Friday, May 09, 2008

Who We Are

My name is ET, and I'm a manic depressive.
(Or if you prefer the more "friendly" term, I'm bipolar)


I exhibit almost no outward symptoms, don't appear to suffer from depression, have only light manic episodes, and am a generally agreeable (though anti-social) person. I function normally, interact normally, though my thought process can sometimes be a little skewed (which can actually be helpful in some situations).

The body that I'm in IS manic depressive. Physiologically.
I, (how ever it is you can define the word "I") am not.

By choice.

My mom is bipolar. (It's supposed to be hereditary) However, no one told my sister and I that when our mom was having manic and depressive episodes, or even when she wasn't. I use the word "is" because she IS still bipolar. She was actually the one who cured me. Indirectly. Though, it seems at her own expense.

When I was a kid, we lived the normal life. Nice house, mom's a dental assistant trying to start her own business, dad's a sheriff deputy who worked just a bit more than folks with other jobs, ambitious sister two years younger than I, and two cats. Mom and dad argued about stuff. I didn't really know what, because I just figured they were arguing because that's what parents did. They didn't seem to argue excessively, though I had nothing to really gauge it by, but I remember normal times too. They were frugal, so we could go on yearly vacations skiing in Yosemite or on roadtrips to Colorado, or trips to Hawaii. Before I was 7 I'd been to Hawaii 4 times. (Kauai was our favorite island) From an early age my sister butted heads with my mom. We used to say she got her bull-headedness from her mother. My sister would always take the path of most resistance, and I, the least. I was an agreeable kid, and I was smart, so mom rarely had reason to yell at me. There was stuff that I knew was weird about her, every once in a while she'd remind me that I was the only one she could trust because my sister and my dad were conspiring against her, she'd often have mood swings where she'd throw away or destroy things (like, things that were important to herself and others), accuse anyone of anything at the slightest provocation, etc. etc. etc... When I was young, my uncle died. It affected my mom deeply, but I didn't really know him well enough to get worked up about it. I'd learn later that he committed suicide, and knowing that, and how the family drew together with so much love and support, I think it kept mom from ever doing the same. It was supposedly a moment of anger and passion, rather than a calculated thing he'd done. But she knew what it would do to her family, and probably regarded it as I now do; a coward's way out.

It wasn't until high school that I started exhibiting symptoms. I didn't think anything strange about it at the time (it was normal for me) but I began to withdraw from the world. My mania was moderate, but my depression was strong. Dark years. After almost failing out of high school, my parents brought me to a shrink with whom they had done some marriage counseling (until mom refused to see her, because the shrink kept finding fault in her, which made her part of the conspiracy of people plotting against her). After going once a week for a few months, she had a diagnosis;

"You're manic depressive; or what's called, 'bipolar'. It's not your fault. I've treated your mom, and it seems obvious to me that you got it from her. It's a genetic thing. While we don't know exactly what causes it, it seems to be due to slowed synapse response in your brain due to a limited supply of a certain compound in your body. It's a physiological thing, it's not your fault. You have no control over it. I recommended your mother take this medication, and for a while she did. But she stopped after they started working, because she didn't like that she felt different. We cling to what's secure, and for some of us, our problems are what's secure. If you take the medication, and stay on it, it will make a difference. It won't change things magically; you'll have to do your part, but I guarantee it'll help. It's not your fault; your body just needs a little help."

The depression gave me a lot of time for introspection. I had determined that who we are is who we are, and we should live with it. Her words fell on me like a ton of bricks dropped one at a time, the weight pressing me down until I couldn't move. Until I couldn't breathe. I could only think;

If this is my lot in life, then so be it. I can't fight my physiology, I'd be fighting my body for the rest of my life. I'm not big on pills, but she is obviously a professional, and in her opinion, I need these things to operate normally. No more depression, no more suicidal thoughts, no more of all that horrible stuff. All I have to do is take a pill. My body is broken, and it just needs a little help mellowing out. I've seen what it does to mom, and I don't ever want to be like that. It's not like it's the end of the world...

But I just couldn't get past one of the things she said.

"You have no control over it."

I live in my own body, and I can't control it? It's not like there's someone else in here. It's all me, and I can't control my own body? Aren't we on the same team? And I need to take some foreign substance to fix the problem between me and my body?! No. No. Fuck that. Don't tell me what I can't do. If who I am is wrong, then I'll just have to change who I am.

That's when it hit me. If who I am is bipolar, and I could change that problem by taking a pill, then I'd have to be a different person. Then I realized that we are constantly changing from one person into another. Every experience, thought, and epiphany we have molds us slightly into a different person. Yet we somehow maintain our identity. If it's possible to change who you fundamentally are with a strong thought, or new idea, then it would be possible for me to beat this illness on my own.

So I lied to her.

I told her I'd think about it.

Then I started a years-long journey out of my illness. At first I was quite lost. I didn't know what I had to do to fix things, and I was afraid to talk to the shrink for fear she'd force the medication. I tried simply expelling the thoughts. Any time I had a bad thought, or began feeling down, I'd stop, and busy myself with some other consuming task. Unfortunately this was simple repression, and lead to longer, harder episodes. This was rough because I thought I just needed practice, and wound up doing this for a long time. I was just pushing the thoughts down, I wasn't getting rid of them. I only got worse. I sought religion. I learned about a all-knowing, all-loving god who moves in mysterious ways, but loves you no matter how the world treats you. This was a little confusing. Even if I ignored the odd dogma, and got past the silly stories, the fundamental idea was to keep an upbeat attitude, because some big dude in the sky is secretly watching over you, and no matter how bad it gets, he's got something good in store for you. This did nothing for the episodes of mania and depression. I just couldn't allow myself to think dumbly, "Things'll be OK because some dude said some other dude is gonna fix it!" It seemed like another dismissal of responsibility. Besides, I didn't want someone else to fix my problems, I wanted to find out how to fix them myself. Then for a long time I did nothing. It hit me hard, and I was sure I couldn't beat it, and convinced myself that by now I was "too far along" (?) to expect the pills to fix things. More dark years. In my solitude I expanded my interest in computers, and got into new fields. It gave me a sense of accomplishment, and was a good way to keep my mind occupied. I turned to morbidity, and thought for hours how to kill myself with a strange detachment. Probably because I knew I could never be so selfish to do it. My uncle taught me that. I resorted back to repression just so I could function normally most of the time. Go to school, go to work, eat, sleep, repeat. For a long time.

Things began to change when my mom gave me a book that she enjoyed, The Tao of Pooh. An odd little book that explained Taoism through the characters in the "Winnie the Pooh" series. I became intrigued by Taoism, and read a number of books on the subject. I began to notice the little things around me, the birds, the grass, the leaves on the trees, the wind. As I noticed more, my episodes became less frequent. I cultivated an appreciation for the little things in life. Even things as simple as playing video games with my friends, gave me moments of clarity, moments where I realized right now, in this very singular moment, that shall never exist again, life is good. I became aware of other people. All those hundreds of people you pass by in your car on the freeway, every single one of them has their own life with their own challenges, with their own problems, and their own fears. It was mathematically impossible for me to have the hardest life, the biggest challenges, or the most complications. Someone out there had it harder than me. Hell, LOTS of people have it harder than me. Knowing that was somehow comforting. Whenever I'd have bad thoughts, I'd just think of the vastness of the universe, the enormity of the planet, the billions of individuals who live on it, and the hardships they go through every day. Then I'd think of the beauty of the world. The trees swaying, the birds chirping, the plants growing, all so complex, but so beautifully simple. I couldn't feel bad. I couldn't feel angry. I couldn't feel confused when the world could be so simple and perfect. I had to smile.

After practicing this, I didn't need to stare out a window to get happy, I just had to think of the big picture. If I want to be sad about this thing right now, I have to think if it's going to matter in 10 years. Am I going to mark my calendar, and in 10 years celebrate the anniversary of this terrible event? Of course I'm not, and doing so seems so silly. Not just to dwell on the past, but to choose to dwell on negativity. This too shall pass.

The more I did it. The easier it got. Until I was happy. Actually happy. Truly, down to my core, happy.


I still get pangs from time to time, but they are easily quelled. I'll become stricken with paranoia, depression, anger, or rage, at the most silly things. For example; if I'm driving, and someone breaks at the same rate as me approaching a stop, I become enraged at them, and will slam on my breaks or speed up. It's not slight anger or displeasure, it's naked, white-hot rage. These feelings are still just short jabs, and easily controlled, but with some of them I just have to laugh, because it's just so silly to be like this. Very rarely will my mood alter severely, but even then I maintain the presence of mind to know I'm in an altered state, and to be mindful of myself until it passes.

My brain still works differently. It makes odd associations, and jumps quickly from topic to topic. It's hard to describe. It's not so much topic to topic as it would be tv channel to tv channel. Many entirely different things, already in progress in the background, bouncing in and out of focus. Sometimes when I'm in the middle of something my brain will skip the rails, and I'll be thinking of something completely different. Not like, "brain fart, whoops I forgot." More like, "If we flat-rate it we can recover the cost of mitocondrial DNA is transferred maternally." This is probably why writing helps. While it gets me into trouble sometimes, I know it has helped me think about things from different angles, and come up with interesting solutions to problems. It seems to verge on autism in some cases. Like I said, it's hard to describe.

I save stories and pictures that make me feel sad or cry. I guess it's just a little bit of clinging to the old I still do. It doesn't leave me feeling negative, and it seems to help, so I allow it from time to time.

Part of changing the way I thought was questioning my judgment. This was an agreeable side-effect because it made me try my best to see both sides of an issue, and gained a reputation among friends and peers as a neutral party of particular clarity. Friends (even new friends who shouldn't trust me) open up to me with their problems, ask my advice, and value my opinion. I say this not because I think it's the case, but because they've told me, and continue to ask for my help.

I'm careful about addictions. I never drink alone, and drink infrequently, when I started smoking cigars, I had to NOT smoke for about 8 months just to prove to myself I was in control. I was, and am.

Guns have helped. You might flinch at a manic depressive living with his girlfriend and rabbit in an apartment full of guns, but they've helped me discipline myself. Focus is important with guns, cultivating it helps in all other areas of life. It has also helped me feel more in control of the world around me. There is confidence knowing you're well equipped for most of the nastiness the world can throw at you. It helps. As someone once said, "I shoot guns because it's cheaper than therapy!" Too true.
(thought it was odd to become defense minded, and develop a healthy level of paranoia, without going overboard)

I often appear ambivalent. All my reactionary emotions get sanitized, and checked for deviations. I've been accused of having a poker face. I'm very slow to anger, because I have to be absolutely sure I should feel anger before I feel it. You will never hear me raise my voice. Even when I feel rage and anger boiling over, I try to turn it into sadness or disappointment for fear of hurting someone. Coworkers regard me as a very calm, controlled person, and always react when I relax. Sometimes I forget to turn it off, and realize I should be smiling at something, or react affirmatively. I feel impersonal when I do this, but I've practiced the expressions well, and am pretty in-tune with other people. Only recently have I been able to let my guard down among friends. It feels good.

Why am I writing this?
Because writing about it helps. Getting my thoughts down somewhere where I can read them later helps me remember what and why. Not to mention the revelations I come to by simply forcing myself to think about a specific topic.

Why am I sharing this with the internet?
To let you know that if there's something about you that you don't like, you can change it. With will power, with determination, with practice.
It can be done, because I did it.
It isn't perfect, but who is?
We don't ask for perfection; we just ask for functional.
If you're reading this right now thinking, "Hey man, your problems are miniscule compared to mine!" then remember that there are billions of people in the world, and somewhere, someone's got bigger problems than you, and they're dealing with them. There is only one person who can do anything to you, and it's you. If you allow other people to change the way you think of yourself, you've got a long, hard life ahead of you. Take control.

Whoa dude, I know you in real life. Are things going to be weird now?
No. I haven't changed after writing this, but if your opinion of me has, then... well... deal with it. To quote a great philosopher; "I yam what I yam." If you'd prefer I lie to you, then lie to yourself, because I won't do it.

Thanks for reading, and remember, I do this for me.


Bonnie said...

I hate to sound cliche, but with a few minor changes, I could have written this, in large part. Right down to the drinking and smoking, and the "borders on autism" points.

Not everyone CAN change what life has dealt them in terms of their emotional differences - we're some of the lucky ones. As you noted, there are some who are worse off. That's important to note, not only to make yourself feel better, but to put what your doctor said in perspective: she said that you can't do anything about it. What she meant was, "If you could, that'd be great, but I don't want you to feel like you're to blame for how your brain works." Of course, you hearing it as a challenge is likely what started you on your road to recover, as it were, so obviously things have worked out well, and it doesn't much matter any more, does it? :-)

Thanks for sharing.

Kent McManigal said...

Sounds like my situation except for the happy "ending". Maybe I will be able to incorporate some of your advice into my life.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing, bro. Good call on working your way out of it, and I know that it's likely going to be something that lingers for a very long time.

As always, let me know if you need anything, or if you need somebody to talk you down.

James R. Rummel said...

Great post, ET.

I'm just some guy you know from Teh Intertubes, and not someone that has had a great deal of even that sort of contact at a far remove. But I hope you will take what I say next in the spirit with which it is offered.

You did good.


Melody Byrne said...

My husband sent me to this point, knowing that with a few details changed, I could have written this. I'm quite bipolar, a condition inherited from my grandmother. I too refuse to take medication for the same reasons.

I've gone through all of the same stages except the last; thanks for letting me know that I'm so close to taking control of the problem and how to do so. It means a lot to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

My deepest gratitude.


Fletch said...

Thanks for all the kind words guys.

The truth is, when I started writing this, I was going to end it with, "And I never know if one day I'm going to relapse, and lose control of myself." But just by writing all this out, I realized I really do have a great degree of control over this.

Squeaky, Kent, and Mel, it helps to think of it as an addiction. You're addicted to feeling this way. Think of it as a foreign thing that is happening in your body, that you must conquer and expel, it makes a difference.

Schrodinger said...

All I can say without the necessity of sitting for several hours over several beers is that I went through an almost identical experience including my mother doing bizarre things and the moment I CHOSE to stop being depressed.

I tried to explain it to people but you can't understand it without getting to it on your own. Not that this story wouldn't help someone know it is possible. It just... takes a perspective change.

The most striking thing you said involved your BODY being bipolar but YOU not being.

I have a similar problem where my BODY is depressed but not me... which invariably drives me to attempt to be more active than my body allows.

It is a struggle.

Great post. GREAT.

blastedmind said...

... your story, your early life, not knowing what was going on with your mom,... sort of like mine! I found out when I was in high school. Although I have not been diagnosed with manic depression, I have been wandering whether I got it too. Sometimes I get the "symptoms".

Anyhow, I know what it's like those early days. Thanks for sharing,.. this is the first time I encounter someone who shared a similar experience..

turing's spork said...

Good one ET