Can You See (The Real Me)?

Although neither end of the bipolar spectrum is ultimately, particularly pleasant – especially for a loved one of a bipolar sufferer – if you were to ask my wife Julie which, if she had to choose, would she prefer to deal with she would un-equivocally state depression. I, on the other hand, wouldn’t hesitate to state hypomania and why wouldn’t I? I feel happy and good about myself; my senses are on high alert – colours are brighter and hearing is acute – making the world seem a more wonderful place to live. My mind is even sharper than usual and I can work my way through difficult texts with consummate ease. Everything about me is in fast forward and it feels exhilarating… but that’s just how it feels to me. From Julie’s perspective I am agitated and argumentative for no reason, which is not who I really am and of course I’m not open to listen to this assessment as I think it is everybody else. That is to say that everyone else is too slow, wrong or both! I don’t usually suffer fools gladly but when I am hypomanic it seems like everybody is a fool so agitation and arguments naturally follow, especially as I am more likely to vocalise my feelings. Julie says I’m like a dog with a bone and in retrospect that’s a fair summary. Now, please don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that depression is easy to deal with for loved ones; it isn’t! However, for Julie dealing with me when I am depressed is easier than when hypomanic or manic. I’m just as unreasonable and there is only so much she can do but when depressed I am not at all obtrusive and much more pliable. In addition, the good feelings of hypomania don’t last too long before I become suspicious and, at times, paranoid with my mind making links between disparate experiences and creating a narrative between them that doesn’t mirror reality. When stable I am usually an incredibly rational man but when ill I’m beyond reasoning. It really is astounding what the mind can do through an imbalance of certain chemicals and a subsequent shift in mood. Even people without manic depression can think differently dependant on their mood at a given time but for the manic depressive it is extreme, even to the point of changing personality, all of which leads me to the subject of this blog: ‘Can You See (The Real Me)?

The song after which this blog is entitled is taken from The Who’s Quadrophenia, which is the story of a young man with four basic elements to his personality: a tough guy, a romantic, a lunatic, and a hypocrite. Sometimes one could just as easily be another, and he shifts easily and readily between the four. They were facets of the same personality – sometimes interacting and sometimes clashing – but the song asked the question who he really was, which is a question that resonates with me when I think about the course of my illness throughout my life. At the moment Julie and I are reading a book (Last, C.G., 2009. When Someone You Love Is Bipolar. New York/London: The Guilford Press) and it addresses this very issue. (As an aside, the book is one of the better ones I’ve read on Bipolar Disorder. Some of it is specific to an American audience but the majority is useful for anybody either in a relationship with a Bipolar sufferer or for Bipolar sufferers themselves. It is incredibly reassuring and doesn’t just focus on the dramatics of the illness). Anyway, going back to the issue at hand, the author suggested that the partner compile a list detailing the character traits of their loved one when they are stable; their core personality if you like, as a baseline. That way, we would recognise any deviance from the list as the illness if it lasted for a prolonged period; otherwise I could just be having a bad day, which we are all prone to. Now this list is incredibly useful – in addition to humbling – but it has raised two issues that have caused me significant thought. The first of these is how can I not accept responsibility for the things I’ve said and done while ill? In other words, how can I accept that it is not me? The second is how other people have seen me throughout my life.

Following a recent episode of hypomania I ended up at my GP’s and he tried to reassure me that I shouldn’t feel guilty for the way I had been while hypomanic. He told me that it was an illness, it wasn’t my fault and I should ‘make friends’ with my Bipolar. Easy for him to say! The idea that I shouldn’t take responsibility for things I’ve said and done is an anathema to me and I know, from countless experiences, that it is for others. The idea that I can’t control what I’m doing – that something – takes me over is difficult for me to accept and almost impossible for the majority of people I’ve known to come to terms with, which is hardly surprising; it is almost the realms of science-fiction. In addition the idea that I should ‘make friends’ with an illness that has destroyed my life on numerous occasions is, at face value, ludicrous! I’ve never been one for accepting what people said to me just because they are in a position of authority and this was no different. I went away and I thought about it; then I thought about it some more and came to the conclusion that while I didn’t agree with him entirely there was an element of truth in what he said. Whilst I wouldn’t use the phrase ‘make friends’ it is important to recognise that it is as much a part of me as, say, my ability to understand. Yes, it is an illness (and one I’d rather not have – I’d rather be all the things on Julie’s list all the time) but as it is chronic I continue to learn how to live with it. As such, dealing with the guilt is an ongoing process and I’m not sure I’ll stop taking responsibility for things that I – even though ill – have done. It is possible to demarcate between the illness and me (as Julie’s list showed) but it’s not always so clear cut, which leads me to my second issue of how others have seen me during the course of my life.

If the following is to make any sense at all (debatable) it has to be born in mind that I was diagnosed seven years ago and only found the right cocktail of medication four years ago, following a stay in hospital but, I have had this illness for at least all of my adult life. As such, if we were to go back in time (definitely sci-fi this time) and ask someone who knew ‘me’ well to write a list in the same vein as Julie had produced it would undoubtedly be very different. Of course some aspects would be the same but not many. For one, it would be different because people change through the gathering of experiences and reflection (if they’re wise!) but more importantly there was no diagnosis and therefore no illness. What they saw and heard was me; basically difficult. Lee said it, Lee did, therefore Lee is… Nothing else was causing it; it was just the way I was. Sadly, as a result of the illness not being known about most people I knew pre-2008 aren’t in my life anymore so they’ve probably never seen the real me (not that most would accept that) but it’s not just the medication that has revealed ‘The Real Me’. Learnt behaviour can take a while to unlearn and that’s the road I’ve been travelling the last four years. Being able to think clearly and being aware that I have a mental illness has meant that I have been able to make adjustments to limit the hold Bipolar has on me. That said, I know that whatever I do, sometimes it will break through and we just have to ride it out. There are times when I wish that those who knew ‘me’ then could know me now but then I recognise it is a futile desire. There was too much upset, too much hurt, too much unfathomable behaviour and way too much ignorance about mental health to conclude anything except that I was bad. I doubt that would change even though they now know the diagnosis. Still, I guess an unwillingness to accept mental illness is part of the stigma, but then that’s another blog!

I honestly don’t know whether other people give so much consideration to whom they really are (probably not) but for me, suffering from an illness that affects my core personality, it is important. In summary, it is in knowing ‘The Real Me’ and being sure that at least Julie ‘sees’ that we are better able to deal with the times when it isn’t me, even when that is done retrospectively. Put another way, I can see the real me, so I know when I’m not… eventually; even if others don’t!

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