Every once in awhile, I check in with myself to see what being bipolar means to me. Before I was diagnosed at 48 in June of 2016, bipolar just meant crazy to me. The depressive part didn’t leave much of an impression on me—everyone I knew claimed to be depressed—but the manic part was interesting, and I always associated bipolar with someone who was pretty much off the wall. Unreasonable. Irrational. Maybe angry.
Now that I have a diagnosis of bipolar myself, I think I have a clearer sense of what the disorder is all about—outside of the medical definition. Anyone can look up “bipolar” and read that it is a mood disorder that results in delusions of grandeur and suicidal tendencies, frenetic highs and debilitating lows. “Bipolar” to me means being very sensitive to others and the environment. It’s like having another awareness that keeps you on high alert for any and all incoming stimuli. Everything is often too much—a smell might be too strong, a noise too loud, a tone too insistent. People’s personalities are often pronounced; nice people seem particularly friendly, and grumpy people particularly scary.
Bipolar means that I carry with me a lens at all times through which I see brighter colors, stronger attitudes, and sharper contrasts. The trouble with the lens is it makes situations and feelings more acute and intense, which is fine with positive endeavors like a roadtrip with a friend but awful in situations like being hated by a co-worker. Being bipolar isn’t an excuse for misbehaving or acting out, but knowing you have the condition can help you be prepared for possibly harrowing situations like weddings, out of town guests, or trying a new restaurant.
Bipolar seems like a state of knowingness—knowing certain feelings and sometimes conclusions. For instance, I don’t just get inklings; I am infiltrated with certainty. I may or may not be right about assessing a situation, but my feeling about it is just as strong either way. I don’t so much get a twinge of sadness or feel slighted as I feel desperate or abandoned. “Everything seems worse when it happens to you,” one of my sisters once remarked.
Obsessive-compulsive tendencies, symptomatic of bipolar, also come to mind when I think of being bipolar because I get stuck on topics or issues that then consume me. I have a hard time recovering from loss, getting stuck in feeling low. I have been told to “get over it” when it comes to heartbreak, work situations ending badly, and in fact having bipolar disorder to start with: People tell me, “Don’t let being bipolar define you” and “You are not your disease.” These are all examples of what people who are close to me say when they are tired of hearing me talk about being bipolar.
I know intellectually that with time, my bipolar diagnosis won’t seem as significant to me, not as readily a topic for conversation or area of inquiry. But right now, I have to say bipolar is my life. It is the way I greet people to how I keep my house to my strict sleeping schedule. It is a handful of meds every morning and every night, and the fact that I teach online now and not in an overly stimulating classroom. It answers the question of why to get up in the morning to take on another day—because not getting up is giving in.