In my third novel, which I’m struggling to write, one of my characters said the following: “Lollipops and rainbows? You know what, Abby, I think every family has a life outside the walls and a life inside the walls. Not to be trite or bitchy but no one on the outside knows what happens on the inside.”
Later that same day, I was listening to a detective mystery and the “bad guy” was said to be bipolar. This makes me so angry – it seems that every fictional bad guy is either bipolar or has borderline personality disorder. I seriously think mystery writers should 1) learn more about these diagnoses and/or 2) be more creative. I, for one, am more interested in the bad guys’ motives and causality than some throwaway term that means so many different things. Yes, I’m a little sensitive and defensive, but that doesn’t make me wrong.
It dawned on me it might be time to remind my reader, and myself, that bipolar is not a “one size fits all” descriptor nor is it an indication of criminal behavior!
Bipolar does not manifest the same in any two individuals. Yes, it is a cycle of manic ups and depressive downs. But what is manic for me, is not manic for someone else. Depressive downs have several shades of grey. The length of time in each cycle varies, the depth varies, and so do the triggers that start a cycle.
As the drawing indicates, there are three types of bipolar – bipolar 1, 2 and cyclothymia. I live with cyclothymia. My cycles are more rapid, and my moods don’t get as high or as low as other bipolar designations. Mania doesn’t cause me to buy new cars or become promiscuous. Depression doesn’t lead to suicidal plans or days hiding under the covers (although I used to dip this low, but I’ve put guardrails in place). The highest-high and the lowest-low last between two and twenty-four hours. When I’m objective like I am right now it’s actually fascinating to watch – the consistency of the cycles is exactly as the diagram depicts. When I pay attention to my body, I can sense the ups and downs almost as if I am riding a slow roller coaster.
For me, the manic cycle is a whirlwind of high productivity. And even though I know it’s not healthy to be in a manic state, I like it. It’s high energy with a tingly feeling of excitement. It’s a bit of a drug – an artificial high that will eventually fade. I’ve implemented several healthy habits that have flattened the curve. Flattened but not fixed.
I’m not sure if bipolar ever disappears. It’s managed but not eliminated.
For me the worst symptom of my cyclothymia is never being content – never. When I’m manic, I’m searching and reaching for achievement or a way to be better, do more. I’ll buy self-help books or enroll in classes or commit to do something.
When I’m depressed, I second guess everything I did in my manic stage and often discover I committed to something that doesn’t fit with my goals.
For example, last weekend I had decided (again!) to give up writing. I was feeling like I’m not getting any traction anywhere. I get great reviews with my books and even with this blog, but my audience is not growing, and I’ve sold a total of maybe 75 books. I see other people have great success and I just don’t get it. I spent my depressive episode “whoa is me-ing” and decided to give it all up, save the money, find another way to spend my time.
That weekend depression cycle lasted until Monday (about 24 hours). On Monday, I was all-in again. I’d even written in my journal that I’d stay committed to this writing stuff until the end of 2021. At the end of 2021, if I’ve not made any clear progress towards this “professional author” stuff, I’d become something else in 2022. (This is a commitment I have to re-make after every down episode). I try to convince myself that reaching one person with my message of struggle and hope is worth it. Then I hung out in that high for three days and produced produced produced. (And, truthfully, most of it was pretty good).
Now it’s Friday and I’m back in a down and calculating all the money I waste on writing that could be spent on travel or a new cabin or this, that, and the other thing.
Because of this rapid cycling, I think I drive others crazy (and I for sure drive myself a little nuts). I’ve put a lot of strategies in place to keep my curve flat, but I haven’t found a way to be content. Some of this cycling will never change but maybe I could find contentment in that truth. I could find a way to be content with the second-guessing. Reframe that it is “simply a part of me” instead of a “bad part of me”. If I could reframe maybe I could stop needing reassurance.
We all need reassurance from time to time. But, for me, since I can never quite find contentment, I reach for reassurance because I can’t trust myself. That’s not a healthy type of reassurance, is it? I was raised to believe I was a disappointment, and I can never quite get past that (so far). This belief forces me to seek approval out of fear. The truth though is that I don’t need anyone’s approval. I need my husband’s input before I make decision that impacts our relationship or our dreams for the future but I don’t need his approval.
Approval has a hint of “I’m not sure I can make my own decisions, so do you approve of this?”. But asking for approval is also saying, “I need you to approve ME because my decisions are a reflection of me.”
The only person who has to approve of ME is ME. Cyclothymia makes this difficult because I can never stop long enough to find the ME that isn’t up or down. Look back at the diagram, there are no flat sections. At Six Flags over Georgia, we have this ancient rollercoaster called the Scream Machine*. It’s loud and ricket-y. As you click-click-click up that first hill your entire body tenses because you know what’s coming and then WHAM, wheeeeee! But at the end of the ups and downs, there is a nice flat stretch that allows you to calm and laugh at yourself – it’s in that flat stretch that you find your balance and equilibrium. With cyclothymia there is no flat stretch. Always pushing up or falling down. It’s why I’m always second-guessing and reaching for reassurance.
If you look at how I spend my time and my money, you’ll discover that I seek a lot of support – writing coach, social media manager, classes, critique partners, intuitive eating coach. I couldn’t understand that about myself until I wrote the blog. Because I have no flat times to feel safe in myself, I need people I trust to help me see what balance and equilibrium looks like. If I didn’t have a writing coach, I could never finish a chapter because in an ‘up’ I’d see it as great writing and in the ‘down’ I’d delete it as pure shit. There would never be forward progress. I have to tell you, dear reader, understanding this about myself is very helpful.
I have cyclothymia. It’s well-managed but I still have cyclothymia. Seeking support, then, is not a crutch. It’s a different type of management. I am honest with myself about my bipolar condition and if getting outside support is necessary, then it’s necessary. I slow down the rollercoaster with advice and support. It’s a way to move forward on my ride.
Have you ever disapproved of something that you could never hope to change? Wasting energy of disapproval was a waste of time. There is another rollercoaster at our Six Flags called the MindBender. It’s up and down with 360-degree loops. I hate that ride. I leave it with a headache and a dizziness that hangs around a long time. But the MindBender is ME. It is what it is. I’d waste energy disapproving of what I can’t fix. So, today, in my current “up”, I decide to APPROVE OF ME. I can second-guess that on the down cycle.
I imagine my husband, when he edits this, will have lots of notes that indicate the rambling nature of this blog. That’s okay. It’s a true look in a cyclothymic mind. **
My wish for you and for me and for all of those I love is that we find ways to enjoy the ride!
Do you know anyone with bipolar? Can you find a way to simply approve of their mood swings?
If you “suffer” with bipolar, can you step back and take an objective look at your rollercoaster? Can you find the great ways you’re managing the symptoms? Reframe your experience. Can you find a way to approve of yourself whether up or down?
*A fun memory: every year Six Flags over Georgia would open a new ride and the lines would be hours long. My father would come home from work and we’d drive to Six Flags, stand in the long line. We’d eat hotdogs and drink soda. We’d ride that one ride and then go home. One ride, together. I remember standing in line for the Scream Machine and freaking out. People were screaming as they made that first drop. I remember hoping I was too short – they were measuring people right before they stepped on the ride, so I had to stand in line trying not to pee my pants or let my dad know I was scared (he hated fear). Well, I was tall enough and it was a BLAST! I hope he knew how much I appreciate his doing that with me year after year. I wished I’d told him.
**My husband’s response: Not sure if that’s because it’s not that rambling, or if I have lived with you for 30 years and know how to navigate a little rambling????
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