The stigma of being bipolar lays on you like a wet blanket. No, make that 1,000 wet blankets. Society has such a skewed view of the illness, and is quick to judge and condemn. The media has a lot to do with that. There are TV shows that portray the mentally ill as flat out crazy and downright dangerous. So many times when there’s a tragic news event it’s immediately reported that the perpetrator is bipolar; they must be, right? We all know that people who are bipolar are insane.
To a certain degree, we are a bit crazy. Especially when compared to ‘normal’ people. Behaviors can be completely out of control; from wild spending sprees to aluminum foil hats to keep aliens from reading our thoughts and everything in between. Or we can be so deep in the darkest of depressions that we completely disappear. We all fall somewhere in that range at one point or another. That’s what makes us bipolar. But not crazy in the sense that the world tends to see us.
It makes you want to run and hide, doesn’t it?
I have a friend who discovered this when he got married a few years ago. They were initially going out with other friends, but the more time they spent together the closer they became. In time they fell hopelessly in love. We all had a great time going out to dinner, hanging out at each other’s houses, even taking trips together. Unlike what seems to be the norm these days, they didn’t move in with each other before the marriage. The night of the wedding we all know that something was not right. The bride was not acting herself at all. Most brides are a bit ‘difficult’ with their weddings, the so called bridzillas. She was over the top however. You could hear her screaming from the back about how bad she looked in her dress. She practically ran down the aisle. And at the reception the way she danced was actually painful to watch. Apparently it got even worse from there after she moved in with my friend. He didn’t talk about it at first, but as time went on he confessed that they were really having a hard time. He was shocked at the amount of medication she was taking. His bank account was badly drained by her frenetic shopping. The final straw came quickly when she lashed out at his son from a previous marriage, and grabbed his shirt so hard that it tore. That was it. Why did it fall apart so quickly? She seemed so normal prior to the wedding. I think that the way was able to maintain her appearance of normalcy is because she had a place away from the world where she could be crazy.
And with the marriage, she had nowhere she could hide.
Boy do I know what that’s like.
For the longest time I had no idea what I was dealing with. I knew I had problems, after all, I had been hospitalized many times starting in my 20’s. But it was 30 years later when I finally knew why. My second wife knew I was unbalanced; we did meet in a mental hospital after all. In fact, there were times she said she thought I was bipolar, but I’d always dismiss it. But I had a place where I didn’t have to keep things under wraps. That changed though after we were divorced. At the time I was in a fairly stable place. I believed that the source of my difficulties was my wife; she did have her own kind of crazy going on. Once free from that influence I thought that I could live my normal life. And for the most part, I did. But there were always secrets. I might not have been acting out, but the thoughts were there, and there were some behaviors that weren’t appropriate. I was able to keep them away in my safe place and nobody had a clue. I eventually got out of control, and my third marriage ended badly. Even then however I could blame my ex for my outrageousness.
And again, I had my secret place.
Wife number four started out like a fairy tale. We dated for years, but moved in together after only 7 or 8 months. I was unemployed at the time, and still had my private time while she was at work, and the craziness was contained into time alone. Eventually though, I found a job and went back to work. Now I couldn’t indulge in my illness and had to be ‘on’ all the time. I still had no idea what I was dealing with, nor even realize that I was suppressing my illness. But things began to get out of hand. I couldn’t keep the swings under wraps anymore. And my life started going to hell.
You can’t really hide either kind of episode when they happen. And had I gone through a really severe one during that time it would not have been controllable. It’s a lot easier to maintain appearances when it’s only for a short time each day. My depressions weren’t so bad that I couldn’t pull it together for a few hours after work and on the weekends. It was a little harder to manage the mania, but even then it wasn’t so bad that it couldn’t have been attributed to just high enthusiasm. When I had to constantly keep it together all the time, it was like being in a stopped up pressure cooker. Sooner or later I had to blow.
I had no place left to hide.
Even now that I’ve seemingly found the right combination of medications and therapy and am truly managing my illness, I still need that time alone. It’s not that I’m doing anything different, and I’m not forcing ‘good’ behavior when I’m in the world. But I’m still bipolar, and have to be able to embrace that. I don’t even think about it when I’m others. It’s like I don’t even have the illness. Life is just normal. I have to be careful however to take that time to check in with myself and make sure that I’m not missing any signs or acting out without realizing it. I’m in a pretty serious relationship now, but I know that I should always keep a way that I have time to be bipolar. Fortunately, for reasons of her own she agrees that she doesn’t want to get married (Not that we’re at that point), and she wants to maintain a way to pursue her own quiet time. And if that changes, we’ll just have to make a plan where we can continue to have that for ourselves.
I think that there are very few people who are bipolar that wants the world to know. It’s so difficult for others to understand, and judgments can be quick and harsh. Would a boss understand? And would a potential employer even make that offer if they knew? It’s highly unlikely. What about your friends, and even some family members? Is the illness something that you will be comfortable sharing? I don’t think the disease should be ignored or that you pretend to be someone you’re not. But I do think that there needs to be a way to allow yourself a little bipolar space. I know I need to have that balance, and a way to keep in touch with my illness. With hard work, good support and effective medication the bipolar aspects of my life are very small and well maintained. But no matter how well I get, I’ll still be bipolar.
I’ll still have that secret life.