As most people know, I suffer from bipolar disorder. They know because I have been very public about it. And I have been very public about it because I want to know that you can suffer from a debilitating mental illness and still lead a normal, happy life.
There are two kinds of bipolar disorder—type 1 and type 2. Type 1 is more severe—that’s what I have. Most people with Bipolar 1 find it difficult to hold down jobs, maintain relationships, or even function on a normal level in society. There are two phases: mania, and depression. Lots of people think that mania means happy—nothing could be further from the truth. Mania is not fun. It’s characterized by agitation, irritability, and taking humongous risks, and I’m not just talking about financial risks. You might do something like, say, sniff a co-worker’s chair in the middle of the day. Or run up a $10,000 tab at a strip club. Or fly into a rage. Or say things that make awkward situations even more awkward. You’re full of great big ideas about businesses that you will start and books you will write and movies that you will audition for. Grandiosity is a feature of bipolar mania—you think you’re the shit, and you tell everyone about it. Bipolar people are hard to be around.
Depression, on the other hand, is debilitating. It’s much worse than unipolar depression, the “regular” depression that most people suffer from. Here’s a stat for you: 1 in 5 people with Bipolar 1 will actually succeed in committing suicide. Nearly all of them will attempt suicide, but 1 in 5 will succeed. If you have Bipolar 1, you have a 20% chance of dying from the disease. Those are not good odds. I haven’t had a serious depression since 2013—because I dutifully take my medication. That year, I had to take two weeks off from work—I was immobilized on the couch. When depressed, I won’t eat, I won’t go outside—I’ll just sit and cry. It’s the most awful experience in the world. I get choked up just thinking about it. You see these commercials for bipolar meds on TV—there will be an actor that is sitting on the edge of the bed, looking off into space, feeling blue. Dang it all to heck, I’m too sad to finish this painting. How about writhing around on the floor, screaming, with snot coming out of your nose. They don’t show that in the commercials.
When I was in the throes of my illness, I was actually experiencing psychosis. I was seeing invisible people. I imagined that federal agents were following me, but it wasn’t my imagination—I was actually seeing them, as if they were real. So when people talk about going crazy, what they mean is that you lose track of what is real and what is not. Is my wife real? Is my house real? I lost track of reality in the winter of 2006, and it was the scariest thing I have ever experienced. That is how people commit suicide. And then everyone wonders why. I was very, very sick.
Bipolar disorder is a major handicap. The medication treats the symptoms, but the side effects are horrible. Weight gain being the biggest one—I’ve put on 50 pounds since being diagnosed, but also tardive dyskinesia, which comes from years of taking antipsychotics. My hands shake uncontrollably whenever I pick up an object or point at something. There are also significant sexual side effects. But guess what—you don’t hear me whining about how I can’t do this or I can’t do that. I don’t make excuses, and I don’t let it get in the way of my ambitions. I take my medication every single day. If I miss a day, I think about taking huge risks. If I miss a few weeks, the invisible people come back. I get plenty of sleep. And I am pitched in constant battle with my own mind, trying to figure out what is real and what is not. And even while taking the medication, I still have ups and downs. I have a progressively debilitating incurable mental illness. But I don’t let it stop me, and I never will.
Quite a few people suffer from bipolar disorder in the United States. About 5 million people have the less severe kind, Bipolar 2. About 500,000 have what I have, type 1. The antipsychotics that treat bipolar disorder are among the most commonly prescribed medications in world, frequently because they have off-label uses. So when people talk about stigmatizing mental illness, there really should be no stigma. Because when you add up bipolar disorder with depression and anxiety and schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder and everything else, it’s tens of millions of people. The stigma has certainly gone down in recent years, but you still don’t see people taking about it. It’s no different than having, say, diabetes, but people are much more willing to talk about diabetes than mental illness. My own father refused to accept my diagnosis—he saw it as weakness. But it doesn’t have to be a weakness—it can be a strength.
Bipolar people are often fantastically bright, creative people. You might find this interesting, but writers are disproportionately affected by bipolar disorder. Get this: 4 out of 5 poets have bipolar disorder. Actors, musicians, and other creatives are all afflicted at a higher rate. Catherine Zeta-Jones was public about having bipolar disorder: she has Bipolar 2. Apparently Kanye West has bipolar disorder. Kurt Cobain had it, and even wrote a song about lithium. There are many more people than that; you just never hear about it. What is the link between creativity and mental illness? I fascinated with how the brain works. For my part, I am a writer and a musician. And I have bipolar disorder. So I am like a cliché wrapped in a cliché. All I’m saying that what we might consider to be a negative might actually be a positive. I like who I am. I would not trade places with anyone.
I had a conversation with my wife one time about being a sperm donor—hypothetically, of course. She said that nobody would want my genetic material—because I am bipolar. Is that true? Would someone refuse sperm from a donor because of a genetic predisposition to mental illness? When that mental illness comes with so many gifts? If that is true, it would be too bad. Logically, maybe a prospective parent would want to spare their future child all the pain that comes with having that mental illness. But there are so many good things, too. I experience emotions in the way that very few other people do—and it has made my life experience so much richer.
There is a saying that you should be kind to everyone you meet, because you never know what people are going through. I find that to be true. So many people are struggling with this stuff, and crucially, it is not their fault. Once you have a crippling mental illness, you see the world in a different way. Maybe the person you think is bad is not bad at all—maybe they’re just sick. And we haven’t even talked about the most common mental illness of all—addiction, which affects many millions more people, destroys families, and ends lives. So take it easy on people. But know this: having a mental illness isn’t an excuse for shitty behavior. Nobody gets a pass. There are resources available to treat this stuff that just were not around 50 years ago. A diabetic has to take insulin every day. I have to take pills. There is not much difference. In both cases, not taking the medication leads to certain death.
It's not a handicap. It’s a blessing. I’m not looking for any sympathy—I’m the happiest guy in the world. All the pain I went through was for a purpose, and that purpose is to help people in the same situation. If I can help one person with this newsletter, then mission accomplished. If you do a couple of simple things on a daily basis, it gets better.
Go fuck yourself,
Music recommendation: CRi feat. Jesse MacCormack – Never Really Get There. The best track off of Anjunadeep 11. Can’t play it out. Too slow.
P.S. We’re Gonna Get Those Bastards will always be free. Feel free to forward to whoever you want.