With grand leaps and crushing steps backward, I have achieved major goals, enjoyed many adventures, and overcome sizeable challenges. Bipolar may not have held me back so much as spurred me on!
I have never followed a solid upward trajectory. The arc of my life consists of fits and starts, of grand leaps and crushing steps backward, of great achievements followed by enormous crashes.
In fact, a potential agent and editor once
pointed out what she called “the uneven track” of my memoir, how the storyline
rose and fell instead of following the usual upward arc of what is expected.
Of course, I thought. This is the story of a bipolar life.
Although my life has followed an uneven
track, marked by many ups and downs, my intense drive for knowledge and
achievement has always been there—even when I was very young.
As a child, I became obsessed with memorizing the dictionary—really anything I could get my hands on. As an adolescent, I just had to read all of Tolstoy, even his obscure works, and of course all of the other literary greats—until I checked off almost the entire Penguin Classics series. Later, I would obsess over learning Latin. And then French. History. Literature. Fine Art. I rushed forward as aptitude tests and gifted programs affirmed what I saw as my own greatness, and I became obsessed with knowledge and self-improvement.
But there was something wrong with this kind
of intensity. I never heeded the warning signs in my behavior, and so I
continued to rush forward—to the East Coast and back, from Alaska’s southern
coast all the way to the Arctic Ocean. Driven and deeply convinced of my own
brilliance, I could not stop, despite the hallucinations and, finally, the
I continued to rush forward until I was 21 and sitting in a crisis treatment center in Anchorage, where I was diagnosed with bipolar I. Crushed by what I saw as my own failure, and exhausted from years of cycling, it took me several years to recover.
When I reflect back, I see that the crashes
that often followed my great leaps occurred when I could not continue the
rushing momentum of the previous months. Exhausted and sick, I would quit
whatever grand project I had undertaken—learning a new language, graduate
school—only to deeply regret quitting many years later.
Did I completely stop trying new things? No.
Am I scared every time I have an amazing new
But I believe that worrying about having an episode
should not stop you from achieving, or trying to achieve, great things.
Instead of rushing forward, we just have to
pause, assess, and then decide whether or not to move forward. I check in with
myself: if I am in an “up,” I’ll forget the idea. If I do not forget the idea
after my upswing has passed, then I can return to it and consider where to go
I often think to myself: Perhaps I could have achieved so much more if I did not have bipolar disorder. And this may be true. But the intense energy of hypomania and mania may have helped push me toward some of the major achievements in my life. Without that energy, I do not think I would have been nearly as driven to gain the knowledge I have or to embark on the many intellectual and creative journeys I have taken.
We often recognize when bipolar makes us “sick,” which we usually identify as the crash. But maybe the “sickness” is there all the time, a driving force behind the unique energy we sometimes have that can—at times—propel us forward. While this energy also causes great pain, I believe it is the source of what can make many people with bipolar disorder live exceptional lives.
Printed as “On My Mind: I Won’t Let Bipolar Stop Me!” Winter 2020
Carin Meyer is a lifelong Alaskan who works in public relations. Her academic writing has won numerous awards and her science writing and other articles have been published in university magazines, newspapers, and other media outlets. She has a blog at www.carinrmeyer.com. She enjoys writing essays about bipolar disorder and mental illness. Carin has drafted a book about bipolar disorder, The Smartest Girl in the World, for which she is currently seeking publication.
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