia, or the time I broke my leg). You have to build back into it with a modicum of caution. Sometimes that means it takes longer to reach your goals than you had hoped.

Dottie (my therapist) and I talked about a similar thing yesterday. I found myself telling her about how frustrating and sometimes disheartening it is when this whole bipolar thing throws me off the rails, and how I sometimes really resent my difficulties instead of really appreciating what I can do; what I am doing. We also talked about how I tend to forget that I am living with a serious mental illness; one that can be really debilitating.

We wound up with this crazy Tour de France analogy: living with this is like riding the Tour de France with a hundred pounds of rocks in your chamois. The Tour isn’t easy for anyone, but it’s really freaking hard when you’re carrying a hundred pounds of rocks (or maybe when you’re the domestique and you have to carry … all … the water bottles?!)…

Terrible drawing of domestique hauling all the bottles.

Here is a high-quality graphical rendering, replete with cheering fan, to help you visualize this concept. (An oldie, but a goodie! You might remember this from last TourMonth July, in fact.)

Riding the Tour with a hundred pounds of rocks doesn’t mean you don’t get there. It does mean maybe you don’t ride all of every stage, or maybe sometimes you don’t ride a given stage at all. It certainly means that you’re probably going to finish each stage long after the crowds have gone home.

It means that, if you’re smart, you might be willing to accept some help — maybe a motor to get you up Mount Ventoux, maybe a partner to carry some of your rocks when you’re really struggling. Maybe an extra book of matches or two.

Maybe, sometimes, you even stop halfway through a stage and climb into the team car.

Maybe you try medication. That’s why they make medication.

In short, carrying a hundred pounds of rocks on the Tour takes a hard job and makes it harder. It makes you reassess your goals. When you’re carrying that load, there’s no way on Earth you’re going to win — not even if you ride the best eBike in the world and hop yourself up on so much EPO and caffeine that your veins stick out like the Alps on a topographical map. Instead, making it to the finish becomes a goal worth achieving — in fact, sometimes, just making it to the end of the day is a victory.

Anyway. I didn’t mean to wax on about that for quite so long. I meant to write about literal ballet dreams.

Lately I dream about ballet all the time — that is, about dancing. Literally, it’s like I’m practicing in my dreams on the days I don’t do class (and, in fact, these dreams often take place on the nights following would-be class days; I should say will-be class days, because I will work back into it). Last night I had a long, long dream entirely devoted to perfecting the very simple combination (demi-petite allegro? ;)) from Margie’s class on Saturday — tombé – pas de bourrée – glissade – assemblé.

It was kind of a dream about mastery, I guess, and about confidence. And also about the fact that my arms are a heck of a lot less awkward than they used to be.

It was, in fact, a pretty cool dream. I love dancing, and my dreams are extremely vivid, so it was like having the opportunity to dance for a long, long time on a day that I didn’t get to dance in my waking life.

It will be interesting to see if the dream in question has, in fact, acted as practice. There’s good evidence supporting the hypothesis that athletes (including, presumably, dancers) are not just exercising their egos (a nebulous concept at best) when they use concentrated visualization, but actually firing the neural circuits they would fire when performing the athletic task in question*.

Anyway, today I’m feeling fairly okay, I think. The challenge is not to tip myself back over into mania. People who do not suffer from bipolar disorder often imagine mania to be a pleasant state, and it can be — but for me, mania is often “black,” characterized by immense irritability, agitation, expolosive rage, near-psychotic paranoia (though I suppose I don’t really talk about this: because it’s only near-psychotic, I know it’s irrational, so I simply try not to give in to it), and a restlessness that prevents the completion of even the simplest tasks.

I know I’m not “better” yet, not quite back on an even keel, because I’m not feeling much need to sleep and I keep forgetting to eat (among other things). But I’m at least close enough to earth orbit to be getting stuff done, and the agitation and anger have passed for the moment. I’m into the kind of hypomania that can be very pleasant (Lots of energy! Reasonably positive mood! The ability to talk about things! Fast but not totally out-of-control streams of thought! Accomplishing lots of tasks! Wild productivity! Not so much total inability to feel the presence of G-d!) as long as I don’t let it get out of hand.

Okay, well. This is now much, much longer than I intended for it to be — but I guess it’s illustrative, nonetheless.

So far, I’m feeling kind of okay about being more open in this blog. Recently I had a long and awesome conversation with another person with bipolar disorder who seems to experience her disorder in much the same ways that I experience mine, and that was very heartening in a totally unexpected kind of way.

If even one other reader stumbles across my ramblings and goes, “Hey, this sounds really familiar. Maybe it’s not just me,” and it helps … well, that would be really awesome, and make it all very worthwhile.

*Non-athletes do this as well, as far as I know. I believe there have been some studies of this process in musicians. I’ll have to see if I can dig them up.

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