In the past few years, amidst the many experiences and changes in my life, two themes seem to have emerged, growing steadily in importance over time. The first is bipolar disorder, the second, bicycles. They may seem a strange pairing, yet each serves as a kind of emotional and cognitive filter, alternately clarifying and distorting aspects of my life. I’d like to talk about each in separate posts this week to give you a sense of where I’m coming from, why this blog seems like the right thing at the right time for me and why it’s called “One Wheel in Front of the Other.”
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, as manic depression is now known, during the second year of my PhD program. I had come to a place where I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t sit still, couldn’t work for longer than 10 or 15 minutes at a time. I was frustrated, angry and scared. How could I pursue a career that depends almost more than anything else on the ability to focus? How could I choose a life that required often solitary work in quiet places when I my mind and body were both racing?
Since my diagnosis, medication – in my case a combination of an seizure medication (many are very effective off-label as mood stabilizers) and an anti-depressant have helped limit, though hardly eliminate, the most serious symptoms. Bipolar is now more often fatiguing or frustrating than debilitating. I do not struggle with major depressions or manias that truly disrupt my functioning, as is the case for so many.
Instead, it appears (psychology being a rather inexact science) that I have a relatively unusual form of bipolar called cyclothymia (also, here),which causes me to move rapidly from low-grade depression to low-grade mania all the time. This is rather like riding an old wooden roller coaster blindfolded, up and down at unpredictable intervals, at times dragging on interminably, occasionally plunging pleasurably, but in any case, rarely flat. As a result, the filtering of my bipolar lens often feels nearly all-pervasive, every moment, every action, every reaction being tinged by its shade. In some sense, this is probably not really the case – I imagine there are times when I am by some measure “normal.” Knowing those times, however, can seem almost impossible.
It can be useful to recognize when certain behaviors or thoughts are related to bipolar. In these cases, coping techniques (for lack of a better term) can help not only control issues in moment, but also over the longer term. Here, the Sutherland Center’s focus on cognitive-behavioral therapy, shown in many cases to be as effective as medication for treating bipolar, has been a godsend. By recognizing the warning signs that difficult moments are heading my way, it is sometimes possible to head them off at the pass, removing myself from a situation either physically or mentally. At the same time, I don’t want to allow bipolar to become an excuse, a way of explaining away other problems that need to be confronted.
Even more importantly, I need there to be some part of me that is genuinely, truly me, a core that I can see, feel, name and describe that transcends the noise. One of the great challenges of mental illness is the elusiveness of one’s true self. How do I tell the difference between the “real me” and the “bipolar me” when they have coexisted for so long and are so frequently muddled together? This need seems to be a constant thread connecting all the people I know with bipolar and other mental illnesses – to a greater or lesser extent, the stories they tell about themselves reveal anxiety over whether or not this genuine self still exists and how hold on to it.
Coming later… it’s at least partly about the bike.