I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in late 1994 and I’ve had 22 some years to study and learn about this illness. I’ve learned a lot. I read books and magazines all the time and I search the internet. I’ve learned how to dance with this disorder pretty well, especially since last year when I was put on a new mix of medications. I’m doing much better. In fact I feel pretty stable for the first time since my diagnosis. It’s still hard, but at least I have a clue as to what’s possibly coming down the line towards me. My brain is different than it used to be and it’s taken some getting used to, but I’m getting there.
Last year I was also given the diagnoses of PTSD and Dysthymia. I’ve been studying about how these disorders affect me since then, and again I’ve learned a lot. But it’s still new, and I don’t know as much as I need to. I recently read a book called “The Half Empty Heart”, by Alan Downs, PhD. It’s all about Dysthymia, or what he calls Chronic Discontent, and man I can relate all too well to this description. It’s also called low grade depression because it’s always there and never really goes away. You’re in a low state of depression basically all the time. It cycles some but mostly it’s just there, underlying all your actions and thoughts. I read this book a few years ago and it intrigued me, but I didn’t have the diagnosis yet so I just thought about the subject and how it affected me. But since I’ve been diagnosed with it and know more I can see that it’s affected me my whole life. I’ve learned a lot more reading it this time.
One of the main things that people with Chronic discontent deal with is a tendency to emotionally and physically withdraw from stressful or difficult situations. It’s a hallmark of the syndrome in fact. And it’s one of the hardest symptoms to handle. There are exercises in the book that are intended to help you overcome this, but I haven’t gotten too far in that. But I have read enough to know that withdrawal has been a constant theme in my life, since I was a young child in fact, right up to today. When things get too hard for me, instead of trying to work it out I often tend to just disappear and run away from the hard stuff. I can’t tell you how many people and situations I’ve abandoned in my life. Dozens at the least. I’m not happy about this, in fact I’m totally ashamed of myself. That’s a big part of the symptomology too. Experiencing shame is the way we live our lives, based on perspectives we developed when we were very young. We just don’t feel like we’re OK as human beings deep inside of ourselves.
A shame based life is filled with regret and unfulfilled promise. We respond to life as tho we feel we aren’t as good as the people we interact with, and so we self-sabotage many of our relationships. We often are left with no one to call friends any more. That’s my situation. I’ve left so many people that there are just a few left. As I get older this is a big problem. And I don’t have a clue how to overcome it. It’s buried so deep in my pysche and I’m so terrified of changing it that it informs most of my decisions. It might as well be who I am. But it’s not. I still refuse to be defined by my diagnoses, but it’s hard not to be. I’ve always been ashamed of who I am, despite all the good things I’ve done in my life. It’s like they don’t matter and all I can see are my failures and abandonments. This has been true for as long as I can remember, even as a small child. In fact that’s where it started I’m sure.
I don’t mean to blame anyone for this, but it seems clear to me that this began in my childhood, and of course that means that my parents were at the root of the situation. I had wonderful parents and they loved me so much. They were happy to have me, but I was so sickly that they severely overprotected me and I grew up believing that I was too much an invalid to do too many things. This despite the fact that they also told me I could succeed at anything I tried, and I so often did. But the shame I developed over that time lives on today. Back then it was an undefined feeling that I was inferior to other people. I still feel that way. I know that both my parents suffered from low self esteem and I’m sure that it translated into my psyche at a young age. How could it not? Again I don’t blame them. They were just living their lives the best they could after all. But I never talked to them about this before they both died. Now I can’t ever deal with it with them and it’s up to me to overcome it alone. It hurts my heart because I love them so much and yet they left me with such a painful legacy.
The title of this book – the Half Empty Heart – is very powerful to me. It’s a hard thing to face but it’s the way it seems to be. We tend to look at life as a glass half empty instead of half full. And in that we fail to take care of our hearts. It’s very painful when the reckoning comes around and you see all that you’ve lost thru your lack of action, or actions you’ve taken to escape. It seems like every time I begin to have a good life and accomplish something, I sabotage it somehow and end up with nothing left. This is a common experience for people with chronic discontent. We stop ourselves before we’ve even given ourselves a chance to succeed. I’ve so often declined to even begin something because I was sure it was doomed to failure. It’s not that I lack courage. I just don’t have the faith in myself.
But here’s where the mix of diagnoses comes into play. Having Bipolar disorder means that you may cycle constantly and can be up or down depending on your current mood. When you’re “Up” you feel on top of the world and I think that because I’ve lived so much of my life in hypo/mania – the good stuff feelings – that it overcame a lot of my chronic discontent and allowed me to do more than I might have otherwise done. I couldn’t help but feel good about myself, even if it was based in mania and not reality, it still felt good and I believed it was real, so it was. In a strange way I feel lucky to have both of these illnesses together. I think that life would have been much worse for me if I’d just been chronically discontent, or just manic. I probably wouldn’t be here by now I suspect. I think that having those up times of bipolar mania allowed me to distance myself from the bad feelings and I had the courage to do all kinds of outrageous things that nurtured me and kept me happy despite the low grade depression I still felt deep inside. It was a strange mix, and it still is.
The other side of it is that the dysthymia often kept me from displaying florid manias to other people because I was too ashamed to “act out” and embarrass myself. I so often hid my horrible feelings of distress deep inside so that no one could tell that I was experiencing such difficult emotions. In some way I feel that this saved me a lot of heart ache because I never got “caught out” with my Bipolar until I was old enough to make better sense of it than I would have in my younger days. If I’d been diagnosed with it in my teens, as most people with BP are, I would never have accomplished half of what I did do. So the two diagnoses have worked in tandem to help form my life as it is now. Not great perhaps, but I’m not in a hospital (tho I have been) and I’m not dead (tho I’ve tried to be). But I haven’t been that successful in my life either. Depends on how you gauge it. I’ve done good things but I never made much money, and that’s how we judge success in our culture. So I feel like a failure even while I revel in my good works. It’s a weird way to live I guess but it’s what I know and have done. And I suspect there are others who have similar experiences.
I hope I don’t seem to be complaining about any of this. I assure you I’m not. I get it that I’m the one responsible for my actions and ways of being in the world. I’m not making excuses. I’m the one who bailed on my friends and communities in my chronic discontent, and I’m the one who was manic and did great things while I was too. I find it fascinating to try to embrace these two different illnesses. And I haven’t even touched on the PTSD. I could write a whole post just on that. All these diagnoses work together for me, sometimes in helpful ways, as I’ve described, sometimes in terrible ways too. I’m still working on the challenges of having these disorders and sometimes I think I’m even making progress. I hope I am anyway. Life is too hard for me too often, but it’s also so beautiful. I’m a lucky guy actually. I have a wonderful man who loves me to death and I have a home and good food to eat, and so much more. I even have good health, despite these disorders. So take all this as a discussion of how one can manage to live with these challenges and how I personally have dealt with them. At least it makes some sense to me…
If any of this resonates for you too – there is help. Go find it!