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Is It My Bipolar… Or Just Being a Jerk?

By: Paul Carey

(The short story of a bipolar professional and a personal jerk)

Sometimes the line between bipolar and jerk isn’t as transparent as I’d like it to be. To be clear, they are not one in the same. Bipolar is a non-optional mental illness. Being a jerk is a choice. Although, in my younger days, no matter how big of a jerk I was in any given moment, I always used bipolar as the be-all and end-all, excuse. And why not? It was so easy! My favorite interpretation of my mental illness was… Holy smokes, I can do whatever I want and just blame bipolar. Fantastic! No accountability for me. Hooray!

We’ll fast forward through my first 30 years on this planet and experiences with medications, psychiatric hospitals, self-harm, and electroconvulsive therapy and skip to the part where we find out if I’m bipolar or just being a jerk.

(If you’d like to hear the whole story you can click here)   

Professionally, I’m the guy that coaches the toughest health challenges on the planet and helps them complete half marathons. If you ask anyone I coached, they’d tell you I’m the epitome of kindness and if anyone ever genuinely referred to me as a jerk, they’d defend my honor to the death. The mere thought of me being a jerk is simply preposterous.

Personally, I can be as big a jerk as anyone! Just ask my parents, wife and sisters.  

Need Examples?

  • Doctor at psychiatric hospital - “Paul, did you need to chuck that plate of nachos across the cafeteria?”
  • Me – “Hey, I’m bipolar. What do you expect?”
  • Mom – “Oh my god Paul, why did you tattoo BIPOLAR in huge letters across your back?”
  • Me – “I think the tattoo is self explanatory.”
  • Any one of my five sisters - “Ugh, why are you such a jerk!”
  • Me – “I’m not a jerk, you just don’t understand bipolar!”

When my career in community outreach started about 8 years ago, out of necessity, there quickly became two very distinctly different “Pauls” --- Professional Paul and Personal Paul. In short, professional Paul was a noble community outreach servant with a heart of gold, looking to change lives. Personal Paul was, often times, a jerk. 

This led me to ask myself one very important question: 

  • Question…How come I can control being a jerk at work but I can’t control being a jerk at home?
  • Answer… I can control being a jerk at home, I’m just choosing not to.

Dammit! Why do I have to ask myself such insightful questions and why am I answering them honestly? Now I have to hold myself accountable. Ugh.

Professionally, my job is all about manipulating variables to get the desired outcome. Navigating the tricky waters between bipolar and being a jerk works the same way. As a coach, there are certain variables I can’t control such as if someone has, a heart transplant, knee replacements, autism, spinal fusion or suffers from brain cancer. I know these variables before we start and they are not changeable. However, I can control many other variables regarding how they workout, how they run, how they eat and how they rest. Making smart choices regarding variables I can control greatly increases the odds of achieving the desired outcome of completing a half marathon.  

Personally, the variable I can’t control is bipolar. Again, I know this ahead of time. In many situations I struggle to understand my feelings, outrageous thoughts, visceral gut-wrenching frustration and the desire to be a total jerk. These are all variables I can’t control. However, there are two variables I typically do have control over--- actions and words. Respecting the fact that I do have control over these two very important variables greatly increases the odds of achieving the desired outcome of not being a jerk.

When something goes awry, and I boil up inside, I always imagine my situation as an unlit, well-kindled stack of firewood. As the situation intensifies I imagine bipolar as a huge can of gasoline that is being poured over the top. By the time the situation has reached its critical mass, I am standing over the gasoline-drenched woodpile holding a lit match. However, I always have the choice of dropping the match on the woodpile or blowing out the flame.

Professionally, I never drop the match. I know there are consequences for my actions and words. My reputation, trust and employment are on the line at all times. I know this and for the last 8 years I’ve been able to present a person that appears to be the antithesis of what it means to be a jerk. I’ve become quite good at compartmentalizing when absolutely necessary. However, at home, I can be a jerk and none of those things are on the line. So does that make it ok to drop the match?

No. In fact, there is much more at stake at home. Home is where real life happens and I get to be myself. So is my real self a jerk? At home, I have a wife who loves me and the more someone loves me, the more of a jerk I can be and get away with it. Once I realized this, I understood how much power I really had. However, once I came to terms with the fact that I can choose my words and actions not just professionally but personally as well, my personal life became exponentially better. I don’t think it is coincidental that I met my wife right about the same time I had this epiphany.

My wife is objectively the kindest and sweetest person you will ever meet. She is the anti-jerk. My family has already made it clear that if there is ever a divorce they are keeping her and getting rid of me. To my family’s defense, even I agree that would be the right thing to do. This makes life even harder. If only she was a jerk too, I could just blame her but no such luck. I got stuck with a beautiful, kind and unconditionally loving wife. I just can’t catch a break. Living with someone like this only amplifies the need for self-accountability.   

I will say, it is much harder to be less of a jerk in my personal life than in my professional life, especially after a long day of not getting to be a jerk at work. Sometimes its like a jerk bomb goes off the minute I get home. I know I’m biased but I think it is harder for a bipolar person to be less of a jerk. We are, by nature, a volatile population. Our emotional spectrum feels much wider than most, lending itself to more opportunities to be a jerk. However, this doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

My transition hasn’t been one from jerk to non-jerk. The transition has been more like from “jerk” to “slightly less of a jerk” with each passing year. On my current trajectory, I should be somewhat pleasant to be around by the time I’m 104. I guess that’s something my wife has to look forward to.

For me, life comes down to one word, choices; I don’t have a choice when it comes to being bipolar but I can choose not to be a jerk. I don’t say this as a blanket statement for all bipolar people, but it is certainly true for me. The only one, who will ever truly know if my words and actions are a result of being bipolar, or if I’m just being a jerk, is me.

- Paul Carey

Community Program & Outreach Manager

Tri-City Wellness & Fitness Center, Carlsbad, CA

Comments

I'll be 68 in August and too old to be a jerk and hoping to make amends in this life. I'm still working on things I did 30 years ago. I hope that keeps me focused and a stable.

I use to question myself the same thing- why can I control it at work and not home? fired 3 times let me realize I am not “controlling” anything very well. Therapy+medication is my only hope. Too bad unemployable = neither of those.

I don't know. It's not being a jerk. It's my yelling and paranoia destroying me. People are afraid of me. I have two daughters who won't talk to me now. I'm not trying to use it as an excuse. But it took 42 years before somebody told what the issue was. I hope I can find a job that can help me focus and not think about who's out to get me. I screamed so bad at my kids that police came. And it was over dishes. Freaking dishes. Control is so hard. And it feels like I'm going 0-60. Two days ago, a psychiatrist said you have nothing in meds to help the paranoia. Finally I got a med, please pray that this works. Cause I'm almost out of time to repair these relationships.

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