Since it is halfway through May you’ve probably heard that it is Mental Health awareness month. Living mindfully with bipolar disorder usually means that I am excruciatingly aware of the state of my own mental health, but there have been times in my life where my own awareness of the route my life has taken shines at me like a garish neon sign, complete with several arrangements of plastic plants that have gone too long without being dusted.
Last week was one of those times. I found the experience of having the differences of my life compared to what’s typical for a person my age lined up like a bad buffet a little ironic considering the fact that it is Mental Health Awareness month because no matter how aware I think I am at any given time there is always something more to discover.
Going to happy hour with friends is often an obvious reminder that the people I associate with all have jobs, careers even, and I do not.
Sitting at a friend’s wedding is usually a pretty stark reminder that despite being 30 and having seen the vast majority of my friends get married (and then even about 50% of them get divorced), I haven’t encountered either of those experiences.
Being 30 has seemed to put me in a position where I can feel even more estranged from my peers because many of them are now having children, something so far removed from my own radar that the prospect seems entirely alien to me.
In my mid-twenties it really bothered me that as I moved forward in life I seemed to have less and less in common with the people around me. Queue the “quarter life crisis”.
What was I doing with my life? Why was I different from my friends? Should I change direction to try to fit into the majority? Would it make me feel… better?
Admittedly, it was many of my friends who worked to remind me that I’ve never really done what was expected and that that was one of the things they admired about me. I found myself trying to get a better understanding of my own values and where they came from, but ultimately I couldn’t ignore the elephant in the room.
I live with treatment resistant bipolar disorder.
And while I knew this contributed to being different somehow, my understanding of why has changed a lot over the years.
Through my teens and early twenties I seemed to believe that having bipolar disorder meant I was broken in some way. Like I was a warped piece in life’s puzzle that no longer fit and would eventually be discarded. My depression often made quick work of stripping my self-esteem until I believed I was worthless, and the people I surrounded myself with didn’t always do much to counteract that idea.
Through my teens and early twenties I ALSO believed at times (hello bipolar disorder) that I might actually be a creative genius, or a god of some kind, or that I could ride bipolar disorder like a rocket to leave the planet entirely and find the one I was meant to live on. I thought perhaps harnessing the intense energy it gave me would produce amazing things, and at times it did, but never for very long.
In my mid-ish twenties I made my biggest effort to “fit in” since elementary school. I got myself a degree and a career and a stable long-term relationship. I saw bipolar disorder as a hurdle, something I could certainly overcome with a little help. It was only a matter of finding the right way to dodge it in order to be able to swim in the same pool as everyone else and climb life’s ladder to get promoted, to get married, and to live like anyone might without it.
In my late twenties it became clear that my symptoms were not responding to drugs, and as my psychosis and cycling grew in speed and magnitude the life I imagined would not work as a place for me to reside while I spent most of my waking hours arm-wrestling my symptoms. Bipolar disorder became something constant that I saw evidence of every day, and had to work every day to keep from self destructing.
That evolution that led me from trying to follow the beaten path to realizing that my illness was something I needed to grapple with every day has made a huge difference in how I have created my life’s goals. Of course, this wasn’t something I realized until last week.
I was at a party last week when that neon sign came on, the one suggesting how different I am from the majority of my peers. The moment came when I realized I was having a hard time relating to the conversation because I hadn’t had many of the experiences being discussed. I haven’t been married, I’ve never traveled through Europe, I don’t have a career, and I don’t have children either. I felt ashamed for a moment as I hovered around a 21 year old and discussed art because I couldn’t relate to any discussions being had by anyone my own age.
I left feeling awfully… well, confused. There really wasn’t much room for sadness, as I said this has been a theme that I have been growing accustomed to over the last ten years. I felt no jealousy for not having any of the experiences I listed, just an odd sense of displacement for not being able to relate to them. I wondered what the next ten years would be like if things kept up this way and if I would have to keep continuously searching out people like me to have something in common to talk about. Would I find myself 40 and milling around 21 year olds?
Thankfully it wasn’t twenty four hours before I had a revelation that put my mind at ease. The feeling of not belonging, of not fitting in became much less important (as it usually does when these things happen) once I put my finger on it because the idea that I have accomplished very little in my 30 years was stamped out. After all, that was what was bothering me most. These other women had met huge milestones in their lives and I had hit none, what had I been doing with all my time??
It was just as I mentioned before, having treatment resistant bipolar disorder has had a big impact on my life and the decisions I have made, but the past ten years the biggest difference has been in how it has informed the creation of my goals. Before containing and managing my symptoms were where my work week went, my goals were just like anyone elses.
Work at a job that I enjoyed and get promoted.
Earn money that I could save to travel.
Get married and maintain a healthy relationship with another person.
…yeah, sorry, not the kids thing though. That was never on the list.
Buy a house and land I could call my own.
I am not here to say that having bipolar disorder has derailed those plans entirely, but when I found that my symptoms couldn’t be controlled with medication I had to take a detour. I needed to create goals to help me understand how to live with my illness without the aid of psychiatric drugs because they weren’t working. That means in the last 5-10 years I have been busy working to find the answers to the following questions instead (among others):
How can I have a healthy relationship with another person when I can be volatile?
How can I be accommodating to other people without feeling used?
How can I create balance in my life?
How can I figure out what I am truly good at?
How can I take care of myself in a healthy way?
What can I do to find peace in the fact that my life is different from the lives of others?
If I can’t change it, how do I accept the hand that has been dealt to me?
Are there any ways it is helping, rather than harming me?
Most of my goals have been internal, things to understand and figure to make my life better -and better the lives of my friends and family around me in the process. It has seemed imperative to understand these things before following most external goals. After all, it has seemed clear to me that setting up a stable foundation and understanding of myself and my symptoms can help me build a more stable life that will be less likely to collapse at the first sign of trouble. I’m learning to crawl before I am learning to walk, after all:
If I can’t control myself, what good is earning and saving a bunch of money if I only spend it during a manic episode?
Knowing how difficult it can be to live with or communicate with me because of my symptoms, how can I justify making a life-long commitment to someone when I can hardly keep a friendship or relationship for a few years?
If I can’t effectively take care of myself in a healthy way, how in the world could I possibly take care of someone else?
This reflection definitely helped me feel more at ease with the last few years and how I have spent my time. At first glance I may appear to have little to show for it; a sporadic blog, a failed attempt at applying for Social Security, significantly more days spent in my apartment than anywhere else…
but ultimately the knowledge I’ve gained about myself, how to live with what I have been given, how to interact with other people, and how to be open about the things I am dealing with makes me optimistic that I’ll have a more solid foundation for getting (and keeping) the things that I want. As I said, I may not have a lot to show for it right now, no career or marriage or kids, but I am hopeful that taking the time to figure myself out will put me in a much better position if those things ever pop into my life. It might not be this year, it might not be next year, but I’ve got a lifetime to figure it out.