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What’s bipolar ever done for me?

20/02/2015

For the past few days a blogpost by asher at my beautiful machine, a response from dyane at Birth of a New Brain and a followup by asher have got me thinking.

Why am I so positive about my bipolar?

It wasn’t always this way. When I was a teenager, before I had a name for it, my bipolar completely trashed the life course I and others had mapped out for me. As well as denying me what had seemed my destiny in higher education it left me isolated during what should have been the most intensely social phase of my life and introduced me to the suicidality that was to be such a regular and seductive caller over following decades.

But after leaving university I found a career and lifestyle that fitted with my sudden bursts of energy and creativity interspersed with periods in which I struggled to just feed and clean myself. I had a high income, a fulfilling social life and had learned how to use illegal drugs to sustain them both. For a while.

After the inevitable disaster I decided that my IT income (I no longer had my drug dealing income) would be better directed into travel than up my arm. The mysterious experiences my bipolar had contributed to gave me a destination.

India. If there was anywhere I could learn about what I’d found in the depths of my mind it was there.

The next fifteen years consisted of a series of brief IT contracts in Sydney interleaved with year long backpacking trips around Asia. I spent about half of that time in India, exploring, studying, experiencing and getting completely blown away by it all. Taking my bipolar on the road had its difficulties, sure. But I didn’t nearly kill myself too often and it was bipolar that showed me the road in the first place.

By the end of the 1990s the IT workplace had changed. Not only were ‘eccentricities’ like mine becoming less tolerated, creativity counted for little when the job became supporting some bullshit from head office instead of finding solutions to abstract technical problems. We all knew the Y2K bug was nonsense. But it kept a lot of people who’d  crawled out of the wreckage of the dot-com crash in work. So thousands of hours and millions of dollars went into combing legacy systems for problems we knew didn’t exist (Hey, we rolled the system clocks forward to December 31, 1999 and checked, right?). By then I was jack of the industry and it was jack of me.

My bipolar had long been a spur to my social conscience. Not only did its psychoses and depressions give me empathy for others who were tossed by the winds of existence but the times it had dumped me in the gutter or beneath the fists and boots of police had taught me how wretchedly unfair and unjust my society is. So as I withdrew from the computer industry I moved into social activism.

The group that attracted the bulk of my efforts was made up mostly of ex-prisoners, mentally ill people and a smattering of radical students, so my oddities and inconsistent work pattern were barely commented on. My science education and writing talent finally paid off, carving me a niche within Sydney activism, politics and academia that was to give me a high public profile and international recognition, albeit not much money. I designed my own Masters degree in a field that would be called ‘forensic science jurimetrics’ and gained the enthusiastic support of some influential academics. I was soon trying to balance study, paralegal research, media appearances, advocacy work for prisoners, writing papers, press releases, essays and articles, lobbying politicians, appearing before parliamentary committees, speaking at demonstrations and more with the curses and blessings of my bipolar.

Then everyone died.

First it was a close friend, then my four year old nephew, then another friend, then my grandfather, a close colleague, a prisoner I was working with, my father, an aunt, a lifelong friend, another aunt, a fellow activist I had relied heavily on – all within about sixteen months. I faltered, staggered and stumbled on for about ten of those months. Then I fell. And shattered.

The next nine and a half years were the worst of my life. The hypomania, mania and psychoses all deserted me, leaving nothing but relentless unipolar depression with seemingly constant suicidal ideation. For much of that time the thread I hung onto was my identification with my bipolar, widowed grandmother. No-one else in my family even understands depression, much less the rest of it. I couldn’t abandon her to face both them and the fact that her first grandchild had killed himself, possibly due to something he’d inherited from her.

Those years didn’t go quickly. I lost my income, virtually all of my friends and abandoned my activism and study. My welfare payments couldn’t cover Sydney rents so I moved to Newcastle and cut ties with almost everyone I knew. It wasn’t the first time I’d restarted my life from scratch. But no matter how I tried I couldn’t start anything. I couldn’t get off the mat. The most persistent image of those lost years was that of my bedroom ceiling.

Except they weren’t really lost.

One of the few friends I maintained email contact with (I could rarely bring myself to talk on the phone) had been telling me all along I was undergoing a spiritual crisis. That was no consolation. The mystical worlds that had once opened to me were now firmly shut. I could no longer even meditate. It was obvious the spiritual path that had taken me from the slums of Sydney to ashrams in the Himalayas had been nothing but an extended dead end. Soon I would reach my own dead end and it would all be irrelevant. My grandmother was in her nineties and in failing health. It wouldn’t be long until I could slip a noose over my head and be finally free of myself.

Then a bit over two years ago my psychosis returned with a bang. Or my mysticism. They’re the same thing you see. I had the most spectacular psychotic break of my life. It was lots of breaks really, with brief manic or hypomanic intermissions. It lasted nearly four days. It was love and hatred and joy and anger and fear and triumph and despair and exaltation and dissociation and transcendence and everything, everything, everything …

It was pure bliss.

At the end of it all had changed. The crushing existential despair had lifted and has never been back. I went from completely anhedonic to rejoicing in the moment. Every moment. There’s really only one. I saw that not only my spiritual studies and practices, but everything in my life had led up to that one eternal instant of perfect clarity. I thought I could find what I so desperately wanted to know, but only when I’d finally realised the utter futility of my quest I realised its culmination. My bipolar, along with everything else about me and the universe I inhabit, had brought me the one perfect gift.

Since then my life from the outside has probably been more mundane than ever before. I struggle to get by on a disability pension. My social life is practically non-existent. I’m trying to address the many health problems I’ve accumulated over my chaotic life. I’m slowly rebuilding my ruined capacity to communicate and patching up my tattered relationships with family members. But my inner life has become richer than I could ever have imagined. There have been several more reality smashing experiences but it’s the exquisite perfection of every moment as the universe shines irrefutably through the blinkers of my individuation that has poured magic into everything there is.

It was asher who led me to understand why I love my bipolar so much. You see, like him, I’m lucky. My bipolar (or should I say ‘me bipolar’?) has filled my life with the sort of risk taking behaviour few neurotypicals would ever choose to contemplate. And the risks paid off. I lost my friends, I lost my loved ones, I lost my careers, I lost my reputation, I lost my health, I lost my mind, I damn near lost my life. I lost my self. And found … everything.

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52 Comments
  1. For Fox Sake permalink

    Since I can never see your face
    And never shake you by the hand
    I send my soul through time and space
    To greet you. You will understand.

    ~ James E. Flecker
    To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence

    See ya later, alligator

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this. I see some parallels to my own journey and you have a unique way of looking at it. http://lilypupslife.wordpress.com/

    Like

    • I see some parallels to my own journey

      I suspect therein lies the only possibility of communication.

      Like

  3. You are certainly fortunate to remain alive.. as am i…

    Life is funny and bright…. after the storms at least……….:)

    I’ve been diagnosed with hypomania.. per fearless.. invincibility..

    that i logically understand is illusion.. except for that fearless feeling..

    AND other stuff here and there that harms no one…for about 18 months

    straight now.. but honestly.. i for one am born with hypomania.. it is Culture

    that takes that away….

    Put me back to work in the 9 to 5 grind.. and bliss will likely disappear again……

    Thanks GOD i don’t have to go back to that now.. i’ll keep my so-called hypomania..

    And who ever wants to.. CAN keep illusory fears.. as what i understand to be a true evil

    of life.. IF they WILL or like.. but NOT for

    me.

    It is estimated that 5 to 9 percent of the general population exists in a state of hypomania

    and there is most definitely a relationship between hypomania and creativity.. if not.. we might

    still be living in caves…..

    IF that at all…….

    i’ll take the neurochange over the nuerosame any day of now….

    And the neurosame is here.. for an evolved way too……

    Anchors are important

    too… so yes.. THANK GOD FOR MY NEUROSAME WIFE..;)

    BUT i STILL.. ‘feel’.. like i’m.. ‘the’ sane one..;)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve been diagnosed with hypomania.. per fearless.. invincibility.. that i logically understand is illusion..

      Whaddya mean it’s logically an illusion? So far I’ve seen no convincing evidence I can die. In fact I’ve got over half a century’s accumulated evidence to the contrary. 😉

      Liked by 2 people

      • Ha! me too.. but i try to keep my hands on the steering wheel of life.. never the less..;)

        But still.. i do let it ALL go.. and flow.. when not on the ‘highways’ of life..:)

        In other words.. i drive safe… literally.. drive safe..:)

        And if it wasn’t for my wife.. who let me know about the 5 red lights.. i didn’t notice.. the first day the hypomania started.. this go around..i might not be here.. to talk about highway safety..;)

        Again.. the anchor thingy.. PRICELESS.. too…:)

        Like

        • I sussed out as a teenager that my moods were too inconstant for me to trust myself at the wheel. Too risky for passengers, pedestrians and other drivers. So I owned motorbikes instead. That way I’d be the most likely to be killed if I fucked up.
          I have no idea how many bike accidents I’ve had over the years, usually while manic or hypomanic, but neither I nor anyone else has ever been seriously hurt.
          Told you I was lucky.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. All kinds of really amazing creativity and sadness here and in your autobiography told in other related posts – something heroic about it… Joseph Cambell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. The downside is the danger of course but maybe you’ve got that included too. ‘I don’t believe its possible for such despair to ever touch me again. Unless, perhaps, I seek it out for some perverse reason’ (quote comes from Psychosis and me 23/05/2013). I was wondering how that kind of perversity has been for you over the last nearly 2 years.

    Like

    • In retrospect it can be tempting to cast my life as one of Campbell’s Hero Journeys – especially in the context of his famous quote about mysticism and psychosis. But it very rarely seemed heroic at the time. I have often considered myself insanely lucky though.

      I was wondering how that kind of perversity has been for you over the last nearly 2 years.

      I can’t say I’ve been very interested in revisiting my despair but I’ve gotta admit the last 2 years have thrown up their own challenges.

      I’ve always been pretty alienated but now my perspective on reality and self has moved me even further from the apparent concerns of people I interact with. I don’t think it’s made me callous but communicating on an ego-to-ego basis sometimes makes me feel insincere or misleading. And despite some attempts I’ve found no way to express how things really seem to me. At first I thought I could explain it all to others who struggle with mental health and they would be ‘cured’ too. It now seems increasingly likely that it’s something everyone must find for themselves (the ‘small vehicle’ I guess). Or maybe most people aren’t even interested. For all I know I would have been far more fulfilled with a family and strong social network than I have ever been chasing the profound mystery. But that never seemed an option anyway.

      I still get sad at times and I still get some of the physiological correlates of depression but the suicidality, despair and utter hopelessness have gone. It’s hard for me to imagine them coming back because they seemed to exist in the gap between what I thought was and what I thought should be and both of those things now seem irrelevant.

      Like

      • Thinking also of the Fool card in the Tarot pack. The small dog is tugging at his heel as he’s about to step off the edge of the mountain, but he doesn’t notice, immersed in the vision. The image is a moment in caught in time – we don’t know what happens in the next moment. The danger is that without checking in on the concerns of people and friends, and the ‘perspective on reality and self’ moves into a realm of what we could call ‘madness’ – and I don’t mean just leaping from a window on the spur of the moment, more like the karma of the ‘I’m invincible’ thought takes you there, unaware of the reality of the suicidality. It’s something everyone must find for themselves as you say here – how have you found that so far? I don’t know, could be simply the fear of fear that’s bothering me…

        Like

        • Well, I’ve gotta admit that when I read Jessica’s post on The Fool there was a frisson of self-recognition.

          But I’m not sure what you’re driving at here.

          Yeah, there have been countless times I’ve disregarded the concerns of loved ones and put my sanity (such as it is), social standing and life at risk. But doesn’t everyone do that?

          When a mountaineer dies on K2 or an astronaut dies exploring outer space it’s a tragedy, but mourners console themselves with the fact that he died doing something very important to him. But when a psychonaut dies exploring inner space people are more likely to blame madness or drugs and deny him any agency in his own fate. If they do attribute agency to him it will probably be to call him an idiot.

          A steadily increasing majority of Australians believe that when their life is no longer worth living they should have the right to demand medical assistance ending it. Yet most would also agree that people with mental illness should be denied the opportunity to take their own lives or even put them at significant risk. I think that’s just a double standard that comes with the stigmatisation (and infantalisation) of those labeled mentally ill.

          Concern for my grandmother is one of the main things that kept me alive through the worst of my suicidality. Probably I should have had more concern for other family members and what friends I had left, but at the time it seemed obvious they would be better off without me. In fact I couldn’t shake the thought I was part of a curse that was striking down those I cared about, despite the fact I gave it no conscious rational credence (a bit like the child who knows there’s no monsters under the bed or the surfer who knows he’s more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a shark – sometimes rationality just doesn’t help).

          These days I’m less likely to think others would be better off were I dead. But who really knows? The pathways of ‘maybe’ and ‘might have been’ are infinite and none of us know where they lead. All we can be sure of is that at some point they will continue without us.

          Like

        • For Fox Sake permalink

          I wonder when the Fool topples over the edge, if the little dog knows
          to let go? Perhaps the dog’s tooth is snagged in the Fool’s sock and
          it was Fido who learned the folly of snapping at the heels of humans.

          Dogs still do that. Slow learners.

          Like

        • Basenjis are especially dumb. Ours didn’t chase cars. It ambushed them and charged head on.

          Like

  5. I, too, have always been a risk taker, and I, too, love that about myself. Consequences be damned, I speak the truth.

    Like

    • With me it’s sometimes ‘consequences be damned’, but it’s just as often ‘I’m invincible’ or ‘things can’t get any worse, so why not?’.

      I don’t fall into despair anymore but I’m still into unnecessary risks.

      Last week Newcastle’s beaches were closed due to dangerous surf, so I made a point of getting out for a bodysurf. Or at least I tried to. It was like trying to ride a rinse cycle.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You literally surf the waves of bipolar disorder.

        Like

        • I have been known to say that.

          Surfing is a metaphor I apply to much of my life, especially the bits more obviously affected by bipolar. I know I don’t drive my life – I have nowhere near that kind of control. I ride it. But not passively like a bus passenger. Actively like a surfer.

          If you can find the rhythm of the suck and surge and a place for yourself within it, it’s better than good. But if you pretend the waves aren’t there or try to fight them you’ve gotta expect to be chundered (a technical term we Aussie surfers use).

          Liked by 1 person

        • I’m a Southern Californian who once lived on the beach. The Pacific Ocean powerful, especially when you coupled with a beach break. The waves pick you up and pound you into the wet sand. Ouch.

          Like

      • Reading through these comments, I’m beginning to see that I really do kind of fit a pattern here, too.

        I have been known to take crazy leaps, risk-wise, especially when on a manic upswing (when I’m depressed, I’m convinced I can’t do anything; when I’m manic, I am absolutely certain I can do everything).

        Chundered, by the way, is one heck of a brilliant word. That happened to me when I was six, swimming in the Atlantic off Block Island on a day when there was a storm off shore and pretty huge breakers. I got knocked down by a big one just at the point where my feet could touch, sucked back and knocked over again and again, and had to fight like hell to make it back to shore.

        One of the most thrilling and terrifying experiences of my life, and both taught me a better respect for the ocean and further cemented my love of swimming in it (because apparently nothing quite cements my fondness for something like a good bout of HolyCrapI’mGonnaDie?). Chundered is exactly the right word.

        I’ve now realized, watching our nephew grow up, that a lot of this is a temperament thing: he’s the polar opposite of me; as a little kid, if it involved heights and danger and speed, I was right there; he’s inherently cautious. We took him to see Cirque de la Symphonie, and afterwards I asked if he’d like to learn to do any of the aerial acts, and without a pause he said, “Nope.” I was floored, because I would’ve sold my spleen to be able to do aerials when I was seven (I was already jumping horses, doing gymnastics, and skiing, by that age).

        I’m wondering if that temperament — the risk-taking element — is more common among us bipolar types?

        Like

        • You and I have a big advantage asher (apart from our luck).
          No kids.

          When I look at the blogs of bipolar parents I find it hard to imagine how they cope with it all. Not just the demands of raising them under such circumstances but the need to set an example as well. It would be difficult for me to argue to a child to be careful when I am so often anything but.

          But isn’t being knocked around in huge seas great?
          Climbing exhausted from the surf and thinking ‘Oops, nearly drowned again’ was always able to keep my depression and, especially, suicidality at bay for a while.

          I’m told that suicide rates drop significantly during war time too. Of course that may just be because suicidal people find more socially acceptable ways to get themselves killed.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Excellent point! I have an enormous amount of respect for people who successfully raise kids while living with bipolar, and I am pretty sure I couldn’t.

          There is definitely much to be said for being knocked around in huge seas! I’m learning to appreciate it in the non-literal sense now. Revisiting Zen is helping much more than I would have expected.

          Interesting thing about war time and suicide. That would bet interesting but immensely difficult to study!

          Like

        • Revisiting Zen is helping much more than I would have expected.

          I’ve always been strongly drawn to Zen.
          It’s beautiful even when it’s completely incomprehensible.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Not sure what I’m driving at myself; hard to define what it could be. I know what you mean about the popular idea of heroic death and bravery and not paying the same kind of attention to the one who goes on the rocky road of inner investigation, putting at risk sanity, social standing, life? Probably what I mean is doing something widly irrational. I notice though that you’re completely rational in your analysis of your situation so that answers that question. As for me, I’m grateful I know in fact there’s no monsters under the bed, thanks for the post and commentary…

    Like

    • My rationality has it’s limits.

      When I’ve been up, believing the world is at my feet has seemed completely rational on the evidence as it presented itself. When I’ve been down, believing the world is on my back has seemed just as valid. The problem with rationality is that it can lead you deep into rationalisation.

      It can also blind you to what isn’t rational. I think I’ve seen a few things that defy any rational explanation.

      Rationality is probably the sharpest and most often used tool in my box – one that I probably overuse actually – but I can think of plenty of times it has pointed me in the wrong direction. Sometimes, when I’ve needed it the most, my intuition has dragged me off the path of rationality just in time. Sometimes my madness has saved me. That’s one reason I consider myself so lucky.

      As a poem that once came to me said, life isn’t really a controlled fall. Maybe kicking the ground from under yourself and falling free is the only rational response.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Now that I think about it, rationality is not the right word – the Buddhist ‘wisdom’ or the lack of it, maybe… but even so, they’re all just words. A Buddhist paratrooper jumps out of an airplane but forgets his parachute, “Oh, no parachute” he says. “Ah well, no ground.”

        Liked by 1 person

        • I like that one a lot.
          One of yours?

          Like

        • No, it was a monk from Wat Pah Nanachat…

          Like

        • One thing I miss the most about Thailand is the dark humour.

          I had a friend on Koh Phangan I called Nong Kao whose English was nearly as bad as my Thai. We communicated in a patios that combined both.

          Once we’d planned to take the long-tailed boat from Haad Khom (near Chaloklum) to Koh Tao but when we got up that morning there were storm-clouds about and the sea was covered in white-caps.

          “We go today Koh Tao have problems?”, I asked in bastardised Thai.

          “No”, replied Kao in deadpan English. “We go. We dead. Have no problems”.

          Like

        • ‘Mai mi panha’ it’s a popular turn of phrase…

          Like

        • One of the first I learned, though in the anecdote above it was ‘panha, me mai?’.

          Like

        • I like the simplicity of it, no subtlety; you have a problem with this, or you don’t. That’s all we need to know…

          Like

  7. For Fox Sake permalink

    “It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience; how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an unuprooted small corner of evil.”
    ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

    Hogs & Quiches
    from your Numbat Wan Troll

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great quote. I don’t think I believe in good and evil (though one look at Bob Carr can change my mind) but I still pretty much agree with old Aleks on that one.

      Sometimes I wish I had a Russian Orthodox background. It makes everything confusing, intense and morally ambiguous, but in a poetic sort of way.

      I’m a real man, so I’ll pass on the quiche. You can send me the hog though. I’ll make it squeal like a pig (riffs out the theme to Deliverance on the air guitar).

      Like

      • For Fox Sake permalink

        Weee! Weeeee! Now let’s you just drop them pots n’ pans.

        Like

  8. I envy you…. and I feel proud to read you.
    You know they say anything that eventually teaches you meaning of your self is a bliss. Your bipolar thing was a gift… Given to you to learn everything by losing everything. And the most important thing is, you did it. You are successful. So I envy you…. and nothing can stop me from doing that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Lala.
      I would have guessed that you’d get it.
      It seems to me you’re blessed with a few uncomfortable gifts yourself.

      Like

      • May be I am… but of what use are these if one don’t know what good these can do. I am the worst kind you know 🙂

        Like

        • You think I ever knew what good I mine could do?

          Most of my life I was just holding all of these pieces. Some bright and sparkly, some dull and ugly and some sharp and painful. They hardly seemed to fit together at all until suddenly they all did.

          Like

        • So I should sit and wait for that moment to come?

          Like

    • BTW, I notice your gravatar still says “Pakistan”.

      Maybe time for an update.

      Like

      • In a process of updating myself right now. Will deal with the blog later 🙂

        Like

        • So I should sit and wait for that moment to come?

          I don’t know Lala.

          Grace is a funny thing. I don’t reckon it can be found by searching, but maybe you still have to search to find it. Search until your eyes bleed. Search until it’s completely hopeless and you finally give up. Then you realise you had it all along.

          Like

        • I am searching. I reach sometimes, somewhere but then I come to know that this isn’t it. And then I start searching again from the start. And I am not yet tired.

          Liked by 1 person

        • In a process of updating myself right now.

          I’m bursting to ask you what’s happening in your life, but I’ll hold on and wait for your blogpost like all your other fans.

          Like

        • Writing one right now. Will post it in one or two days hopefully. You won’t have to wait that long 🙂

          Like

        • I’ll wait.

          For now I’m just ridiculously happy to hear from you.

          Like

        • And I am honored to hear this, coming from you !

          Like

  9. My recent lesson was about what you had written. This case I can truely see …impressive how you look at it…

    Like

  10. Grace Darling permalink

    Hello possums!!

    Like

    • I said ‘grace’ not ‘disGrace’.
      And now that I’ve said it I’m coming after you with a spoon.

      Like

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