I’ve never disliked my birthday. There was really no reason to, because birthdays equal cake and, as someone who used to weigh 550 pounds, I really like cake. But this year is different.
I’m turning forty, but logically I realize I’m really just going to be a day older. It isn’t like when I wake up on my 40th birthday, I’m going to need a walker. As far as acting old, I’ve already become my father: counting the exact change out to cashiers like I accomplished something because I had three dimes and two pennies.
So, what gives? Why am I in such a funk for this birthday when none of the other ones bothered me? While I can’t be entirely sure it’s only because of my experiences with bipolar, it sure feels like bipolar disorder has managed to insert itself in places it doesn’t belong.
Bipolar Disorder and Wasted Youth
I wasted years either suffering from untreated bipolar disorder or trying get well in spite of this crummy illness. And during those years, my mental maturity just sort of…stopped. I don’t feel forty, not mentally. (Unfortunately, I feel sixty physically, but that’s a whole other story.)
I watched all my peers pass me by. When I was in the throes of mania or in a deep depression, I didn’t really notice. But when I started the process of getting better, I quickly noticed none of the people who used to be around were still there.
At first, I decided it was because of the stigma of mental illness. “They deserted me because I am mentally ill,” I would tell anyone left to listen. But I realized, after gaining perspective, that they didn’t abandon me out of malice. They just outgrew me.
Keeping the foot on the proverbial gas 24/7 didn’t fit with career advancement, marriage, or children. They matured and gained valuable insight and experience into the world while in their twenties — insight that I wouldn’t acquire until my early thirties.
The years they spent becoming stable adults were the same years I spent just becoming stable. At first, it didn’t bother me. I had my own worries and concerns. Getting back to work, rebuilding relationships I’d squandered, and learning to manage bipolar disorder took all my mental resources. Frankly, I didn’t have a lot of time to compare myself to other people my own age. I didn’t consider myself ahead or behind; I considered myself motivated to be well.
However, all that is behind me now – hopefully, of course. My life went from the chaos of untreated bipolar disorder to the struggle of finding the best way to manage a life-long, chronic illness, to being relatively typical.
All of a sudden, I was just like everyone else, except chronologically I’m 40 with the general outlook and maturity of a thirty-year-old.
I’m so incredibly far behind that I can’t fathom catching up. I have no children, I just started a retirement plan, and I feel more at ease around 25-year olds than I do around other 40-year olds. I’ve had to give up the life I wanted for the life that was reasonable for me to attain. That compromise – or sacrifice – mostly went undetected by me.
But this year, on my birthday, I’m faced with the undeniable fact that bipolar disorder took something away from me that I can never, ever get back:
Gabe Howard is a popular speaker, writer, and advocate who lives with bipolar and anxiety disorders. He is an award-winning writer and the creator of the official bipolar shirt. (Get yours now!) Gabe can be reached on Facebook, via email, or via his website, www.GabeHoward.com.