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I Prefer Moths to Zombies

I was having dinner with a friend last night, catching up on how the holidays went. I told her that this Christmas was not as stressful as it usually is. But as I related the details, I broke down crying. Because even when things are going pretty well, there are still always crises when you have this much mental illness in your family.

In a previous post I talked about the stress of dealing with a family member who is currently manic. But in all honesty, I prefer the mania to the depression. I’m sure I would feel differently if I had to live with someone who is manic, but luckily I don’t. And regardless of what pole they are in, I still have to keep a safe distance, lest I trigger my own depression and anxiety. Still, when I’m with my brothers or my dad when they are at one of the extremes, I prefer the over-the-top version of their best self than a shell of the person they normally are.

I understand why people with bipolar disorder don’t want to take their meds. I didn’t want to take my meds, even though they made me feel much better. People use drugs to create the feeling of mania. So it’s understandable why someone would not want to take a drug that keeps them from experiencing the highs.

I’ve had hypomanic episodes, and they were great. I had energy, despite my lack of sleep. I was productive and creative. And I didn’t do any of the destructive things that my family members do when they’re manic, like spend all their life’s savings. Or quit their job, move to another city, and become a dance instructor. Or get kicked out of a bar for starting a fight with someone because they’re certain that guy was making fun of him.

The most extreme thing I can recall is that I made mixed tapes for each of my brothers, and they all had different songs on them. That’s like, over 100 songs. For those of you who are too young to have made a mixed tape, it is way more time-consuming than burning a CD from iTunes.

Plus, there was no crashing and burning after my hypomanic episodes. If anything, the hypomania was a reprieve from the depression. Still, I have no problem giving them up in order to have stability in exchange.

I do have one brother who consistently takes his meds and has been stable for years now. He could be the poster child for bipolar disorder, illustrating how it’s possible to live a normal life if you’re compliant with treatment. The other two, however, live most of their lives at one extreme or the other.

I was looking for a picture of my niece the other day and ran across a picture of my dad while he was depressed. I had to turn away. Any of the pictures taken from that 4 year period make me want to cry, because he looked like someone who was barely alive. Ordinarily he is larger than life. Unforgettable. But when he’s manic, he is a moth to a flame and believes he’s fireproof. But when he’s depressed, he is a zombie, sleepwalking through life.

If stability is not an option, I prefer the moth.

Crisis

Happiness vs. Mania

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In my family, sometimes mania can look like anger, irritability, and paranoia, but most of the time it looks like happiness. It looks like the life of the party. The person who lights up the room. The person who leaves a lasting impression because his energy is so infectious.

I admit, I’ve had hypomanic episodes, and they did feel good. I become a more extreme version of the way people already see me: happy, loud, and energetic. But there are things that I do that are uncharacteristic. I will compulsively shop rather than obsess about money. I don’t need much sleep. I attract a lot of attention from guys.

Often mania is followed by depression, but that isn’t the case for me. In fact, sometimes I would intentionally will on a hypomanic episode to pull me out of a depressive episode–to get me out of bed, make me be productive. And it worked, too. Often it was the first step toward getting out of that dark hole. Still, with my family history, I am hypervigilant of any signs that I may be heading in that direction.

That is definitely one of the things that distinguishes me from the rest of my bipolar family. Because they never think they are manic. Once my brother wanted to scale the wall outside of a restaurant, but he knew this seemed crazy. So he preemptively reassured us that he was not manic; he just really wanted to climb that wall.

One of my family members is manic right now. This summer I finally worked up the courage to tell him this, and of course he disagreed. But it wasn’t completely pointless, because he did agree to see a psychiatrist. But since you can’t force someone to take meds, he assumed that the psychiatrist confirmed that he wasn’t manic, since he didn’t prescribe lithium or an antipsychotic. At least he started taking the meds that prevent bipolar depression, which is what I was the most concerned about. But then again, I don’t have to live with him.

And thank God for that. Because it’s unbearable to be around him for more than a few minutes at a time. What may seem entertaining to other people is absolute torture for me. It’s a terrible feeling to love someone but to not want to be in their presence. It fills me with guilt and makes me feel like a bad person. But I have my own sanity to protect, so I do my best to keep my distance.

I wish I could end this post on a positive note and say that things are looking up. But that would be lying, and this blog is about honesty. He’s still manic. Things are getting worse. And I am powerless to do anything about it.

So I just pray and hope for divine intervention. And if you believe in the power of prayer, then perhaps you can say one for my family, too.

Bipolar and Brilliant

I just finished Haldol and Hyacinths, by Melody Moezzi, and it is one of the best memoirs on bipolar disorder that I have ever read. A lawyer and human rights activist, Moezzi talks about how her passion and aspirations come from the same place that her mania and psychosis come from, and sometimes it is difficult to separate the two.  

In An Unquiet Mind, the gold standard of bipolar memoirs, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison says the same thing: that she was the most productive and most brilliant on the way to mania–until she became psychotic.

From personal experience I would argue that it’s true that for some people, it’s a thin line between brilliance and mania. I have never reached the heights of brilliance and mania that Moezzi and Jamison describe, but I know what it’s like to walk that line between sanity and insanity.  Most of the time I stay on the side where I know the rules and try to follow them as obsessively as possible.

But there have been periods where I have had one foot in this world and one foot in the other.  A world where the lines between black and white, good and bad, and reality and fantasy are blurred. I have had some of my best insights at those times, but I was also the most reckless during those periods. It is both freeing and dangerous.

At those times, I pay close attention to where I’m standing and do my best to maintain my balance.

Three of the six people in my family are bipolar, and they have all been described as the kind of people who light up a room when they walk in.  But when they are manic their light is blinding, and they can no longer see how they are hurting themselves and other people with their actions.

Sometimes people with bipolar disorder don’t want to take their meds because they don’t want to dull their creative side.  And it’s true that when you’ve reached the peak of mania the drugs you take are meant to put out the fire, so they dampen everything for awhile.

But there’s a lot you can do to keep from crossing that line.  There are a lot of things that are in your control.  You can be honest about your diagnosis.  You can be compliant with treatment.  You can pay attention to the warning signs and intervene right away.

It often takes a person with bipolar disorder many years before they can reach this place of self-acceptance, as these authors demonstrate.  But they also demonstrate that you can still be brilliant when you’re stable.