Like I said in a previous essay, for the last seven years, I’ve been haunted by this question of whether or not I’m an abuser; like with my diagnosis, I have been reminded to focus on the causes & the symptoms, instead of dwelling on the label. This focus leads me to my relationship with anger, which is tied to the root of nearly all of my major episodes, not to mention its exhaustive strain on my day-to-day coping with bipolar disorder & the “normal” activities I’m attempting to engage with--having loving relationships, holding a job, being an artist. As Julie A. Fast reminds us several times in her blog post “Three Bipolar Disorder Symptoms No One Wants To Talk About,” the key to preventing the problematic symptoms she outlines--violence, psychosis, & memory loss--is to prevent the imbalance in the mood--“Prevent the mood swings, and you can prevent the dangerous, aggressive, and violent behavior.”
Let’s just say that I haven’t been very good at that, raised as a young boy in the Midwest, constantly hearing “don’t start a fight, but finish it;” until my mid-20’s, I just assumed everyone fought demons & short fuses like me, that they were just better at hiding it. I never realized until this year that my bipolar anger is a completely different explosive than typical anger, one with much different triggers, presentations, & ramifications. Even now, I have trouble differentiating between what were the bipolar symptoms & what were the results of me being immature or a butthead, when looking back on some of the outbursts of my childhood. One thing is clear: I’ve had a long history of uncontrollable aggressive responses to frustration, disrespect, & agitation, a real collection of owlshit outbursts, if you will.
I remember the first time I was told I had an anger problem. It was after the premonitions, where just the day before both my grandmother & my uncle died, in back-to-back years, I became panicked about their safety & suggested something might be wrong. I remember being more confrontational with my peers, acting out more with my parents, & genuinely being inconsolable. These fits were the result of overwhelming grief & creepy confusion, as well as possible early signs of bipolar disorder. Still, it is striking that the one thing I remember from the therapy I received from my school counselor was that it was “the devil working inside you.” Not helpful advice, but it is the in to the anger problems that would consume me in my teens & twenties.
Years after they actually happened, I heard two stories about myself, both involving what I would’ve considered my best friend at the time & me reacting irrationally & inexplicably aggressive towards each of them. Early on in my eighth grade year, I became friends with this older kid EF. He was a bit of a punk, so my parents didn’t much like me hanging out with them. One day we were at my house shooting soda pop cans with my bb gun. We got into an argument about something & that is as much as I can remember. My memory picks back up with me standing on the porch holding the bb gun, EF nowhere to be found. The next day at school, where we normally hung out in the hallway between his high school & my middle school, he was still nowhere to be found.
As the days trickled on, I began to hear a rumor about myself, that something happened with the bb gun. Some say I shot him; others say he attacked me & I hit him with the stock. Again, I have no recollection of this, but I didn’t have the language to admit this or understand why I can’t remember. I just didn’t talk to him for years & the rumors quickly dissipated. A few years later, when we were both in high school, we found ourselves at the same lunch table. I was finally able to muster up the courage to ask him about that fight. He told me what I feared all along, what I knew deep in my gut: I had gotten furious at him because of a minor off-handed comment, shot him several times with the bb gun, & he retreated.
A year or two later, I had a similar incident where a simple hang-out with a best bud went awry. ZH & I were up at the campground with my parents, like we were most weekends. He said something minor & I threw a golf ball I was holding, pelting him in the arm. Here’s where it gets weird, another symptom--mood swings--coming into clearer focus: I simply walked away, went into the camper, took a shower, & returned to ZH in a chipper mood, as if nothing had happened. This sequence became the pattern--quick switch, contained violent act, amnesia, mood swing back to positive.
It is in that succession that presented myself very clearly in Gabe Howard’s article, “The Difference Between Anger and Bipolar Anger.” What always felt frustrating & out of my control was the switch, unable to predict; what always felt dangerous & guilt-ridden were the manifestations of the symptoms from Fast’s article--the delusional mood swings, the violent release, the loss of time. As Howard points out, anger, in general, connects to fight or flight, letting us know there is danger & forcing us to have a response to fear. Problem with bipolar anger, as Howard says, is that “there is no clear reason for the anger and no clear way to defuse it.”
It is the switch, as my ex-wife DS labeled it. It has been described to me many times. Some saw it in the flash of my eyes, the twinkle gone, replaced with a pinpoint rage. Some saw it in my panicked confusion--the slurred speech, the hyperactive body, the sky-rocketing irritability. Most said they couldn’t even notice it quick enough, before the surge overtook me, the situation, &, too often, themselves. A couple falls ago, the mania dial turned way up by an over-presciption of an anti-depressant, my ex-wife & I were playing with the dogs in the yard when suddenly one of the dog got too close with a stick, bloodying DS’s nose. I remember the blood & then the next thing I remember is waking flat on the hardwood floor, as I often do after major anger-driven episodes.
For many reasons, I wish my wife had stuck around, or at least maintained contact; here, selfishingly, I need her to help me remember these stories. I promise I’m doing my best. Anyhow, I had apparently starting stomping at & chasing the dogs & screaming, “I DON’T LIKE BLOOD” (never had a problem with blood). I locked DS & the dogs outside & passed out on the floor. In my case, as I shuffle through examples, these stories retold to me by others & attempted to be kept by me, I recognize that “what is angering a person has been distorted or “imagined” entirely,”as Howard notes, sometimes able to be recognized afterwards, sometimes not at all. Example after example bleep out this way: the switch flipped & no one, including me, could pinpoint why, the response very irrational & overblown.
Yesterday on my daily walk with Ginny Bug across the family field I noticed this bright streak in the sky. I texted my conspiracy-willing friend JL; his three-year-old daughter said it was an angel. Then I saw six or seven more farther off down the horizon. I called my dad. He said they were probably just airplanes. JL texted me a website wehre you can track planes flying over your area. They were planes, but they still might also be angels.
Following the last week-and-a-half's grief fest, spiraling in & out of bipolar spells, I've been putting my now-manic energy toward reshaping this house, my routine, my life to fit one, me. It was intended, built, for two, but that is no longer so. Thus, it is necessary that each item, each choice, each plan is for me, not DS & I. Funny how the fact of her leaving isn't enough to make it such.
I read an article today about anxiety in bipolar folks. It separated anxiety as a symptom & anxiety as a coexisting condition. It seems my anxiety is a symptom of my bipolar disorder since it surfaces as irritability in stressful moments only during mood episodes.
I finally had to get rid of the dining table chairs DS reupholstered because every time someone would come over they'd say, "Wow, those chairs are cool," & I'd tell the story of DS teaching herself that skill. They'd leave & I'd sit in one of those chairs alone & cry. Even when I posted them on Facebook to get rid of, a bunch of people commented about how awesome those chairs were. Fuck!
My friend JC, since finding out of this recent pitfall, she texts every afternoon, "How are you doing today, friend?" I'm a little surprised I don't find it annoying; rather, it is very touching, a part of my mindfulness routine, a moment where I must turn awareness inward, "Yeah, how am I doing today?"
The most impactful interpersonal key might be to honor another's perception of reality, regardless of whether or not it aligns with my own or the true sense of nature. Think I disrespected or hurt you? I'm sorry. Feel that your life is in the dumps, or that the world is against you? What a terrible burden to carry. How can I help to alleviate some of that pressure? See bugs crawling all over you or a ghost in the corner of the room? Whoa, scary, let's get that taken care of!
I was talking to SJ the other night about my intense commitment to reason & rationality. I want to be as grounded & reasonable as possible in my life, full reliant on knowledge, information, & processing, as the hallmark of my life. I think it stems from my reaction to my bipolar disorder--an illness whose episodes strip me of all rationality & reasonableness. How emotional, how confused, how ignorant I can easily become is embarrassing at best & deadly at worst. Thus, when I can control it, can make my choices align with my values, I want to do so.
“But what if I'm like a flag factory, that only manufactures giant red flags?” - Maria Bamford
When someone leaves someone for a reason later explained, does anyone hear it? What if I’ve been shouting “You’re making a huge mistake” at the wall since I was nine? Can a family lineage can be any number of things? A particular number of divorces? The ancestral index to fight/flight? Has it ever felt like one moment you’re looking through the magnifying glass & the next you’re the dead bug on the windshield of the Toyota Yaris heading west? What is a dealbreaker for you? Do you put more emphasis on the diagnosis or the symptoms? Is it this simple? What if neither of us committed to me getting better? Have you ever heard of Jonathan Haidt? Do you know what he told us about the social intuitionist model -- intuitions first, strategic reasoning second? Do you remember the Glauconian model -- appearance more important than reality? Where are you coming from? Can we add “I’m doing what’s best for you” to the Mount Rushmore of Bullshit? If your partner is ill, how long do you wait for them to get better & under what conditions? What are warning signs coming from the other end? What are signs a partner might quit on you? What if I told you she said she wouldn’t date someone with a disability, would leave a partner who was transgender? What would others think of me for saving this? What would others think of me for leaving this? What is with all this “conscious uncoupling hoopla” anyhow? Who would’ve chosen “live apart as some weird special marriage” rather than this void? Does it sound weird coming out of my mouth, “I believe in vows?” Is a mental illness a life sentence? Is mishandling a mental illness a life sentence? How about twice? “Haven’t we all been punished enough?” When someone gives up on you, doesn’t it feel like the world has been given permission to do the same?
I wish I would’ve written a blog post about this thing I’m calling hick mindfulness, rural folks’ ability to sit with their thoughts & come out the other side with something better to say, to do. I saw it in my father growing up, emphasis put not on the things done, but rather value stemming from what was witnessed. He was a truck-driver before satellite radio & podcasts; he is a deer hunter, spending long cold morns trying not to shiver up in the treestand; he is a fisherman, a believer in the stillness of the water. He would come back more alert, more engaged with whatever the rest of his day held--projects around the house, playing with me. Those activities contributed to his even demeanor, his avoidance of some problems I’ve had--overtaken by extreme emotions, attention not on observing the world but rather on the story of self I play in my mind, easily imbalanced groundedness. In the way I’m utilizing a daily mindfulness meditation practice to learn how to be present, accepting of both joy & stress, suffering & triumph, I believe he learned it from sitting still, alone, doing his hickish duties & hobbies, similar to my grandfather quietly whistling to himself on the tractor in my memory. As Sam Harris reminds us, the process is the life & it’d be really great to be present for it.
I wish I would’ve written a blog post about my neediness, how it both relates to my bipolar disorder--a fear of abandonment is common in bipolar folks--& separates itself as just a nagging human quirk. When I was a child, my parents had to put a limit on how many times a day I asked, “Are you okay?” or “Are you mad at me?” In my marriage, much of my bipolar behavior understandably scared the shit out of DS, but undoubtedly she knew I loved her: I told her several dozen times a day. This would relate to the boundary issues & impulse control problems related to bipolar disorder, such as my hypersexuality & my attention-seeking behaviors. I feel haunted by this fear of being forgotten & often, I overcorrect to the point of driving people away.
I wish I would’ve written a blog post about how much language matters. We see it all over our culture--in response to Black Lives Matter, when discussing big topics like politics & religion, in the spin of the day’s headlines--language being used, both purposefully & ignorantly, to twist & deflect, to undermine or to willfully continue to not understand the problem or situation at hand. In mental health, it is so important to protect the words we have--diagnosis, symptoms, treatment--while also respecting the efforts to even better pinpoint what’s happening. I am thinking of a meme’d tweet that says stuff like “stop saying OCD when you mean organized” & “stop saying bipolar when you mean moody.” While I am all for playful, experimental uses of language, I am also against lazy conflation & unhelpful correlations. Let’s say it the best we can, so we can get it right in practice.
TIPS FROM THERAPY
I wish I would’ve written a blog post about tips I’ve learned in therapy that help me in my everyday life. Like the five-senses grounding technique, where you cycle through each of the senses, naming something you can see, something you can taste, etc. as many times as needed until you’re back grounded in your body. Like thinking errors, how important it is to recognize irrational and unreasonable thought patterns; for me, it is catastrophizing & self-fulfilling prophecy that do a number on my psychology. Like the importance of having a schedule / routine, how creating a structure to live within, especially when one is not working or is COVID-bound, both to occupy time productively & support the arising needs. Like asking yourself important questions when the blood boils or shivers, how I ask myself, in the face of obsession or a mood swing, before it gets bad, I ask myself, “Will this matter in a year?” If not, I let it go (or try!).
PHYSICAL HARM PARANOIA
I wish I would’ve written a blog post about my paranoid tendency to expect physical harm. Even though I’ve suffered very little physical harm in my life, since my early teen years, I’ve walked around tense, constantly anticipating an attack or a whack. I imagine mobs coming to my door to take me away. I imagine robbers leaping from bushes to stab me for my wallet. I imagine the slightest argument escalating into physical violence. But why? Where does irrational thinking become delusion? It is no wonder that, in the past, since I was physically on edge constantly, my readied responses were often aggressive & over-the-top; my situation had already been escalating, my reaction mounted, regardless of the actual catalyst.