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Are you “navigating bipolar country”?

Are you personally “navigating bipolar country”? Or is someone you care for doing so? If so, you’ll really enjoy learning from the diverse and thought-provoking personal essays in the 2022 anthology, Navigating Bipolar Country: Personal and Professional Perspectives on Living with Bipolar Disorder. In the photo above, you see me scribbling ideas for the anthology in my summer “outdoor office” — the front porch of our Montreal home. Love being out there after a too-long winter indoors! And especially love being stable: my bipolar had been under excellent control for three years when I published my 2018 memoir, Mad Like Me: Travels in Bipolar Country, and for five years when I first started working on the anthology project.

Do you make a habit of taking a notebook (electronic or old-school paper version like me) wherever you go, to capture insights, ideas, and plans? If not, I highly recommend this practice to increase productivity and focus. I still remember one dramatic session where I brainstormed possible titles for the anthology. I then sent a list of options to all the anthology contributors for them to “vote” on. The final title, Navigating Bipolar Country, was arrived at by consensus.

In my previous blog post, I mentioned that in future posts I would quote excerpts from various essays in the anthology to give you a taste of what’s in the collection. To start things off in this series, I will quote from the Preface I wrote for the book. (Note: the questions interspersed throughout were not included in the actual Preface and are included here just to stimulate your thinking.) Here goes:

“Something here for everyone!”

“Welcome! Whether you yourself have bipolar disorder—or another mental illness, perhaps—or whether one of your family members or friends has the disorder, or whether you are a health or other professional who works with bipolar patients and their families, you are sure to find insight, sustenance, and inspiration in this extraordinary collection.

“For those—like me—who have bipolar disorder, I hope you will learn from the experience of your peers in part 1 of the anthology, but equally from the candid reflections of family members in part 2. Their dedication and commitment often go unnoticed and unappreciated. As well, the insights of health and other professionals in part 3 should be of great interest.

“For family members, I hope you will gain greater insight into your loved one’s disordered world when you read part 1, into the challenges of fellow family members in part 2, and into the constraints faced by health professionals who treat your family member, both in hospital and in the community, in part 3.

“Finally, for professionals, may the true accounts in this book help you to better understand the struggles of your patients or clients, their family members, and your colleagues on the multidisciplinary health care team.

“There is something here for everyone!

“It’s been an honour for me to edit this anthology, and it’s now an honour for me to share it with you. May it give a small taste of what it’s like to navigate bipolar country.”

Q1: Which group (or groups) do you fall into: people living with bipolar, family members or friends, or health professionals? Do you know anyone who falls into two or even three of those categories? (It’s possible!)

My background with bipolar disorder

“I was diagnosed with rapid cycling bipolar I in 2008 at age 51. (Rapid cycling means that a person has four or more bipolar episodes in a year.) At times, my mania got so bad that I experienced psychosis: mainly visual hallucinations.”

Q2: If you have bipolar disorder, have you ever experienced psychosis? If so, how did it manifest in your case? What treatment did you receive to control it?

“Many have asked, ‘What’s it like to have bipolar disorder?’ Imagine: you never know if you’ll wake up the next morning and be able to function normally or not. It’s quite possible that you’ll be utterly paralyzed; unable to move at all. That’s depression, of course. Or maybe your legs will suddenly take it upon themselves to speed up, so that you can only scurry, run, dance, jump and skip, but not walk (like a ‘normal person’) or stand still. That’s either hypomania or mania. Either way, you just never know. You cannot make firm plans, not knowing what your legs will be doing on any particular day in the future. You’re simply not in control. Your legs, your body, your mind now have minds of their own!”

Q3: If you have the disorder, how would you describe “what it’s like” to someone who has no idea. What analogies would you use to try to help them understand?

“What an incredible relief, what a monumental gift it is, then, when you’re finally correctly diagnosed, and they find some magic combination of medications in the right dosages to gradually coax you back to stability. To mental health. To yourself.”

[For Amy Cox’s account about misdiagnosis that extended over several decades, please see: Beware of Misdiagnoses]

Q4: How long did it take for you to get a “correct diagnosis” and be prescribed appropriate treatment? If relevant, how long did it take you to stop being in denial about the diagnosis?

“But even then, there’s the overwhelming stigma to deal with. People who’ve heard that I have bipolar but don’t know me well (or don’t know that I’ve now been mentally stable for several years) often pull back in open fear when I enter a room or sit beside them. I feel like a leper! And the worst is that I then check myself: am I walking normally; speaking at a socially acceptable volume; smiling appropriately—not too much, not too little? Like Goldilocks looking for the perfect bowl of porridge, or bed, or whatever. It’s exhausting, and I resent having to do it. I hope this anthology will help to build understanding and break the stigma that affects us all.”

Q5: How has the social stigma against bipolar disorder in particular and against mental illness in general affected you and your family? What can we all do to fight stigma? (Small steps; I believe that every little action makes a difference…) Please post your ideas in the Comments below.

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So that’s a snippet from the Preface of Navigating Bipolar Country. Until next time, take good care!


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