Functioning While Bipolar
Bipolar disorder is a funny thing. Mine leaves me alone part of the time. Until it doesn’t.
I have had full-blown depressive episodes, with the sobbing and the immobility and the wretchedness and everything else associated with it. I have had one major episode that lasted for three years straight, plus everything else from minor breakdowns to that vague, lingering miasma that comes when you’re untreated and you don’t know that what is really happening to you is clinical depression.
I have also had full-blown anxiety attacks, the sort that leave you twitching all over, feeling like you’re about to jump out of your skin, gasping for breath, and imagining that every driver on the road is swerving into your lane. I’ve twitched and shaken and stammered. I’ve scratched myself. I’ve hidden under the covers until I can’t breathe. I’ve taken anti-anxiety meds that did nothing at all.
Right now I am sufficiently medicated and have been relatively stable long enough that I think what I have is functional depression or maybe high-functioning depression, or whatever you want to call it. I have enough wherewithal to work part-time from home, do other writing-related projects (like this blog and my other one), and do assorted tasks like paying bills and making business-related phone calls. (Occasionally, if the phone tree is lengthy enough and the person on the other end is uncooperative enough, I have a small-scale meltdown. My voice goes up in pitch and tears start rolling down my face. My husband takes over the transaction when he notices that.)
But secretly, I know depression is lurking and can rear its ugly head again with little or no provocation – a trigger or nothing at all. So can anxiety, which is how my brain usually responds to hypomania. It’s a little like those commercials for psychotropic meds you see on TV, where the person has a little sign with a smiley face and hides behind it. Except that’s not quite accurate.
I understand that high-functioning depression is also called “smiling depression.” That’s not my experience of it. I’ve almost never been able to “fake it till I make it,” slapping on a happy expression when inside I’m dying. Besides, it doesn’t work, as far as I can tell. The depression or the sorrow always leaks out around the eyes. I’ve seen this in myself and in other people.
Before I was treated, I used to have what you’d call “resting sad face.” Once a boss of mine encouraged me to smile more (and is there anything more annoying?). I didn’t feel particularly sad at that moment, though I’m sure that I had at least a low-grade depression, like a low-grade fever. But I was at my job, and functioning even then, if not very well or cheerfully.
The phrase “high-functioning” gets used a lot to describe certain varieties of autism. I don’t have autism and I’m not an expert on it, but my suspicion is that high-functioning depression is similar in some ways. I don’t always react the way other people expect me to. I feel out of my depth a lot, especially in environments with lots of people or lots of noise. But that doesn’t stop me – or lots of other people – from carrying on with what I need to do to be a functioning member of the populace.
But back to bipolar disorder. Even if someone seems to be “high-functioning” doesn’t mean he won’t have a meltdown sooner or later. Even someone who “slaps on a smile” may let it drop once she is alone. Even someone who is “coping well” may not be coping at all tomorrow or next week or next year. Sometimes you can’t tell on the surface what someone is going through inside. Like I said, bipolar disorder is a funny thing.