Today I am writing about something that I have experienced a lot on a personal and professional level and I feel that that we do not often talk about or understand it enough.
Besides the odd commentaries and opinions before that, I initially heard about 'bipolar disorder' during my psychotherapy training among other clinical diagnosis of mental health illnesses. There are these lists that psychiatric associations and institutions have created with symptoms and criteria for diagnosis. If a person fits the majority or all the criteria, then they were given the 'label': 'bipolar' or formerly 'manic-depressive'. This diagnosis in very basic terms describes a person with extreme consecutive 'high' and 'low' mood episodes.
The 'high' mood can include an very elevated and happy state where the person can spend lots of money unnecessarily, gamble, take drugs, break up important relationships and, generally, exhibit behaviours that do not belong to its 'normal' self. In the 'low' mood the person falls into severe depression with feelings of helplessness, shame and guilt suffering the consequences from the actions during the 'high' mood.
Does any of these traits sound familiar?
I have always been suspicious with diagnosis mainly because they are focusing on symptoms, criteria and 'problematic' behaviours rather than the causes of these behaviours and more importantly with the solutions to change them.
With the years and by seeing extreme cases of people who were putting their lives in danger, I came to appreciate the contribution of psychiatry and medicine to the management of severe forms of mental health illnesses.
I have seen people become more stable when their are on medication for bipolar disorder (mainly mood stabilisers) maybe partially because they feel they are doing something about it. The angle that I am coming from in the matter has more to do with the psychology and the formation of the behaviour and how, ultimately, a person can have a more stable and fulfilling life.
Imagine that you have in front of you a young child that pride is an important value for him or her. He wants to be good at school and wants to be naughty too. He is smart and does not like when he is being told off as he takes it really at heart, especially when he has taken the blame for something that he has not done. He is very sensitive to other people's feelings and tends to put his feelings second in order no to cause friction and unpleasant behaviours to the people he loves.
Imagine now that this child is growing up in a family where there is a little bit of chaos (like there is another way for a family to be!). Mother and father are often fighting, they are giving mixed messages to the children of what is good or bad and what is expected of them or not, without giving any explanations, there is no justice in the family system and people are being blamed in the wrong, there is no sufficient and firm guidance on principles of life such as freedom, responsibility, emotional recognition and expression, clarity of roles, accepted behaviours, love and so on.
It feels like the list of dysfunctional behaviours could be endless, but you get the gist of it.
I am aware that many parents are going to think now: '...but I did my best, how could I know that my child felt confused or is going to have some serious bipolar traits? Do you know how difficult it was for me to grow up in my family environment and also create my own family?
Of course the parent has her/his own experience and take on on their parenting skills. It is not about blaming here, but understanding. The fact that someone felt neglected, hurt and did not receive what he needed as a child does not mean that he can not do the same to his own children, if he is not conscious of the impact of his actions.
When a child with the above background and personality traits becomes an adult we can imagine that their life will be a bit confusing. They might not know who they are serving, really, themselves or someone else? They will not probably know how to access support and guidance from their environment as they do not know that a supportive and stable environment is possible for them. They might not have the confidence in making decisions and forming relationships that are going to survive difficult feelings that are caused by disagreement or fights.
When a child is receiving conflicting messages from their environment- like any person would do- they are finding ways to close the gap and control the tension they are feeling by creating a 'story', like that 'it was my fault', 'they do not care about me' etc, by taking one side of the conflict neglecting the other or by not trusting the environment all together for guidance and support. That leaves them feeling vulnerable in their lives as not only they have learned that there is no one trustworthy to go to, but, also, by internalising the aforementioned dynamics, they are not able to trust themselves!
It is not by accident that certain people develop certain illnesses, both physical and mental, and other people different ones. Or to say it better, every mental illness, every behaviour we adopt, every strategy we use to react to life is our own unique way to respond to our life experiences.
In the example above the person has not dealt with and, thus, has not learned how to deal with difficult situations and the associated feelings, including standing up for themselves despite the cost. It is more likely that they will either 'fall under them' or 'rise above them' those feelings as a coping mechanism to deal with the conflicting (both internal & external) demands. Here they are, the 'high' and 'low' moods.
Imagine you are about to climb a mountain; you have not done it before and, normally, you might feel scared and, simultaneously, excited as that would be something new. If you start climbing and things are more challenging than you thought they would be, then what would you do?
A possible adult (mature) reaction would be to feel sad that you did not fulfil your desire, but you would still praise yourself for the effort you put in and maybe encourage her to give it another go in the future. Another person might give up blaming themselves for being a coward because they did not try enough etc. or they might continue climbing by losing connection with their fear, terror, fatigue and helplessness resulting in over estimating their abilities and possibly ending up in harming themselves.
This is in very generic terms the dipole between 'over-achieving' and 'under pressure'. In fact many high achieving, successful professionals are functional, diagnosed or non diagnosed bipolar who have frozen their feelings and feel only alive when they achieve; anything else is a hated failure from which they will ran away at all costs.
Working with people in deep, soul level can be challenging by itself at times. Working, though, with someone who presents with strong bipolar traits can be even more challenging as it can feel like there is no ground, there is either flying or being underground; there is no stability, no hope, not something to rely on and ground oneself in.
However frightening or difficult this may be, it is ultimately the reality that all of us live in to some extent.
Nothing really is set in stone. Relationships end, jobs are changing, the world is changing and this can be more challenging for some people than others. People who are overly attached to stability or they have never experienced it as such, they will tend to suffer more. We all need a level of stability in order to build our lives upon, but if we place too much emphasis on stability and ask for it in places (or people) that can not provide it, then this can become a problem.
The biggest challenge for people is to realise that ultimately the answers (and the support) lie mainly within us, if we 'dig' deep enough in our hearts and existence.
There are a few factors that work as lighthouses for me when it comes to extreme states of being in general, not just bipolar.
Follow one's own truth
My antidote or better the path that my soul chose to follow is the one of honesty, freedom and grounding. It is only when we find our own voice, our own truth, our own power in every situation that we can feel at home and relax. For some people that requires training as they may not be used to trusting and give credits to their voice of truth. There is great bravery and risk when one stands by their truth and needs while the possible costs are painful and, yet, less important than the gains. Sometimes the voice itself might sound confused and unclear and that is ok: decisions often bring conflicting options and feelings with them. Staying with the conflict will help clarifying your values, what is really important for you. When that clarity comes, then be prepared to withstand they break down of your old life and to move mountains.
Make your voice heard
Often we feel that we have to deal with challenging situations by ourselves and we retreat in our caves. Sharing our struggles can help in two ways, firstly, by feeling heard as we listen ourselves describing our challenges and, secondly, by receiving a piece of advice, information or something from someone else who is more distant and possibly more objective than us.
Unconditional love and self care
Mania and depression are both harsh states. There is a situation, a demand, a need that is so difficult for the person that he will have to move away from his centre (if he even got to know where that is) to the tortures of hell or the skies of heaven, where he feels untouchable. In both cases there is very little love, there is just survival from one state to the other, from one situation to another, going through the motions like watching a film without understanding it or participating in any way.
What if we try to spread some love in every step of that journey?
I am aware that this is easier said than being done, especially for people who have lived the majority of their lives feeling that there is something wrong with them or that they have always done something wrong to be blamed for.
Train ourselves moment to moment, day to day, week to week that we are enough, we are doing our best at all times, we are loved at every single moment without any 'buts'. We are unconditionally loved full stop, for no reason, just for being, just for who we are in our totality.
I am fully aware that for some people that might sound gibberish but is actually true. It is when we lose contact with that truth that we harshly judge ourselves and accuse them for everything that goes 'wrong', even if it is not our fault and beyond our control.
Are you aware of the effort and training that is required for an athlete to become champion?
That is the commitment and the effort we need to show in a continual basis for self care and self love. They are not given, for granted, they are actions towards ourselves every single day!
Early life experiences both pleasant and difficult shape who we have become, how we interact with the world and how we create our lives. Getting to know oneself is the first step of changing what is dysfunctional within us and holds as back.
They have formed our lives so far, lets not allow them to shape our future too...