I am a person with just a touch of a flair for chaos and crisis. Not a comfortable fact to swallow for an ex-scientist who found her security in the clear evidence-based logic of scientific thought. As it turns out, at least part of that flair for chaos and crisis has an underlying medical cause, which brought about my exit from the security of my science – and hence to writing, where at least I have an “artistic” excuse for expressing that flair.
Much to my disgust, it emerged that I have reasonably severe Bipolar 2 Mood Disorder. The old name for bipolar disorder is manic depressive disorder. For those of you who may not know much about it, the bipolar part refers to mood swings, from “highs” of over-confidence, elation, irrational thinking and speech, and often excessive spending, to “lows” of severe depression, often accompanied by intense anxiety. The disorder comes in two variations – Bipolar 1 and Bipolar 2. Bipolar 1 is usually the more widely recognised because the extreme highs of the manic phase are associated with clearly disordered and irrational thinking and activity, and quite often leave the sufferer non-functional for the duration of the phase.
Bipolar 2 is characterized by a lesser degree of mania, called hypomania, which often allows the affected individual to appear to function more or less normally during a hypomanic phase. It is often mistaken as the less serious sibling of Bipolar 1, but it has a sneaky aspect that frequently goes unnoticed and which, in its own way, makes hypomania is as potentially harmful as full-blown mania. Beneath the veneer of apparently normal function is the same type of disordered, irrational and irresponsible thinking, leading the bipolar 2 sufferer to embark on crazy projects, while motivating for them in such an outwardly logical and coherent manner that most people don’t notice the irrationality of them. They don’t notice, that is, until the project comes crashing down on the bipolar individual and everyone who has been eloquently persuaded to join in. Then the inevitable questions fly. “Why did you promise so much? Couldn’t you see it was impossible to achieve all that? Why did you get so involved? Couldn’t you see where it was heading? Were you crazy?” Not unnaturally, the collapse of a hypomanic phase is often followed by deep depression as the bipolar individual sees the crises and chaos strewn in all directions, and the refrain of “I told you so” seems to come from everywhere. Those depressive phases of Bipolar 2 tend to be worse and of longer duration than those of Bipolar 1.
For many years I regarded my bipolar diagnosis with the utmost suspicion. Episodes of deep depression, yes. Crippling anxiety, yes. But this strange phenomenon of “hypomania”? No, that was definitely not me. I was a grounded, sensible person to whom people turned when they were in trouble, and I was always able to come up with some kind of workable solution that I alone knew how to implement successfully. I was blessed with the insight and empathy needed to understand distraught people and knotty crises, and I had the superpowers needed to fix both. Heck, talking about superpowers, what was stopping me from saving the world?
The one small hitch was that I never recognised the financial and emotional disasters I left in the wake of my superpower phases. The mess that I created for myself and others often plunged me into deep depressions, with several self-harming and even suicide attempts. But did I see the connection? Not a chance.
My latest attack of hypomanic superpower delusions tipped me, and my husband along with me, into a mire of financial damage, property misappropriation, misplaced trust, broken promises and more. I have described the gory details of that episode in another post in this blog, so I won’t repeat them here. The resultant stress for my husband and for me cast me into unprecedented depths of guilt, self-recrimination, panic and depression. The financial trouble was particularly deep and urgent, with no hint of a solution in sight. No more superpowers, not even a glimmer of a good idea.
Lying for two days in covid isolation in hospital after that thankfully not-quite-successful suicide attempt, proved illuminating. I stared at the uncompromisingly non-responsive walls for hours on end, and then an avalanche of puzzle pieces fell into place. Suddenly I saw the escalating pattern of boom-to-bust cycles, stretching back to my twenties. This latest debacle was simply the most ignominious pinnacle of the pattern. I was about as textbook a case of Bipolar 2 as it comes!
So where was my spark of resolution, of salvation, in my present situation? I had finally seen the pattern and how it had led inevitably to the cycles of all-round chaos and crises I had created in the past. Unfortunately, that realisation did not come with a magical instant fix in the present. That has so far remained stubbornly elusive. But I have come to realise that my “superpowers” are no more than delusions brought on by faulty neurotransmitters and some wildly inaccurate extrapolations of my Christian beliefs about biblical injunctions to feed the hungry, help the poor and provide shelter for the homeless. Having had my eyes opened to the rather glaring difference between lousy brain chemicals and Christian charity, combined with my newfound awareness of my lack of control over at least the neurochemical aspect of my intermittent misadventures, made me uncomfortably aware that those delusions of altruistic superpowers were likely to re-emerge at some point, with the same inevitable disastrous outcomes.
Time for some serious reflection on interventions. The humiliating realisation that I am not consistently capable of recognising the difference between inspired thought and misguided delusions, did not (and does not) sit comfortably with me. Its even more humiliating corollary, that I need outside observation and, if necessary, intervention to avoid repeat performances of past crises, sits even less comfortably. But I pocketed my pride and went knocking on doors for formal systems of damage prevention. Imagine my surprise, frustration and shock as I discovered that the banking system, the legal system and even the medical profession make no provisions allowing me to protect myself and those close to me, against me in a hypomanic superpower phase. The existing systems allow only for picking up the pieces afterwards. So much for creative, innovative and proactive thought on the part of The Establishment. That left me with no option but to ask my husband, a friend and my financial advisor to stand as informal gatekeepers to make sure that I take my meds regularly and correctly, to try to apply the brakes when my superwoman cloak begins to sneak out from under my “normal” disguise, and to do what they can to persuade me to accept medical treatment when all else fails. So much for my feelings of autonomy, self-reliance and self-respect!
Gatekeepers, however imperfect, I have grumpily accepted. But there remains the question of how I, personally, can intervene in these cycles of hypomanic high followed by deep depressive crash, and the inevitable trail of wreckage they cause. So far, I have no idea, and that scares the hell out of me. But it has brought me valuable life lessons. Not comfortable ones, but lessons all the same.
There is a brilliant prayer that I think has its origins in the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step programme. It goes like this:
“Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
Boy, am I waiting for that wisdom!
If this causes you distress, please contact one of the following support organisations (in South Africa, 24/7):
- Lifeline South Africa 0861 322322;
- South African Anxiety and Depression Group (SADAG) 080 012 1314