In 1964 I was 8 years old. Back then you could take a car out of park without needing a key. I did that by mistake once and it taught me one of the most important lessons of my life. A lesson that can be easily translated to the way we treat bipolar disorder.
Our family car was parked in the driveway which sloped downhill to the road. I was playing in the car by myself when I inadvertently shifted into neutral and the car started to roll downhill towards the street. I knew enough from watching my parents drive that one of the pedals would stop the car. So I pushed the brake pedal with all my might and the car stopped rolling towards what I was sure was a terrible accident.
But at 8 years old I was too small to be able to both hold down the brake pedal and see over the dashboard out the window. That also meant that nobody could see me. As I got tired and I let off the break, the car started rolling downhill again. I was in a total panic and could not figure out what to do. To my luck, my mother came out looking for me and found me in the car. She reached in and put the car back where it belonged and saved the day.
I learned that day that the most important thing about a car is learning how to stop it. But if that’s all I ever knew about cars I would’ve never been able to discover how far they would take me.
That is where most people are today when it comes it comes to bipolar disorder. They have learned how to put on the brakes but they have no idea how to actually function while manic or depressed. The trouble is, neither does anyone else. And so everyone assumes that the only thing you can do about bipolar disorder is put on the brakes. But, as we all know, sooner or later mania or depression comes back when the brakes stop working.
The critical lesson I learned 52 years ago is that putting on the brakes is only the first necessary step of learning to drive. I also had to learn how to shift gears (stop going backward and start moving forward), steer (navigate around or through obstacles we often call triggers), merge (get along with others), moderate the speed instead of just full braking (find a comfortable range), and yes even speed up some times. We also need to decide where we are going and navigate the best way to get there. These are lessons that those who are suffering from bipolar disorder need to learn too.
The first step towards moving from bipolar disorder to bipolar in order is learning how to put on the brakes. But mastering that first step is no better than me putting on the brakes in the driveway 52 years ago. It leaves us dependent on someone or something to bail us out every time we get in trouble.
When I learned to drive I was taught by someone who knew how to drive and had worked out the steps needed to teach someone else how to do the same. When I look around today at the people teaching others about bipolar disorder I see people who only know how to use the brakes. And they, like me at 8 years old, are so afraid to take off the brakes that they convince themselves it is the only thing anyone can do.
On the other hand, I see too many people who have never learned yet convince themselves that they know how to drive. When their mania gets stronger than they can handle they don’t even have the good sense to put on the brakes. And then, when someone else puts on the brakes for them, they go back to imagining that they know how to drive. Their repeated failure to actually learn the necessary steps is just reinforcing the false notion amongst everyone around them that it cannot be done.
Don’t get me wrong. Using the brakes is a critical first step towards getting bipolar in order. We just need someone to shift gears for us and show us how to actually operate it once we figure out how to use the brakes.
Who do you know that can function fully while depressed or manic? I know lots of people because I taught them how. Unfortunately I don’t know anyone else who can and that needs to change. But the hardest part so far is convincing people that it is possible. They are so locked in fear with their foot on the brakes that they can’t see over the dashboard. Since they can’t see our success they cling to the notion that it is not possible.
I mentioned earlier how some of the driving skills can be used as metaphors for mania and depression. The most important metaphor for the purpose of this article is about the brakes, so lets dig into that one a little. The brakes in the case of bipolar are the tools that help one reduce the intensity of mania or depression with the belief that we are unable to function fully unless we are in remission or very low levels of intensity.
The brakes-only solutions that are the current standard of care traps everyone in the driveway for the rest of their lives where they live in fear for the next time the brakes inevitably fail. When you start learning how to function during periods of mania and depression you will find an incredible world around every bend and have the skills to navigate without fear or suffering.
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