Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Viewing Bipolar

Recently, Michael from Stable Moods asked me and eight other bipolar patient authors, plus an abstract artist, to respond to 16 questions. The first few questions I filled in rather quickly, but being a writer, my answers soon expanded to essay length. I spotted a similar pattern when I read the other interviews on the site.

Then I got thinking. Same set of questions. Obviously different answers. How did we compare? I decided to zero in on three questions:

Do you think mental illness is generally looked upon differently now than it was 10 years ago? Better? Worse?

We were all virtually unanimous on this one. "Madness: A Bipolar Life" author Marya Hornbacher's response is fairly typical:

"Yes, I think there's an enormous change for the better. Ten years ago, when I was diagnosed, no one was talking about bipolar, and there was very little public acceptance of schizophrenia either. People still firmly believed in the 'pull yourself up by your bootstraps' nonsense, and I think now the awareness that that's just not how mental illness works is more widespread. But I think there's a very long way to go. I think it's improved in some circles, but the larger population still knows too little about it, still fears it, still vilifies it, and still needs to know the truth about what it is."

Lana Castle, author of "Bipolar Disorder Demystified," notes that "people are beginning to be more sympathetic."

I observe that stigma still exists (and that patients and clinicians can be as bigoted as the rest of society). Nevertheless, we may soon see "bipolar lite" on people's resumes and Facebook pages:

"In professions that value creativity and drive, mild bipolar is looked upon as an advantage. In many social circles, people value those bright sparks who are 'a little bit crazy.' Some people even think bipolars make the best lovers, and I am going to do nothing to disabuse them of that notion."

Do you consider bipolar disorder part of who you are, part of what makes up your character, personality and experience of self?

Julie Fast, author of "Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder," is emphatically negative:

"I see bipolar disorder as an illness that sits on the real me. When I'm not sick, I am a happy, balanced and focused person. ... The REAL ME has nothing to do with bipolar disorder. That's an illness."

In a related question, Ms Fast observes, "there is nothing positive about bipolar disorder - I would be a lot better off without it."

Terri Cheney, author of "Manic, A Memoir," is in accord with most of the rest of us: "I consider it integral to my personality, and to my experience of the world. I think I see things more intensely, and feel things more deeply, than the average person. This has its pros and cons, of course. As a writer, it's invaluable. As a human being - it can be tough."

In a similar vein, Mark Kirchmeir, author of "The Province of Hope," adds: "I say it to the world. It defines me. While a mixed blessing, I have a high IQ and am very perceptive. ... I believe that my intellect and intuition are intertwined with my condition."

Abstract artist Susan Olmetti goes all the way: "My bipolar is my best friend, we will be together forever. I could not live without it. The way I see it, you either grow to love your other half or grow apart. I could not exist without it, it's who I am and will always be."

If the medical establishment could offer you a pill tomorrow that would cure bipolar disorder and remove all the associated symptoms (positive and negative) would you take it and why?

This is the money question. A sampling ...

Lynne Taetzch, author of "The Bipolar Dementia Art Chronicles," replies: "Never. It's like wanting to give up your life for someone else's. Who among us would really want to do that? If nothing else, being bipolar has made my life interesting. As a writer and artist, it is all good material."

Susan Olmetti concurs: "No, I like who I am because I am bipolar, which makes me more unique. Ten percent insanity and ninety percent sweat makes you a really smart person."

Julie Fast sees things completely differently: "Where is the water! Hand me a glass! Are you kidding? I'd take the pill."

Holly Hollan, author of "Soaring and Crashing: My Bipolar Adventures," admits to having changed her view:

"In my book, I say that I would not take such a pill. However, at that time, I was experiencing hypomania (not manic, as I was still greatly in touch with reality). However, since I finished the book, I have been in a three-year depression, and have thought that if there were a pill that would take the depression away and make me hypomanic permanently, I would take that pill!"

Jayson Blair, author of "Burning Down My Master's House," would like a smart pill:

"If that cure could eliminate the negative symptoms and consequences, and could preserve the positive ones, I would happily take it. If that pill eliminated both the negative symptoms and the positive ones, I would take it - it would be worth it - but probably not so happily."

How Would You Respond?

Have things improved, stigma-wise? Is bipolar the real you? Would you take that pill? Please leave a comment ...

Check out the interviews.


BN said...

Hi John and thanks for a fantastic piece. When I've thought about this, is my bipolar me or an unwanted addition, would I take a magical pill to take it away from me, I have to say that on bad days I'd give the world for that pill. But the good days are far more in numbers than the bad, and on any good day I'd say HECK NO! Let me be insane and quirky, special and unique, and the fantastic woman that I am. Because of my bipolar, not despite it. Luckily for me, (at least that's my point of view) I don't go very high in mania, but I fall low into depression. However, I've managed my depression better than my mania, so I think I'm lucky that I don't go too high. I just get really efficient, can do a hundred things at the same time, need less sleep, and get a heck of a lot done both job-wise and creatively as well.
As for the stigma having improved, I sadly say it hasn't, at least not nearly enough. I live in Iceland, basically a small town of 320 thousand ppl on a small island in the arctic, where everybody knows just about everyone, and is their cousin too, and unfortunately, it seems this increases the stigma instead of lessening it. I've seen things come a long way since I was diagnosed ten years ago, but we've still got a long way ahead of us. I was heavily involved in the user-movement here a few years ago, and did go on national tv saying that in my opinion it was both cool and smart to be insane. And I still say that publicly. I'm not ashamed of who I am, pros and cons. But there are so preciously few of us that are out there in the open with our mental illness, that stigma still plays a huge part in our everyday lives up here. Maybe one day soon, it will get better.
Oh, and on a sidenote, because of your unscientific poll on the meds, I have to say: Meds helped me through the first years, but they made my life more difficult as well. I've been off meds now for more than two years, and while I see meds as an important tool in recovery, it is not very high on the list! I think that what helped me most was the fact that I "came out" as insane, and I took responsibility for my disease, much as I did with my alcoholism way back when. That has been the most helpful tool for me. It's really up to me whether I function as a remotely sane person on any given day. And I'm responsible for my recovery, not my doctor, or the meds, or the nursing staff at the hospital, or my therapist. It's all up to me.
I'm willing to do just about anything to stay off the meds, because while they helped me in some ways, it took me 18 months to get past the withdrawal symptoms, and I'm still suffering some of the other side effects of the meds, such as being overweight. It's coming along nicely, but never again meds for me!
Sorry that my comment turned into an essay, I'll try to contain myself next time!
Best wishes.

John McManamy said...

Hey, BN. Great post. Please write more "essays." I especially appreciate your comment: " ... on bad days I'd give the world for that pill. But the good days are far more in numbers than the bad, and on any good day I'd say HECK NO."

I need to think more about this and ask more questions. Because suppose we had that magic pill that meant as well as no more bad days, there would be no more good days?

Very much looking forward to more comments from you, BN.

Anonymous said...

I would probably take the pill. Depression far outweighs the "high" of hypomania for me. But then again I'd also take a pill, if they had one, to cure my profound progressive bilateral sensorineural hearing loss...I'm at 110 db (average loss) and still falling...going, going, gone.