Holding your two selves together

BipolarColor
Image by Andrew Mackay.

Growing up, I was diagnosed with anxiety at an early age. From age seven onward therapy was a regular aspect of my life- it was just another after school activity. Some kids went off to learn viola, I went to a biofeedback room to learn how I could control the fear and unease that ruled my life.

That was theĀ diagnosis up until just before I turned fifteen- anxiety. General anxiety, social anxiety, separation anxiety. It was something, a vague combination of all the ways one can feel out of place and time. There were constants. To this day I hate calling people on the phone, which dates as far back as I can remember. But it was in flux. Maybe some of this was obsessive-compulsive disorder (a psychiatrist theory). Or just a weird adolescence. Perhaps I suffered the same fate as many ‘gifted’ children- a dysfunction around others, even those I had a lot in common with.

The lay of the land changed when the moods formed a pattern and my problems found a name. Ever since, life has been about reconciling old issues with newer ones. What is anxiety to me? Where does it fit now? Is it fully independent of bipolar, its own sovereign disorder- or perhaps that they feed each other in a cycle much like the steady sin wave that governs my mood swings and struggles with the extremes of bipolar disorder.

Anxiety, as it stands shortly before I turn twenty-four, is a symptom. A special sort of symptom, fed by hypomania followed by depression. It is the metaphorical headache that comes with reconciling two wildly different, but very real persons. After engaging in stupid or dangerous things while manic, my depressive self must deal with the social ostracism and humiliation. I’ve heard classmates and friends telling me they prefer the funny, hypersocial me- the same one I fear and hope never reappears. Each cycle one self creates commitments, strange friendships, debts monetary and not- then the other self must sift through them. A constant reminder of behavior that is both at times shameful and bizarre. Why did my depressive self let all this crap pile up? Why did my hypomanic self blow all that money?

To me, bipolar disorder is not just the two selves with little in common. It’s the attempt to be sinew, and connect the various fractions into a coherent self. It’s difficult and demanding- and gives me great anxiety. But anxiety is not a standalone issue- it is the water gushing from the crack on the dam. You can buy all the buckets you can find, and gather the water to keep it from flooding what lies below- but the water will never stop. The crack needs to be fixed. Thoreau spoke that “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root”. Day-to-day maintenance is so overwhelming that in the past I could rarely ponder “why am I anxious?”

This present period of stability is incredible. It far surpasses the most raucous fun of hypomania, and it is the most treasured possession I have. It has allowed me to understand symptoms from a new perspective- the major cause is being controlled, so what still bothers me?

And anxiety is still there. I don’t like calling even close friends on the phone, or knocking on a stranger’s door. The anxiety is less widespread and reminds me more of my pre-bipolar past, talking with a soft-spoken psychologist and trying to control my breathing and body temperature with biofeedback. This is what remains, once the anxiety of reconciliation is kept to a dull roar. Like the tremor in my right hand from lithium, it’s okay that it exists. I can handle it. I’m okay.

Coming out…as living with a mental illness

In a perfect follow-up to my earlier post on mental illness and stigma, Al Jazeera America has posted a lovely feature about Elyn Saks, a distinguished legal scholar who “came out” as schizophrenic in 2007.

I think her story helps demonstrate a parallel between combating stigma about mental illness and combating stigma about being LGBT. Friday’s celebrity news was dominated by Ellen Page coming out as lesbian. The more people that are open and public about their sexuality, the easier it becomes for those who are still tentative about coming out. Saks, by deciding to emerge as a genius academic living with a serious mental condition, sends a clear message. Having bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, or major depression isn’t a personal failing, and it doesn’t guarantee a life of missed opportunity. There is power in her story, where she went ahead with her dreams despite pleas to choose a less ambitious career.

There are many traits that can isolate us- being LGBT, having a religious or political philosophy at odds with our family or community, and yes, living with mental illness. The reason I choose to live openly as a bipolar is that I’ve come to learn that I am not alone. There are other people like me, hundreds of thousands in the United States. When Saks and those like her talk about their experience in public, it helps to show that the struggle you are having is not unique.

And that it’s not something to ever be ashamed of.