Do you have bipolar disorder or know somebody who does? What would change if you could learn how to turn depression and mania on and off whenever you wanted to? The entire way we look at bipolar disorder would change in profound ways. Some of them are beyond most people’s imagination, but a simple illustration will help you to see why some of us say bipolar is an advantage that we do not want to give up.
Please understand that I am not talking about people who do not know how yet say “snap out of it” or any other offensive phrase, but the actual ability to do it which is an incredibly advanced skill.
I have been openly sharing my journey and exploration of the possibilities with bipolar for over 10 years now. It seems that sometimes I push the boundaries a bit too far and am met with pretty hostile pushback. This is a dilemma for me because I want to help others but I am afraid that this time it may be perceived once again as going too far. Nonetheless I have been thinking about and working on this idea for the better part of this year and I feel it is the most significant breakthrough that I have made so far in my understanding of bipolar.
Bipolar in disorder combined with anger is a very dangerous mix. The disordered person tends to become very volatile and can explode into a rage with little provocation. It is best for the person to avoid anything that might trigger anger until the disorder is in remission, but even then an angering stimulus can trigger another manic or depressive episode with anger as one of the troubling elements.
Bipolar people who have their condition in order have learned important lessons that can be applied to most of our experiences. For example, since we understand bipolar so well that we can function highly during depression and mania, we can also handle more intense states of anger without losing control.
As with every experience, most people can usually function fine when anger is at a very low intensity, but when the intensity of anger increases beyond their comfort zone they begin to lose the ability to choose their response to it. They act in ways that are less than optimal. They may even become a danger to themselves and others if the anger becomes too intense.
The part of our minds that most people identify with is the part that silently talks to us with a running commentary. We listen to it all day long. Let’s call it “The Talker.”
“The Talker” prefers pleasure over pain, happiness over sadness, winning over losing, health over sickness, and any of the other judgments that help us navigate our lives. Although it plays a critical role that we cannot live without, “The Talker” is stuck in the duality that makes us judge one thing better than another. It does not allow us to experience the world without judgment.
The central principle of mindfulness is to look at experiences without judgment. Adherents of mindfulness often speak of the part that practices mindfulness as “The Watcher.” It lives outside of the duality and sees everything as equally valuable. Mindfulness is a wonderful practice that increases awareness of what is really happening because “The Watcher” does not ignore or accentuate details based on preferences.
Unfortunately, many claim that mindfulness leads to happiness. As happiness and sadness are judgments based on preferences, this breaks with the whole concept of looking at our experiences without judgment. Mindfulness practiced properly does not lead to happiness; it leads to a greater awareness of whatever you are experiencing whether you like it or not.
I have been meditating for over 50 years. I started when, at five years old, I became fascinated with watching my breath go in and out. I intuitively knew that this and other meditative practices would bring me to a state of ecstasy. It didn’t take long before pursuing that state became the most important thing in my life.
Although I got incredibly close through my efforts in meditation, it wasn’t until I looked for ecstasy in depression that I truly found it. Once I found ecstasy in depression I found it everywhere. My hope is that sharing my experience might help others to find the same insights that I have.
As I watched my breath go in and out I found some dramatic changes in my state of consciousness. I would detach from my body and find myself floating above and looking down at myself sitting there. It was a very pleasurable state, but also very profound in how I viewed the world. I believed that part of me was untouched by the physical world; the part that I now call my soul.
It wasn’t long before my soul separations started encroaching on my waking states. I would often find myself turning the corner and suddenly being in a long tunnel with a light at the end of it. During those experiences time would stand still or at least slow down dramatically. I interpreted these experiences as seeing God.
Stigma, medication, treatment options, recovery, patient rights and physiological basis are some of the most discussed topics regarding bipolar. There are, of course, many other interesting aspects to debate, but it is hard to find any discussions about bipolar that do not include one or more of these central topics.
While it has been very healthy to debate all of them, there is an underlying assumption that must be addressed too.
The paradigm that all of the above topics are based on is that we are incapable of remaining in control when mania and depression reach a certain intensity.
We are therefor not responsible for our behaviors when manic or depressed because it is not possible in those states to choose better ones. This creates the goal of removing bipolar from our lives (at least at higher intensities) and the debate is about how it is best done. Much of the debate about medication, for example, is about alternative methods to achieve the same goal of reducing intensities of mania and depression.
But, what if we could be highly functional while manic or depressed? This idea has so many repercussions that people are afraid to even think about it. Consider what is at stake: If we cannot choose how to respond to the different states because it is impossible for anyone to, in-ability becomes central to the arguments in each of the above topics.
If anyone can choose, the impossibility argument is removed and the discussion becomes either how to function in mania and depression or why some cannot.
My daughter Kate is in her fourth year of medical school and is well on her way to becoming a very caring doctor. Her greatest gift is the ability to connect with people, which thankfully is being recognized in the hospital settings as an asset.
She creates strong bonds with her patients and their families by communicating how much she cares about them. Among so many other admirable traits it is the one that makes me the most proud of her. It has been her greatest gift for as long as I can remember.
The ability to form strong emotional bonds is not without tremendous risks though. It hurts her deeply when a patient that she is involved with dies. It is a testament to her awareness, understanding and strength that she can perform even on days when she sees the worst aspects of the medical profession; in spite of their best efforts, they cannot save everyone. Kate has grappled with that many times and come out the better for it.
As her father I like to think that I have something to do with Kate’s insights. We discuss the topic often. As someone who deeply understands depression and has learned to function fully while in the most intense states, I know my insights have helped Kate to develop the skills in her own life. I believe such skills are the key to her success and will help her to stand out amongst her peers.
A recent study about how doctors are affected by grief was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine and was described in an article in the NY Times. I read both reviews with great interest and was very excited that it confirmed what Kate and I had been discussing. I have worried that the grief that Kate experiences might overwhelm someone without the insights and support that she has. This is exactly what the study was about.
A recent question on our Depression and Bipolar Advantage LinkedIN Group brings up a point that needs to be addressed if we are to fully understand depression: What are some of the positives about having experienced bouts of depression? Since most people assume there are none it is important to put it in perspective.
The answer to the question depends completely on where one is on the six stage of growth from bipolar disorder to bipolar in order. The inability to see value in the experience is a major contributor to the suffering that those in disorder experience. Finding value in the experience is one of the keys to removing the suffering and starting on the path to self-mastery.
For someone in the Crisis Stage the only positive may be that the person knows that he/she has survived before. This can literally mean the difference between life and death. It would be counterproductive to ask if there are any positives while one is in crisis.
We often hear people make the distinction between HAVING Bipolar and BEING Bipolar. Rarely, do we hear a distinction comparing Bipolar to Bipolar Disorder. I coined the term Bipolar In Order ten years ago to help make the distinction, but wonder what it means to you?
Bipolar used to be called Manic-Depression. Mania means that we are elevated. Depression means lowered. Bipolar means that we have two poles (high and low), so it is meant to replace manic-depression as a more acceptable way of describing the same thing. Or, is it just more marketable?
One of my earliest memories is of learning to ride a bike. I remember the fear, exhilaration, and hyper-awareness, along with the tension in my body and how my breath became both more rapid and shorter. I was outside of my comfort zone and challenging myself to grow. It was also a blast!
My father had a wisdom common with most dads. He didn’t push me down a steep hill and hope I survived; he ran along next to me making sure I was not too far outside of my comfort zone as to be incapable of handling it. He taught me one of the most important lessons that day about what it is to be human. We need to challenge ourselves to grow, while at the same time making sure we don’t go too far outside of our comfort zone.
The thrill of learning something new and challenging myself to grow has been a constant companion ever since my first bike ride. On too many occasions, I took on challenges far outside of my comfort zone and was either debilitated by the fear and lack of skills, or took risks that caused more harm than the potential reward from succeeding.
My post about mindfulness not resulting in happiness got some interesting responses. One in particular on LinkedIn got me to finally come out about what depression can look like when seen from a different perspective. Since LinkedIn discussions are restricted to group members, below is my reply:
I have been thinking a lot lately about depression since I have spent the last few years in the deepest states of my life. Your comment gets right to the heart of my thoughts when you say, “I don’t know if I can say that mindfulness intensifies depression.” I very much appreciate your bringing it up.
In conversation with others who have pursued a similar path as mine, we have been exploring what depression means and whether we may be cured. We experience the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual pains, but not the normal reactions to them that get combined in the normal definitions of depression. We actually feel the “pain” more than we ever have, but act normally because the pain no longer controls our choice of how to act.