The Patron Saint of Bipolar Disorder

Imagine having a mood system that functions essentially like weather – independently of whatever’s going on in your life. So the facts of your life remain the same, just the emotional fiction that you’re responding to differs.
-Carrie Fisher, Wishful Drinking

The woman could make such clean cuts with her words, straight to the heart of whatever she was talking about. It makes me feel sad that I have to now refer to her in the past tense, but her words will be around forever. In the quote above she was describing what it was like for her to live with bipolar disorder. This description resonated so deeply with me that I felt it in my rib cage. My friend who recommended Carrie Fisher’s book to me refers to her as the “patron saint of bipolar,” and I have now adopted this epithet also.

I was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder a couple weeks ago, but looking over the past couple decades of my life, I can see that I have likely had it all along. An odd mixture of feelings accompanies this diagnosis. First, relief. There are reasons, categories for my various patterns of behavior. In my twenties, the dozens of jobs I started with gusto then quit after a few weeks, or months, or sometimes days. My repeated attempts at going back to college only to give up again by the end of the semester. The races and competitions I’ve trained for but never completed. Always feeling like I’m playing catchup with my emotions, not ever quite being able to fully stay in the moment. The days and days I haven’t been able to get out of bed for no reason I could name, shortly followed by days or weeks of not being able to slow down. Never enough parties, no risk I was unwilling to take, not enough projects to start in a flurry of inspiration…only to find myself back in bed again, projects abandoned, unable to even remember the times when I felt good. I have always believed these to be weaknesses, failures, flaws in my character, but maybe I just needed a different kind of help that I didn’t know how to ask for. Maybe

Secondly, I feel anger and grief. Why, for decades, did I have to feel like a complete failure, fighting, with everything I had in me, against something that I didn’t even understand. I lost so many of those fights because I was focused on only one dimension of a bigger problem. I went to therapy, I took my meds, I saw my doctors, I did the things that were supposed to help me but they didn’t actually help. Why didn’t anyone see that? Why did I have to fail over and over and over again? Over the past couple weeks, with a new perspective on old problem, my weather system of emotions playing out like global warming inside my head, and I just watch it like an audience member in a theater (who paid way too much for their ticket…worst. play. ever.). I am awed by how little control I have over any of it. I’ve never had any control, not over the clear blue skies, the light rains, the tornadoes or earthquakes, the sudden freezes, or the ice storms in the middle of summer. For so long I thought I could force my way through the storms and build a life in the middle of the tornado anyway, like the tornado was simply an inconvenience that I could overcome if I wanted it badly enough.

I did want it, though. I do want it. But wanting it can’t stop a tornado from wiping out everything in its path anyway. The best we can do is try to keep ourselves and those we love safe until it passes. My relationships with those I love are not immune to damage from my weather systems, and I’m not always safe with myself in the rough times either. The sliver of comfort I can squeeze from this is that these weather systems, these mood changes, these misfiring brain chemicals are bigger than me. They are not in my control and not punishment for something I’ve done wrong. I’m learning how to stay safe when the storms come, and to do my best to keep those I love safe as well, as much as it is in my power to do so. I mean we all saw the Wizard of Oz. Things don’t always work out like we want them to, but sometimes in the forced detours you still end up with really cool shoes.

(That’s a metaphor about hope, but I’m not sure it played out as well as I thought it would. You’ll have to be the judge of that; I’m not erasing it.)

Carrie Fisher, patron saint of bipolar, also said, “At times, being bipolar can be an all-consuming challenge, requiring a lot of stamina and even more courage, so if you’re living with this illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of.” I want so much to believe in these words that I started a blog and decided to go ahead and act like I do believe it. I am functioning each day to the best of my ability. For example, I didn’t shower yesterday, but I did leave the house and see some people I love and made them laugh. Also, I make a goal at the beginning of every day, and a couple of friends follow up with me at the end of the day to see if I accomplished it. So far I have met the goal each day, which means my mind is focused on the future, even if it’s just a few hours into the future, and it’s no longer stuck and without hope. There’s a part of me that found hope again, somewhere, in something. Having an unstable weather system in my brain is not my fault. I don’t have to fight a fruitless fight anymore.

wizard-oz-twister_l

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