Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

by sosiukin via adobestock.com

Dear Me:

You’re 13 years old now, and there are a few things you should know.

You have bipolar disorder. No one knows this, not even you. But a lot of people notice that you act “weird” at times. You have decided to embrace your weirdness, which is fine, but what you really need is psychological help. And medication.

Don’t pass up any chance to get that help. Your high school will recommend to your parents that you get counseling. When your parents leave the choice up to you, take it. It will not go on your permanent record, and you will still get into a college. A very good college, in fact.

I know that at times you sit alone and cry. Other times you laugh at things no one else finds funny. This is not just “weirdness.” This is a mood disorder, called bipolar disorder, type 2. Your mood swings will make it difficult for you to make and keep friends. Keep trying. The friends you will find are worth it and will stand by you when you really need them. You will not be alone in dealing with this.

Your choice to go to college out of state will be a good one. There you will have a variety of experiences that will make you grow in unexpected ways. Your mood disorder will go to college with you, though. Leaving Ohio will not mean you will leave bipolar disorder behind. You will still feel the mood swings, and most of them will be depression.

It’s a good idea to take that year off between freshman and sophomore year. I know it will feel scary, but at that point you will be in no shape to carry on with academics. Instead, you will get a job which, while not great, will introduce you to more new people and new ways of life. At least one of those people will stick with you till you are old and gray.

Returning to school will be a good decision. Your parents will support you in that decision. They won’t object to your year off, because they know you will go back. It still won’t be easy, but you will have a core group of friends that accept you, even though you are different from them.

Your bipolar disorder will follow you back to college. It will make you miss some opportunities and choose others that will not be good for your mental health. You will be unhappy most of the time, but you will find that music helps you through it.

Try not to self-harm. I know you will feel numb and want to feel something else, but cutting yourself is a bad decision and will not help. You will carry those scars forever.

When you meet Rex, though, you will be encountering a problem too big for you to handle, and the relationship will leave you scarred as well. It would be best if you were to steer clear of him altogether. But then again, you will find some true friends in his circle, and it would be a shame to miss them. Try your best to hold yourself together, remember what I said about self-harm, and don’t give up on who you are. You are not your disorder, and you will get through this, despite everything.

I know you never gave a thought to marrying, but you will meet a man and in a few years you will marry him. This, I assure you, is a good decision. He will stick by you no matter what and help you find help.

Going into the building that says “South Community Mental Health” will be a good decision. Whatever you will be feeling at this point – most likely misery – it’s not mentally healthy. This will be the place where you will start to climb out of the hole you have found yourself in.

At last, a doctor will tell you that you have bipolar disorder – most often depression, but also anxiety. He will work with you to find a combination of medications that will help you. When that happens, you will become reacquainted with your brain and relearn how to function in the world at large. Your brain will function in a new way, one with fewer out-of-control feelings. You will experience life more fully and be glad of your new outlook.

It won’t be quick, and it won’t be easy, but you will have therapists, and friends, and work, and love, all of which will help see you through. You will have bipolar disorder all your life, but it will not be your life, though it seems that way now.

Reach out for help whenever and wherever you find it. Cherish your friends. Keep trying, even when you want to give up. Better times are on the way.

I promise.

Love, me (older and maybe wiser)

Image by Vadim Gushva via adobestock.com

Once upon a time, I lived with a man who, I later realized, was a gaslighter. (This was in the time before gaslighting became trendy and well-known.) For a while after I left, I had no notion that I had any harsh feelings towards him. It was only later, after I had been away for a while, that I realized what my buried feelings were and what damage he had done. The experience was responsible for parts of who I am today, including my strength and resilience.

For a time, though, right after my deeper feelings began surfacing, I realized that I had been psychologically controlled. I began to read up on the phenomenon. Some of the subjects I devoured were accounts of and theory of domestic physical and psychological abuse, mind control, and cults. They fascinated me – how the human mind and spirit could be so affected by another person or persons that they acted in irrational ways, defended their abusers, changed their personalities, and gave up their lives, either figuratively or literally. I don’t mean to compare my experience to the suffering that the people I read about have gone through, or to the suffering that still exists. All that I knew was that I had been manipulated, and was desperate to find out how, if not why.

I started with the easiest subject to find information about – domestic abuse. I will say that my gaslighter never harmed me physically and only once said something that could be taken as a violent thought towards me. But I learned, particularly, about intermittent reinforcement. This happens when the abuser switches between telling the victim that he loves her and she is wonderful, and that she is stupid or ugly or otherwise worthy of abuse. These mixed signals keep the victim coming back, on the theory that sometimes the person is so nice and loving. “It must be that I make him mad without meaning to,” she thinks.  Thus, she is hooked and less likely to leave.

My gaslighter also used intermittent reinforcement and mixed signals to keep me hooked. I stayed much longer than was good for my mental health.

Learning about mind control – “brainwashing,” kidnapping, and so forth, gave me little insight into my own situation, except that some of the principles were to isolate the person being controlled, to control the environment such as when the person slept or ate, and to be that person’s only source of information or reality. I had been relatively isolated physically, had little control over schedules, and, while TV news was available, it was always filtered through the gaslighter’s sensibilities and opinions. Again, I am not comparing my suffering to that of other people. I don’t believe, really, that suffering can or should be compared.

Learning about cults took me even farther from my own experience, but I was fascinated by it nonetheless. I soaked up information about Jim Jones and Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, Scientology, and others. Especially interesting to me were stories of people who had escaped from cults. (One of my Facebook friends escaped from a religious cult, which took advantage of her PTSD and bipolar disorder to ensnare her. She supports others who have been victimized by cults and spreads information on cults and the tactics they use.) All I can say is that leaders of cults are usually charismatic, often reject societal sexual norms, and mentally coerce their followers to isolate from family and to finance the cult leader’s lifestyle.

Gaslighting, which I have written about many times (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-pm, https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-C2, https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Ir, https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Cu) most resembles domestic abuse, though usually without the physical violence. It uses the tactics of intermittent reinforcement, isolation, verbal abuse, cults, and mixed signals to convince the victim that her perceptions of reality are invalid – in extreme cases, that she is going insane.

All of these forms of abuse do harm to their victims, in varying degrees. I was lucky to be able to leave my gaslighter when and how I did, and I will forever be grateful to the people who have helped me heal from the experience.

If you are in any of these situations – domestic violence, emotional abuse such as gaslighting, or being victimized by a cult, the best advice is: Get out now. Leave while you still can, before something worse happens. And get help, both from your friends and family, if possible, and from a professional counselor who has experience with these issues. It could save your happiness, your sanity, or even your life.

 

Resources

https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/72664.Nonfiction_resources_on_abuse_and_domestic_violence

National Domestic Abuse Hotline https://www.thehotline.org/

https://nymag.com/strategist/article/best-books-on-cults-reviewed-by-experts.html

https://www.women.com/sophiematthews/lists/books-on-gaslighting-101718

A Sensory Self-Soothing Room

Photo from the author’s collection

Not long ago, I read in the Creativity in Therapy blog (http://creativityintherapy.com/2016/05/create-a-sensory-self-soothing-kit/) an article by Carolyn Mehlomakulu, art therapist, called “Create a Sensory Self-Soothing Kit.” The idea was that a box filled with items that engage your five senses is an excellent tool for being grounded when you need centering or self-care. The recommendations were for any five things that appeal to the senses of touch, sight, hearing, taste, and smell. I tried the exercise and came up with the following:

Touch – plush animal

Sight – amber necklace

Hearing – iPod playlist

Taste – caramel

Smell – Oolong tea

I never actually made myself such a self-comfort box, but I remember the exercise as a way to think about my senses and how nourishing them can nourish me.

Lately, though, I have acquired a room of my own and have been decorating it to suit myself. Recently, I realized that it has all the requisites of a comfort kit toolbox.

Touch – I have quite a collection of stuffed animals stashed around the room. A great many of them were gifts from my husband, who knows my history with stuffed animals (as we used to call them). Every Easter there was a new stuffed rabbit in our Easter baskets, along with the chocolate bunny and the jelly beans.

Perhaps the most important plushie in my room is named “Trauma Bunny.” My husband found her in the store he works at, squashed behind two huge bags of dog food in the pet aisle, rather than in toys where she belonged. Of course, he bought her and brought her home to me. Now she sits on my desk, guarding my headphones and cellphone, close enough for me to reach out and pat her on the head or fondle her ears.

Sight – I have furnished my room with many things I like to look at, from travel souvenirs to prints and paintings that have significance for me. Even the walls are a toasty rusty-brickish color that makes me feel warm just to look at. I also have a television, where I can watch shows that comfort me, such as ones on the Food Network. I have two windows, and the blinds are always up on at least one of them. The view isn’t terrific, but the sunshine is welcome.

Hearing – I do have iTunes on my computer, with more music than I could listen to in a week. Among the tunes are ones recorded by some of my singer/songwriter friends, as well as the well-known artists I like best, ones you don’t hear on the radio anymore. There is also instrumental music, from Vince Guaraldi to Béla Fleck, if I want something less distracting than voices and lyrics.

I also have a cat tree by the window, where my two cats love to sit or sleep. Both cats purr nicely and loudly. One of them even snores when she sleeps – daintily, but she definitely snores. (Of course, petting the cats also qualifies as touch, and watching them bathe themselves, which I find soothing, counts for sight as well.)

Taste – My husband keeps my room stocked with things he knows I like such as Cocoa Puffs. There’s always diet cola in the bottom drawer on the lefthand side of my desk. Right now there are honey-roasted peanuts in case I need a more proteinaceous snack.

I generally eat only one meal a day, and when I’m really depressed sometimes skip eating altogether. It’s good to know that there’s something here that is easy to access, requires no cooking, and meets some of my basic needs and likes.

Smell – Since I’ve transferred most of my library to an ereader, there are fewer books in my room, but most of the ones I still have are old and retain that almost-indefinable book smell – dust, paper, and some other distinctive aroma that I remember from trips to the used book store as a kid.

I also have a candle that smells like snickerdoodle cookies. I’ve never lit it, but sometimes I just pick it up for a deep sniff. Then there’s my tiny Mr. Coffee, which I use for tea, including oolong, herb tea, and possibly my favorite, the spicy smell of Constant Comment tea.

I practically live here, even though the house is fairly large and there are sensory delights in the other spaces as well. But what I have here, I recently realized, is a comfort box that’s just the size of a room.

Image from foxyburrow/adobestock.com

Recently, I had a chance to sit down with Harvard professor Dr. Michael Rich (M.D.), founder and leader of The Center of Media and Child Health. In addition to his comments on that topic, Dr. Rich had a lot to say about social media and mental health in general.

What are some of the problems you see for patients with psychological problems in their use of social media?

I take care of a fair number of patients and one of the things that’s hardest for them is to come clean to those who want to help and nurture them. I think first of all that for people who are both struggling with psychological or psychiatric issues – and for all of us – the hardest but most important thing to do, particularly with social media, is to be real, be authentic.

I think that the biggest problem with social media is how we are using it. Essentially most of us use social media to market ourselves to the world. We go to it in hopes that it will build community, we’ll make connections with people. What ends up happening is those who are most vulnerable or folks with varieties of anxiety – most prominently social anxiety – feel anxious in an in-person social situation. They go to social media to take baby steps to try to connect with people. But because we are using it as a marketing tool to the world, what they see appears to be that everyone else is happier, more successful, and “better” than they are. They go to it feeling insecure and they come out of it feeling even worse in many cases.

What really builds relationships and connections is us showing each other our vulnerabilities, showing each other the ways in which we need someone else, not the ways in which we are a prize for someone else.

Image courtesy Dr. Michael Rich

You use the term “problematic interactive media use.” Can you tell us what you mean by that?

Part of why we call it problematic interactive media use is it’s not an addiction. It is more akin to binge eating disorder, in the sense that it’s overuse of a necessary resource in the 21st century. The online space, the interactive media space, is necessary to function at school, at work, etc. Problematic interactive media use is continued overuse despite negative outcomes and it is driven by underlying conditions, including anxiety, especially social anxiety, but also depression.

We don’t see the technology as being the problem, so calling it internet addiction or gaming disorder or smartphone disorder or smartphone addiction points to the technology as having done something to us. It is actually our behavior that is the issue – how do we behave with these technologies, not how have these technologies harmed us in some way.

What do you think about the online therapists that have become so popular since the pandemic?

I think that there are many, many ways to use telehealth that can be very effective, but I think that it is much more effective and much more efficient in terms of progress made when it is with someone you have already met face-to-face in real life, as opposed to someone you are meeting for the first time online. First of all, you get a lot more visual and audio cues.

The other thing, quite honestly – I hate to say it, but there are people who exploit that need, who present themselves as doctors. It’s problematic because obviously someone is not only exploiting it for their own advancement, but they are generating false hope in people. I think it is unethical and profoundly unfair to someone who is seeking any sign that there is a way out of the dark space for them.

I think that what’s really important here is to use the same level of vetting of your caregivers as you would someone you’re seeing in real life. Talk to them and see if you can trust this person enough – whether you feel heard, whether you feel connected, whether you feel that they really care, rather than just going through the motions.

Any final thoughts?

I think we lost a lot when “friend” became a verb. We friend people willy-nilly, but they’re not the kind of friends that you can cry to in the middle of the night or who you could reach out to for a shoulder to lay your head on. I think that we, in our quest for and achievement of near-infinite connectivity, have lost our connectedness in a deep and meaningful way. 

I think that, quite honestly, if we can learn from the authentic behavior of folks who are sharing a vulnerability like bipolar disorder or virtually anything – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, physical disabilities, cognitive disabilities – if we can actually be honest and true and let people know our limitations, that people will step in and complement us. They will complete us. I think that that is what true friendship or true relationships are. 

 

Interview with Dr. Michael Rich, November 5, 2020

 

Bipolar Conversation

This morning a podcast called Bi-Polar Girl was uploaded, and I was the interviewee. (You can find it on Apple, Amazon, and other podcast sources.) Here’s a look at what was like.

  • Prepping. Before we recorded the podcast, my anxiety kicked in, and I tried to overprepare. I bombarded the hosts with emails asking what I should be prepared to talk about or what questions they were going to ask me. Basically, they told me we were going to “wing it” and have me tell my story.
  • History. The thing we talked about most was when I started showing signs of bipolar and when I was diagnosed. I explained that I was showing signs of it as early as my high school years, how I decided to seek treatment after college, and how I was mistakenly diagnosed with major depression for years before receiving the proper diagnosis and medication.
  • Meds. We discussed medication in some detail – pill-shaming, how every person reacts to meds differently (so it’s useless to “recommend” a particular drug to friends or support group members). We talked about the side effects of various medications, including the fact that the most-feared one seems to be weight gain. One particular point of discussion was how many people are afraid that taking medications to treat their disorder will stunt their creativity or turn them into “zombies.” Snowflake (one of the hosts) and I agreed that our creativity and ability to work were actually improved while on medication, because it enabled us to focus and do more creative work.
  • Family. We also talked about the fact that I have no children and my reasons for that. (We also introduced some of our pets during the Zoom call, or they introduced themselves. Just try to keep an animal out of a Zoom call.) I shared that I felt it would be unfair to a child to have a nonfunctional mother, that I was afraid of going off antidepressants while pregnant, and postpartum depression afterward. Snowflake shared her story of medications, potential side effects, pregnancy, and postpartum depression.
  • My publications. I talked about my blog and my books, Bipolar Me and Bipolar Us. In particular, we discussed gaslighting, which features in my second book, and how people with bipolar are more susceptible to it. Both Snowflake and I shared how we had encountered gaslighters in our own lives.
  • Groups. Chacoman, the other host, questioned me about whether I was involved in any local or regional support groups, and I had to admit that I’m not. Now, during the pandemic, group meetings are problematic at best, but I don’t react well to groups at any time, due to my anxiety (which is how my hypomania manifests). In my case, outreach is limited to my blogs and books, and membership in online support groups.
  • Miscellaneous. We got off topic a number of times. I don’t want to make it sound like the interview was all serious or grim. We also talked about our pets, positive relationships, college memories, and even politics.
  • Plans. I talked about how my next book will be a mystery, with a bipolar main character, and received positive feedback on the idea.

All in all, it was a good experience, worth overcoming my anxiety for. I had only participated in a podcast once before, a not-altogether-successful interview about my first book with an interviewer who had obviously not read it and was more interested in whether any of my family members were also creative. (It was supposed to be a podcast about first-time authors.)

This was not the same sort of thing at all. I told my story, as the hosts had recommended, and we had a genuine, far-ranging conversation about not just my own experiences with bipolar disorder, but with how others cope with it as well. Actually, I learned a lot about myself, from how much my anxiety – and especially social anxiety – still affect me, to how much my teen years illustrated my journey into depression.

So, here’s a big thank you to Snowflake and Chacoman for the opportunity to share with them and their audience. I would absolutely do it again. It helped me step out of my comfort zone and, I hope, will help the listeners as well. It’s a form of outreach that I had never considered, but one that I found valuable – and just plain fun!

 

 

Reminder: Podcast

Tomorrow evening from 7:00 – 8:00 p.m. EST, I will be the guest on the Bi-Polar Girl podcast. You can listen in on Apple, Amazon, or wherever you get your podcasts.

If you want to join in, the podcast will also be a Zoom call. Ask me questions! Give your reactions! Become a part of the event!

Here’s the info:

https://us02web.zoom.us/j/4429894773?pwd=dFlrcGVDNWduN1U1Ly8ydVhMN1lyUT09

Meeting ID: 442 989 4773
Passcode: 894298

Mental Health Privilege

Vectorarte / Adobestock.com

These days we hear a lot about privilege – class privilege, white privilege, first-world privilege, male privilege, and, I’m sure, many more. The idea is that people who have privilege don’t have problems that other people deal with every day and. In fact, they don’t usually realize that they have this privilege and benefit from it.

I know that I am privileged in many ways. I am white and heterosexual. I have a house, a husband, and work I can do. I have an Ivy League education and grew up in the suburbs, the child of loving parents who never divorced.

But what I don’t have is mental health privilege. I have bipolar disorder.

When a person has mental health privilege, they don’t have to take multiple medications just to keep their brain functioning in something like a normal manner. You won’t get pill-shamed for the meds you take or have random people suggest your problems will all be solved with prayer, yoga, apple cider vinegar, or acupuncture.

(I do recognize that there are many people who take meds for a variety of disorders, including life-threatening ones. I don’t mean to discount their struggles. Physical health privilege and ableist privilege also exist.)

When you have mental health privilege, you don’t have to question whether or when you should inform a boss, a potential employer, or a friend or romantic partner that you have a mental disorder. You don’t have to fear that that one fact will make it more unlikely that you can achieve a stable work situation (or any work situation) or a stable relationship.

When you have mental health privilege, you don’t have to try to find a therapist who specializes in your problem and can actually help you. You don’t have to repeat your whole psychiatric history every time your therapist gets another job, causing you to start all over with a new therapist. You also don’t have to ask your primary care physician, who may or may not know much about psychotropic meds, to prescribe for you until you find a psychiatrist or when one isn’t even available to you.

When you have mental health privilege, you don’t worry that people will avoid you because you act “peculiar,” miss appointments and dates, or can’t handle crowds or even family gatherings. 

When you have mental health privilege, you don’t have to fear that you may have to stay for a while in a mental ward or have treatments like ECT.

When you have mental health privilege, you won’t get shot by a police officer just because you have a meltdown or a really bad day or a psychotic break.

Of course, the privileges I do have protect me some. Realistically, there is less chance that I will be killed by a police officer than would a person of color. In fact, my race and income make it easier for me to access mental health care.

The Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, in its July 3, 2017 editorial, makes clear that mental health privilege affects not only people who have mental disorders, but also the people who care for them.  The piece, written by Mona Shattell, PhD, RN, FAAN and Paula J. Brown, MBA, points out, “More than 70% of all health care providers in the United States are White (U.S. Census Bureau, 2017), and many, if not most, have unconscious (or conscious) biases (Institute of Medicine, 2003).” Their level of privilege may interfere with their treatment of their clients. The authors of the editorial encourage those with privilege to use it to help others.

Racial privilege is particularly problematic when considering mental health providers and their clients. NAMI Illinois “reported studies found that ‘black professionals make up only 2.6% of mental health clinicians in the United States, which is low considering that approximately 20% of black Americans seek mental health specialty treatment within a 12-month period.'” “While access to culturally diverse providers is low, the cost of mental health treatment remains high,” they add, “which serves as an additional impediment to bridging the gap between the onset of symptoms and accessing professional care.”

Education about mental health privilege may or may not help. Many people pooh-pooh the idea of any kind of privilege and bridle at the idea that they themselves have privilege by virtue of their health, sex, economic status, or other attributes. Some people’s eyes can be opened. (My husband didn’t recognize male privilege until I pointed out that no one suggested he change his name when we married or that we were “shacked up” because he didn’t.)

It’s understandable in a way.  People have a hard time envisioning that they themselves might ever be mentally ill or poor or homeless or denied work or discriminated against in any number of ways.

But with mental health privilege, it’s even more difficult to get people to understand. Until a close friend or family member faces mental or emotional difficulties – suffers from PTSD, experiences major depression, develops schizophrenia – people will not usually have the opportunity to realize the mental health privilege they have. And they may not even then.

As with any kind of privilege or stigma, if there is to be any improvement, people need to be educated. It’s not easy to open their eyes. But doing so can make a difference in the lives of people who do not share that privilege.

As some of you may know, I have written two nonfiction books, Bipolar Me and Bipolar Us.

Now I’m working on a different kind of writing project – a mystery novel. I had written about two-thirds to three-quarters of it when life happened and I had to put it away for a few years. Now I am back to working on it, and one of the changes I decided to make was to have my main character, a journalist, be bipolar.

It would be too easy and too cheap for me to make the murderer bipolar, and less interesting, I think, than having the person who unmasks the killer struggling with a mental disorder while she does so. The world has had enough of psychologically damaged or deranged killers – especially serial killers. Such a novel would do nothing to lessen the stigma surrounding mental illness – would, in fact, increase it. Too many people already believe that most people with mental problems are dangerous.

One of the people who beta-tested my first four chapters described my main character as “ditzy,” which wasn’t what I had intended. Now, I think maybe she was on to something. Perhaps Maggie seems ditzy because bipolar puts her out of sync with the neurotypical world. Perhaps her reactions are not “standard.”

I don’t want the book to be about her bipolar disorder. It’s still a mystery novel, with a crime to solve, interviews with suspects, dangerous situations, and all that. I just want to have a bipolar person playing an active, positive role.

But how to introduce the concept of bipolar? Should I just have Maggie say early on, “I have bipolar disorder”? (It’s written in first person.) Should she explain what that means to another character?

I think I’d rather have bipolar disorder as subtext, dropping hints that Maggie may have certain traits like imposter syndrome, hypersexuality, and depression; that she takes meds for the condition; that she functions well most of the time, but sometimes an event will send her off the rails. There might even be a chapter where the action stops for a few pages while we see Maggie trying to fight off the depression that is threatening to stall her quest for the answer.

I don’t know of too many bipolar protagonists in fiction, and even fewer in mystery fiction. The only one that comes to mind is Bo Bradley, in one of Abigail Padgett’s series of novels. (I wrote about her and her character once: https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-nE.) In my interview with Padgett, she said, “the experience of people who live with real, clinical mood disorders is still fraught, dangerous and revelatory….But the general public, including me, cannot ever actually ‘get’ what a manic or depressive or psychotic episode feels like.”

That may be true, but people experience many things in fiction – spaceflight, mountain climbing, murder – that they never do in real life. One of the marks of a really good writer is to transport the reader into the story so that it seems real, so that the reader understands what it is to fly that starship and meet that alien, climb that mountain or die trying, or kill that person who threatens you.

Perhaps, if I plan, write, draft, tweak, and edit carefully, I can show the experience of trying to do work – important, difficult work – while fighting the effects of bipolar disorder. It’s a different sort of writing than my nonfiction books.

It’s still a long way off. First, of course, I have to finish writing the damn thing. Then I have to sell the idea to an agent, who will then try to sell it to a publisher. Or I could go the indie route, which would be quicker, but not as satisfying.

Any suggestions?

Podcast Appearance

On Friday, November 13th, at 7:00 p.m. (Eastern Time), I will be a guest on the Bi-Polar Girl podcast! Tune in to it on Apple Podcasts.

It’s a Mad, Mad World

In a mad world, only the mad are sane.

Edgar Allan Poe said that (or Akira Kurosawa) (or maybe Kurosawa quoting Poe). It’s a common enough idea, so many people (including my husband) have said it, or something like it.

And how can one argue with Emily Dickinson, who said,

Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain –

It’s beautiful poetry, and a reaction to Dickinson’s own situation as a person extremely out of touch with “the Majority.” Today we would diagnose her with Avoidant Personality Disorder or some such.

It’s tempting to agree with Poe and Dickinson, but I can’t. Here’s why.

The world cannot be sane or insane. Those are qualities that apply only to people. The world may seem insane, but that is only a metaphor. The world can be chaotic. The world can be incomprehensible. The world can be unfamiliar. The world can be frustrating. Observing the world can make you laugh, cry, or doubt yourself. I suppose it can even make you doubt your own sanity.

But none of those things are the same as truly being insane.

Of course, the terms “mad” and “insane” are frowned upon now.  We say, instead, that someone “is mentally ill,” or “has a psychiatric disorder,” or even “has lost touch with reality.” But can we say that the world is mentally ill or has a psychiatric disorder or has lost touch with reality?

Can large groups of people – society – be insane? There are many people in the world with serious psychiatric illnesses, but they constitute only a few percent of the world’s population. The rest of society, we have to say, is in touch with reality. It’s just that everyone has different perceptions of what reality is, especially if we’re talking about the actions of other people or other groups. This debate about the sane and the insane is more about the divide between perception and reality, the different perceptions that people have, and the concept that there is no objective reality. Each of us has a mind that interprets reality, but this does not make those realities per se true or false and those minds sane or insane.

But the concept of a world gone insane and a person society defines as a madman (it’s almost never a madwoman) as the only remaining sane person is a device used in fiction. King of Hearts is a 60s-era movie, much beloved by the counterculture, that uses this trope. Catch-22 is another, in which a man trying to prove himself insane is therefore deemed sane. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest makes us question the “sanity” of psychiatric wards versus the “sane” rebellion of the people locked up in there.

That’s what a lot of these sayings and fictions are really about – rebellion. (And why they were so popular in the 60s and 70s.) They present the hypothesis that the “sane” world requires rebelling against by being “insane.” Or put the other way around, the world is insane and the insane are the only truly sane ones.

Rebelling against what seems to you insane, i.e., the world, is presented as noble and in some sense valuable and wise. You want me to conform? I’ll say that you’re the sick ones and that whatever I do in reaction against that is proof. The further I stray from societal conventions is proof that those conventions are meaningless, stifling, demeaning, and ultimately insane.

Let’s unpack this a little further, shall we? Can the world be schizophrenic? Be bipolar? Have PTSD? Suffer from bulimia? No, those are all human conditions, caused by genetics or brain biochemistry or childhood abuse or some combination of these and other factors. We say the weather is bipolar, but we really mean just that it changes quickly. We say the world is schizophrenic, but that just means it isn’t logical.

So. I have bipolar disorder. Does that make me sane and everyone around me insane? Does it mean that I just don’t “fit in” with society? Does it provide me with wisdom that others who don’t share my condition can’t achieve?

Fortunately or unfortunately, none of that is true. That I don’t fit in is partly because of my personality and partly because of my upbringing. Not everyone around me is sane and I the only one who sees clearly. My disorder provides me with a different perspective on reality than many others have, but it doesn’t make mine right and theirs wrong. Or vice-versa.

There’s room in this world for a lot of perceptions of reality. Let’s not start dividing them up into “sane” and “insane.” Understanding other people’s point of view is not a cure for madness, but it is a way of better coping with the world.

 

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