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A Gift And A Curse: The Ups And Downs Of Bipolar

02/12/2016 16:02
Jeffrey Thompson via Getty Images

Only a couple of years ago, the concept of 'bipolar' was unfamiliar to me. The term did conjure vaguely fearful associations, however: derived from, I assume, a collective cultural consciousness.

Ironic, then, that I was to be diagnosed with this very condition in late 2015. It's funny; when I told those closest to me about the diagnosis, the initial reaction of almost every person was to say, "I'm sorry", as if this disorder had freshly emerged - as if I were just beginning a tumultuous, and hitherto unprecedented journey of mental illness. This could not have been further from the truth.

The reality was that the bipolar had always been there; latent in my genetics, potentiated by environmental factors, and manifest from early adolescence. For years I had been riding an emotional rollercoaster that did not chime with the reality of my peers: I did not understand why my life was peppered with vicissitudes so tortured and so painful.

By nature I am passionate and emotional, and one of the biggest challenges of coming to terms with being bipolar has been trying to understand what is really 'me', and what is my illness. To try and extricate myself from myself and unravel the many strata of consciousness in a quest to discover who I really am. As I continue to learn more about this condition, as I learn to manage it and ride the waves of experience with renewed self-awareness, so I am better able to identify that point of separation.

For me, the diagnosis was a relief, for it accorded with the maxim "know thyself" - and, for any human being, this is a fundamental part of life's journey. As time goes on, I have begun to see bipolar not so much as an affliction, confined to a certain, unfortunate percentile of the population, but as something that lies in the further reaches of conscious experience. And I believe it to be as much of a gift as a curse.

At its best, bipolarity can offer access to a realm of profound creativity, of apparent transcendental experience, where the outside world coalesces with the fluidity of one's own consciousness. In this space, the very act of thinking is pure ecstasy, and one is blissfully removed from the banal to-ing and fro-ing of everyday existence. Instead, one sees the world anew, as if gliding across a lake of pure sensation. Each sight and sound and touch is aesthetic bliss, as the world's entities and the mind's ideas become inextricably interconnected. The brain begins to purr, for every thought is so lucid, so utterly delicious. Even language takes on a life of its own, as words roll off the tongue, and dance in the cavernous domes of the mind.

Such moments are a blessing. They can last for a few minutes, or even hours - often happily interspersed in the web of 'normal', functioning, quotidian experience. However, I have also known such moments to go on for days - the more prolonged, the more the thoughts gather apace. They become painfully frenetic, bound up with an irrepressible nervous energy and a kind of wild hysteria that is both enjoyable and terrifying at the same time. What begins as a vaguely exhilarating chain of thought and a mild increase in physical energy morphs into ceaseless mind chatter, and a desire to run and dance and scream and laugh, all at the same time.

This is hypomania, when the brain's dopamine neurotransmitters are firing on all cylinders. It is a pleasurable experience - albeit in an eroding sort of way. During such episodes, thoughts have no longer felt like my own. They become increasingly grandiloquent, rapid and existential. It is relentless and exhausting. Furthermore, impulse control goes out of the window, irascibility and irrationality increase tenfold, and insomnia denies any respite.

In my opinion, medication is an essential part of managing bipolar. I have tried various combinations, and I have tried to live without it. If left untreated, the condition gets worse, and one is trapped by pernicious, cycling moods. The depression is the worst part. It is so desperately awful to be haunted by one's own mind - by its flickering shadows, and fragments of the past - to stare into the abyss and see its unfathomable darkness. Unfortunately, experiencing agitation and despair is par for the course with this condition, but, as painful as it can be, at least it is the experience of feeling: of being alive, being human. After all, it is the darker moments that make the good ones all the sweeter; that make us wiser and more empathetic.

There is no better time, perhaps, in human to history, to have mental illness, because of the kind of support and medication that is now available. And yet, still, a stigma exists. People are still afraid to talk about something that is 'other' and unseen. The famous statistic is that one in four people experience a mental or neurological disorder at some point in their lives. I am sure this is true, but I can guarantee that four in four people will experience mental turmoil at some point, too. Such is the nature of the human condition. Like the gamut of physical illness, which runs from the common cold to cancer, the spectrum of mental health is similarly broad. The more we talk about it, the more people understand it, the lesser deal it becomes.

The term 'mental illness' in reference to conditions such as depression, bipolar, schizophrenia etc. should connote the difficulty that is inherent in them, but it should not suggest weakness or inferiority, for that is to miss the point entirely: for then we would fail to see the beauty and the strength that lie there too.

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