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.