A descriptive essay regarding life 
                          with manic-depression  
By: Kathy A. Orr 

              Have you ever tried to describe fog to a 
              man who was born blind?  At face value, this 
              seems simple enough: fog is a dense  
              condensation of water that hangs near 
              the earth in the form of a  heavy mist. 
              In essence, it is a lazy cloud that hugs 
              the earth,  rather than hovering in the sky. 
              This is a simple, cut and dried  
              explanation. Yet, it does not convey the 
              reality of fog to the  blind man. 
              He knows the basic facts, but full 
              comprehension still  eludes him.  

              The man born blind has never seen a cloud 
              of any sort, be it in  the sky or on the ground. 
              Fog or clouds can be described to him  
              in numerous ways, but he has no point of 
              reference, no concept,  of how it might look. 
              He may try to formulate an image in 
              his  mind, (can one who has never seen, 
              form a mental "picture" of  anything?), 
              yet it is bound to be somewhat inaccurate, 
              despite  oneís best attempts to explain, and 
              his best efforts to  understand. You can go 
              a step further and take that blind man to  
              an area covered with thick fog, and describe 
              in detail the  gloominess and poor visibility. 
              Perhaps he can feel the humidity,  clammy 
              against his skin; he can perhaps feel the 
              oppressiveness  of the heavy air as he 
              breathes. Yet, in all of this, his  
              understanding is limited at best. He will 
              never experience the  confusion and 
              disorientation of trying 
              to find oneís way through  a once-familiar 
              area that suddenly appears to be completely  
              foreign. To the man born blind, fog is not a 
              big deal, nor an  intrusion or interruption 
              upon his daily reality. He knows it  exists, 
              yet it affects him little, if at all.  

              Trying to describe manic-depression ,
              (more commonly known now as  Bipolar 
              Disorder), to someone who has never 
              experienced it is much  the same. No matter 
              how often it is described, it can never be  
              fully understood by someone who is not 
              bipolar. The basic facts  are fairly simple: a 
              few  neurotransmitters deep inside the brain 
              are out of whack;  combined with an 
              imbalance of the brain chemicals, 
              (specifically,  serotonin), causes sudden 
               and drastic mood swings. Bipolar is  
               quite hereditary. Unlike other illnesses, 
               such as post-traumatic  stress disorder, 
               bipolar is not caused by anything 
               other than a  purely physical problem. It is 
               very similar in many ways to  diseases such 
               as diabetes or high blood pressure: 
               bipolar can be  managed and controlled, 
               but it is not curable 
               and requires  life-long attention and 
               treatment. Like high blood pressure or  
               diabetes, bipolar disorder can be fatal if left 
               untreated or  treated incorrectly.  

               "Wow," you say. "It sounds like hell!" You donít 
                know the half of  it. My goal today is to try to 
                describe fog to a blind man: to  bring you 
                into my world and convey the reality (not 
                just the  facts) of life with bipolar disorder. 

               For me, the depressions are the worst and 
               most persistent aspect  of this disease. There 
               is no telling exactly what starts them.  
               Sometimes, the depression just broadsides my 
               life like a train  impacting an unfortunate 
               car left on the railroad tracks,  suddenly 
               and without warning. Other times, natural 
               life stresses  that would cause ANYONE 
               to be depressed can trigger a depressive  
               episode. Then there are times when it creeps 
               in gradually, like a  mist, so subtle that I 
               scarcely notice it until Iím in the midst  of 
               it. One of the most frustrating things about 
               the situation is  the confusion that 
               accompanies these times - where does "it" , 
               (bipolar), end and "I" begin? Am I really, 
                justifiably feeling this way, or is it simply 
               a by-product of rebellious brain  chemicals? 

              Depression is a nightmare from which it is 
              extremely difficult to  awake. True 
              depression is oppressive, heavy, and 
              suffocating, a  venom that takes over your 
              mind, your body, your life. Slowly, it  eats 
              away at you, sinking deeper and deeper into 
              your being. Left  untreated, it paralyzes 
              and can eventually kill - if not the  
              body, then the heart and soul, the very 
              "life" of a person. My  husband has 
              described me during these times as "a soda 
              that has  lost its fizz." I must admit, this is a 
              fairly accurate  portrayal! Regular activities 
              become incredibly difficult. Just  getting out 
              of bed and surviving the day is a huge  
              accomplishment. Typically, work and 
              school are refuges and  distractions for me, 
              and help to keep my mind occupied. But 
              the  idea of anything more - interacting 
              in social situations or with  my family, 
              completing any type of household chore, 
              running  errands, etc. - is completely 
              overwhelming and at times beyond  me. 

              My personal experience has been that 
              depressions are the worst at  night. While 
              the household sleeps, I lie awake, distracted 
              by the  silence that serves only to amplify 
              my racing thoughts and almost  physical 
              pain. At times, there are very real feelings 
              of  suffocation, drowning, difficulty 
              breathing, and/or tightness in  my chest. At 
              these times, I yearn for something to help 
              me sleep;  but the depression is so 
              overwhelming and intensely frightening,  
              I am literally terrified. I want 
              very much to live - but could I  trust myself to 
              hold a bottle of sleeping pills in my hand? 
              These  feelings are terrifying and confusing, 
              to say the least. 

              For times like these, my husband and I 
              have come to an agreement.  All potentially 
              dangerous medications are hidden from 
              me. I do not know, nor do I wish to know, 
              where they are located. My  husband disburses 
              them to me as needed. This way, they are  
              available to me if I need them, but I cannot 
              possibly harm  myself. This was an idea 
              I insisted we implement after I read a  
              similar suggestion in a book about "bipolar 
              survival skills." My  husband doesnít really 
              understand why I feel it must be this way,  
              but, like a blind man seeking to understand 
              the realities of fog, he knows there must 
              be a true danger there that he just canít  
              completely comprehend, (Of course, 
              I canít completely comprehend  
              it myself, either.).

              On the flip side of the depression is the 
              mania, those times of  feeling "high on 
              life" and invincible. Fortunately, I 
              have one of  the lesser varieties of bipolar, 
              and thus only go into whatís  known as 
              "hypo-manic" states. People with more 
              serious forms of  bipolar are inflicted 
              with times of full-blown 
              mania, which causes them to do outlandish, 
              unpredictable, impulsive things  with no 
              thought for the consequences. One such 
              example would be  someone taking off on a 
              three-week vacation to the Caribbean,  with 
              no forethought or planning of any 
              kind ,(including requesting vacation time 
              from work!). These wild and reckless actions 
              often  have serious consequences that come 
              back to haunt the person  later on.

              My hypo-manic states are nowhere near 
              that severe, thankfully. At  times I tend to be 
              something of a compulsive shopper, but have 
              taken steps to solve this problem by having 
              only a very small bank account of my 
              own. The account contains enough money to 
              cover my gas and some sodas each month. I 
              do NOT have general access to the main 
              family account. While I can access it 
              online if need be, my ATM card is linked 
              ONLY to my small account.  Again, this was a 
              suggestion I borrowed from a book. It took 
              my  husband a few months to agree to this, 
              but eventually, poor  thing, he saw the need 
              for it as well. The compulsive shopping  
              issue has always bothered me. I should think 
              that all I need to  do is exercise a bit 
              of self-discipline! Again, there is that 
              confusing, blurry line: how much is "me" 
              and how much is a defective 
              neurotransmitter?!  And how can I tell 
              the difference? 

              During times of mania, I sleep very little, 
              for days or even  weeks. Even 
              prescription sleeping medications, 
              which normally would knock me out cold, 
              have absolutely no effect on me 
              whatsoever. I can easily work a 12 or 
              14 hour day, go home, watch  a movie 
              or surf the net, and still arrive at work 
              early the next  day. On top of this, I have a 
              need - no, a compulsion - to  create. I feel 
              as though I MUST complete crafts, bake, 
              dance,  sing, take music lessons, travel, 
              go horseback riding, and spend  time in 
              volunteer work. If my creativity is not 
              allowed full  expression, (and since I want 
              to do absolutely everything under  the 
              sun, this is, of course, impossible!), the 
              pressure, the need  for creativity and 
              expression turns unbearable frustration. 
              This, in turn, becomes a too-short temper 
              and can lead to spells of  hysterical 
              crying and hyper-sensitivity to 
              criticism ,(or  perceived criticism). Along 
              with all this comes increased difficulty 
              in concentrating and paying attention 
              to detail. The  need to create and produce 
              quickly, causes me to rush through projects 
              in order to get on to the next one. My 
              thoughts race and  jump from one topic to 
              another rapidly. This adds to the problem  
              of insomnia as well, making it even more 
              of a problem. By the time my body is finally 
              exhausted, my mind will not shut up!   
              Fortunately, Iíve added another coping 
              skill to my bag of  survival tricks: I 
              discovered yoga and various deep  
              breathing/meditation techniques that 
              actually CAN bring my mind  down 
              to quietness and stillness, thus allowing 
              me to rest.  Usually. 

              Many people with bipolar enjoy these times 
              of "flying high"  during a manic episode. I 
              suppose, in many ways, it is indeed  
              preferable to dreading the thought of living 
              through another day,  of wading through 
              a suffocating and inexplicable feeling of  
              sadness and despair. However, I do not 
              enjoy my hypo-manic states  any more than 
              I enjoy the depression. With depression, I 
              feel as though I will drown. With mania, 
              I feel as though I will explode.  
              Neither are enjoyable! 

              Bipolar disorder is a very... interesting 
              experience. The  experience is one that I 
              would not wish on anyone, not even my  
              worst enemy. But since I have it, and 
              understand that it is a  life-long illness, the 
              least I can do is make the best of things.  I 
              am learning to recognize what can trigger 
              or aggravate a  depressive or manic episode, 
              and learning how to deal with these  
              episodes once they start. As with diabetes 
              or high blood  pressure, it requires constant 
              vigilance and lifestyle awareness.  However, 
              unlike either of those two diseases, bipolar 
              has a more  profound impact on my 
              family, who must somehow learn along with  
              me to adapt to my seemingly unfounded 
              mood swings and discern  what is really 
              "me" and what is really "bipolar." Yet, Iím 
              not  even sure that I know where that line 
              is, so how can I teach  them? In essence, it 
              appears that a visually impaired person is  
              trying to teach a blind person the realities 
              of a dense fog,  which neither person can 
              fully understand, though they are in the  
              midst of it.


Written and Copyrighted June 3, 2002 
by Kathy A. Orr


through the storms
over the clouds





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