I have a somewhat unhealthy relationship with control. I rely on having it a little too much. Throw me an unexpected traffic jam, and I’ll feel no more or less anxious than the next person. However, when control goes AWOL from the bigger areas of my life my stress levels sky rocket.
I have been seeing my psychologist for years now. Some visits neither of us have to work hard to tweak things. But whenever there’s a larger life issue I’m struggling with, my distress almost always comes down to my lack of control over an undesirable situation. For me one of the worst-case scenarios are sleep deprivation combined with the stress of a sick child. The reason this combination is so triggering is that it is kryptonite to my defences against a bipolar episode. (Sleep deprivation especially accompanied by stress is a major risk factor for developing manic and psychotic episodes)
This said, I firmly believe the universe sometimes sits back stroking its chin and assesses where I’m at. And then as though giving me a cosmic performance review, it points out areas for improvement, and gives me the opportunities to practice the life skills I lack. Clearly, I still need a lot of practice accepting a lack of control, because I have been sent the following homework:
I don’t dwell on what might have happened had I been sent home on day five after my daughter was born. But whenever the news throws up sensational stories reporting murder, infanticide, or suicide, and there is even a slim possibility the perpetrator might have been psychotic – then I think about it. Because that could have been me.
How do you learn to live with the difficult truths of your life? The ones you can’t just step over and leave behind?
Confirmation of my Bipolar 1 diagnosis was one of those truths for me. For several years after my first episodes of illness, we didn’t know whether we were dealing with Postnatal Psychosis or Bipolar Disorder. In my mind one was transient, the other a life sentence. Each time I’d press my psychiatrist for a definitive diagnosis he’d say:
‘We’ll have to wait three to five years to see if you have another episode.’
This answer frustrated me immensely. I wanted to put the whole experience of being mentally ill behind me.
Have you ever heard or seen a word or phrase that made you feel intensely uncomfortable with who you are?
Until about eight years ago, I had never been on the receiving end of discriminatory language. And yet it managed to find a way into my white, straight, agnostic, charmed life. The first time it happened, I was walking through a shopping centre. The words assaulted me suddenly, shook the breath out of me: ‘PSYCHO BITCH’
I was laden with milk, my arms filled with the incredible warm softness of my five-day old baby. Snuffling, and startling into starfish arms every now and then. Pink velvet skin, translucent enough in places to see the faint network of blood vessels sustaining a life that a week ago had been completely reliant on me. My first entry into a psychiatric hospital was like many people’s first-time admissions. I felt I didn’t belong there.
There comes a moment in many of my conversations when I have a choice to lie or tell the truth. If I’m meeting a new person I don’t tend to lead with: ‘I have Bipolar Disorder’, unless it’s relevant. However, the longer I know someone, the more likely we are to reach that moment of disclosure. It came up within days of my discharge from a recent hospital stay. I ran into an acquaintance who asked how I was.
And there was a second, where it would have been so easy to answer with the expected: ‘Fine.’ Or ‘Busy’ And leave it at that. If it had been a person I didn’t know asking, I would have. But this was someone I see quite often. So, I gave an honest answer: ‘Ok, but I have just spent a month in hospital. I have Bipolar Disorder, and sometimes it flares up badly.’