The rollercoaster is the most common metaphor for bipolar disorder. But is it really the best one?
After all, a rollercoaster has long, abrupt downward swoops, and anticipatory highs. (At least the ones I’m familiar with. I won’t go on the ones that turn you completely upside-down.) But rollercoaster highs crank slowly, grindingly up. Mania isn’t like that. Boom! You’re suddenly at the top.
Nor are rollercoaster lows like the lows of depression. If they were, the downward slide would not be the exhilharating, thrilling part of the ride, and would not immediately be followed by another high. Instead the rollercoaster would plod along through a lengthy trough, or maybe a tunnel (though not of love), with no idea of when the next up would come.
Perhaps a seesaw is a better metaphor. Its ups and downs are quick, and you can stay stuck in either position for an undetermined length of time. And a seesaw is all about balance.
But no. A seesaw requires a second person to operate correctly, and that is certainly not the experience of a bipolar person. Our brain chemistry alone is enough to get us going up and down.
A pogo stick? The spring gets squashed and then rebounds. But it’s a rhythmic bounce, not one that you don’t see coming until you’re in it. (If then.)
The basic problem with most of the usual metaphors is that they involve fun at some level. Bipolar is not fun. Oh, the mania my be enjoyable – for a time. But the gut-wrenching drop does not make you go whee!
So how about a soufflé? It can rise or fall, and you never quite know which it’s going to do.
Or a computer? It can open up the world, but is going to crash sometime, inevitably when you most need it to work.
I suppose we could split it up. Mania is a fountain and depression is a ditch. Depression is a b&w rabbit-ear TV and mania is cable with 1000 channels. Mania is a battery and depression is a dead battery.
The root of the problem is that no metaphor can adequately explain bipolar disorder. Even Spoon Theory, useful as it is, explains only the effects, not how the disorder itself works and feels. A metaphor may capture one half of the experience – the ups or the downs – but not the reality of both.
If it’s not possible to explain bipolar disorder with a metaphor, why do we so often try to? Because, really, only people with bipolar know what it is like, and the experience even differs from person to person. A psychologist or psychiatrist may understand the mechanisms and the biochemistry and the complications and the medications. But she or he is essentially watching from the outside.
My husband didn’t really “get” depression until he fell into depression himself that lasted a couple of weeks. “Now,” I said, “try to imagine that feeling lasting for months.” He couldn’t, but at least he was closer to understanding.
My mother-in-law, who doesn’t “believe in” mental illness, now has a clue too, since she experienced a profound reactive depression.
Neither of them really “gets” mania.
Maybe the best metaphor is that bipolar disorder is like sex. You can’t adequately explain it to someone who’s never had it. And even when you’ve had either sex or bipolar disorder, you only know what it’s like for you. You can generalize your experience and share commonalities, but basically, every case of bipolar is something a person goes through alone, or maybe alone together, as Jenny Lawson says.
It is what it is.