10 things i've learned from my bipolar Illness
In my experience, if you have this diagnosis, medicine prescribed by a psychiatrist truly does help with what is going on in your brain. In my experience, you may not believe you need it at first, but taking medicine each day truly works. What do I mean by that? My daily medicine lets the truest me shine through, and it lets me be the best person I can be for the people I love. I didn’t see this at first; I lacked “insight” that I had an actual medical illness. In my experience, there are lots of parts to the intersection of bipolar and medicine:
I've learned that the right dosage of medicine -- prescribed by a psychiatrist, monitored by labs -- does not alter or hide the real you. In my experience, medicine in therapeutic amounts, that does not over-medicate you, lets the genuinely real you shine through. For me, that's the person my family loves, the father my kids love, the friend my friends love. And I love this real me, too -- with the right medicines in the right amounts, I feel most able to live deeply, and fully express myself, and most fully think and feel and thrive. They key? Not just the right types of meds, but the right dosages. Everyone deserves this. It’s part of why I advocate.
It is stunning how high — and how low — bipolar 1 can take you. In my experience, the two extremes of bipolar — manias and depressions — are powerful, unhelpful, and should not be romanticized. But there’s a distinction, in my experience: Closely monitored hypomanias — very mild natural highs — these can have benefits, both for me and for others — it can lead to new ideas and new achievements, many that serve the greater good — so while I won’t romanticize bipolar 1, I can objectively see some benefits to me, and society, if properly managed by taking my doctor’s medicine and following my doctor’s trusted advice.
It is only a diagnosis. It does not say who you are as a human — unless you let it. I still remember this stark cold from 20 years ago: The instant my bipolar was confirmed by a second opinion, in that second psychiatrist’s office, I made a very big mistake -- I immediately started seeing myself as broken. As bad. As someone who maybe did not even deserve to exist. For me, this ended up being almost deadly. After 13 years of secrecy, stigma, shame, self-hatred, and isolation, hit rock bottom, including, by the end, suicidal ideations. It wasn’t until I started the long road of recovery that I could see it differently. It’s just a diagnosis. It just needs to be managed properly, with a doctor and medicine and therapy.
In my experience, the stigma in our society about mental illness is absolutely real. I can still viscerally feel the chills I had, once I was diagnosed, knowing full well from my profession — I’m a lawyer — about all of the inaccurate, irrational views people can have about other people and other things they don’t know about. Ignorance breeds fear and irrational beliefs, which breeds stigma. I knew that mental illness stigma as as corrosive and dangerous as all other types of irrational prejudice. And I knew that, at the time, it had a special pass. In many ways, it still does. What I didn’t know — what I didn’t even realize — was that I was so accustomed to seeing mental illness from the outside that I was even stigmatizing myself. I let society’s prejudices, and my own, control my feelings and thoughts about my illness for 13 years. It took an almost deadly series of downfall events to finally be able to look at it in a more healthy — and more objective — way.
Another mistake I made, in shock from the diagnosis, was to hide it in secrecy. Luckily, I had enough insight to realize and accept that I did in fact have a brain illness requiring medicine — but except for taking my medicine and going to my doctor, I went underground and otherwise lived in denial. In my decision to go underground with my diagnosis -- for the first 13 years, only five people knew -- I created for myself a truly toxic mix of shame, secrecy, and self-hatred that eventually resulted in rock bottom, then suicidal ideations, and then emergency treatment — then the need to start everything over, from the ground up, a complete rebuilding. It did not have to be like this. I learned the hard way that bipolar and secrecy — like bipolar and anosognosia (also known as “lack of insight” or lack of being able to perceive that you are ill) are not a healthy mix -- what is far healthier, and ultimately far easier, is being as open and public as you can, seeking inclusion, learning how to have insight about your diagnosis, and finding people whom you can trust -- people to whom you can relate. This is not easy. Stigma is real, and anosognosia is real. A lot of us don’t even believe that we have an illness at first, and fear of being perceived as different is real. But, for me, ending secrecy was necessary to live. I am so much happier these past six years ever since I stopped hiding this part of who I am.
In my experience, bipolar maintenance is just like recovery from co-occurring substance abuse -- I take the little action steps that I need to, each day -- take the medicine, do talk therapy, get your sleep, talk to your team, don't isolate, follow the suggestions of your psychiatrist and others you trust. The list of little action steps goes on. Each day, the little steps of action. By now, they are just part of my day, mixed in with all of the things I love to do, and all the things that need to get done.
Managing bipolar takes practice, and adjustments from time to time; in my experience, it’s effects can vary over time, or by season, and they can be significantly impacted as sleep patterns and life stress comes and goes. So, in my experience, medicine levels need to be tweaked as life changes -- meaning, not just looked at once at the start, or just once a year, and then never checked again. The brain is complex; the illness is complex; but the management work is worth it; in my experience, there are some significant upsides that come with this diagnosis. For example, by proactively managing my diagnosis, I've been able to achieve some very neat things in recovery, while avoiding the unhelpful extremes. I believe that everyone with a mental illness should have access to a psychiatrist, and to therapy, so that there is enough medical contact to make these adjustments as needed. I imagine sometimes all of the benefits to people and to society that would result.
In my experience, having a diagnosis like bipolar eventually causes you to ask: What exactly is, and is not, normal and abnormal in our culture and society? I've found that there are a lot of labels out there, and many are pretty arbitrary. Things that seem bizarre are considered fine; things that make sense are considered no good. And that’s just in this culture. When you look worldwide, what some countries call abnormal, other countries think is fine. What’s my point here? In my experience, this is one of the benefits of my bipolar brain -- its different chemical composition lets me see things differently; I connect things differently, causing me, for example, to wonder if concepts like “normal” and “abnormal” are inaccurate and unhelpful. And in seeing things differently, I often wonder if concepts should be applied in different contexts; for example, what if concepts of mental illness and abnormality were applied not just to the actions and beliefs of people, but also societies? These are some of the questions that I explore in my art, which I mention from time to time on these pages.
My own experience with bipolar, these 19+ years now, has taught me that my bipolar is caused and influenced not only by my own brain chemistry, but also by our cultural environment -- by our society. I'm curious to see what psychiatrists discover in the next decade or so about this. I hear the view for decades has been that mental illness is somehow only a function of genes and cells, and never a function of what society and culture does. As I hinted above, I see things a bit differently on that. Apparently a growing number of psychiatrists, scientists, and other experts do, too. Stay tuned.