SALT LAKE CITY — It seems that many of us, as I found out from the response to last week's Prodigal Dad column, have a secret or two that does not involve eating dog food as a child. I may have said too much.
It's nothing clandestine. No fodder for soap operas here — at least for a main story line.
Being bipolar (I effectively came out last week as such) has affected everyone around me. It falls into the category of mental illness; and though I dislike the term, it is fairly accurate.
Quick definition: Bipolar affective disorder is a diagnosis for certain brain disorders where people experience pendulum-like mood swings. Symptoms are severe, as explained in the National Institute of Mental Health, they are not the normal ups and downs that everyone deals with, and though the symptoms are distinct, they are often not recognized as part of a much larger problem.
People have been trying to deal with it for years, many unsuccessfully. Artists and musicians have famously dealt with periods of euphoria and debilitating depression.
Symptoms often start as early as age 15, and are found in men and women alike. Though there is no specific cause we know of, the disorder often is found running in the family — a discovery that those who are diagnosed have a family member dealing with the same issue.
My mother was my link. She is not alive today due to her battle with what was then known as manic depression. In a period of 30 years, the world for those affected has changed.
There are three main categories of bipolar disorder.
1. Bipolar Type I is diagnosed when there has been at least one period of mania interrupted by depression — the deciding factor being the mania and not the depression, which need not be severe.
2. Those with Bipolar Type II have never had a true manic episode (nothing as extreme as Type I), but experience impulsiveness and higher energy levels alternating with periods of depression.
3. Cyclothymia is a milder form of the disorder, characterized by less sever mood swings. And Bipolar disorder NOS (not otherwise specified) has become an all-inclusive category when the disorder doesn’t seem to fit neatly under anything else.
Symptoms of the manic phase are present with all forms of bipolar, the differentiation coming with their intensity. Aspects of mania are, generally, and certainly have included for me:
- Little need for sleep, or having erratic sleep schedules.
- Is easily distracted and leaves projects unfinished.
- Exercises poor judgment, exhibits reckless and irresponsible behavior, which includes one or more of the following: eating disorders or binging, spending sprees and promiscuity. Did I mention poor judgment?
- Elevated moods, abundant energy, super involvement in activities.
- Easily irritated, consistent talking, racing thoughts.
- Has bloated self-esteem, exaggerated abilities — bites off more that can be chewed.
Mania, in many cases, can last for hours or for years. In my case, as a younger man, mine could last for months.
Frankly, there are aspects to being manic that are not unpleasant. In fact, there are those who are paid well for what they produce during these times.
Symphonies have been composed in hours. Works of art have been conceived and completed. Masterpieces have been written.
With creativity at a premium, I myself have done some amazing things in front of paying audiences that I am pleased to claim to this day.
I also have done some incredibly stupid things. I once, in an "up" phase, painted the house of a neighbor who wasn’t home. I did it as a joke. The color was begonia.
There are other stories of my behavior I would be loath to tell. Maybe someday I will — after I move my family to an undisclosed location in eastern Idaho. Let me just say that I am not proud of these moments, and neither are they. Fortunately, my family has let me stay in spite of these episodes. I am lucky. Many families don’t.
Which leads me to the crash — because for every up, there is a down. The depression part of manic depression generally includes, and certainly does for me:
- Energy loss.
- Eating disorders: loss of appetite or overeating.
- Feelings of hopelessness, guilt and suicide.
- Loss of self-esteem.
- Extreme sadness, thoughts of suicide.
- Erratic sleep patterns: too much sleep or not being able to sleep.
- Inability to make decisions, to concentrate, and … what was the other one … ? Oh yes, to remember things.
- Loss of interest in beloved activities.
- Estranging ones' self from friends. (I have lost many.)
Again, the differences between bipolar types is in the intensity of the symptoms.
I won't go into detail about which of these really send me for a loop, but I will say that I have no problem eating, and that suicide was never an option for me. I think I am too arrogant to deprive the world of my presence. But it is a huge issue for many.
Even understanding all this, as I try to do now, is not enough to keep me at a mental even keel anymore than the knowledge that I have cancer means I can wave the wand and cure it. When I am in the middle of either phase, I try to remember that the intense sadness or the anxiety I feel will go away. However, I am still incredibly sad or anxious, and I have to live through it.
Gustav Mahler (like listening to his music left any doubt that he was manic depressive) wrote in a letter to a friend, “The fires of supreme zest for living and the most gnawing desire for death alternate in my heart, sometimes in the coarse of a single hour. I know only one thing: I can’t go on like this.”
Dear Mr. Mahler: we of the loony club, those who understand bipolar and live with it on a daily basis, completely understand.