It’s interesting, the way seeing smoke rising over a wooded hill is interesting, learning to take note of the first signs. Making coffee and being certain someone is standing just outside the door, and it’s not a housemate, and it’s not the cat and it’s not the wind. Jumping at noises no one else responds to—the way shadows start moving in the corner of your eye. An accidental all-nighter. A slight world tilt. Even a glow.
There is something vaguely Lovecraftian about bipolar disorder, how the big reveal is always that it was there in the room with us the whole time! Disturb the mysterious curtain in the slightest and the threshold is there, begging to be traversed in one direction or another. You can take it on tiptoe over time, or in a single ragged leap.
Being happy and successful and bipolar puts me in a very good position to discuss the condition, the parts of it that feel like me and the parts that feel like something that happens to me, but it’s not a mantle I feel entirely comfortable taking up. I hesitate to write about bipolar disorder because I sought treatment four years ago, and responded very well, and the privilege of secrecy keeps me safe. Honestly, I want the work to have been done before me. I want to be talking about bipolar disorder the way I talk about my skin breaking out, or a tight but exciting deadline, not the way I’d tell a friend I’d ruined their favourite shirt.
I want to write about bipolar disorder because I want people to see that lots of kinds of people live with this mental illness, whether alongside it or deep in it, because there are countless positions it can take in a person’s life, and how these things are fluid and fascinating. It’s a lesson I wish I’d known when I was terrified and 22. Even more than that, I wish my friends and family had.
I don’t write about bipolar disorder because it doesn’t matter how happy or successful I am, or how vast and varied the bipolar experience may be. To a lot of people, being bipolar is the only qualifier I need to be only one kind of person, the wrong and scary and broken kind. It doesn’t matter whether or not I fit the profile; as soon as I identify myself, my feelings and actions are retroactively edited into a stereotype. I’m open with my friends about my diagnosis, but writing it down, writing it publicly, feels like a bigger step. The truth is, I don’t feel comfortable with ‘bipolar’ turning up next to my name in a google search, and I hate that, because part of me vainly hopes to maintain my public status as Schrödinger’s nutcase, possibly just a good ally, just a bit of a lefty, nothing in the box, nothing behind the curtain. It looks easier that way.
I don’t really think about being bipolar any more than I think about, say, personal hygiene. It is a constant ritual of maintenance, but it’s a lot better than bad breath. But if an acquaintance found out I brushed my teeth, they wouldn’t respond with, “I never thought you would be the kind of person to get tooth decay. I know you think you have a broken leg but could it actually be a cavity again? Like a real cavity?”
It’s good being stable and well, and it’s worth the work. It’s also pretty great being bipolar—I like having a brain that works at odd angles, always seeking meaning. I think it is why I write. It feeds my empathy; it gives me a reason to work hard. My ‘high functioning’ is less a state of mind than it is a life I’ve built that my brain can manage. 3 litres of water a day, meds, minimal drinking, working from home. Resisting the urge to pull at the curtain. The truth is I wear that high-functioning badge like fucking armour, to a self-censoring degree. Nobody can call me crazy if I don’t get angry. Nobody can call me crazy if I keep a full-time job. Nobody can call me crazy if I don’t get too drunk, don’t get emotional, don’t get emotional, don’t get emotional. Before I started taking meds I used to lock myself in my bedroom for days at a time, terrified of the deep pits of anger I would discover whenever I was manic. I’ve walked laps of Edinburgh Gardens from midnight till morning because my brain was moving too fast to be home. I’ve hurt myself. And I don’t talk about it—because I’m not crazy.
The unsung—and in my view worst—symptoms of bipolar disorder are all social. People give themselves permission to take on the role of arbiter of your emotions, as if your agency was a warranty you voided the day you sought help. I can deal with the odd glowing-feeling day, or run of sleepless nights. But having someone make judgements from on high about whether or not your feelings are correct is unbearable. It happens relatively often—get angry, and you’re ‘having an episode’, disagree with someone, and have you considered that your thinking may be disordered?
I say ‘you’ and mean ‘me,’ because I have learned to be defensive. At 22 I was so committed to being the brave crusader of mental illness positivity and transparency. At 26, I just never want to have to defend my right to having emotions again. It’s interesting how even the most progressive people will act as if mentally illness makes you impossible to gaslight; it’s interesting like fire cresting a peak.
If you don’t know anyone with bipolar disorder, consider that someone may be shrinking their world to protect themselves from the possibility of you. We may move fast sometimes, but you can do some catching up. If you’re a fellow bipole and fast-mover—I am writing this because I was scared to write it, and I don’t want you to be scared. The hard truth is that there are no cookies for being ‘the good crazy’ who never talks about it. The people who want that from you are not your friends. You’re not crazy. You can be the fire and the forested hill. We’re out here, and you’re doing so, so great.
Jini Maxwell is part tamagotchi, part eldritch ocean thing. She writes comics, poetry, and non-fiction in Melbourne.