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The Art of Coping With Bi-Polar Disorder

My goal in sharing my story is to reach anyone who is struggling and resisting getting help.

What comes to mind when you hear the term “bi-polar?” That’s the heavyweight champion of bat-shit-crazy, right? Are you picturing a glassy-eyed troll with bright red hair spraying an assault rifle across a packed movie theater? Or maybe some freak on the side of the road tying a yellow ribbon around that old, invisible Oak tree? 

How about a 51-year-old husband, friend, entrepreneur, mentor, photographer, writer and stoner? Someone who collects speeding tickets, eats too enthusiastically and gets greater joy from making others laugh than even laughing himself? If you think any, or all, of that sounds kind of manic, you’d be correct. Manic is sort of my middle name, and I’ve picked today to somersault out of the crazy closet.

I was first diagnosed with bi-polar disorder 17 years ago. I started writing down these thoughts a long time ago, but well before the recent wave of celebrity suicides. I lacked the courage to say anything publically about my diagnosis because I was profoundly ashamed. The stigma of mental illness is very real, and as our world gets meaner and meaner, the need to support one another increases exponentially. So, I’m putting on my big boy pants and sharing my story, because hopefully it will help someone fight that stigma and get the help they or a loved one needs. Who knows, maybe even you?

Some might be offended by my using the word crazy so matter-of-factly. Well, call me crazy but, if someone who’s been diagnosed with mental illness uses that word as an emotional shield while talking about something so painful and personal, that’s their right isn’t it? Having survived a couple decades since my crazy coronation, I’ve reached the point where I’m downright amused by the whole bi-polar thing. It’s hard to explain what it’s like, but here’s a shot. You know that moment when your dentist touches your lip, after shooting you up and asks if you can feel anything? You then pray you’ll really be right when you say “no.”  Let’s just I need an exit hit of Novocain because life is full of so many cavities.

These days accepting the fact that I experience the world differently than most people is extremely liberating. Once you reject society’s crushing expectations to conform and be just another brick in the wall, you see beauty all around you, most importantly, within yourself. I’ve been spilling my bi-polar beans to old friends, colleagues, family members and sometimes, complete strangers, which has been scary, cathartic, and instantly brought me closer to them. I recently told a longtime client my little secret, and her sweet reply made me literally LOL. “Well,” Monica said, “I always knew you were a little odd…”

Here’s another peek at what being bi-polar is like. Imagine being so fortunate that you have every reason in the world to celebrate life – a successful career, physical health, loving family and loyal friends – and yet you frequently think about what it would be like if all those wonderful people attended your funeral this weekend. Now, who among us hasn’t wondered morbidly what their own funeral would be like – and who’d be really upset — but generally you don’t think about that stuff constantly. For. Weeks. At. A. Time. Like I have. Even today when someone rich and successful like Kate Spade hangs herself, most people say they just don’t understand how someone could do that, whereas I’m thinking, “Yep. Makes perfect sense to me.”

I’ve owned a national PR and ad agency, Decibel Blue, for thirteen years. Before that, I was a producer in the motion picture industry for eleven. In case you’re wondering, yes, Hollywood is pretty much a petri dish for mental illness.  I’ve always branded myself as the “crazy creative guy,” and people usually laugh at the self-deprecating joke. Of course, little did they realize, I didn’t mean it in the Steve Martin “wild and crazy guy” sort of way. My special flavor of “crazy” is what clients hire us for. Ideas that catch a customer’s attention are often disruptive, which is to say, not “normal” or familiar. Call it a blessing or a curse, but I don’t have to struggle to think outside the proverbial “box,” because I’ve never resided there.

Thankfully, my partners and staff filter my ideas, making them safe for public consumption. The crazy ones then get locked back up like ‘the Gimp’ in Pulp Ficton. Without my patient, talented, patient, empathetic, and did I mention patient colleagues making my thoughts intelligible to people who don’t reside on my special slice of the Universe, I probably would have ended up shivering in a cardboard box under the freeway. Tragically, that’s where so many mentally ill people finish their lives.  The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that 20 to 25 percent of the homeless population suffers from severe mental illness, and some say that figure is a lowball estimate.

Forgive me for romanticizing the creativity that often accompanies mental illness, but I’m quite proud to paint with other bi-polar nut jobs like Hemingway, Van Gogh, Sinatra, Nietzsche, Cobain, Poe, Virginia Wolf, Pollock and Robin Williams. A study from Oregon State University found that, “those with bipolar illness appear to be disproportionately concentrated in the most creative occupational categories,” and that the “likelihood of being creative at work is significantly higher for bipolar than non-bipolar workers.”  Nobody is certain why this is, so I’ll skip dissecting the theoretical relationship between the brain’s diminished frontal regulation of subcortical affective systems involving the amygdala and striatum, and just say I’m grateful to be able to make a living taking pretty pictures and writing clever copy.

Here’s how being bi-polar was first explained to me. “Normal” people go through life with both an emotional safety net and a padded ceiling, in lieu of a padded cell. If something negative happens they might get temporarily depressed, but their brain chemistry keeps them from sinking too low. During the best of times they will get happy or even ecstatic, but not to the point where they engage in reckless behavior because they feel invincible. The bi-polar person, by contrast, lacks the net and ceiling. I’m like a rollercoaster that careens through life always on the brink of flying off the tracks, likely hurtling to a messy end. Up, down, up down and so on. The ride is scary and  you hope you’re safe until you’re not. This is what I’m chemically predisposed to do and that is where Big Pharma comes in. Remember when Ringo Starr said he got high with a little help from his friends? Some of my BFFs include Pfeizer and Merck, Johnson & Johnson, Lilly and Squibb. On Dasher. On Dancer. Rudolph, get your own mood stabilizer! If you have any of those stocks in your 401k then you have me to toast with that extra mimosa on your retirement cruise. Except these guys don’t make me ”happy.” They just keep me from getting too high, or too low, so I can stay on the tracks, enjoy my life and try to contribute to the well-being of others.

I take Wellbutrin (depression); Seroquel (for sleep—without adequate sleep, the brain cannot function); Lamictil (a mood stabilizer) and Lithium. I knock back more lithium every night than the Energizer Bunny on a Red Bull bender. That comes to 70 pills popped every single week. Thanks to the fully subsidized benefits my firm provides, I “only” shell out four thousand dollars a year in co-pays for my meds. Want to hear something truly crazy? If half the people in our country would vote in their own best interests we’d all have better healthcare. Imagine if more employers paid for the kind of insurance that treats mental health seriously. Props to companies like Twitter and Zappos who figured out the cost of paying 100% of an employee’s benefits is not only a great retention, productivity and profit strategy, it’s the humane thing to do. Unfortunately, Wall St. punishes CEO’s for being humane.

What separates bi-polar patients like me from the dangerous (or dead) ones is getting on the right meds and staying on them. Sadly, many people cannot afford them. Fine tuning the right “cocktail” can take months and many people give up. Some take their meds but expect life to be one big joyful playground once they’re “cured.” Disillusioned, they start to view the pills as their enemy and go off them. And, then there are those who feel better and ditch their meds because they genuinely don’t think they need them anymore. In the blink of an eye, any of those folks end up chirping with birds, buying ammo or “checking out” permanently.

Speaking of suicide, did I mention my Aunt killed herself when she was in her 50’s and my Dad did the same in his 70’s? To the best of my knowledge neither were ever diagnosed like I was, but consider this. “A first-degree relative of a person who has committed suicide is four to six times more likely to attempt or complete a suicide,” according to Dr. David Brent, psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Got to admit, I wish I had never learned that. It’s a pretty daunting forecast.

While I have never officially tried ‘unsubscribing’ permanently, between us, I will share that for pretty much my entire 35th year on this planet, kicking my own bucket was at the very top of my bucket list. Naturally, I did my due diligence on all kinds of methods but most had drawbacks. I think guns are pathetic and the people who worship them even more so, so that was out.  Jumping in the ocean was a non-starter because I’ve seen far too much Shark Week. Leaping off a tall building sounded like a really long time falling in slow motion, contemplating an irreversible decision. A handful of pills was a strong option but if I didn’t gobble enough down I could end up on a ventilator with the personality of broccoli and I’d already put everyone around me through more than enough drama.  Nope, I’m an old-school kind of guy, so running a car in a garage was my top choice. My plan was to lease a house but not pay rent for a few months. I’d then call the landlord, tell him the check was waiting, uncoil the old garden hose and boom, he’d find my over-sized, Smurf-colored corpse! The huge upside to this exit strategy is it’s painless, guaranteed to work and I could ensure being discovered by a stranger. Trust me, having found my dad and then dealt with a Detective’s impotent attempt at empathy for four fun-filled hours of questioning afterward, I didn’t want to bequeath a loved one those warm, fuzzy memories.

I’m still here today thanks to my loving wife of 25 years, great friends, cute dogs, caring psychologist and, last but not least, brilliant biological psychiatrist. The guy who writes my prescriptions doesn’t have a sofa in his office, care about my dreams or how I feel about my mommy. Trust me, that would mean a lot more pills. Dr. Williams draws diagrams of my brain and explains clinically why I feel the way I do. Although “feel” might imply I have a choice or this will simply pass, which I don’t and it won’t. You don’t just “snap out” of bi-polar-fueled suicidal desires any more than you shout really loud at cancer to just go the fuck away. You can influence your feelings but you can’t control your body chemistry.

I must admit that even today, when shit hits the fan, I’m not exactly the most resilient or optimistic person. I can crash very hard, very fast, and that Smurf scenario briefly rears its ugly white head. Which is one of the reasons why I proudly sit on the board of Project Helping, a national 501c3 that promotes the idea that the simple act of volunteering can improve anyone’s mental wellness or mood.

My goal in sharing my story was to reach anyone who is struggling and resisting getting help. Or someone thinking of ditching their meds or who’s on the verge of making the worst, final decision they will ever make. And especially someone trying to find the courage or path to help a loved one before it’s too late. More than anything, I just wanted to start the conversation. Virtually every person I have shared my story with has immediately shared how they have been touched by this topic, although most of the time it’s “a member of their family” not them. Yeah, sure. I want mental illness to have a Crayola box full of colored ribbons and walkathons and awareness and billions of dollars being raised for research, but as long as society perpetuates the stigma, we are literally condemning people to death. Even right now, I can feel the butterflies in my stomach, wondering how this 2,000 word confession will adversely color how some people treat me, personally or professionally. Thanks for listening. The day this is published I’ll be taking a long drive in the mountains. Don’t worry…that’s not a metaphor or cry for help. Killing myself is not on my Google calendar.  I am just taking my wonderfully fast car out on a curvy road. The demons in my head hate it when I smile for a few hours, taking those turns just safely enough. Carpe diem baby. 

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