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.