Being Bipolar: Living and Loving in a World of Fire and Ice

Being bipolarMost people don’t know I’m bipolar. After years of loving kindness shown to me by my wife, therapy with a caring and skilling therapist, and medications to help keep me in balance, my illness is in remission. Even if you had known me when I was the most out-of-control and crazy you probably wouldn’t have been aware that anything was wrong. No one likes to be seen as “mentally ill.” Even with our more enlightened understanding of mental illness, there is still significant stigma attached to mental illness as opposed to physical illness. We talk more easily about heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. It isn’t so easy to talk about depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety.

Let me take you back to March, 1998, the year I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. If you had seen me in my community in Willits, you would have observed a 55-year-old man who seemed to be living the perfect life. Carlin and I had been happily married for 18 years. Our children were grown and we were living in our dream home in the country. I had a successful psychotherapy practice and my fourth book, Male Menopause, was well on its way to becoming an international best-seller. I was involved in a men’s group and was active in our community. I was joyful and exuberant most of the time and got more work done than most people. I could talk up a storm and if there was any complaint about me, it was that at times I was a bit over the top emotionally, with new ideas for striking it rich and changing the world coming one on top of the other.

But Carlin lived with a more painful reality. In a letter she wrote to my doctor she said, “Jed has rapid mood changes. He’s angry, accusing, argumentative and blaming one moment. The next he’s buying me flowers, cards, and love notes. He’s smiling and enthusiastic. He’s inconsistent in many areas of his life. He’s very picky about some things and sloppy about others. He will spend time arranging scotch tape, scissors, etc. on the top of a shelf, marking each one’s place carefully with a piece of tape so he can return it to it’s designated place. At the same time he can have papers around him ankle deep on the floor or piled on top of counters. It has become tiring arguing with him. Nothing seems to get resolved. He seems to thrive on the intensity of the argument.”  

For more than four years Carlin tried to convince me that I needed help. I resisted. I avoided. I blamed her for not supporting and loving me the way I need it. She hung in, persisted. I finally agreed to see a doctor, mostly to get her off my back, not because I really thought I needed help. Most people suffering from bipolar disorder think we’re fine–better than fine, super fine. Others seem slower, less alive, less interesting. We’re sure they are just trying to hold us back, close us down, change us into ordinary people, diminish the extraordinary beings we know we are.

The truth of my own bipolar disorder dawned on me slowly. Carlin’s quiet insistence that I get help and her unconditional love and support began to sink in to my defended psyche. I also read a book by one of the most respected experts on bipolar disorders in the world, Kay Redfield Jamison. In her book, An Unquiet Mind: Memoir of Moods and Madness, she helped me see that even a professional, with a world-wide reputation in the mental health field, can suffer from mental illness and live to talk about it. In the book’s prologue she offers this revealing portrait of her illness against the background of her professional life:

“Within a month of signing my appointment papers to become an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, I was well on my way to madness. Within three months I was manic beyond recognition and just beginning a long, costly personal war against a medication that I would, in a few years’ time, be strongly encouraging others to take. My illness, and my struggles against the drug that ultimately saved my life and restored my sanity, had been years in the making.”

I knew this was a book I needed to read from a doctor I knew could help me. As I read more about her experiences I began to see myself. There was one description that ripped me apart. In the epilogue she sums up her experiences in a way that gave me the push I needed to get past my resistance to get the help I so desperately needed:

“Others imply that they know what it is like to be depressed because they have gone through a divorce, lost a job, or broken up with someone. But these experiences carry with them feelings. Depression, instead, is flat, hollow, and unendurable. It is also tiresome. People cannot abide being around you when you are depressed.”

With the following words she absolutely nailed what was going on inside me. She was speaking my truth in a way I had never been able to articulate or share.

You’re irritable and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and critical and demanding, and no reassurance is ever enough. You’re frightened, and you’re frightening, and ‘you’re not at all like yourself but will be soon,’ but you know you won’t.”

All these words resonated with me. I was irritable, paranoid, humorless, lifeless, critical, and demanding. No matter what my wife, Carlin, did to show me she loved me, it was never enough. I knew I was frightened inside, but I had to admit I was frightening to the people who loved me the most.

I was prescribed a medication, Depakote, to deal with the out-of-control “ups” that would have me doing one project after another without needing to sleep. I was also prescribed an anti-depressant, Zoloft, to deal with the subsequent “downs” when things would eventually crash and I would become irritable, angry, and depressed. Within three weeks my bipolar illness was beginning to come under control. It took more than seven years before my illness was fully in remission.

Like Dr. Jamison, at first I fought staying on the medications. I was afraid I would lose my creative edge, that my feelings would be blunted, and I would be sentenced to a life without any real highs. I found that wasn’t true. On medications I was just as emotional and creative and I actually got more done, wrote more books, did more work. When you don’t have to deal with the emotional crashes that follow the highs, life is much more enjoyable, stable, and fulfilling.

But it wasn’t just the medications that saved my marriage and likely saved my life, though they certainly helped. The psychotherapy I did with my doctor allowed me to explore the roots of my problems and to track the day-to-day triggers that would set me off. Ultimately, the greatest healing comes from learning to love more deeply and to be loved in return.

I learned that it’s almost impossible to love a person who is in the throes of bipolar disorder. Our lives are too chaotic and our emotional edges can cut deeply and hurt those we love the most. It’s also impossible to love ourselves. There’s a fragility to our lives that keeps us in constant terror that our world will collapse, even as we spend more and more energy putting on the mask of jovial well-being.

Healing from bipolar disorder takes three elements:

  1. People who love you and give you the “tough love” necessary for you to get help.
  2. A good doctor who can evaluate your need for medications.
  3. A psychotherapist (I was lucky that my doctor also did therapy) who can help you understand the stresses that trigger your ups and downs and help heal the wounds from the past that feed your present illness.

It’s not an easy journey for the person going through it, for the family and friends who want to support their loved ones, or for the professionals who work with us. But it can be done and lives are saved every day by those with the courage to deal with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. I look forward to your comments and hearing about your own experiences. Please share a comment below. I’d also like to invite you to join me on Twitter.

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  1. I couldn’t agree more Jed. As someone who has fought a lifelong battle with depression, I have endured both the personal and societal stigmas associated with this disorder and for many years believed those who opined that my suffering was a personal weakness or character flaw. Fortunately, like you, I have focused my strivings against the condition by surrounding myself with positive, supportive and understanding individuals and, after much trial and error, found the counseling technique and the medication regimen that has kept me at a highly functional even keel. Unfortunately, I have had to absolve myself of certain negative relationships and other influences along the way that have not always been as understanding as most. I tell others it is a lifelong battle that I struggle with and is no different than the physical maladies that society recognizes and understands. As time goes on, it is my hope that the stigma that surrounds mental illness continues to decrease and that understanding of these conditions and the battles that those who suffer with them endure are, in fact, real and are not conditions that are “all in your head.”

    • Thanks for your post, Philip. It seems like I’ve been on a roller coaster ride all my life.

      Your post resonates with me and I fully concur with everything that you have written.
      This life-long roller coaster rapid cycling ride can be tiring. The endurance is tiring . When high mania, I feel totally invincible With low mania, I feel hopelessness and despair.

      What is helping me (as well as the meds) is attempting to practice Cognitive Behaviour
      Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness…a little bit at a time. Right now , my word is perseverance
      Thank you for posting

  2. Thank you both for sharing. I think we need enlightened new ways to deal with bipolar disorder and other related issues. We certainly need to decrease the stigma, which coming out with our stories helps to do. Good luck on your continuing journeys. Glad we’re part of this group who are living our lives fully and sharing our experiences. Happy to have you post other thoughts, ideas, or concerns.

    • m david green says:

      Article highlighted in the NY Times called “The Men Feminists Left Behind’, by Jill Filipovic is worth reading, and it struck me that sources like the Sacred Path Retreats, Men’s Center of L.A. and your ‘Men Alive’ are doing the things needed the accentuate the direction that men need to follow. My wife Julie was doing phone calls to ‘get out the vote’, and the vitriol spewed by 90% of the men had her hoping for the next woman name. When she never tried to change a vote to Hillary and told the men ‘only voting is the important thing’ the surprise was evident. Sadly the thought of losing ‘power’ to women is scary to many men, and fear brings out anger.

      • David,

        Thanks for the info. The times, truly are changing. Its disconcerting to many, but we’ll get through this to a better place together.

    • m david green says:

      Article highlighted in the NY Times called “The Men Feminists Left Behind’, by Jill Filipovic is worth reading, and it struck me that sources like the Sacred Path Retreats, Men’s Center of L.A. and your ‘Men Alive’ are doing the things needed the accentuate the direction that men need to follow. My wife Julie was doing phone calls to ‘get out the vote’, and the vitriol spewed by 90% of the men had her hoping for the next woman name. When she never tried to change a vote to Hillary and told the men ‘only voting is the important thing’ the surprise was evident. Sadly the thought of losing ‘power’ to women is scary to many men, and fear brings out anger.

  3. Jed, thank you for this article; I’m humbled by your candor and generosity in sharing.
    Phillip, thank you and I resonate with all you say, including resonating with Jed.
    Robert, thank you too; I resonate with your resonating with Phillip who resonates with Jed.
    And so we have a guitar here. 🙂

    I’m doing well managing my OCD that flared up like crazy recently and staying afloat through my first major depressive episode which was preceded by massive anxiety. What a journey. I appreciate y’all sharing your hearts here, and Jed, you’re right, sharing it helps reduce the stigma.

    It’s sharing like this together, with courage and humility, that heals the darker side of life. Here’s a poem I wrote last week that speaks to the togetherness of our broken-bending-vulnerable pieces:


    Sand is but shattered
    bigger things
    that were also cracked
    in just the right places;
    grains here and there
    appearing broken
    when gathered together
    reveal whole new meaning
    and purpose as beaches
    or dunes
    where tiny, congregated pieces
    make sense
    with one another.

    We, however, conceal
    our fault lines, fathoms
    isolating as islands
    hiding, remaining
    scattered here and there,
    almost everywhere,
    mostly because we’re afraid
    to cozy our cracks
    and edges together
    where they could
    make so much
    more sense, disappear
    so beautifully.

  4. Jed, I wish I would have found you before I left my marriage and a man I dearly loved. But one can only endure the negativity, hostility, impatience and verbal cruelty for so long. Add alcohol and a refusal to return to therapy and it was a defeating cycle. Life is much too short…Kudos to any spouse who is willing to do the work and get the treatment to save their marriage.

    • Holly, Ultimately we have to take care of ourselves. Being with anyone who is abusive can only go on so long. Most people leave, regardless of the cause, after they’ve tried their best to improve things and to help their partner get help. They often get help themselves. My hope is that by sharing my story others can gain by getting the help they need before they cause pain that a spouse must leave to avoid.

    • Holly, Amen. And it doesn’t seem like your marriage had much chance with someone who was unwilling to return to therapy and remain abusive.

  5. This Thanksgiving my husband and I will miss our much beloved traditional gathering on the West Coast with our “Thanksgiving Family.” Instead we will travel to the Midwest to spend the time with my only sibling, and only other living member of my immediate family. He struggled with undiagnosed Bipolar Disease most of his life. As an adult, he also struggled with Alcoholism. Growing up with him was a challenge, at best.
    After finally being diagnosed, he got on medication. It makes him zomby like, but he doesn’t drink. Because he is sober, I can spend time with him. He’s lived an incredibly tortured life, has Type 2 Diabetes and now he’s been fighting what the doctors are calling “antibiotic resistant pneumonia,” since July. They just keep giving him more antibiotics for his “antibiotic resistant,” disease.
    He is not in therapy. The only therapy he ever attended was a court-ordered stint after a DUI. I have incredibly few happy memories with him. I was able to spend time with him over the summer for my birthday. He was sober and we had a nice time.
    Now, my husband and I see what’s coming. No one else in his immediate circle – his wife, his kids, his grandkids, admit what is happening. He can’t talk to me on the telephone because talking makes him cough.
    I am going to go visit him because I don’t know how many more holidays, birthdays or even regular days he has left. In addition to dealing with my own healing from his disease, I feel very sad for him, that he has lived such a tortured and unhappy life. I also feel sad that the rest of the family will not deal with the truth of the situation – not only that he has an incurable chronic disease which the doctors will “manage,” until they no longer can – but also their belief that there is nothing here from which any of the rest of us need to heal.
    As a youth, I remember my mother telling me my brother needed to have a closer walk with Jesus in order to fix his problems. And she was a smart, well read and otherwise intellectually discerning woman. There was little information about Bipolar available in the 1960s.
    There is information today. And I thank all of you who are bravely speaking up about your struggles. Perhaps my family could have been happy had we had the knowledge that there were answers available for the question no one knew how to ask. Also, as workable treatment becomes more acceptable for Bipolar, I think we will free many people from the bonds of another sometimes associated disease – Alcoholism.

    • Rebecca, Life is always a journey with many twists and turns. Getting support for issues like bipolar can help the journey be less painful for all. I’m glad to share my story so others can benefit and get help when they are ready for it.

  6. Hi Jed
    Thanks for your wonderful article. I’m struggling to keep a relationship afloat with my husband who I believe has bipolar disorder but refuses to see it. I’m interested to understand your comment on people with “tough love” being a great help to bipolars. What do you mean and why do you think tough love can help? My husband is emotionally volatile and hyper sensitive, wouldn’t that be even more difficult for him?

    • Helen, I’ve found that dealing with people, particularly men, with bipolar disorder can be very difficult. We’re on the one hand, as you point out, very sensitive and reactive. Whenever we feel judged or pushed we react and push back, often angrily. We also feel very frightened and we’re frightening. The tough love has to be firm, but gentle and caring. My wife affirmed her love for me, but also said they felt I needed help. She didn’t push me and insist that I get help, but that she trusted me to get checked out. I took time and sensitivity. Often a person needs guidance from a caring and sensitive therapist who has experience working with bipolar people. Maybe “firm and flexible” love would be a better term than “tough” love.