Having bipolar when it’s untreated is more like a state of being than it is having a disorder. You know something is off, but you can’t place your finger on it exactly. It’s that uncontrollable rush of feelings. Sometimes they are situational but they are way, way out of proportion to what’s going on. That’s the part that hits you later after the moment passes.. The confusion, or guilt, remorse, humility or any number of other reflective feelings where you look back and wonder if that was even you, and if so, how the hell did that seem like the thing to do?
So, what’s it like? For everyone it’s different. I see that reading other’s accounts of it. Clinical texts seem to water down the experience with jargon and within a couple of sentences it states that being bipolar and being untreated can be devastating in someones life. It doesn’t get into the visceral reality of that statement. The lost jobs… The failed marriages (plural, in my case).. The spending money that you don’t have… The situations you find yourself in.. One word can’t possibly sum up all of the pain and anguish of it all.
There’s two sides to being bipolar, as the name of the disorder implies. The focus in the media seems to be on the negative, or extreme mania. We live in a culture that likes to sensationalize things. That’s a rant for another day. Regardless, this is my experience. This is my day to day life.
I wake feeling neutral. Not happy, not sad – just neutral. I go about my day and remain neutral, then an idea hits. It might be related to something I’m working on or doing, or it can be pulled from the endless streams of thought that go on in my head. It may be something I heard or read days prior. For me, these are grand and complex ideas. These are ideas that you grasp such an understanding of something that it’s nearly impossible to contain. For me it’s a complex web. I literally see a web in three dimensions that see every facet of an idea. The good, the bad and all of the possibilities. It’s rational – I don’t get the delusional skewed perceptions that I’ve heard that people with bipolar I get. They are sound ideas as I can still see them as very sound and valid when I’m not in this state. I’m a practical man. This flood of thoughts on something may seem overwhelming. It is. And I have them about several things concurrently. Unrelated things. I struggle to keep it in my head, it’s something I want to write about, or somehow get down on paper. The web will break down, usually within a few hours. That would seem like a long enough time to get it down, but these thoughts and facets are so complex that hours isn’t enough time. Sometimes I manage to get several pages of a summary. I won’t be able to harness it after the web breaks down only to be replaced by a different idea. This sounds wonderful, right? It is. There’s nothing like feeling that you fully get a problem or a solution. I’ve solved terribly complex problems in this state of mind. Part of my work involves programming. I’ve written code that’s so complex and flawless that I spend hours going through it line by line just trying to understand it later so I can maintain it.. Or explain it to my boss or director. I have one brother who’s the same way as me, we’ll talk on the phone for hours, ideas firing off from each other.
This sounds like a great problem to have, and in many ways it is. If it’s focused toward helping someone with an issue or problem in their life, that high-powered analytic thought process mixed with life experience is golden. The downside of it? I can’t shut it off. It’s always there. The less external distractions, the more these wild-fire thoughts go all over the place. You can’t get to sleep like this. I have to take powerful, powerful medications to sleep when it’s like this. I’ll usually let it go for up to a week before medicating. Most nights I’ll get 3 hours of sleep, and it’s broken sleep at that. Have you ever tried to quiet a noisy mind? You try to start your own controlled thought process – “sleep. sleep. sleep. sleep…”. Eventually physical exhaustion will take over and I’ll fall asleep. I wake an hour later. Racing thoughts again. Repeat. It’s not a lack of focus, it’s hyper-focus. It’s just not controlled most of the time. Don’t try to convince me of anything when it’s like this about something I am focused on.. I should have been a trial lawyer. It doesn’t shut off.. Sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for days. I can’t remember this ever lasting more than a week. I can be in the middle of this and my mood flips to depressed. The worst part – if both happen at the same time. Imagine having ideas you can barely keep in your mind while trying to focus enough to hold it all in at work, with friends, with your spouse.. Just doing things in public.
It leaves as quickly as it hits. It’s immediate silence. Absence of thought. It’s like finally reaching ground if you’re drowning. You don’t want it to go, but you sure as hell don’t want it to stay. Then the depression comes, sometimes only minutes later.. But the depressions are always after this. Always. I’ve lived like this for my entire adult life. Blinding moments of brilliance followed by crushing depressions. Bipolar, indeed. While all this is going on, my emotions run on an independent tract of their own. They usually aren’t related to any external stimulus or the thoughts rushing through my mind. They just are.
Lamictal changed that for me last fall. I’ve been reaping nearly full benefits from it since early December. The racing thoughts still hit and the wild expansive understanding of things, but it passes more quickly. Usually within a few hours. I had kind of worried that this part of me would be gone, as I’ve heard so many people describe with being medicated for bipolar disorder. It didn’t leave, but it takes the edge off. I can manage. I can focus enough to get through the workday without needing pages of notes. I need notes to get through the day. I’ll forget things. Even when I’m not in that winding-thought mode, the thoughts still race. I’ve never been able to meditate. I’ve sat in a Buddhist temple and my thoughts, much like sleep, are “Quiet. Don’t think about anything. Quiet. Don’t think about anything”.
I’m still coming to grips what this means in my life. I’ve lived with these ups and downs my entire life. A quieter mind is odd. Feeling things associated directly with what’s happening externally is so foreign to me. For once my thoughts and feelings are in alignment. They are doing the dance together that comes so naturally to others. I’m still me, minus the megaphone.