Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘poetry’

Surviving College While Bipolar

I had two goes at college, and they were very different from each other, based on the state of my bipolar disorder at the time.

The first time I went to college, for my undergraduate degree, I was undiagnosed and unmedicated – except for self-medication. I was away from home for the first time – that was my first goal when choosing a college, being after a “geographical cure.” I ended up in the Ivy League, a scholarship student and a fish out of water. And profoundly depressed.

I did manage to hit the ground hiking, as the university sponsored backpacking trips led by juniors and seniors for entering students. We used to joke that it was meant to lose a few along the way, but really it was for orientation. Campfire chats about college life and the like.

On that hike through the Adirondacks, I met Caren, Roberta, and Cyndi, who instantly became my best friends and were my support system throughout the five years I spent there.

Yes, five, though only four of them were really at the university. After my first year, I took a year off. My depression had gotten so bad that I was given to sitting on the floor in the hallway, staring at a poster for hours at a time instead of sleeping. During my year away, I worked a dreary but educational job as an evening shift cashier at a restaurant. When I returned, I had a new major and the same old depression.

Oh, I did have fits of hypomania. I joined a sorority during one, though I deactivated later in a depressive downturn. And I went through the ups and downs exacerbated by several failed romances, including one total trainwreck.

The only help I got, aside from the support of my friends, was one brief therapy group at the campus mental health center and a brief stay at the university clinic, because of some suicidal ideation that my friends recognized.

Needless to say, I came out in no better mental shape than I went in, but I did manage to snag a B.A. degree. Now I feel that I missed a lot of opportunities along the way. It was just another occasion when I felt that my lack of mental health got in the way of what could have been a more productive time, as a well as a happier one. When I left college I was still almost as ill-prepared to function as when I went in.

By the next time I gave college a try, I was, if not mentally healthy, at least mentally healthier. And being back in the town I had been so eager to leave, I had a larger support system, now including a therapist, parents, close friends, and a husband. This time I had help.

I was still a mess, but less of one. With my depression lifting, I was able to teach introductory courses and manage my own course load. I remember my first semester teaching as a blaze of hypomania as I adored the subject and thought I was sweeping all the students along with my enthusiasm. Then one of the students gave me a bad review and I plunged again, never to recover that soaring sensation. I plodded through the next three semesters of teaching.

This time I came out with an M.A. and better job prospects. The day after I graduated I was working as a temporary editorial assistant, a job I kept for 17 years, moving up to editor along the way.

What did my experiences with college teach me (aside from modern poetry and how to swallow aspirin without water)?

  1. Making it through college is possible when you’re unmedicated and have minimal support, but I don’t recommend it.
  2.  Even with diagnosis, medication, and support, it’s still not easy. You know how hard it is to get out of bed and take a shower some days? Now think about going to a class on top of that, where your work will be critiqued. Taking a year off was one of the best things I ever did.
  3. Being bipolar isn’t your only identity, though it looms large in your life. I was also a student, a teacher, a friend, a daughter, a wife, a poet, a cashier, and so many other things. I may not have enjoyed them as I should, gotten as much from them as I could, but they were as much a part of me as bipolar was.

I can’t see myself at this point going back to college and getting a Ph.D. Which is not to say I’ve never considered it. But I like to think that, were I to try, this time I would have a better chance of getting through, sanity intact, with something more to show for it than a piece of paper to hang on the wall. This time, I tell myself, I wouldn’t let Bipolar Me take the experience away from Me.

Advice for the Bipolar Writer

Writing can be therapeutic – and more.

Writing can save your life – or someone else’s.

Every one of us, depressed, manic, or bipolar, has something to say.

I say, “Say it!”

Although I’ve never been one to respond to that ancient exercise in which you express your unspoken thoughts to an empty chair, I am a proponent of expressing your unspoken thoughts. I just think writing is a better way to do it.

Getting your thoughts and feelings down on paper or preserved in pixels is a positive, life-affirming action, even if your thoughts might not be. Giving voice to your inner workings can help you understand yourself and your brain better.

And if you choose to share them, they can help others too.

There are many different kinds of writing you can explore and experiment with until you find the one or ones that are right for you. Here are a few you can try.

Journaling. Many therapists recommend journaling to keep track of your moods and mood swings. You can also keep track of your exercise and sleeping and eating patterns in your journal. These factors may help you pinpoint physical symptoms that accompany your emotional ones. And you can get a read on how your meds affect your symptoms and how troublesome the side effects are.

Unsent letters. I have a separate file in my computer for these, just so I remember not to send them. I write letters not to send when I need to vent at or about a person, but am not sure whether I’m overreacting. I can express my feelings without taking the chance of ruining a friendship or hurting a loved one.

Sent letters. Sometimes, after you’ve let those letters or emails sit for a while, you decide that you do need to send them – or at least parts of them. Letters or emails are often the best way to communicate regarding difficult topics because you can think about what’s important to say, consider the best way to say it, and revise if your thoughts are not coming out the way you want them to. You still might want to wait a day before you send them, though.

IMs and comments. When you read someone’s post or a comment that really resonates with you, don’t hesitate to let that person know. If you don’t understand something in a post, just ask. If you disagree, feel free to do so politely. These are chances to open a dialogue, get more information, or correct misconceptions. They can lead to friendships if you comment regularly, but even a word or two of support or thanks can mean a lot to the writer.

Blogging. I started blogging because my journaling was boring and whiny, and I decided I had more important things to write about. There are basically two kinds of blogging about bipolar disorder. One is to share your experiences – your mood swings, your triggers, your relationships, your healing, your thoughts and meditations. The other is to write about issues related to bipolar disorder – treatments, stigma, social policy, news items, books, or opinions. Of course, you can combine both types of writing in your blog, which is what I try to do.

Blogging is powerful. It lets both professional and untrained writers speak their truth and share their thoughts. A blog about bipolar disorder has a “niche” audience – people interested in the subject themselves or because they have a friend or relative with the disorder. This means that you will likely never rival the Bloggess in numbers of readers, but you can touch the lives of hundreds of people.

Blogging does not have to be difficult. You can post every day or every week, every month, or just when it suits you. You can write informally or in a more academic vein. There are a number of platforms, such as WordPress and Live Journal, that make it easy for you to get started, and to make changes as your blogging needs evolve. You can add illustrations and video clips, and links to news stories or other blog posts. Eventually, you may want to have your own personal web page to host your blog.

Fiction and poetry. If you don’t want to put your own experiences out on the web for anyone to see, you could try transforming them into fiction or poetry, or inventing characters and plots that resemble you not at all. Many magazines and other outlets use short stories and poems, and works that feature bipolar characters and themes are not common. Fiction and poetry can be ways to reach an audience that might otherwise never learn about the reality of bipolar illness and its effects on people and relationships.

Longer works. You could even write a book (which is something I’m trying to do). There are many genres to choose from, including nonfiction, memoirs, and novels. Aside from Abigail Padgett’s Bo Bradley series of mysteries, there isn’t much fiction featuring bipolar characters that are true-to-life and not stereotyped. These are long-term projects and, truthfully, you (and I) may never finish them or have them published. But just the effort is worthy.

Whatever form of writing you choose, get started! Whether you write for yourself or for a larger audience, you can make a difference. And if you feel the desire, you should definitely try.

We Are Not Amused

In the last few days the bipolar blogosphere has been in an uproar about a post from OpinionatedMan. In it he said,“I get amused by people who claim to be bi polar.” [sic]
Naturally, some people were upset.

It is hurtful to think that someone is amused by our illness. We do not have it in order to be entertainment for others. We do not expect a mild chuckle or a small, wry grin when we reveal that we have a psychiatric illness. We do not find the symptoms, the therapy, the medication, the limitations – the bipolar life – amusing. Not to ourselves and certainly not for the amusement of others.

It is also offensive that he spoke of people who “claim” to have bipolar disorder. There is some debate about whether he meant “claim” in the sense of “say they have but not necessarily truthfully” or in the sense of “own the reality of and identify with,” and, to be fair, since the post was intended as poetry, it could be both.

Although “bipolar” is popular shorthand for someone who has ordinary mood swings, making free with the term “bipolar” is like comparing someone who’s in a bad mood with someone who is clinically depressed. We wouldn’t claim it (in either sense) if it weren’t so.

That’s enough to be upset about, but I think the rest of the post was troubling as well. OM portrayed himself as “multipolar,” implying that his multipolar life is a source of his depth of feeling and writing prowess.

The author thereby denigrates others who struggle with bipolar disorder yet try to create meaning. Many of us write, blog, draw, sculpt, or otherwise avail ourselves of creative outlets. For OM to think that his supposed extreme affliction makes him more creative, a better wordsmith, a creator of higher art than anyone with ordinary bipolar disorder is insulting.

Saying that his condition is multipolar as opposed to bipolar gets us into a game of “Whose life sucks the most?” (The loser is also the winner.) We are to think that no one has suffered as he does, and that no one is a comparable artist. It’s a version of the humble-brag – I’m worse off than you and I’m also better than you.

Of course the author has the right to believe as he does and to say what he does. I would not have him stop writing. But those of us who felt his words as wounds are entitled to speak up as well. Though he has a much larger platform than most of us, his words are not automatically more powerful than ours.

This is my opinion. Others differ. Here’s the link ( so you can read and decide for yourself how you feel about it. He has apologized and claimed he meant no harm, and has been bashed and trolled, which is not my intention. Think of this as literary criticism from a former English teacher. As always, YMMV.

Sense of Self

The air is still and blankets all my sense.
I’m muffled, muzzled in the sheltering dark
But dare not hope for fire, with bright, intense,
loud flames that rend the silence with a spark.

I breathe or not. It’s sometimes hard to tell
When swathed in dimness. Stifling, musty scent
Fills up my nostrils and my brain as well –
Which cannot will the veil be shredded, rent

to save from suffocation. How shall I
Withstand this cycle till the day appears
And breezes blow the dust away from my
Stopped ears and eyes and lungs, plugged full with fears?

Pull off the cover and let free the soul.
Take broken breath and heal it into whole.

Haiku Cycle

Break time here at the
synaptic schoolyard. You can
ride the swings all day.

Day lights sights you see,
saw before and that may be
In sight tomorrow.

Tomorrow times out
Wheels round and ticks away the
Body clock of mind.

Mind and brain play tag
I’m it as ducks and geese still
Wait while we circle.

Circle back and start
again, or stop before my
feelings crack and break.

Note: Poetry is something I used to do, years ago. After my Great Meltdown, my therapist suggested that I view it as an opportunity to rebuild myself, discarding things that were no longer useful and reclaiming things I want in my life.

So I decided to try poetry again. I used to write mostly free verse, but I decided to start with more structured forms because of needing some structure in my life now.

I have started with a cycle of haikus. They do not have to be read in order. Picture them as a ring. Pick any one as the starting point.

If you like this, and as inspiration strikes, I may attempt some more poetry for this blog. Is there a sonnet in our future? Dare I say it – a villanelle? Someday a sestina? We’ll see.

Diagnosis and Dickinson

The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside —

The Brain is deeper than the sea —
For — hold them — Blue to Blue —
The one the other will absorb —
As Sponges — Buckets — do —

The Brain is just the weight of God —
For — Heft them — Pound for Pound —
And they will differ — if they do —
As Syllable from Sound —
Emily Dickinson

I ran across this poem in a book called Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry (about which more some other time) and it made me think.

Dickinson was, by all accounts a recluse. She seldom went out and, when visitors came, she sometimes sat behind a screen while she talked to them. She never dared to submit her poems for publication. Less than a dozen were published in her lifetime, and those only because someone else submitted them without her knowledge. Her wealthy, loving family sheltered and nurtured her so that she never had to face the outside world.

Emily Dickinson had Social Anxiety Disorder.

And Abraham Lincoln suffered clinical depression. So did Charles Dickens.

Bipolar sufferers include Beethoven, Schumann, and Isaac Newton.

Charles Darwin, Michelangelo, and Nikola Tesla were all obsessive-compulsive.

Autism, dyslexia, and various learning disabilities affected Einstein, Galileo, Mozart, and even General Patton.

And Van Gogh! Let me tell you about Van Gogh. He had epilepsy. Or depression. Or psychotic attacks. Or bipolar disorder. Or possibly some combination thereof.

I call bullshit. I’m not saying none of those people had assorted mental disorders. My point is that we can’t tell from this distance in time.

In none of these cases, as far as I know, did any of the aforementioned people see a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, psychotherapist, or even a phrenologist. None were diagnosed with any psychiatric condition, and no record of such a diagnosis has come down to us from any reliable source. Some even lived before psychiatry was invented.

People – mental health workers, but also art and literary critics, biographers, and the general public – have looked at these extraordinary people’s lives and work and decided that their behavior and their art look like those of a person who might be bipolar or obsessive-compulsive or psychotic. (They also like to retro-diagnose physical conditions there is no record of or only vague names for. King Tut, Henry VIII, and Napoleon are particularly good theoretical patients.)

Why the tendency to ascribe mental disorders to famous people? I can see two reasons, beyond the thrill of solving a mystery and feeling clever.

The first is the old saying about there being a thin line between madness and genius. These historical figures were geniuses, so they must have been mad. Or as we say now, suffering from mental disorders.

The other is the need for role models and inspiration. If Van Gogh could become one of the most famous artists ever (though not successful in his own lifetime), you too may rise above – even use – your disorder to accomplish greatness.

It’s possible, I guess, but it’s not likely. Certainly those with mental disorders can aspire to and achieve rich, full lives, satisfying relationships and jobs and artistic pursuits. These are the ordinary accomplishments of ordinary people, both with and without mental illness, and it’s a small miracle that people can achieve any one or more of these. Not everyone does – again with or without mental troubles or psychiatric diagnoses.

And for me, at least, it’s enough.

Can the spark of imaginative genius strike a person with a mental disorder? Of course. Can that person succeed and achieve lasting fame? Maybe, though the odds aren’t good. Is a person saying, “Look, I can be Van Gogh!” likely to fall short? Almost certainly. Can that failure to achieve greatness make a person feel worse about himself or herself instead of better? You tell me.

There’s nothing wrong with aiming high, and nothing that says a person with a psychiatric diagnosis can’t do just that. It’s a good idea for anyone. (As one of Lois McMaster Bujold’s characters says, “Aim high. You may still miss the target but at least you won’t shoot your foot off.”)

But pinning your hopes on a similarity with a non-psychiatric, perhaps non-existent, diagnosis of a genius may not be the best way to get there.

Better to look in these geniuses’ work for insights that can help you understand your own condition or pull you through tough times. Here’s another of Emily Dickinson’s poems that has always spoken to me about the experience of a depressive crisis and its aftermath.

After great pain, a formal feeling comes —
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs —
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round —
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought —
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone —

This is the Hour of Lead —
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow —
First — Chill — then Stupor — then the letting go —

Was Emily herself depressed? We’ll never really know. And as long as we have her poems, I don’t really care.

The Creative Bipolar Brain

Sun or shade
feel or know
safe or strayed
stall or flow

Thought or whim
drought or rain
sink or swim
heart or brain

Stop or start
bound or free
light or dark
bipolar me

I have a lot of friends who are creative – writers, musicians, singers, woodworkers, knitters, and other craftspeople. I also have a lot of friends who have assorted mental or emotional disorders – depression, bipolar, PTSD, OCD, autism spectrum disorders, and probably many more that I don’t know about. In many cases, the two categories overlap.

Common wisdom holds that there is a link between creativity and madness. Look at Van Gogh, for example. People have spent years debating what specific disorder he may have had, but nearly everyone agrees that he had something. The question is, would he have been the great artist without the mental or emotional disorder? Or, perhaps, would he have been an even greater artist if his brain functioned in a more typical matter? Science so far has given us no answers.

Many creative people realize that their everyday functioning is impaired, but they are reluctant to seek treatment for it. They fear that tampering with their brain or thought processes will somehow inhibit their creativity – make them less than they were in some fundamental way. When you start tampering with brain chemistry, who knows what will happen?

It’s a valid concern.

Throughout my life, my brain has been all that I have, or nearly so. My intelligence and creativity were the things I was most proud of. How could I risk losing those simply because I was eternally miserable? The question seems absurd now.

Eventually I decided that I had plenty of brain cells to spare, and that if taking Prozac took away a few of them or lessened their ability, I could live with that. (Just in case, I took up pursuits that are supposed to strengthen the brain – math puzzles in addition to word puzzles, music in addition to writing. Not everything I tried was a success, but I hope they stretch my brain muscles.)

My experience with that first psychotropic med convinced me that Better Living Through Chemistry is not just a chemical company’s slogan. It turns out that – surprise, surprise – thinking more clearly and feeling more well-adjusted actually empower one’s creativity. My output changed from poems full of young adult angst to creative nonfiction, personal essays, and the occasional short story. I now make my living doing freelance writing and editing – an unstructured process that I couldn’t have made a go of before having my mood disorder treated. The ability to concentrate – to focus – is what enables me to sustain a creative effort.

So to all those people out there who wonder if they are sabotaging themselves and their creative impulses by seeking treatment, I say go for it! You have nothing to lose but your immobility. You have everything to gain – the ability to create, to express yourself and do it clearly, and the possibility to create something truly wonderful.

Sylvia Plath was a poetic genius. But she could have given so much more of her talent and vision to the world if she had not killed herself. Perhaps her poetry, had she been treated for her mood disorder, would not have been as searing and powerful. The point is, we will never know. Would she have become more ordinary, or more extraordinary? Dying young obviates the answer.

I believe – for me – that psychological treatment, appropriate medication, and more stable moods have expanded my creative process. And I try to prove it every week when I post in this and my other blog. Whether I succeed is for you to determine.

Have I lost a step? Maybe. But two forward and one back beats the hell out of one forward and two back.

Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: