Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Managing the BiPolar Disorder highs

Last year I entered an essay competition with the Black Dog Institute in Australia on the set title: Managing the BiPolar Disorder highs and the getting of wisdom. Put quite a bit of effort in, only to be told later that overseas entries were not eligible (even though, as they admitted, this fact was not displayed ANYWHERE on their website). So I thought I may as well put the essay to good use:


Managing the BiPolar Disorder highs and the getting of wisdom

There is something about astronauts returning to earth after an outer space trip that compels respect. You want to talk to them, listen to them, find out what it was like.

Undoubtedly, some of the respect is for their courage in undertaking the trip into the unknown. But there is also a deeper awareness that these fine men and women have been privy to a God’s-eye-view of the world, a perspective inaccessible to the rest of us. We cannot help but acknowledge that their experience has given them a breadth of wisdom that is beyond us “earthlings”.

How different is full-blown mania? I’m talking about industrial strength mania here, the type that I lived in 24/7 for 3 months, which only ended after 6 sessions of ECT. Okay, so I wasn’t in a spacecraft, and I didn’t have half the world watching me as I blasted away from earth, defying every shackle of convention and gravity. But deep within I know that the Other Worldly things that I saw and experienced were just as profound, terrifying and exhilarating as any other trip could be.

“But it was all just delusion,” you say. Ah…but it was real to me. And thus in a strange way, I too have been blessed. I’ve also witnessed another universe, a whole new way of looking at things, a world where magic is real and every event laden with powerful, mythological meaning. Sure the fear and terror was horrendous, but other moments were ecstatic beyond description.

My travel club is also special. Not everyone can pass through the door that us mentally disordered hold the key to. Cocaine and LSD trippers try to get there. And sometimes, I suppose, they get close. But it’s never the real McCoy, the one that a few mystics manage to reach. The Buddha surely caught a glimpse of the “Other World” – altering the course of religion for all time.

Were I to live my life over, I’m not sure that I would cancel that 3 month trip into the Other World. Or the 3 week trip that followed a few years later. Or the month long trip that I embarked on last June. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to belittle the pain, struggle and stigma that goes with this bipolar condition. As somebody who spends 80% of his life in a state of numbed depression, I know only too well how debilitating this thing can be. But when we attempt to throw the filthy bath water out, just remember that there may be a baby somewhere in there.

Make no mistake, these psychotic expeditions are fraught with danger. When your spacecraft is hovering at the very edge of the gravitational field, one step too far, and you will leave the earth’s atmosphere – possibly never to return. Being able to navigate these territories, to steer your way back, and to ensure a safe landing, require incredible skill. Like it or not, us Bipolars are astronauts by birth. So best we start learning these skills as a matter of life or death.

The first skill (Space Trips 101 if you like) is knowing that you’ve actually blasted off in the first place. Unlike our real world space shuttling cousins we do not have a televised count down. Ours is a much more subtle process, and being able to say to yourself : “I have blasted off. I could be heading for space. Vigilance is called for. This is a serious situation” is crucial. Indeed, once you’ve mastered this step, your flight is already half under control. I mean: what is psychosis if not the fact that psychosis-sufferer is unaware that they are in a state of psychosis?

So how do you know that a journey has begun? The best way: Experience. And that is where us “already-diagnosed ones” are fortunate. We’ve made the trip before. In fact, to qualify for Bipolar Type One membership (a club I belong to), a previous space trip is a diagnostic pre-requisite. I’ve got three space trips under my belt now and I can tell you that the precursors are always the same: Worsening ongoing insomnia. Incredible newfound resources of energy. A zillion of the most brilliant ideas popping into your mind at the same time. A final self-recognition of your own unlimited award-winning potential.

Even these do not necessarily result in psychosis. For me personally the final blow has always been the profound coincidences that start taking over my world, and the fear that follows. Once that fear has manifested into paranoia there is no option but to wait for the rescue teams.

The main reason that I never ended up in a psychiatric ward last year, was being able to fend off the fear. On all previous occasions the fear got the better of me and the only exit route included hospitalisation.

But lest I accept my fighter pilot wings too eagerly, I must stress that I didn’t beat the fear alone. I recognised at an early point that I was back on the rocket, and that it was time to do some seatbelt fastening. My psychiatrist, no doubt, would have said “Return straight to earth. Do not Pass Begin. Do not collect $200”. Which is probably why I didn’t contact my psychiatrist at that point. It was too damn exciting. After five years of depression the chance to blast out of the ruts into the wild blue heavens was an expedition I could not abort.

What I did do, was up my dose of anti-psychotics. I had discussed this with my psychiatrist previously and, all credit to her, she had granted me the latitude to self-medicate when I felt it necessary. Wherever I go, I make sure I’ve got an emergency supply. Step Two: I told my wife how I was feeling. Actually Step Two, in all honesty, was only do-able thanks to at least two years of preparation. Following my official diagnosis, my wife and I educated ourselves thoroughly on Bipolar Disorder. And that’s why, when I said to her, “I’m worried that I may be getting a bit hyped up and out of touch with reality”, she didn’t phone 911, but stood firmly by my side and helped fight off the demons – Ground Control, as it were. Nothing fuels paranoia more than all of those around you starting to panic.

So preparation is key. Know thyself and know thy Bipolar Condition. It’s not for nothing that astronauts prepare for years for their actual journey.

Make sure you get enough sleep. It doesn’t matter how you do it, just do it. Whatever it takes. Give me four straight nights of hardcore insomnia and I can guarantee you that there will be a big tail of exploding rocket fuel flaming out behind me.

Get yourself right out of any stressful situations. It doesn’t matter how important or urgent they are, not getting lost floating around in outer space is more important. Don’t hesitate to take sick leave. Just because you haven’t broken out in a smelly green rash, doesn’t mean you’re not going through a serious episode of sickness. Switch your cell phone off. Ignore your Outlook inbox. The world won’t crash to a halt, I promise you.

Last year these few precautions were enough. Gradually the coincidences subsided, gradually the earth-shattering ideas slowed down. After a few weeks my feet were back on mother earth, albeit shakily. Luckily for me, I was prepared, and surrounded by a very strong support system. Otherwise I could not have done it without a psychiatrist. In retrospect it was probably a mistake, so if any of my fellow bipolars are feeling the surge of astro rocket power, I would recommend contacting your psychiatrist.

I would be lying if I said there was not a cost to last year’s episode. Shortly after landing, the inevitable months of depression ensued. Thankfully it was nowhere near as bad as the previous post-mania depressions which had all ended with crash-landings leaving a trail of carnage in their wake. I had somehow, for the first time, mastered the art of landing. And I definitely won’t garner any of the respect that the astronauts do. If anything I’ll have to share my stories under a pseudonym (like here), in case large parts of the population start treating me as a second-class citizen.

But despite the hefty payment, I reckon it was worth it. Like the astronauts, I discovered new planets. Only these planets were simply different versions of planet earth: new ways of looking at our world; new ways the world could be. Definitely not as spectacular as brand new planets, but maybe valuable in their own right. Given the present mess the world finds itself in, alternate ways of understanding it might not be such a bad thing.

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  1. This is great advice. It certainly rung true with me.

    I won't go into detail here, but finally realizing WTF is going on has been a GREAT help to me, and even now in the midst of a depression I can honestly say I'm in a much better place than I've ever been in my entire life.

    Oh, read this. NOT my story, but it explains well why I never sought out "help" for my particular *cough* issues.

  2. I hope your essay stays up for a while so I can read it tomorrow morning. I'm too sick and worn out right now.

  3. Dear Bipolar Guy,
    How very well you put it. Sometimes I think that the public is most wowed by the rocket ride itself. After all, we've had a few just blow up here in the US at various times and believe me, people here 'love' a good crash, a complete destruct or meltdown, mostly I think for shock and thrill value - much like flying high after a long period of depression! Usually, the American people collectively don't get depressed, they get bored, so that might be why such things are such a source of interest.

    Recently I saw again what Reagan said at the time of the Challenger accident. Can't remember it all, something about 'the release into the --- bonds of freedom' probably in fact, considered one of the most beautiful speeches during a time of tragedy certainly in recent history. That was back when we had a President that could verbalize (and think for that matter. Couldn't resisit.)

    I agree with you very much and enjoy your description of psychotica, as I too am a member of 'The Club.' Maybe its because I don't have a huge network of blog buddies, but you are the first and only to discuss psychosis as compared other bipolars only talking about mania. There's a huge difference, and I don't think you could begin to fake it if you haven't experience it or should even want to. Your discussion of it as a myriad of windows into THIS world, the ability to see something entirely different than anyone else in the room was so right on. It is an amazing ability and a downright terrifying one at that. There's no shame in enlisting normie help at that time, as you have stated. Even though they don't understand or know what you are going through, luckily psychosis is such a tough state of mind that I was never ruined by 'too much help.' I know if it happens again, I welcome the needles in the bottom and all the rest, because I want OUT of it as soon as possible. If I was a shawwoman or something of equal value in another culture, perhaps I would want to stay. As you subtly stated, in this culture its probably best to return, a.s.a.p.

    I couldn't help thinking that if my Dad were alive today, he would very much enjoy this as he was Bipolar 1 as well. My favorite club member is gone, and I appreciate being reminded that there are others out there. Thank you so much, for you have done a service. I give your composition an A+++, even if those mean Aussies wouldn't take a look!

  4. Anonymous12 June, 2007

    I want to second Tart and the other members of "The Club" here. This is a fine piece. Is it wrong of me to express some slight envy of those whose mania is expressed in mainly creative/spiritual terms? Mine, sadly, is mainly expressed sexually - both dangerous and ultimately disguting. (You can probably tell by my words I'm in the midst of it even as I write.)

    BiPolar Guy: A big thank you to you and your readers. It was this blog that suggested I bring the hyper-sexuality to my doctor's attention last summer. After hemming and hawing I finally did and got an official psychiatric diagnosis and begin meds and therapy this Friday. Of course the "Wolf Man" in me knows his come-uppance is at hand and has decided to attack with his full aresenal until then...

    From Canada

  5. Anonymous12 June, 2007

    very good - i'm impressed. i hereby bestow upon you an award of some sort.

  6. Hmmm. Now I've read it. This is the part that gets me: "For me personally the final blow has always been the profound coincidences that start taking over my world, and the fear that follows. Once that fear has manifested into paranoia there is no option but to wait for the rescue teams."

    I've experienced that twice and both times it's derailed my life pretty seriously; once at seventeen which prevented me from completing high school (and killed a budding romance with someone who most likely would have been my soulmate) and again at age twenty-seven obliterating my fledgling career as an art director.

    Now, I don't own my own home or business nor do I have a supportive wife or companion. My best friends have their own problems to deal with and couldn't be bothered with mine. Other worlds? Not for me. Just a bit too much information about this one, like discovering the waiter at your favourite restaurant doesn't really like you and has been spitting on your food for the past few months.

    I could write a novel about each of my manic episodes and probably should, but what's the point? The most interesting thing for me after I'd finished would be choosing the illustration for the cover. I wouldn't crave the attention enough to be bothered to attend my own book signings.

    Nice essay, though. Kind of makes me want to watch 2001 A Space Odyssey again, but this time on MDA with the girl I was dating back when I was seventeen. Maybe I'll get a chance to meet up with her when I'm back in Canada. I hope she's not too busy.

  7. Anonymous12 June, 2007

    On a coincidence level, 3 months ago my high took me on the voyage of interstellar spacecraft where I would help organise this next phase of mankind’s development.

    I even pinned a model of the Wright brother's Flyer to the roof of my bedroom.

  8. i would pick hypersexuality over essay:z!

  9. i still wish willbefine is girl or at least favorable to sex change, i'm so intergalacticly in love with thy br@in:z!

  10. gekko, who knew you're of the type who thinks buddhanature can be found in an E pill followed by sex on chronic with your girlfriend!

  11. we should all plan to meet up in canaduh, no seriously!

  12. @ eric dee's home & art show!

  13. Anonymous14 June, 2007

    One more thing about coincidences: they're dangerous for people with mental illness since we tend to act on 'em. It helps to do a bit of research on the the "chances of chance". Coincidences, serendipity, synchronicity, kismet, ABOUND. But they're usually meaningless. Because all brains are meaning-making machines and BPD brains are constantly on the prowl, I believe BPD folks are much more attentive to coincidence than the Average Bear. But we still mostly make and assign any meaning.

    Regarding mysticism and mania: I think they are similar chemically. Would that mania sometimes resolved itself in the selfless charity of mysticism, but we all know the opposite is often it's real-world effect.

    Speaking for myself, my mania keeps me mostly self-absorbed and given to excessive rationalization of my behaviours.

    Sexed-up in Canada


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