Looking at Bipolar Through a Rearview Mirror: The Peril of Living in the Past

Last Updated: 20 Mar 2019
1 Comment

Getting stuck in the past prevents you from living in the present. While you can’t ignore your past, you can keep it in perspective while moving forward.

I’m 56 years old. Well into middle-age and pushing the envelope on the later part of life. I’m certainly closer to the end than the beginning. But that’s life. And while I’ve managed to find a measure of stability in this period of my life, I can’t help, from time to time, but think of my past.

I had my first psychotic episode at the age of 18 and endured many years of turmoil fueled by alcohol and drug use and an unfettered lifestyle. Basically, I was a mess. The sheer unmanageability I experienced was something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

Flash forward to today. I’m fortunate to have a family and a career I love. I have a great support system of friends as well as professionals who help to keep me grounded. But there’s always the fleeting memories of my past, especially since I live in the house where I grew up. When my mother passed away in 1996, my wife, infant daughter, and I moved back into the house with my father (who died in 2016).

All I have to do is look around my house. While the furnishings have changed and rooms been updated, I still have gnawing memories of the past. For instance, if I enter my family room, I instantly recall the times when I watched TV while experiencing ideas of reference (the belief that what I saw on TV directly applied to me). While I no longer experience this psychotic symptom, it is still something I can never forget.

Also, living in the city where I have been hospitalized is something I have had to come to terms with. One facility, the Buffalo General Hospital Community Mental Health Center was torn down years back to make room for a new vascular disease center. While the building is no longer there, driving by the site, I am reminds me of my first hospitalization.

There’s also the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, Erie County Medical Center, and Brylin Hospital, all of where I’ve received services (although I was only in Brylin overnight). I have been back on the grounds as well as inside these facilities in my professional capacity. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t experience a level of anxiety when entering the doors of these places.

I’ve come to realize, however, that I cannot live in the past—I can’t change it, nor would I want to, as terribly hard those days were. The experiences of my past have helped me become the person I am today. In the work I do, I regularly come in contact with people who are either themselves struggling or someone they know is dealing with a mental health disorder. I’m able to use my past experience as a means to provide guidance and support.

And you can do the same thing. The old adage, “it takes one to know one” rings true in this instance. You can help someone else by sharing your lived experience—something that is yours and yours alone.

When I was going through my struggles, I had no one to go to who could truly relate to my situation. The concept of peer support specialists (certified individuals with lived experience) was in its infancy. This practice was not available in my area. Perhaps if it were, my trajectory in recovery might have been different. But I digress.

In my humble opinion, life is all about moving forward and not getting stuck in the past. The past can be incredibly painful and when one fixates on it, the pain deepens. Unfortunately, for many of us, there may be a lot of wreckage from those days, but as I previously stated, we cannot change these things. But we can learn from them. Living in today is one way to come to terms with the past.

About the author
Karl Shallowhorn is the Education Program Coordinator for the Community Health Center of Buffalo. Karl has been living with bipolar disorder since 1981. He is a New York State Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor and has worked in both the addictions and mental health fields for over 17 years. Karl is the author of Working on Wellness: A Practical Guide to Mental Health. He is a certified Mental Health First Aid Instructor and also works as a mental health consultant for organizations across New York State. Karl has provided a variety of mental health-related seminars and workshops for conferences, schools and businesses on the local, state and national levels. Karl serves on the Board of Directors for the Mental Health Association in New York State, the Mental Health Association of Erie County, the United Church of Christ Mental Health Network, as well as the Erie County Mental Hygiene Community Services Boardand the WNED/WBFO Mental Health Advisory Council. Karl has received numerous awards for his advocacy efforts in his professional career.
1 Comment
  1. I deal with ideas of reference constantly. Unfortunately it got real bad with the movie “Inception”.

Leave a Reply

Please do not use your full name, as it will be displayed. Your email address will not be published.