I am bipolar. The video below is a solid 1-minute explanation of what that means. I am posting about this again because internalized stigma that was reinforced by the media, ex-boyfriends, and artist friends on meds, mania, & mental health, all prevented me from addressing this sooner. I first wrote about how working for Disability Rights New York helped me accept my own diagnosis and begin treatment this summer for the National Disabled Law Student Association. As soon as I posted publicly about my diagnosis, some folks who look the most put-together, including colleagues, current and former mentors, and former bosses, all privately shared their struggles with me. That experience shaped one of my new goals, to break and fight the stigmas around mental health by being as open about my own condition as possible.
The disease was formerly called manic depression, and some literature, art, and older medical news still use that term as well. Here is a thoughtful exploration of a famous celebrity with bipolar disorder, Kanye West, who has openly discussed being unmedicated, resulting in manic symptoms playing out in public. Here is some more formal, medical information about the mental illness he and I share, Bipolar disorder.
The week after I was formally diagnosed (Bipolar 1 Disorder) I was watching the Hannah Gatsby Netflix special Douglas. It was a brilliant stand up special, filled with hilariously funny and incredibly moving moments. In the show she recounts how, after discussing mental health and medication on stage, someone chided her that “if Vincent van Gogh had taken medication, we wouldn’t have had the Sunflowers.” But Gatsby has an art history degree, so she explained that “Vincent was being medicated with a derivative of the foxglove plant when he painted his Sunflowers, and if you overdose a bit, you know what happens? You can experience the color yellow a little too intensely. So perhaps we have the Sunflowers precisely because Van Gogh medicated…romanticizing mental illness is ridiculous. It is not a ticket to genius. It’s a ticket to nowhere.” (more on Van Gogh’s mental health here.)
My biggest frustration about treating my bipolar is the medication. At first, I thought I could just take some pills to solve this chemical imbalance and forget about it. But managing my symptoms is an ongoing process, it requires a certain vigilance I was not anticipating back when I was initially diagnosed. You can be doing everything “right”, taking medicine daily, following your treatment plan, & still have a manic episode. Adjusting medicine takes weeks, tapering on and off, which can lead to weeks of well controlled, but persistent, manic symptoms.
Mania is hard to describe without getting into ~feelings~ or using metaphors but for me it’s a physical and mental sensation, like way to much caffeine, everything is turned up to 11, I feel uncomfortably amped up, talk even faster then normal, can not sleep, can not stop, have to go-go-go-go without really finishing anything. Sometimes it includes coming up with big ideas, filling pages in my notebook or calling a friend with bold claims. In a really bad episode, there might be a hallucination thrown in, just for fun.
Sometimes the hyper, happy-then-angry-then-happy, elevated energy last for hours. Other times, the state is more mixed, rapid cycling between up up manic and down down depressed. This is the worst kind of episode, because at least a long up swing can sometimes be useful to get a project completed.
The most vicious thing about mania is that, despite having really distributive, potentially dangerous consequences, and being disturbing to the folks who know you best, in the moment it feels kind of good? Manic Jeremy feels powerful, unstoppable, attractive and able to achieve any goal. Logic gives way to a dangerously unbridled confidence. A short walk to the store becomes a miles long run the Brooklyn Bridge and back. An idea for a paper becomes a six page dissertation. An idea becomes a full one-act play written with a broken pen on the back of my torts outline.
November 2020, six months into bipolar treatment, I’m still figuring it out. I recently had to miss a few days of school when one of my medicines stopped being effective, spinning me out into a manic episode after weeks of stability. Because I have access to telehealth and healthcare, have been in therapy for over a year, have a strong support system of family and friends, have a good reputation with some professors and deans, and had disclosed my condition to the University, I was able to ride that wave safely, get a new, effective dose of medicine, and make up the work I missed easily when I was back to stable.
But not everyone is as lucky to have any of the factors above. That is why I will continue to write and speak openly about my condition, advocate for others with mental illness as a disability rights attorney, and work to break the stigma around mental health. Thank you for reading this, and feel free to check out the bonus mental health resources below.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness has an array of resources for everyone on a wide variety of mental health issues, not just bipolar disorder.
The book Rock Steady by Ellen Forney is a comprehensive introduction to bipolar disorder treatment, is a very easy read, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone dealing with mental health issues directly or through a loved one. #SMEDMERTS
Below is a longer, beautifully designed video that gets deeper into the variations of bipolar disorder. I have type 1, which involves alternating manic and depressive episodes.
Below is a good visual representation of what a manic episode often feels like for me, with a track by one of my favorite musicians.
Below is a (rare) accurate media representation of bipolar disorder. For context, this actor below is bipolar and is playing a fictionalized version of himself. Prior to this scene, the audience has seen how mania has negatively impacted his life, cost him jobs, and lead to hospitalization after a heartbreaking manic episode in public.
Mediation apps like Headspace and Calm have been key parts of my treatment plan as an early intervention when feeling a manic episode coming on. There are many free resources for guided mediations on YouTube as well.
Dr. Tracey Marks (above) does a good job of breaking down the symptoms of the manic episodes, as well as the differences between bipolar 1 and bipolar 2.