Having suffered with bipolar for near 10 years, I can safely say it's a tough battle and on the whole a mostly negative experience. I've spent much of the last decade feeling ashamed of who I am, not merely because of the illness itself, but largely thanks to the public and media perception of what it is to have bipolar disorder. We'Re AlL CrAzY; we can't be trusted; we think we're gods amongst men. You get the picture.
Though these assumptions might be correct in regards to some extreme cases of the illness, they are not true to the experience of all sufferers. In celebration of World Mental Health day on October 10th, it seems a good time to point out the positive aspects of the illness, of which there are remarkably quite a few.
Dare I say it? The highs can be pretty great. No surprises here, they're called highs for a reason.
There has long been speculation that some of the greatest creative minds in history have been bipolar: Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway, Edward Elgar, Virginia Woolf - the list goes on. Recent psychological studies have shown that those with bipolar disorder are disproportionately overrepresented in creative occupations. The exact link between the two is still to be discovered, but there is a belief that those with bipolar have a unique way of perceiving the world, that is perhaps more sensitive to certain things and experiences than the average person.
I'm a firm believer that anyone can achieve anything if they set their mind to it, and I believe that to be partly thanks to the illness. When I'm on a high, I'm like a car driving down the freeway at 120 miles per hour - nothing gets in my way. I'm going to buy a house. I'm going to get a new job. I'm going to set up my own business. Anything is possible with enough hard work and enthusiasm (until you hit a low, that is).
I can't stress this one enough. In my final year at university I experienced a particularly long, strong high. I would go to classes on Mondays, had an internship as a fashion buyer at a prestigious department store chain from Tuesdays to Fridays, where I would write my dissertation in my lunch breaks and on the tube, and on the weekends I'd be working a second job as a sales assistant to make some money. And somehow, I still made time to see my friends, and after three months the internship turned into a full-time job, even though I still hadn't finished university. Now, call me crazy (DON'T CALL ME CRAZY), but I'm pretty sure that takes up a little more energy than averagely consumed.
4. Sharp thinking
This is a funny one. People with bipolar tend to experience racing thoughts - it's a bit like a literal brain storm where, like a flash of lightning, one thought moves on to the next, and the next, and so on. Like a monkey swinging from branch to branch in a jungle, you soon find yourself miles away from the point you started, but somehow everything still makes sense. Though it's often quite overwhelming, I've found this connecting of dots really helpful in my line of work in several different ways: making strategic arguments quickly, coming up with various solutions to problems, thinking outside the box, etc.
My friends will vouch for this one. I can pretty much guarantee you that when I'm on a high, I am the most enthusiastic person you will ever meet. Everything is 'the best thing EVEEERRRR', and by that I mean EVERYTHING - a meeting, a walk, a cup of coffee. I find that this enthusiasm tends to be infectious - though people might resist, I will eventually get a smile out of them, no matter how annoying my enthusiasm can be.
These aren't so great. Honestly, they're pretty terrible. But as they say, you can't experience the good without the bad, and boy, are the lows an experience.
Psychologists have linked depression with empathy, finding that those who suffer from depression have a greater sensitivity towards others. This can benefit personal relationships, but also working relationships, as well as adding to the creative spirit of those with mental illness by creating deeper insights into the human condition.
Depressive realism can be, well, depressing, but also helpful in regards to decision making. Nassir Ghaemi argues in A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering Links between Leadership and Mental Illness that political leaders who have suffered from mental illness, such as Winston Churchill, are able to assess situations more clearly due to their realistic outlook on the world, and consequently are better leaders in times of crisis. I can't swear by this one, but according to the Dunning-Kruger effect, people who experience depressive realism are also more competent, so I guess this is a win.
Finally: strength of character. Seneca stated that 'Sometimes even to live is an act of courage' and I believe this to be true for those who suffer from mental illness. Every day can be a struggle, and sometimes it can feel like you're merely surviving, not truly living. All of these experiences help make us stronger, more resilient people. Next time someone tells you they suffer from a mental illness, salute them for their strength. They'll appreciate it.