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If celebrity culture is an accurate barometer of societal trends, it would seem that being diagnosed with bipolar disorder is fashionable these days; the list of people who are on record as acknowledging their diagnosis reads like a "Who's Who" supplement comprised of entertainers, athletes, politicians and other assorted public figures. When a famous actress discloses her bipolar disorder, it makes excellent material for the celebrity gossip rags; she is praised for being so brave to go public with something so personal (Margot Kidder springs to mind). In other instances, the general public is fascinated, watching with voyeuristic rapture, eager for the salacious and sensational aspects of a celebrity's fall from grace (cue Robert Downey, Jr.) Unfortunately, however, this attention tends to place the rest of the bipolar community squarely in the spotlight (without regard as to whether or not we have the charisma, plastic surgery history, talent or desire to be there in the first place).
In keeping with this "hot" diagnosis status, Anne Heche would like us to think she's bipolar, ever-ready to board the trend-setting bandwagon... She recently explained to Barbara Walters on ABC's "20/20" that she believed she was "two people -- one being 'Anne Heche', and the other 'Celestia'," whom Anne reports as being from another planet, and supposedly capable of speaking in a different language to communicate directly with God. Relax, Anne... you're not really bipolar... you're just another run-of-the-mill channeler. I would suggest that you might possibly be schizophrenic, except that would likely be an affront to Pythia, the priestess of Apollo (commonly referred to as the "Oracle of Delphi"). Besides, the schitzs probably wouldn't want you on their roster, either -- they're such a clannish, incestuous and intertwined cliqué, after all. Instead, I'll simply offer my warmest reassurance that it's just another phase you're going through, sweetie, akin your recent stint as one half of the world's most famous lesbian duo; here's hoping that you find something else to exploit real soon.
A more disturbing trend, however, is the recent surge of criminal court cases in which bipolar disorder is cited as the cornerstone of the legal defense strategy. Mary Kay Letourneau used her bipolar disorder diagnosis as a defense against the charge of child rape, albeit unsuccessfully. I'm pleased to note that while I am presently 36 years old (the same age as Mary when she sought comfort in the arms of a 13 year-old student she'd taught), I strictly adhere to a policy of seeking carnal knowledge only from those who can legally consume alcoholic beverages within the United States. (I may, however, be forced to reduce that standard to the legal drinking age in Canada should ever choose to become an expatriate and depending on which Province I choose... only time will tell.) The condition has also been employed as a defensive gambit in several trials for murder, attempted murder, financial misconduct and other such noisome mayhem. With regard to these transgressions, I offer the following for consideration in my own defense: (a) I have yet to acquire a body count (despite what anyone else might claim); (b) I limit my violent gun play to the use of a toy laser pistol in an enthusiastic attempt to rid the world of those new, hideously offensive, chartreuse VW Beetles; and (c) I have an obsessive tendency with regard to balancing my checkbook, often accomplishing this astonishing feat several times each week; I've also managed to enjoy a debt-free lifestyle for more than a decade. (As for the general category of "mayhem," well, perhaps I've enjoyed more than my fair share, but I've successfully avoided arrest to date.)
So, really, what is bipolar disorder (also commonly referred to as "manic-depressive illness")? The simplest answer is this: the individual's moods are generally independent from the life events they are experiencing and are difficult to manage, sometimes even beyond control. The National Institute of Mental Health presents the following description: it is a biochemical imbalance that "distorts moods and thoughts, incites dreadful behaviors, destroys the basis of rational thought, and too often erodes the desire and will to live. It is an illness that is biological in its origins, yet one that feels psychological in the experience of it; an illness that is unique in conferring advantage and pleasure, yet one that brings in its wake almost unendurable suffering and, not infrequently, suicide." Because of the dangerous and impulsive behavioral tendencies associated with this condition, it is theorized that persons with bipolar disorder are the population most likely to attempt suicide when compared to the statistics for other affective disorders (e.g., depression, schizophrenia, etc.). At present, it is believed that one out of every five people living with this condition will attempt suicide.
What's it like to live with bipolar disorder? In a word, challenging. Each day I awake, conduct a brief inventory of my mental state and mood, and carefully reinvent my reality. Based on this self-assessment, I then get to the business of planning my day. If I am feeling manic, I leave my checkbook at home, avoid caffeine and alcohol, and exercise a focused degree of care in my interactions with other people. If I am depressed, I do everything I can to appeal to my physical senses. Tangerine juice serves me well as liquid sunshine; french fries are my eternal "comfort food". I play an ongoing game with myself where I seek out and recognize instances of beauty in the world around me. I exercise to trigger an endorphin boost and focus on caring for my physical health. I ignore the random suicidal ideation that occasionally roams through my thoughts, choosing instead to focus on my curiosity about the people and world around me. I am the ultimate chameleon -- on occasion, I have been so successful at masking my emotional storms and controlling my behavioral symptoms that my closest friends have expressed genuine astonishment on the few occasions when I've given voice to extreme depression or suicidal thoughts.
Although the negative aspects of this condition undeniably outweigh the benefits, I do celebrate the silver lining, the gifts I believe it can bring. I am creative and passionate. I have been gifted with an uncommon degree of intuition and am able to grasp abstracts, symbolism and subtleties at lightning speeds. I can feel the emotional content of music and colors without chemical stimulants. I am easily amused by the non-sequiturs that frequently pepper my internal narrative. I am blessed with an abundance of willpower; for me, quitting the game has never been an option. Above all else, I am far from anyone's definitions "incapacitated", "incapable" or "disabled".
I am engaged in an ongoing effort to identify allies within the bipolar community. There are those who romance their medications, living within the confines of "disability" on a check-to-check basis, essentially content if they have enough money to keep a good supply of cigarettes on hand. There are also those who are generally more functional, holding down jobs, working to maintain their relationships and marriages, daring to untangle their own thread of the tapestry that is the American Dream. And then there are those who keep themselves busy by attempting to avoid hospitalization or making court appearances, ruining their credit, flinging damage into the lives of those around them and derailing all attempts for an improved condition with an amazing degree precision - these are usually the members of my tribe who grace the news headlines, unfortunately.
By default, the bipolar community is something of a "secret society" due to the stigma associated with this condition which remains as firmly entrenched as ever. While our society seems to value the creative edge associated with bipolar disorder and holds an undeniable fascination for the celebrities linked to this condition, the entertainment industry continues to ridicule or sensationalize mood disorders as a rule. Additionally, a new brick is added to the wall of tainted perception each time the popular media links an individual's negative or criminal behaviors with this diagnosis. Those of us who strive to live relatively normal lives are constantly defending ourselves, routinely being compared to the minority among us who are the genesis of the stereotype.
I am encouraged by the fact that the legal system may actually serve as the catalyst for a much-needed change in the perceptions and attitudes of our society regarding mental illness. In Washington State, the King County Mental Health Court was a pilot program initiated by Superior Court Judge Jim Cayce in 1999. It has since been adopted as a model for approximately 100 other mental health courts nationwide, and federal monies have been allocated to fund the Law Enforcement and Mental Health Project to sustain these courts. U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott (D) has praised Cayce's program, which takes mentally ill offenders out of the criminal court, instead placing them in a courtroom setting where they can be linked to appropriate community/support services and monitored until the case is either closed or dismissed. To date, approximately 750 offenders have gone through the King County Mental Health Court; most were diagnosed as being bipolar or psychotic.
As an individual who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I wish to make it known that I enjoy a generally successful, even occasionally extraordinary existence -- without medication or psychiatric care, by the way. I am living proof that
the diagnosis should not be interpreted as the sum total of an individual's identity. Realize, also, that those of us who share this diagnosis are
more than capable of functioning within society's mores and norms if we choose to do so. I believe it is time we eradicate our culturally-based stereotypical and simplistic thinking regarding the workings of the mind and what constitutes "mental illness". We must begin to look under the surface to discover the depth and complexity of the human condition -- to do otherwise is unjust and senseless.