Author: Neil McCarthy
Living with bipolar disorder often means I keep a layer of separation between others and me. Some close friends and family might know details of my illness, but not even my eight-year-old daughter knows why I spend 15 minutes every Sunday night planning out a week’s worth of medication.
My government job doesn’t make much room for psychiatric disorders (at least, on the surface), but friends in other communities, such as those focused on the arts, don’t seem to judge me.
A long-time saxophone player, I like to hang with other local musicians as much as my schedule allows. They welcome me when I show up at an occasional gig. On a winter night in early 2019, I stop into Best Video in Hamden, Connecticut, perhaps the last eclectic movie rental store in a 100-mile radius. The store features a dizzying array of titles, most of which one could not find on a streaming service. The venue also boasts a performance space and drink counter.
A friend and I sit at a high top, taking in a performance: a noisy sort of artist is twiddling knobs and creating unusual sounds from an extensive effects setup. At least I’m not listing to the Frozen soundtrack for the hundredth time, I tell myself.
The friend scratches his goatee and says to me, “Good to see you, Man. Haven’t seen you around in awhile. You still making tunes?”
“A little bit,” I say. “Mostly studio stuff though. ‘Alt-jazz’, I guess you could say. How about you?”
“Still doing my improvisational thing.”
“Cool,” I say, before an awkward silence sets in.
To break it, I nervously add, “I’m also working on a book. It’s mostly about my long recovery from bipolar and trauma.”
He fidgets with his beer glass a little and says, “Oh, um. That’s cool too.” We sit in silence for another minute before he says, “I’m gonna check out some titles. Good to see you, though.”
Sometimes I sit in silence with more intention, especially at a West Hartford meditation group. Time permitting, I sit with usually three to eight other meditators on Monday nights. This group also welcomes me despite my infrequent attendance. We sit together for two 25-minute periods, interrupted by 10 minutes of walking meditation and followed by a talk on mindfulness, meditation, and spiritual philosophy. At the very end, group members can share personal stories or observations from their practice.
On a Monday evening in the summer of 2016, I enter the parlor of the Unitarian Church. The group leader nods in my direction, “Good see you. It’s been a couple months, hasn’t it?”
Tonight, the group numbers at least 10, an unusually high turnout. With insomnia, anxiety, and summertime mania, my mind tonight has become unruly. The thoughts will not slow, and the mental static is cranked to the maximum. I tend to become chattier in moods like this.
The group leader rings the bell to end the session and gives a brief talk, most of which I cannot follow in my elevated mental state. Then he says, “Would anyone like to share?”
With little pause, I launch into some unbridled sharing. “I was really hoping that meditation would fix my brain. You see, I have bipolar, and sometimes I can’t sleep, work, or do much of anything, you know, with the delusions and poor attention. I sit in my meditation room and try to calm myself, but the thoughts keep dragging me away and I don’t know what to do about it. Do you have any suggestions?”
The leader plays with his gray mustache briefly and shifts around on his cushion. “I- I don’t know about that. We don’t meditate to fix anything or get anywhere; we sit to accept the present moment.”
“So I should just accept that I’m going insane?”
He pauses again. “In a way, yes. That’s a good place to start.”
I groan. Once the sharing ends, we gather in the hallway and put on our footwear. Normally, I would chitchat with friends about their practice and our families, but tonight, I feel embarrassed and quickly head for the parking lot. We never discuss my bipolar again.
The pandemic encourages me to look for more connection online in 2022. My men’s trauma group offers great support for male survivors like me, but I’m still searching for others with bipolar. A few Internet searches reveal the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA). A few mouse clicks take me to a calendar of online meetings.
I log on at the prescribed time to hear others struggling with issues similar to mine. Sharing about medications, doctors, and insurance companies strikes a chord with me. They also talk about side effects, mood changes, focus at work, and treatment.
Not long into the meeting, I work up the courage to share. “I’m Neil, and I had a full manic break at age 19 when I started having flashbacks. For the last 25 years, I’ve been piecing my life together, and things have been settling down lately. I’ve also finished the first draft of my memoir, and my therapist and I are discussing how it might affect my family if I released it.”
The meeting’s host looks straight into the camera and speaks. “Writing a book can be very cathartic. It’s up to you home much scrutiny you want to attract. But if you’re looking for an audience for your book, you’d find some takers here.”
Bipolar can cause serious isolation, but I searched many avenues to connect with others. Even though my meditation group and music friends couldn’t relate to bipolar struggles, they welcomed me in their own way. And though my bipolar friends might not identify with avid meditators or musicians, they understood me in a different way.
Like my friends in each of these groups did, people can ease the loneliness of those with bipolar by welcoming and accepting us without judgment.