by James Peter
From the outside, I am seen as a successful, intelligent, friendly, spiritual, and polite individual. Some see me as insightful, well-respected, and a natural-born leader.
Few would ever suspect how significant my condition is. Yet those that know me well, are well aware that the descriptions listed above mask a much darker side to me.
Some twenty years ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar type 2 disease. This means I am depressed much more often than I am manic. These down times are often more intense and longer lasting than other forms of manic depression. Also, we most often suffer hypomanic episodes which are a less severe and less destructive type of mania. Type 2 patients do not show psychotic symptoms, and the disease often has no negative impact on social or occupational functioning.
I went through college with many dark periods interspersed with moments of hope. Some days I was convinced that I had the talent, ambition, and vision to really make a difference, only to soon be overcome with an overwhelming conviction of complete incompetence and assurance of failure. These swings from euphoric optimism to utter depression took their toll both emotionally and physically. I developed few close friends for fear of letting someone see the real me. Those that I did let inside came to accept, if not fully understand, my erratic behavior. They called me moody, a little strange, a bit off. They gave names to my moods, calling my down times “blue funks” and my occasional up moments my “tailspins,” which often led me to crash and burn.
Hypomanic episodes are filled with feelings of euphoria and self-confidence in which one may seem to be the life of the party or simply charming to others. Every good emotion is intensified. The down side is that you become a risk taker and do things you would normally never do, such as extravagant spending or sexual improprieties. As enjoyable as the “up” times were, as often is the case with bipolar patients, I came to embrace my dark periods. It was here where I felt most at home and could best make use of my creative side. I wrote poetry, did floral design, and dabbled in art. It was in these times that I developed my deep appreciation for all types of music and the performing arts. In my depression, I felt closest to the person I really was.
In my late forties, my swings became more pronounced, especially bouts of depression and social isolation. My manic episodes manifested into times of acute irritability, frustration and anger. Gone were the times of euphoric energy and feeling that all was good with the world (though these types of episodes still occur on very rare occasions). They were replaced with intense hair-trigger emotions that liberated me to say and do whatever I wanted. Embarrassment and apologies usually followed such episodes. It was also during those times that I became destructive, often damaging items that were most precious to me. In bipolar individuals, self-destructive behavior can often be taken to the ultimate degree, sometimes resulting in suicide.
I started to feel that I was losing control and was endangering the few real relationships I had. It was when one of my co-workers seriously accused me of being manic-depressive and suggested that I seek help that I finally admitted to myself that I was sick . I sought help in the form of a psychiatrist and therapist. I was diagnosed as suffering from bipolar type 2 disease. It was explained to me that there was a chemical imbalance in my brain and that medication could reduce the number and intensity of my swings but would never remove them completely.
Great! I now knew I was sick and that it wasn’t my fault and I had medications to help. All was good, right? It’s all in how you look at it. Not all meds work, and those that do may only work for a while. Medication is a sort of “let’s try this and see what happens” approach. I have been through my own regimens of medicinal experimentation, some with some significant negative side effects. I am currently on a newly prescribed medication which seems to provide some stability.
Still, the greatest impact of medication was the dulling of my world. Prior to medication, my world was kaleidoscopic and exciting. It was a place I loved to explore. Now my world is simply gray. Gone are the days of artistic inspiration, the days of unlimited energy and enjoyment. Gone are the dark periods that I had come to look forward to and embrace. Yes, my days are now mostly uneventful, but totally blah. Few moments, if any, can now be categorized as fun, and laughter is a very uncommon occurrence. I truly miss my un-medicated days! This is why so many bipolar patients go off their meds. I haven’t yet, but it doesn’t mean I don’t want to! The song “I Miss the Mountains,” performed by a bipolar character in the Broadway musical “Next to Normal,” does a wonderful job explaining this phenomenon.
Another side effect of the medication is an acute increase in my anxiety level. My fear of rejection, failure, and embarrassment is oftentimes paralyzing and keeps me from doing things I enjoy or even attempting things that I dearly wish to do. It prevents me from following my strong sense of curiosity and adventure. I often find myself starting off to do things, only to go into a mental debate with myself on whether to do or not to do them. This, of course, is an argument that I can’t win, and in the end, I almost always back out at the last minute.
I still have a wide range of interests and would love to explore them, along with establishing an enduring relationship with someone to share them with, but I seriously can’t see any of those things happening. I have never had a long-term intimate relationship, which is another sign of my self-destructive nature. Someone once described me as someone “who likes you until you start liking him back.” That is when I flee back down my emotional rabbit hole. I still have a strong urge for social isolation, and any large social gathering is emotionally draining. A recent episode of rapid mood cycling, left me close to an emotional collapse.
Now I am approaching retirement. Normally this is a time when you plan to enjoy all the things that you never got to do before. As for me, I see it as a time of dread. I often see the days ahead as times of being alone and lonely. Still, there are the occasional times when I look forward to those days with unbridled enthusiasm! I have made my bucket list and still have many places that I would love to visit. A weekly therapy session helps me find the courage to make these things happen. Meetings with my therapist and an adjustment to my medications have me back to some state of normalcy, but I avoid with a passion anything that I know might be a trigger for new episodes.
I am not in a state of constant emotional swings. Many of my days are completely normal, or as close as I get to normal. If you met me on the street today, you might say I was a friendly and interesting fellow. You would see me as a person of multiple interests and broad knowledge on various subjects. Many say I am a person they like to talk with and whose company they enjoy. Few would ever have an idea of the web of jumbled synapses contained in my head or the state of fear that I am often in or the world of black and greys in which I live. At best you might just call me a wee bit moody.