I have bipolar schizoaffective disorder. I’ve had it since as long as I can remember, it first rearing up in lesser form when I was a child. Of course, the older I get the stronger it becomes, so my actual diagnosis was when I was thirty one. That was for bipolar disorder, which became easier to deal with once I learnt Carrie Fisher aka Princess Leia had it; the schizoaffective bit was added on later. What did he say? Schizo? Hell no! Run for the hills!
Before I continue, referring to people as ‘schizo’ is as offensive to me as referring to someone as ‘a bit bipolar’, which in my book is as offensive as using derogatory language to refer to someone’s race. In short – do not do it.
Schizoaffective. Now let me explode a myth: I don’t talk in different voices - well, apart from the great Jedi Master that is Yoda; I do a simply stellar impression of him. Nor do I have split personalities, correctly known as dissociative identity disorder. I should add that in movies and TV shows, switches between alternate identities tend to be wildly exaggerated for dramatic effect. In reality, for the vast majority of people with dissociative identity disorder, switching between can’t be identified by a casual observer at all.
Now I may hear different voices, auditory hallucinations as they’re called, but these are really far more troubling for me than they would be for you. Interestingly, hearing voices is surprisingly common; around one in ten people experience them. Some can be benign, although mine unfortunately are anything but. They can be as distinct and clear as any other ‘real’ voice I might hear, which can make it mildly disconcerting to deeply disturbing; can you imagine experiencing a considerable amount of sound that is a blurred existence of reality/fiction, impossible to differentiate.
However, the schizoaffective aspect of my mental health does not make me a public threat, nor violent. I promise you I’m really rather kind and gentle. Hollywood, I think, has a lot to answer for in creating alarming misconceptions.
I’m going to assume you know nothing, and so will now illuminate further on my bipolar disorder. Firstly, I am not bipolar - I have bipolar. Is there a difference? I think so, because I am not my illness; it is part of who I am yes, but not all of who I am. Too often I hear people refer to others as being “a bit bipolar”, even if they don’t have the illness, as some sort of derogatory evaluation of who that person is. And as I’m presently on that tip, the term “schizo” can be frequently thrown about as a woefully incorrect and derisory observation. It’s also rather disturbing how common the mixup is between the words psychosis and psychopath, I have the former but I’m certainly not the latter.
Anyway, having Bipolar Disorder, I experience emotions just like you do, although I can also be engulfed by extremities, such as being gripped by an ecstatic hypermania or a crippling depression, both of which have little to do with my outside world.
Depression is, as one would expect, cold. It literally freezes me to the core. I am stilled, but not peacefully so. A dark wind blows hauntingly through the hallowed halls of my mind that are horrifyingly hollow, devoid of pleasure, joy, or any positive perception, cleaving to a pain that numbs me with an icy grip. My thoughts go from, at best, an isolationist sense of greedy, gargantuan gloom to the worst, a relinquishing of respect for life itself. I must note, I have never wanted everything to end, but the intention to make it, arising from a point of seeing no other choice available to me, has come to the fore more times than I wish to recall, though once would be one time too many.
Hypermania - oh me oh my! It consumes as competently and completely as does its opposite, although what it gives rise to is infinitely more compelling. Seductive beyond reason, it makes me Casanova and Rockefeller, Socrates and Beethoven, sometimes I am even Zeus. A trumpet voluntary rings continually in my ears, heralding my every move. I am golden light itself, shining with unimpeachable glory, manifesting the power of 'I' to the Tenth Degree, the calibre of which is richly creative and incautiously triumphant.
Everyone experiences mania differently, whether it’s delusions such as thinking you have superpowers - tick, suddenly getting it into your head to get on a train to Scotland instead of the train home - tick, not sleeping because you have so much to write or paint - tick, or suffering hallucinations - tick. Losing control of your mind is odd to say the least. Imagine losing control of your limbs – having them dance about or do things without your input. Then apply that to your daily thought processes.
The rollercoaster of my mental health can be exhausting.
I'm not talking of the extreme battles of hypermania and depression now. I'm talking about the everyday ride. Because as I try to navigate my way through each moment and all it brings, I have to also deal with peaks of emotion that can arise at any time without warning or provocation - I’m someone who ultradian cycles, which means it can all switch damn fast; sorrow, grief, joy, anger - the list goes on. Seriously, I can be so content and happy one minute and so overcome by sadness the next, such thought and feeling bearing little if any relevance to what I'm actually experiencing. It's like someone has just pressed a button on a remote and changed the channel. And of course this is all going on whilst I'm trying to muddle along as best as I can with my impaired cognitive thinking.
This is another aspect of bipolar disorder that I have to battle with most of the time that often goes unconsidered – cognitive impairment. Not only can it get in the way of that which is enjoyable, meaningful or worthy in life, it can be also be yet another incredibly isolating aspect of this illness.
So what is cognitive impairment?
Well our cognitive self relates to the mental processes of perception, memory, judgment, and reasoning – ‘executive functioning’ as it’s called. Perception - well, as established, auditory, and occasionally visual hallucinations can beset me at anytime. Memory, mine is both acute - and vacant, depending on what I’m wishing to view clearly. Judgement and reasoning; well looking at my finances would be a good place to start in getting a picture there - if I have £10 I’ll somehow manage to spend £25.
I’m possessed of infuriating indecision, desolate disorganisation and a great difficulty concentrating, even on something as mundane as a tv programme. This impacts my ability to work, to study and even challenges the balance of my personal relationships - I irritate people, experience has shown me this very well; they may love me, but oh do I annoy them too. You may say it’s like that for all of us at times, but remember, I am annoying people because of an illness, and that’s just, well, cruel.
Bipolar episodes can also impact my working memory, and the significance can be dependent on whether I am depressed or manic. When depressed my cognitive functions are much slower and it is harder to retain information. On the other hand, when I am manic my brain is racing and so I generally filter out pretty much anything other than that which I am hyper focused on.
With planning escaping me and organising eluding me this gives rise to anything from mild irritation to considerable anger in others, because it’ll be viewed as a lack of effort, they don’t understand how I can find even the remotest challenge in such simple tasks.
I forgot how to remove an unwanted app from my iPhone the other day, something so simple. It was beyond frustrating. The same saw me forget how to poach an egg on toast once. Hell, I have even forgotten how to make a cup of tea! Yes, a cup of tea. That might sound crazy, but I can assure you I stood there in a room full of people unable to fathom if the teabag went into the cup before the water, and where came the sugar and the milk. I even forgot to boil it. Now this afflicted me for just a few short minutes, but the battle with myself, the shame at such a straightforward and automatic task escaping me was palpable. It brought tears to my eyes, and even now I tell you so with great embarrassment. But it helps bring the concept of just what a loss of this ‘executive function’ is, into the light.
My IQ hasn’t dropped. None of this makes me stupid. Far from it, sometimes I’m brilliant! And as I’ve pointed, I’m not always so afflicted anyway. But I’d like others to know that I can be, because it makes you feel so alien in a familiar world, and isolation isn’t pleasant for anyone. I never want pity either. Pity tends to be a comfort to the provider not the receiver. I just want others to realise that I’m different, that I think differently, that’s all. I often say, it’s not a disorder, it’s simply a reorder.
Finally, before it sounds all doom and gloom, let me be clear: If you told me I could take a potion and be rid of it all tomorrow, I’d probably say a polite “no thanks”.
It’s me, part of who I am, and we’re all unique and unrepeatable.
Plus, if it doesn’t get too out of control, I have to be honest and say hypermania is absolutely amazing; it’s when my creativity soars to levels unparalleled, and I feel sublimely engaged with the world, finding beauty and wonder everywhere I look. I think my illness has also helped me develop patience, compassion and empathy with others too. I am proud of who I am and how I cope and I wouldn't change me for the world. Except maybe those depressions, yeah, I could do without them for sure.
As I always say, one in four of us has poor mental health at some point in our lives, so if it’s not you it’s someone you care for. We need to treat it the same as physical health - if you have a broken leg you get to hospital sharpish and see to it being fixed.
I decided some time ago that if I couldn’t tame this bipolar beast I could at least learn to keep it on a leash. The more you study within, the more you can carry forward.
Anyway, if you read all the way to this point you deserve a gold star - bravo and thank you.