Saturday, September 13, 2008

Bipolar Express

A dear friend of mine is struggling with bipolar disorder. Actually, two dear friends of mine are, but one has finally found a concoction of pharmaceuticals to  help her win her war with her brain. The other friend is still searching. Today she told me she's on, count them, six different psychomeds, and still hasn't found the right mix. She's on a timeline. She can't work right now, she's too off-kilter. She's taken time off with the Family Medical Leave Act, and she's hoping in 10 of the 12 weeks allotted, she can stabilize her mind enough to keep a job.

It makes my bad days look pretty minor.

Some medicines leave my friend too nauseous to eat. Some leave her listless. Some leave her so disconnected, she feels, she said, "autistic." And even with the best drug cocktails she's found so far, she still lives a gray zone of some-bad-days-some-awful.

I said, "it sounds like your life is various shades of ick."

She said, "that's a perfect description."

Several weeks ago she had the good sense to commit herself to a psych ward, in order to keep herself alive. About 20% of bipolar sufferers commit suicide. (Source:

We don't really know what causes bipolar disorder, and it may be a term that covers more than one illness. But it is a brain illness, and this is the point I want to make: mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, are caused by chemical problems in the brain. Because they affect our personality, we tend to believe that they're different from an illness like cancer or kidney disease. We sort of blame them on the person and wish they could rise above it, shake it off, grow up, get over it.

Maybe the idea of a mental illness is too scary for most people to empathize with. It's one thing if your breast is sick or your kidney fails. But something as simple as a shift in chemicals can change who you are, fundamentally, and that's a pretty frightening concept.

If it were you, though, being forced by your own mind to wash your hands a hundred times a day, or hearing voices in your head, or wanting to toss yourself off a cliff, which would be worse: thinking there's something morally wrong with you -- something clearly not in your control? Or thinking you needed to fix the chemicals in your brain -- something for which you can get help?


  1. People are less understanding when it comes to mental illnessess. I'm sorry for your friends condition and will pray for them.
    It is good that they have a friend who understands.

  2. This is actually a subject of considerable interest to me, at the moment, as I am engrossed in the study of consciousness and the brain. I don't actually know anyone who is grappling with any of the conditions you mention but, from reading alone, my study of schizophrenia has inspired deep sympathy, not to mention intense curiosity. The mind is a wildly complex yet fragile universe over which, frankly, we have little real control- only a working illusion of such.

  3. Correction. I have known one individual who was diagnosed as bipolar and was on medication for it. He is an extraordinarily gifted painter and an intensely loyal friend.

  4. Ha, check out that 2011 iteration. Some consistency.

    I think this blog deserves another chance. :)


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