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:
LEARNING TO FLY (AND LAND)
Managing the BiPolar Disorder highs and the getting of wisdom
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.