Ever since it was first applied to me, when I was in my mid-twenties, I’ve always been confused about the term “bi-polar.” Definitions, explanations and clarifications offered by trained professionals and unschooled amateurs alike, never really helped me understand what bi-polar was all about. There was even disagreement as to whether it was a disorder, an illness, a disease (like alcoholism), or all of the above. This left me nowhere.
Any time I read up on bi-polar, the jargon alone threw me off completely, to the point I had to resort to looking up various terms describing the condition from which I’d been led to believe I was suffering, in a medical dictionary, only to find I needed to look up terms in the definitions themselves, leaving me further away from understanding than ever.
I felt bad enough about my extreme moods and sudden behavioral shifts and the frustration they were causing, now I was left feeling dumb as well: How come I didn’t get it? What was I missing? What was wrong with me? How could I get rid of whatever it was that was having me act like a nerve-ending at one moment, a wet noodle the next?
Add to this the fact that in everything I heard or read, there were so many assumptions, generalizations and catch-all descriptions made about bi-polar symptoms, that it seemed to me they might as well have been talking about what it was like to have the flu, or a cold. People seemed to be saying it was an illness that hit everyone the same way, for which you took prescription pills or sought therapy and got better.
Yet with bi-polar this apparently wasn’t so. You had to keep taking the pills and going to therapy because bi-polar, unlike most other illnesses, didn’t go away; the good news, a certain kind of consolation I guess, came with the assurance that it wasn’t fatal. Bi-polar had no pathology, no cause or effect, no diagnosis that could be effectively arrived at.
More perplexed than ever, my question came to be: if there’s no cause or effect and no diagnosis, how can anyone tell whether or not it even exists? Was what I’d been feeling for so many years all in my imagination? Was my continuing confusion about the nature of the illness proof that I had it — the illness what was making me ask these questions in the first place?
A psychologist I was seeing for a time in my early 40s, in an effort to clear up the confusion I’d spoken to him about in my initial appointment, let me know that psychiatrists were now using the term “manic depression” with their patients, a more accessible and symptom-specific term than bi-polar, it was felt. “One’s mood and behavior,” as he explained it so I could better understand, “could fluctuate from feelings of jubilant well-being, intense engagement and emotionally-charged manic activity one moment, to sad, brooding, depression and despair the next.”
In answer to my subsequent question as to whether bi-polar and “manic depression” were the same thing, my psychologist pondered a moment then said, “More or less. It’s not as though there’s an equator between the two poles, if you see what I mean.” I confessed that I didn’t, admitting, as well, that the analogy threw me off. The equator I could sort of understand, but the poles left me, well, cold.
You can imagine my surprise, therefore, when just the other day I happened to read in a biography of the legendary film-maker Orson Welles, that not only had he suffered from bi-polar illness/manic depression all his life, the director of Citizen Kane, the greatest film of all time according to critics — an acknowledged genius by the time he was twenty-five — felt that all his achievements in film and theater were made possible by his bi-polar personality.
True, he worked himself to the point of exhaustion, entered into high-risk financial arrangements, over-ate, over-drank, generally overdid things in every aspect of his life so that, by his own admission, it was always out of control and on the brink of disaster, plunging him into depths of despair so dark he was sure “the light at the end of the tunnel had gone out.” But look at the results, a body of work that was unsurpassed in originality, imagination and artistic quality.
In an interview with a journalist later in his life, talking about these two distinct (i.e. bi-polar) facets of his character and how they might have affected his work, Welles responded: “For thirty years, people have been asking me how I reconcile X with Y! The truthful answer is that I don’t. Everything about me is a contradiction, and so is everything about everybody else. We are made out of oppositions; we live between two poles. There is a philistine and an aesthete in all of us, and a murderer and a saint. You don’t reconcile the poles. You just recognize them.”
The clouds began to clear. Everything about me had always seemed to feel like a contradiction too. I’d been trying to bring X and Y together in a new bi-polar-free person, when there was a perfectly good bi-polar one in me already. Sometimes I was the wild and crazed philistine, sometimes the sensitive, creative aesthete. I knew very well what it was like to actually want to do someone (or myself) in during angry moments, but then feel like peaceful, compassionate St. Francis of Assisi the next.
Here I’ve been striving all these years for that X and Y reconciliation, standing at the equator trying to melt the ice between the two poles and have them meld together, without realizing that they’re just different sides of the same coin that is Me — and they always will be. The best thing I can do is simply let them be; recognize, as Welles said, that life is made out of oppositions. That we all live between the poles.
Image credit: Stephen Murphy
Paul Illidge is the author of two books on inter-generational mental illness: THE BLEAKS: A Memoir (ECW Press, 2014), a Globe and Mail Best Book of 2014, and the novel NEVER SO DEAD (James Castle Editions, 2017). He is currently working on a book that looks at the impact and effects of digital communication on mental health.
You may read all of Paul’s MHT guest posts here.