Monday, January 26, 2009

Is Bipolar Cool?


Something major has happened in the ten years since I've been diagnosed with bipolar. Back then, it was an illness you concealed. It was a shame you hid. Friends, family, and colleagues had a way of only seeing the diagnosis, and what they chose to see was not good.

To disclose your diagnosis was to risk everything: friends, relationships, livelihood.

Then something started to change. Over time, bipolar morphed into something that could be "cool" to have. Mind you, those struggling mightily with their illness saw nothing cool about it. Neither did their suffering families. But the flip side was the stigma was diminishing, and this had to be good news.

Part of the trend had to do with the recent recognition of bipolar II and various forms of "soft" bipolar. In other words, bipolar wasn't an all-or-nothing disease. You could be a "little bit" bipolar. And a little bit was cool. Even the way-out-there bipolars could make a claim to cool.

Van Gogh, Hemingway, Woolf - how cool was that? Okay, they all killed themselves. But maybe if they were alive today - the thinking goes - that wouldn't have happened.

Over the years, I have urged individuals to embrace their entire illness - the good as well as the bad. If we simply viewed ourselves as patients who suffered, I kept saying, we would always wind up stuck well short of recovery.

Last night, I went to Facebook and searched under "bipolar." If the word appeared anywhere on a profile page that a member created, Facebook would find it for me.

My results revealed "more than 500" finds. I suspect many thousands. There were a great many examples to choose from, but let's go with three:

First, there were those whose lives seemed part of a weird Andy Warhol movie. These weren't exactly people you would be seeking out as Facebook friends. Then again, their bipolar credentials carried an air of exclusivity, as if to challenge the world. In the past, these people would have been shamed for failing to meet the standards of society. Now, there was an air of pride and defiance. They weren't about to please you. You had to please them. Too bad if you weren't good enough.

Then there were young hotties who advertised themselves as a bit on the wild side. Most of them, I suspect, had never seen a psychiatrist. But they proudly proclaimed themselves as "semi-bipolar" or "must be bipolar." Forget for the time being the dangers of romanticizing one of the worst illnesses on the planet. Instead, focus on the fact that these young women - part of a new generation - view bipolar as something positive, as a credential they can use (and misuse) to make new friends.

Finally, there were those I like to call bipolar role models. The image that stuck with me is that of a very attractive woman in her thirties or forties. She is in a smart pants suit, in stylish heels, posing in front of her Cadillac Escalade. I'm bipolar, is the underlying message, and not only am I making it in your world, I'm really kicking ass.

These are just some of the new faces of bipolar. They are a reflection of a changing world, a world that they (we) are changing. It is the face of a new bipolar cool.

A new generation - the Facebook Generation - is out there, in your face. They are not hiding in the closet. For good or bad, they are wearing their bipolar as if it were something to be embraced and envied rather than an entity to be feared and despised.

The rest of society is likely to embrace this change, as well, but possibly at the expense of being indifferent to our pain.

In the meantime, we are looking at tons of upside. Here's hoping ...

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

I was in my local branch of Waterstones a couple of days ago and overheard a group of per-teens discussing mental illness. They all claimed to be sufferers and launched into a competition as to who was diagnosed earliest. One girl proudly announced she was only 4 years old when her doctor suggested the possibility but she was trumped by another girl who was apparently only three years old.

In some respects I was glad to hear young people discussing their problems without fear of stigma but on the other hand I was sickened by the fact that they actually 'wanted' to have a mental illness.

John McManamy said...

Hi, Anonymous. Very very eye-opening. And I agree. On one hand it's very encouraging to have discussion out in the open. This will roll back the stigma bigtime. On the other, all the negative implications are frightening. Pleas keep posting.

misere said...

I fear this change.

Discussions out in the open seem like a good thing, but to glamorize or romanticise or advertise yourself with it is a watering-down process that does more harm than good, in my view.

I could be wrong, though. Just this discussion in itself could balance that. Maybe.

I wonder if it would be so fashionable if Bipolar Disorder was still called Manic Depression. More stigma, but maybe more awareness of the severity of the thing.

Also, the thing about "soft" bipolar is a problem for me if Bipolar II is lumped into that. It is anything BUT soft!

Since being dx'd 3 yrs ago, I find myself wishing every day that I had never gone to the doctor when my depression was too much for me. I wish I had toughed it out as I always had and can just go about my usual patterns of confusion, lack of control, and self-hatred without the added confusion of wondering if I may have jumped on that bandwagon myself, in spite of my psychiatrist's and therapist's expertise.

Every day I take my meds and find myself trying to second-guess myself.

John McManamy said...

Hi, misere. Very glad you found your way here from BipolarConnect. Welcome. I definitely agree with you about romanticizing this illness. On one hand there are gifts that we need to acknowledge and talk about. On the other, if society starts believing bipolar is cool, then they will turn a back on our suffering. NOthing but bad can happen from that.

Re BP II - I've long been on record as saying those with BP II may have a harder time than those with BP I. Far and away, depression is the main feature of BP II. To add to the misery, those with BP II tend to get misdiagnosed with unipolar and put on the wrong meds. This typically goes on for years and years.

As for "soft bipolar," I call it "hard depression." Most of what I said for BP II applies.

Finally, don't beat yourself up. Even people with no diagnosis often find life too much. I think it's a universal human trait that we can't always go it alone. We can't always tough it out ourselves. We have to turn to our fellow humans for support.

Please keep coming back - we're all part of the support process here.

cretin said...

This post has bothered me. There seems to be a trend in how some people gravitate to "negative" labels. These labels make them feel special or provides an excuse for aberrant behavior. There is a stereotype of bipolar that we are always outrageous or mercurial. Those who are may say they are bipolar to excuse their behavior. But there are all types of personalities of people that suffer from bipolar disorder. I, for one, am not mercurial or outrageous (pretty low-key) unless you should catch me in my very brief hypomanic state. I kind of resent the notion that unless you are always mercurial and outrageous, you must not be bipolar. I wonder how many normally-calm people with bipolar are misdiagnosed because they don't fit the stereotype.

John McManamy said...

Hi, Cretin. Definitely agree. Most bipolars (myself included) are depressed way more than they are manic. Basically, we are a depressed population with speed bumps.

No wonder I had no idea what I was dealing with. Mania gets all the attention.

And, yes, way too many people who like to party are employing the "bipolar excuse," even if they are not bipolar.

We are definitely seeing a trend toward bipolar being cool. On one hand, that is a welcome relief from bipolar being scary. On the other, there may be some very disturbing downside.

Anonymous said...

there is absolutely nothing "cool" about bipolar as far as I am concerned ....this illness has run roughshod over almost every aspect of my life. I am in remission as i call it for 2 years now..but my life is not the same. I collect long term disability, i lost my drivers lic from abuse of alcohol while manic, and there are days i cant get out of bed still. this being said. i do think being bipolar does strike, smart creative people and we have to be strong, coping with this illness takes everything we have.
Thanks for the story.

John McManamy said...

Hi, Anonymous. Very much appreciate your post. Every single person with a bipolar diagnosis has suffered enormously. Otherwise, we would never have sought out psychiatric help, or had others seek it out for us. Every bipolar I have met can relate heart-breaking accounts of wrecked lives.

You speak for all of us.

Yes, we have a trend that bipolar is cool. But if people think we're cool, then they will turn their backs on our suffering.

Many thanks for speaking out.

Anonymous said...

Every semester I return to my university and give guest “lectures” on bipolar disorder and what it’s like to be mentally ill.

Many students come up to me afterward and thank me for my presentation and congratulate me on my stability and strength. The professor always forwards a flurry of emails from students who are bipolar, think they are bipolar, or know/knew someone who is/was bipolar. They often recount harrowing tales of pain and struggling and sometimes relate disturbing endings to very promising lives. However, for all of these individual acknowledgements of the disorder the underpinning theme is that this disorder is very real, very serious, very distressful, and very dangerous. As pleasant as it is knowing that my generation is no longer wary of the mentally ill and has a certain respect for mental illness as a real disease and not a personal shortfall or weakness, my joy is tempered by the “other” students that invariably approach me after class.

These students, who most likely paid very little attention to the meat of my discussion and instead focused on the stories of the outrageous things I have done and said, want to congratulate me on being different and unique. While I am different and unique, not only for “bipolar” reasons, that was not the message that I was trying to convey. They think that because I have done and experienced things they can barely even imagine I have something that should be glorified as a gift. Certainly I appreciate that I have been afforded the opportunity to see a side of life hidden to the majority of the human race AND I have managed to come out on the other side relatively intact, but I do not appreciate the suffering, my own and of those around me, that has come along with it.

I fail to see the “cool” factor, the enviable nature, of an illness that can steal a person’s logic, hopes, dreams, personality, soul, and even their life. I do not understand how a student, someone who is supposedly attempting to expand their mind, can listen to me talk of attempted suicide, psychosis, hospitalizations, lost dreams and hopes and opportunities, run-ins with the law, and wrecked relationships and still tell me that I must have a really special take on life and that that is “so cool”.

Of course, many of these are the same students who ask me if being mentally ill is about the same as being under the influence of certain substances.

John McManamy said...

Hi, Anonymous. Amen to that. Nothing cool about all my lost years, being unemployable, suicidal, a social outcast. Question: The kids you talk to are experiencing new things, new ideas, are struggling with their own identities. You are showing them a different fascinating world that they want to know more about. So is it legitimate for them to enquire into what they might see as the transcendent qualities of this illness? A new realm, so to speak?

Anonymous said...

I was diagnosed bipolar about 3 years ago. Bipolar 2 mixed episodes. I have heard my teenage daughters friends saying things like wow thats so bipolar in a sentence describing something. At first I thaught my daughter had told them about me and they were making fun of me in a roundabout way but she explained no mom everyone just says that when something odd or out of the ordinary happens. Well I was glad to finally get diagnosed after years and years of being on antidepressants from md,s and flaking out and going into manic mode, but don't see anything kool about it or people thinking its cool. They should live what i feel for one day and see how cool they think it is then.