“I love it when …” – Spinning Our Plates Vol. 2

Sung to the tune of “Out of this World,” by The Cure.

I love it when people say things like, “It’s been [insert impressive length of time] since my last bipolar episode.” I love it, of course, because for me, it’s utter nonsense.

Really, bipolar disorder is one long episode, measurable on a maddening mixed and moving spectrum of function and mood ranging from tranquilityto terrifying turmoil, from publishing 1,000 words in a day to not answering my phone, from hitting that sought-after photo spot-on to lying in bed with no discernible thoughts in my brain — and with all kinds of overlapping, interlinking vectors like “working on tasks” and “feeding relationships” and “keeping my balance while standing on rounded stones,”¬†emerging from the central spectrum and shooting randomly off into space. There is no “period” in my daily life during which my bipolar disorder does not exist as an episode.

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I love it when people say things like, “Whatever you do, don’t let your illness define you.” I love it, of course, because for me, it’s complete nonsense. My bipolar disorder meticulously defines me and everything I think and say and do. Really, on any given day — on every single day — I either do the things I do because of my bipolar disorder, or I do the things I do in spite of my bipolar disorder. There is no moment of my day that is not defined by my bipolar disorder and how I respond to it. Success — resistance to collapse — is measured (not always neatly) on another spectrum, ranging from “It was a tough day but I managed not to dissolve into abject depression” to “I spent the morning skittering down the road, on the edge of control or entirely out of control, or angry, looking for trouble, and really hoping I find it.”

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I love it when people write helpful articles like, “How to Get Things Done When You’re Depressed.” I love it, of course, because for me, it’s complete nonsense. If I can get things done, then it’s certainly possible that I may be a little off my game, but I’m not truly depressed — not in the way that slugs me in the gut and the pain saps me of all my energy. I know, I just spent 500 words writing about measuring everything on spectrums, and depression should be measurable on a spectrum, as well — But mine’s not. Or if it is, it’s a spectrum that is also something of a syllogism: Depression is incapacitating. John is not incapacitated. John is not depressed. Or perhaps it’s more of a binary. You’re pregnant on Monday, you’re pregnant on Tuesday — you’re not more pregnant one day or less pregnant the other — You’re simply pregnant. Same (for me) with depression.

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I love it when people say things like, “Keep your coping skills close at hand — write them down so you can remember them” — so when things get dicy, I can remind myself what my coping strategies are and switch them on like the pastel holiday lights that encircle the headboard of my bed. I love it, of course, because for me, it’s complete nonsense. Really, my coping skills are for times I don’t need coping skills — when clear, rational thought drives me on its glorious own, when I know the answer to the question before I ask it — and the answer is helpful, not disruptive. I’ve been in loads of meetings in which teaching coping skills was a primary goal. For my part, I can attest that 1. Coping skills are minor distractions of the meetings, intended but not guaranteed to put me back in control of my day, of my own actions, of my own thoughts — and 2. Coping skills are most often photocopied platitudes offered by always well-meaning clinicians who have success using their own coping skills in their own daily lives because they do not face the demons that visit the lives of people like me.

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Here’s the only coping skill that’s ever worked for me to any significant degree. It’s comprehensive and simple, usually repeatable, a four-step strategy for crisis and recovery: 1 Crisis; 2 Protection from daily life; 3 Reintroduction to daily life; 4 Just wait it out — find some way to float through the residual storm until the crest of that big wave has hit the beach and the water is gently returning to the sea.

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