‘How Did I Get Here?’—Confronting Bipolar Disorder Confusion
When bipolar confusion leads us into unknown landscapes, it is essential that we ask for help—before we get lost in our own minds.
By Carin Meyer
“Only Carin could get lost in the high desert of Smith Rock,” said my friend, Dave, as he shook his head and laughed. “How in the world did you do it?”
“I don’t know,” I responded, head down.
It was 24 hours since I had started hiking the day before, and more than 22 miles from our climbing camp in central Oregon. And I had no idea how I had gotten there. After a week of rock climbing the hardest routes I could find, of baking in the sun, of sleeping little, and of being the female star of our eight-person climbing group, I wanted a break, and so I headed out at 4 a.m., through a rock formation called Asterisk Pass.
The Crooked River flowed downstream to my left, the spires of Smith Rock to my right. Landmarks surrounded me, but somehow I still got lost.
I knew I had gone too far, but I just kept on walking, making one poor decision after another. And when I arrived at a little farmhouse at 2 a.m. the next morning, tearful and scared, an elderly woman called my friends and they ended their search for me by driving to pick me up. My only memories of my trek were of cow skulls, sinister faces that had formed in the cliffs beside me, and a fast river that I thought of swimming across.
This was not the first time my bipolar confusion led me far from the world of reality and logic. And it surely would not be the last. During my life, I have been lost many times—both physically and mentally. There was the time I got lost while hiking the backside of the most popular trail in Alaska-Flattop Mountain—and ended up crawling through alder bushes while avoiding piles of grizzly bear scat and incessant mosquitoes.
There was the time, more recently, when I spent hundreds of dollars on nail polish over the course of several days. There are the other times, when I find myself in the local grocery store, my cart overflowing with the items I do not need, and I ask: “How did I get so much stuff?”
When you experience the confusion of bipolar disorder, the questioning is constant.
“How did I get here?” I ask. Like the time I got lost at Smith Rock, I was simply unaware of my surroundings, and often, I am unaware of my own mental landscape.
With each step, and each thought, my bipolar confusion will grow until—yet again—I am lost. My husband says I often do not remember what he has said only minutes before my oft-repeated question: “What happened?”
I also know the all-too-familiar confusion of the morning after a particularly bad episode, when sleep has briefly cleared my brain, and I ask, again, “What happened?”
For me, bipolar confusion is part and parcel of memory issues, of disinhibition and impulsive decisions, of obsessive thinking, and of the shutdown of normal cognitive function while cycling through mood swings.
When I am confused, I cannot access the part of my brain that was on fire with mania, or the part of my brain that was drowning in severe depression.
How can we draw an understandable linear history out of the recent past when our ups-and-downs simply do not make sense?
Likewise, when an obsessive thought closes everything in my mind down except for the rapid loop of one fixation, I cannot understand anything else.
Bipolar thinking often simply does not make sense. And when we try—like all people—to make sense of what is happening in our world, we only get more confused.
Bipolar disorder by nature is confusing. And for me, confusion is the result of cycling.
If I can work to prevent extreme mood swings, through the trifecta of medication, therapy, and a healthy environment, then I can usually prevent bipolar confusion. Once we are confused, it can be difficult to pull out of it. But, perhaps, if we accept that we are lost and confused, then we can ask for help.
Sometimes, I think the only way to alleviate bipolar confusion once it sets in is to rely on the reality of those I trust to help ground me. Yes, bipolar often does not listen to logic and reality, but at least others can keep me safe.
When I set out on my hike at the cliffs of Smith Rock, I went alone. And I got lost alone.
Instead of turning around during those first few miles and asking for help, I kept going blindly forward. If I could have accepted that I was lost and needed other people to guide me, perhaps I could have found my way back, before I desperately wandered even further into that desert night.