Spend more than a day with me and you’ll see me gasping with laughter, cracking jokes with strangers, furious, fidgety, sobbing, and carefree. Ultimately, you’ll find your experience with me a little bipolar. Add the word “disorder” on there and you’ve got me dialed.
I’ll admit that before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I equated these folks with the only bipolar person I knew: my aunt Mary Beth, whom I have thought of as the most curious member of my family since I can remember. According to her siblings, in her younger years she would come home from college crying inconsolably, choking out the words, “He doesn’t love me! He doesn’t love me!” But then she’d leave and the next thing they knew she’d be hitchhiking across the country with a Mexican boyfriend who turned out not to be the engineer he claimed he was.
Other family members had experienced depression, including my dad, so I wasn’t new to this whole devastating mental illness thing. But bipolar was always far removed, reserved for the most loony individuals who would be forever doomed to drug addictions, psychiatric hospitals, or being my aunt Mary Beth. What I didn’t realize until later was that my mother was as loony as the rest of them. She certainly would go on frenzied benders that could involve running a marathon and writing countless songs on the guitar to a week where she’d have her pajamas on every day and appear at the dinner table with red, swollen eyes. But I’ll never really know for certain because that’s something they didn’t consider in her autopsy.
Bipolar disorder makes it sound like sometimes you feel fantastic, and then sometimes you feel down and dabble in alcoholism. Its historic name, manic-depressive illness, is a little more illuminating.
Bipolar disorder is characterized by symptoms of both mania and depression in any ratio. Some people with bipolar only experience one manic episode in their lives, but just one of those babies qualifies that individual for the diagnosis.
Depression is pretty well understood by the mainstream because of the TV commercials advertising medications featuring a middle-aged man who goes from dejectedly staring at his socks to rolling around in the grass with his golden retriever. Symptoms of depression include hopelessness, problems concentrating, lack of interest doing activities one usually enjoys, sleep problems, anxiety, chronic pain without a known cause, you get the idea.
On the contrary, people seem to picture manic individuals as the ones bankrupting their family for generations and fucking their neighbors. To some degree, they’re not wrong. Individuals in a manic episode experience feelings of euphoria, increased sex drive, unreasonable belief in his or her intelligence, power, or ideas, distractibility, irritability, rage, racing thoughts, increased physical activity, increased drive to achieve goals, and involve themselves in high-risk behaviors. A person in the throes of a manic episode may also experience psychotic features involving abnormal perceptions such as hearing voices or having unusual and irrational beliefs, often of a religious nature.
Additionally, bipolar has a significant genetic componenet. Half of individuals diagnosed with bipolar have a family member who has a mood disorder, and this risk is higher if that family member is a parent.
Manic episodes can be triggered by diverse factors, but most people who’ve experienced one relate it to stressful life events (both positive and negative), lack of sleep, social conflicts, caffeine, nicotine, abuse of alcohol and other drugs, or interactions with antidepressant medications. Sometimes there is no trigger at all. And just to top it all off, people with bipolar are commonly co-diagnosed with PTSD, social anxiety, ADHD, and addictions.
- Very physically active
- Very driven to reach goals
- Sister with bipolar disorder
- Didn’t sleep much
- Drank a lot of caffeine
- I don’t like to think about what her sex drive was like
- Non-medicated but assumed significant ADHD
- On prescription antidepressants (about which I found out after her death)
- No official diagnosis of bipolar disorder
- Very physically active
- Aunt (potentially mother) with bipolar disorder
- Drank a lot of coffee
- Drank alcohol and smoked weed
- We won’t discuss my sex drive
- On prescription antidepressants
- Involved in thrill-seeking activities
- Official diagnosis of bipolar disorder
My mom used to describe herself as going “either fast-forward or horizontal.” She’d wake up at 5:00 a.m. every day to run for an hour on the treadmill, lift weights, shower, curl her highlighted hair, paint her nails to match her usually ostentatious outfit, eat an English muffin with peanut butter, and drive the 20 minutes it took for her to get to the senior center where she worked as a recreational therapist. If you’re not familiar with this occupation, it involves lots of running about and entertaining people through events like Bingo, movies, the county fair, music recitals, and the like.
I consider my mother to have been a true musical genius. She could pick up any instrument and learn it to an almost expert level in a week. Among the instruments she could play were the piano, mandolin, guitar, accordion, Irish tin whistle, hammer dulcimer, feather dulcimer, the flute, and who knows what else.
I hadn’t even received my first haircut when my mom decided that I would be a musician too. She began following the dogma of the Suzuki Method, which entails playing tapes every day of the songs the child will eventually learn. Accordingly, the student masters all of their songs completely by ear, that is, without looking at sheet music, until the songs are too complicated to do so. The songs on the tapes began to roll when I was one, I reverently received my first violin when I was five, and won my first competition when I was eight wearing a frilly pink shirt and denim overalls at the county fair.
My mom wanted me to be a performer like herself. She’d dress me up in flowery little dresses and itchy tights that I hated and throw me in front of a crowd to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and other basic folk songs. If I practiced every day for a month, I’d get a banana split, so I quickly became good enough to play in a bluegrass and Irish band with my mom and a gang of other performers. I spent a lot of Saturday nights in middle and high school standing between a keyboard and guitar while drunken middle-aged revelers threw their dollar bills into a tip jar.
Because of me being her only daughter and the inevitable bond one creates by sharing music, my mom was my best friend. So it’s no surprise that when I was summoned out of English class one cold Monday morning 25 days after my sixteenth birthday to be told by my ashen-faced father that she had been killed in a car crash, I didn’t handle it well.
I began focusing on how long and fast I could run, my grief and anxious hollowness always just one stride behind. I calculated every calorie I consumed, even the five from my chewing gum, so I didn’t have to think about the suffocating absence of late-night piano music and early morning feet pounding on the treadmill. People would ask me if I was still playing violin, and I’d say not really, but don't worry I promise i'll keep it up! when I really wanted to say, “My mom just died for fuck’s sake.”
They put me in a hospital where they forced me to eat in increasing amounts and weighed me every morning at 6 a.m. and measured my urine and scolded me when they saw me doing sit-ups in my room. I had therapists with practiced sympathetic looks on their faces and PhDs who asked me leading questions to find the issues they wanted to find. PhDs and they couldn’t figure out that when it came down to it, I was just really fucking sad.
It’s interesting that all the while I was agonizingly learning the notes of various classical pieces, my mother sitting on the couch with the Suzuki book in front of her saying, “OK, first finger on the A-string, hold that, then cross over to D with your third finger, OK now this is that one part with the sixteenth notes,” the fellows who had written these notes probably did so under the influence of a standard manic episode. Classical composers Ludwig von Beethoven and George Fredrick Handel suffered from bipolar disorder, diagnosed based on writings and reports of their behaviors and moods.
I regard my mother as one who fits into the category of eccentrically creative musicians, the same type of individuals commonly associated with bipolar disorder.
Kurt Cobain’s cousin, a nurse with a background working in mental health, claimed that he was diagnosed with both ADHD and bipolar disorder. His consuming depression, reports of his rage, high energy and productivity, and style of writing and artwork he produced from a young age are characteristic of mania. His drug and alcohol addictions also point toward a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
By A. Vente (Beeld en Geluidwiki - Gallery: Hoepla) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-nl (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/nl/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
Psychologists also hypothesize that Jimi Hendrix was another lucky member of the bipolar club. Although he never received an official diagnosis during his lifetime, his drug and alcohol addictions as well as impulsive and sometimes violent behavior are indicative of a manic-depressive illness. He suffered a tough childhood, struggling with the death of his mother and poverty throughout his young life, experiences that notoriously contribute to bipolar disorder.
A number of studies have linked bipolar disorder and creativity. A researcher in Iowa in the 1970s studied 30 prominent authors to see how instable these folks were. 80 percent of her sample indeed had dealt with depression, mania, or hypomania, as opposed to only 30 percent of a control group. She followed the participants of her study for another 15 years and found that 43 percent of them were diagnosed with bipolar while only one percent of the objectively less creative group. In these 15 years, two of those authors committed suicide.
Jimi Hendrix choked on his own vomit and died as a result of an overdose when he was 27. Kurt Cobain shot himself after being discharged from a drug rehabilitation center, also at the age of 27. This brings into question the other side of that creativity: the side effects of manic behavior and the intense depressive episode that follows. Does one need to be acutely miserable to experience creativity?
My mom didn't kill herself. Nor was she addicted to drugs outside of her daily four Diet Mountain Dews as far as I know. But I think the reason she never stopped moving was so nothing ever caught up to her. Might my mom still be alive if she'd cared enough about herself, slowed down enough to be present enough in her own life, to put the cell phone down while driving on that cold Monday morning?
Although I had clearly experienced depression, there were no conspicious signals that I could be at especially high risk for bipolar disorder until a day in late January of 2012. I was a sophomore in college and had endured horrific depression and anxiety that fall. Doctors suggested I stop drinking and smoking weed. Watching my friends apply mascara before parties and giggling while mixing their drinks made me more depressed, so I retreated to the silence of my room to pack another bowl. When symptoms predictably didn’t improve, I found myself once again sitting cross-legged in a squeaky bed in the fluorescent-lit hospital while a doctor, flanked by two psychiatric nurses, suggested an antidepressant without looking me in the face.
A month later, I sat up all night typing furiously on my computer while thoughts flew through my head so fast my fingers couldn’t keep up. Earlier that day, I had cleaned the entire five-bedroom apartment in less than an hour, declared to my roommates that I had just had the best day of my life, smoked a joint, and cooked an interestingly delicious meal that included sweet potatoes, quinoa, ginger, garlic, hot pepper, and chocolate sauce.
The next day, I went to class buzzed on coffee and weed. I strolled around campus smiling at strangers and was the hit of my class discussion, cracking witty jokes and answering all of the questions impeccably. I skipped most of my classes because in my late night psychological hoopla, I had definitely identified the gene that was the solution to all of the earth's energy needs. And how to make an atomic bomb. And that Einstein was the cause of cancer worldwide. With that sort of genius, school was only a hindrance to my much higher cognitive processes.
I was scheduled to have a follow-up visit with yet another doctor that day to see how I’d been doing since my hospital discharge. I gleefully called my aunt who was supposed to take me to the appointment and told her I was cured. I was sure it wouldn't be long until the media caught wind of my groundbreaking revelations and there was simply no need for ordinary medical professionals. She came to my spotless apartment where I sat teaching myself genetics on my laptop, grasped my hands and begged me to go to the doctor with her because she had read the 10-page article I’d concocted the night before. When the psychiatrist saw me and asked about my sleeping patterns, drug use, and family history, he wrote furiously on his clipboard and concluded without question that I was having a manic episode, most likely induced by the medication the aloof doctor had prescribed the month before. I spluttered, offended that he would diagnose my supreme intelligence as a disorder. Then I became embarrassed, and then I broke down into heaving sobs. Did I even know what happiness was? Or was the only happiness I knew attributable to mania?
For the next year, this psychiatrist, a self-deprecating man who wore bowties ironically, worked to figure out the best brew of prescription drugs to keep me stable without leaving me void of any emotions at all. Still, most days I ride a roller coaster, but at least I feel strapped in and my stomach doesn’t squirm so much at the drops.
As I’ve grown to accept my illness, it just keeps coming back to my mom. I’ve been furious with her because I had to clean up her mess and figure out how to take care of myself. I recognized behaviors that were instilled in me by watching a mental illness run my mom’s life. In short, through exploring what of my mother lies within me, I've learned more about my mom than she probably knew about herself.
I still give the explanation, “My mother just died for fuck’s sake, can’t you leave me be?” when people ask if I’ve been playing music. Because I haven’t. I’ll pick up my violin when I especially miss my mom and play a tune, but the echo of the violin in my empty room sounds lost and lonely without her pounding chords on the piano behind it.
There's not a classic happy ending in my future. My mom will always be dead. I will always have a mental disorder that has to be perpetually monitored. But maybe someday, despite the weight of a Dutch oven on my chest that will never go away, I’ll be able to slide my bow across the strings and hear the accordion playing along. Or the high-pitched melody of the tin-whistle weaving between the quick notes from my fiddle. And maybe that will be all in my bipolar head, but I think I’m all right with that.