I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (most likely Type II, with rare instances of mania) not long after Silver Linings Playbook was released in theaters. In fact, it was in large part due to this theatrical representation of mental illness that I decided to get serious about seeing a psychotherapist.
I had, before then, had a dangerous breakdown, in which I flew off the handle at my husband. The event that set me off is unimportant because I was a shook up bottle of pop ready to explode, so it could have been anything that led to me screaming at the top of my lungs, shaking uncontrollably, scratching at the door handle of the car that my husband locked, so I wouldn’t jump out of our moving vehicle. As it was, my husband had to stop at a stop sign (it’s only legal), and I jumped out of the car, scared to be around him and my crying children in the backseat, but unable to calm myself down. He was astonished and scared, and I couldn’t speak to him logically about what I was feeling. Because it wasn’t logical.
And it wasn’t the first time in my life that I had acted in a rash and dangerous manner, bursting out of my normal calm disposition and becoming a raging storm. My aunt, who helped my mom raise me when I was young, put it perfectly when she called me her “Thundercloud” and said, “When you storm, you really storm and when you shine, oh, man do you shine.” What she didn’t say, and what I have begun to think is that my middle ground, that calm, positive, playful in-between person, has, as I’ve aged, gotten overshadowed by the other extremes: the heavy rain and the too bright shine.
Which takes me back to my viewing of Silver Linings Playbook. When I was diagnosed, I explained to my doctor that I did not want to start on medication, yet, wanting to change my diet and start extensive exercise. He agreed and said it was worth a try, but medication was not something to be ashamed of if I decided that my symptoms were not manageable. But that movie made me truly think about my decision to try natural treatments of my condition. Rather, it made me see my condition as an outsider, and what I saw was uncomfortable. Bradley Cooper’s character flips a manic switch and becomes violent twice during the film. Some psychologists say that that is a rare occurrence for bipolar people, whose mania does not manifest violently very often. But his character was me. I get not just irritable but enraged during my severe manic episodes. I thought to myself, Is that how the people I love see me? And that made me sad, but at least it made me aware. That is how my severe mania looks, and it’s terrifying from the inside out.
Michael Blumenfield, M.D., when reviewing the implications of the movie suggested, “The film wasn’t necessarily saying, ‘This is exactly what bipolar is like.’ I think the movie showed the complexities of disorders and also showed how traumatic events can affect people” (webmd.com). And I agree completely. The film made me see myself, not a reflection, but a connection. And it made me understand and admit that I am mentally ill, which let’s face it, is a terrible thing to have to admit to yourself.
Yet, I’m still not on medication. For the most part, I experience the state of bugs-under-the-skin heightened energy known as hypomania. Other times, I fall into that deep empty darkness of depression where I am less of a danger to others, but more of a danger to myself.
So, why, other very smart and capable bipolar peoples ask, are you not on meds? Fear of change. A selfish fear of normality. I’m not sure what neutral is, for me. Will I still be as productive, as poetic, as feeling as I am now if I go on meds? Maybe not…And I love those perks of my consistent hypomania, though consistent hypomanic episodes means that I’m probably getting closer to mania, which I have experienced and fear almost as much as normality. My best writing has come from the dark and euphoric and irritable places inside me. The eerie, unpleasant and void Monochrome, my fictional world, came from my depression. And, as a writer, my worlds and my self-dependent camaraderie with words is what makes or breaks me. More than that, when I write, I feel a sense of contentment that can only be described as “normal.” I feel healed, for a moment.
I sometimes wonder about my favorite singer/songwriter, Elliot Smith, and if he longed for neutral or if he, too, lived for the state in which his words created a resounding clang of empathy worldwide. Or whether those words healed him, temporarily. As Mark Dombeck, writing about vulnerable music, beautifully describes:
Listening to Elliott sing, it strikes me how self-contained and withdrawn he could be. I get the feeling he was excessively modest (due to a self-depreciating streak) and devalued his songwriting, playing and singing abilities. I sincerely doubt that he managed to appreciate, in his short life, what a priceless service he was providing to others in voicing feelings that other people simply could not otherwise describe. I doubt he had any real comprehension of how inspiring he was. When you’re depressed like Elliott clearly was, nothing feels satisfying and all you want to do is stop feeling.
Elliot Smith, Silver Linings Playbook and even, sometimes, Pink ( who may not be bipoloar, but whose music speaks to those with bipolar disorders) inspire and calm many who suffer from mental illness, as surely as Sylvia Plath’s poetry soothes me, not because it is light and happiness but because it understands me. When I write, I want to do so out of empathy, and I’m scared that I won’t be able to function as an artist if I am functioning neutrally.
But I have two children who sometimes wonder when they spill juice on the rug whether they will get the helpful, patient mommy or the one who is clearly irate and scary, but is trying to suppress it as she leads them to their room, away from her crazy. I am married to a very patient man who probably fell in love with a more normal version of me, a woman he is not certain to come home to when he walks through the door. And their anxiety is valid. My life story would make an entertaining, funny, and sometimes sad memoir. But the lives of my family are not kindle for my stories; they are my responsibility. I don’t know what I will do with my increasingly annoying symptoms, but I do know that exercise, eating right and low caffeine are helping, not stopping, them, even if they are alleviating the severity of them. My mental illness is me, maybe as much as that other person who my family must really like. I don’t know what I’ll do tomorrow, except search for answers and write, but I know that today is my children’s day off from school, mommy’s day off from teaching and it would be nice to simply have a neutral day.
* * *