"Even in being professionally diagnosed with a recognised medical condition, I question whether it is just an excuse for my behaviour or lack thereof. Sickening, isn't it? And yet I have conditioned myself to do this all life long. If I had ever achieved anything, I would always downplay it or find a reason why it happened other than me being the reason why it did. When it was a not-so-good thing, I would berate myself, but at the same time, have no problem believing that I was the cause." - Neo
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. We had a version of this song when I was in high school that we would chant at rugby matches on a Saturday afternoon. The swing low part was the first that came to mind when I thought about 'mood swings' for some reason. Perhaps because of the 'swing' and more so because of the 'low.'
THE FOLLOWING TEXT CONTAINS REFERENCES TO SELF-HARM AND OTHER SENSITIVE TOPICS THAT MAY BE EMOTIONALLY AND PSYCHOLOGICALLY TRIGGING. SHOULD YOU BE AT RISK, PLEASE CONSIDER NOT PROCEEDING. REMEMBER, ONCE READ OR HEARD; IT CAN NOT BE UNREAD OR UNHEARD. THERE IS NO CTRL+Z (CMD+Z ON MAC) IN LIFE, UNFORTUNATELY. IF YOU ARE IN A VULNERABLE STATE OR ARE UNSURE AT ALL, RATHER ASK SOMEONE ELSE TO READ IT FIRST AND DECIDE TOGETHER IF YOU SHOULD PROCEED.
I did a little research and found that the song's origin dates back to the time of slavery.
"On one level, it’s about people hoping they can escape their misery by riding on this imaginary chariot to heaven, but another clear meaning is the idea that the chariot is a metaphor for escaping to freedom.”
In retrospect, what had started as an involuntary thought for me, has turned out to carry far more significance than I could have imagined. During that low swing, I cannot deny that there are times when you feel like riding that imaginary chariot to 'freedom.' Unfortunately, it is not a freedom that life on Earth can give.
The other day I did a one-eighty from the calm, in-control dad I was all weekend to a neurotic ball of overthinking and worry. Yet nothing notable had changed to bring about the swing. Let's talk about a few things. The basics of bipolar first, to provide some context. There is plenty of technical stuff out there if we Google it. It gets very medically deep very quickly, and if you look at it in the early stages of diagnosis like I did, you may question what you have, how to feel and whether you are really so 'bad' that you deserve your label.
Note the choice of the verb. 'Deserve.' Even in being professionally diagnosed with a recognised medical condition, I question whether it is just an excuse for my behaviour or lack thereof. Sickening, isn't it? And yet I have conditioned myself to do this all life long. If I had ever achieved anything, I would always downplay it or find a reason why it happened other than me being the reason why it did. When it was a not-so-good thing, I would berate myself, but at the same time, have no problem believing that I was the cause.
I digress (surprise, surprise).
What I will do is give a quick summary of what bipolar feels like and how it presents for me. Whether textbook correct or not does not matter as much as I thought it did in the early days. The sooner I started believing that it was what it was, could identify when it was happening, and did not care how that compared to the textbook, the sooner I started regaining control of my mind (and emotions) to some extent.
Bipolar 'disorder', yes, as with most things that do not conform to the societal 'average', it is called a 'disorder.' Thank you for being so helpful. That is exactly what a person who has been told they are mentally 'unstable' needs to hear. Anyhoo, bipolar used to be known as Manic Depression, and I actually think that was a more accurate description of the condition. Ooooh, trigger word -'condition.' Let's instead call it a 'phenomenon.' I mean it in the sense that when you are experiencing mixed episodes especially, it's precisely that (manic depression). You may be sitting in an overall depressed (low) state but can have moments of spikes into hypomania (high) and yet still be depressed. Fun right? The manic side is literally like being high, it feels so good, and you are on such a flyer that you feel so invincible that you don't want to come down. The only time you regret it is after you have come down and recounted the dumbass, embarring stuff you said or did in that state, much like a hangover after a night of proper partying. Oh, and then you question every decision you make in the future because, "Am I being confident, or is this just hypomania?" Regardless, and like the intoxication that led you to that hangover, you find yourself doing it again, and enjoying it whilst doing so despite boldly stating, "I am never drinking again."
Rinse and repeat.
Time to get nerdy. There is a sinusoidal graph below. Sorry, this may induce PTSD for those who don't remember, didn't want to remember, and who were not dumb enough to become engineers and allow this stupid shape to dictate your career to you for all eternity. Ignore the phases (denoted by degrees and pieces of 'pie') on the X-axis. Assume that the numbers have no measurable unit on the Y-axis, but rather are just a representation of relative severity.
The Y-axis is 'mood', and the X-axis is time. So where a 'normal' or neuro-typical person oscillates like the pink wave shown (not so smooth and consistently might I add) but hovers about the X-axis (referred to very oppressively as 'stability'). For bipolar people, the oscillations are much more prominent in amplitude. So in Bipolar I, your mood jumps between MANIA and SEVERE DEPRESSION, milder, so in bipolar II people who cycle between HYPOMANIA and milder DEPRESSION. Then there's Cyclothymia, where the duration and severity of the swings are less than in BP I and BP II, and finally, there are mixed episodes which, as the name implies, is when both ups and downs happen simultaneously. Oh Oh, and don't forget the likely co-morbidity (a word we all learned when the world was hit by COVID-19) with ADHD or ADD. Greeeeat!
Wait...am I having a manic episode or is it ADHD? The symptoms are so similar. How do I know? Ummmm...you don't. Until you take your stimulant for ADHD (Methylphenidate in quick release form [Ritalin et al.] or gradual release [Concerta et al.]) during an already hypomanic episode, plus some coffee (caffeine being a stimulant as well) and proceed to apply high tempo, blood pumping metal music as you fly down the promenade on your longboard, only to want to get intimate with the floor as you hurtle uncontrollably down a slope toward the harbour mouth. FYI the floor is hard. Very hard. To this day, I still wear those ripped shorts as a reminder of what could happen. Let alone this trip down memory lane (I was very clumsy and accident-prone as a kid, the only thing that has changed since is my age), after getting up from the taste-of-floor incident, you're standing on North Pier inhaling heavily, trying to regain your breath, blood welling up over the fresh roasties on your legs and arms, heart beating out of your chest. You are staring into the harbour watching little fish dart around the clearer-than-usual water, trying to calm yourself down from the high when a security guard comes to you and tells you that you cannot stand where you are on the pier, behind the barrier, where there is no sign of danger, degradation to the floor or otherwise, and a place that you grew up frequenting as a kid. The warnings get increasingly more annoying with each repetition. Despite your usual temperament that is externally non-confrontational, in your head you are acting out that scene from Wanted where James McAvoy smashes the teeth out of his colleague's mouth with a keyboard. Same image, just with my longboard instead of the keyboard. Thankfully it was just a mental movie, and on the outside I walked away after having been shouted at by some nosey cyclists in their unnecessarily junk-hugging bib shorts (I cycle too, hence feel at liberty to make this comment). I don't think the adrenaline coursing through my veins, and spilling out of my wounds helped in the least at the time, either.
It was then that I started to realise what all the articles were describing but I still was not sure what I was if anything at all.
There is an excellent in-depth explanation at https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/bipolar-disorder. A pretty good one, but after you have been through the descriptions of Bipolar I, Bipolar II, Cyclothymia and mixed episodes, you will likely feel that everyone on the planet is bipolar to some extent. Perhaps everyone is, just that those whose swings can be controlled by medicating are deemed clinically bipolar, as well as those who are outside the societally acceptable limits of 'normalness', I suppose. The defining characteristic for me is that without medication, the swings can be debilitating to some extent, even if you don't think they are; it is only once you have experienced 'normal' that you realise that what you have lived your entire life was not the way the majority of the population (neurotypicals) experience reality. Maybe not all the time, but at least for more time than less, they experience that 'normalness.' The best way I can describe the feeling and what is going on in my head is as a 'nothingness.' Something that I had never experienced before my treatment. The feeling of being in a moment, and only in that moment, activity or space. Before that my mind never stopped. Like a friend described, it is like watching TV with all the channels on at the same time. All the time. Even when I was apparently resting it would motor on, but that was the only world I knew. How could I have known that it could have been different?
By the way, I have just saved you a R2600.00 consult at a Psychiatrist that you will wait weeks to get an appointment with, in which time you would have Googled all the shite above only to be told it back to you at a premium, and as if you are the dumbest person under the sun. This is precisely what happened to me when I went for a second opinion in the early days when my paranoia made me doubt my first Psychiatrists diagnosis and treatment methods.
We talk about mental health very much from a psychological perspective as it pertains to the mind whereas the formal definition includes aspects of the mind and emotions. I feel we do not pay enough attention to the emotional reaction derived from the mental stimuli. Herein lies the critical aspect of mental health for me. The influence on how my reality is impacted (materially) cannot be separated from the emotional impact, driven by mental computation.
In my next post, I will dig more into the low (depressive) side of bipolar, and go on thereafter with the emotional intensities that happen. Both, but more so depression, have been way different to the (mis)understanding that I had of the phenomenon before consciously experiencing it myself.
Don't forget to visit WWW.BIPOLAROIDPHOTO.COM for some art that I have begun creating since my journey began.