The mood stabilizer that saved my life, Lamictal, has a rare side effect where all of your skin falls off and you die. Wide blistered bands of your flesh slide away with ease. Fortunately, I am unaffected. My mood stabilizer has, for me, exactly zero side effects. The dreaded Lamictal headaches do not descend on my own head.
This is a real luxury. Many people put up with a vanishing libido or a fluctuating weight so that they won't kill themselves; I don't have to put up with anything. I just don't have bipolar disorder anymore. That means no manic episodes, no weeks of weirdly horny wakefulness wherein I enjoy the delusion that I'm a prophet under orders from a nameless power. That also means no subsequent life-canceling depression. It's a very reasonably priced miracle drug.
So I feel pretty guilty about the fact that I frequently contemplate not taking my medication. Every time I pop one of my pills in my mouth, I wonder if it shouldn't be there. Maybe, I think, I should go crazy again. These aren't deafening, dominating thoughts, like the ones that orbit around jealousy or shame — they're more of a lurking rumination, like when you wonder whether a beautiful bird on a branch before you might taste good with some kind of gravy.
I miss being bipolar because it used to be the most important thing about me. It's a role as big as Hamlet, and it encompasses everything: Each frivolous feeling you have might be a sign of an abrupt descent toward total mental chaos. For example, I can’t completely recall, with the mind I have now, the powerful dissatisfaction with normal fried eggs that would drive me to prepare a particular Japanese breakfast (tamago kake gohan) for every meal. Nor do I now understand how, when I was sick of Japanese breakfast, I became sick of all food, ending up consuming a diet of almost exclusively cigarettes.
While there are lots of hard, simple words that encase identity more or less specifically — astronaut, bartender, slut, disappointment — psychiatric disorders feel more fundamental. If you're bipolar, or depressed, or schizophrenic, that's the tectonic movement underneath every second. Not being that anymore has flattened the extremities of my life. The biggest sensations of my life are over.
That might sound a little hysterical, I know. You might remark that everyone dies a little as they get older, that this is not unique to me. And that’s true; every life is marked by a certain sensual decline. After first love, there’s second love. As life goes on, you sort of get what life is about. One is desensitized.
But giving up mania is another matter entirely. When you're manic, the main hallucination is that you feel that the universe has a meaning that you're locked into. Nobody riding a manic episode wonders what they’re doing with their life. One man in my support group became obsessed with starting a revolution in Panama; another dug big holes in the backyard for vague but serious reasons every night. Manic, I found beauty everywhere — I would repeat the word “queuing” like an incantation, seeing the ineffable flow of life coursing through that thick bundle of vowels.
When you lose that, your life becomes a little meaningless. And that's ultimately a really good thing, because large parts of life are meaningless. Every day contains big chunks of nothing much at all. You walk home from work the same way every evening, bathed in the glow of storefronts you’ve examined frequently enough that they don’t register as anything more than light pollution. All through your working hours, you’ve made warm but routine small talk: little noises simply signifying that basic affection, or at least nonaggression, is being maintained. Alone in your apartment, you make spaghetti the same way you’ve always made it, so you don’t have to think about it at all. You’re an expert at making this spaghetti. Standing over the pot of boiling water, you can devote your attention to thinking thoughts you’ve already thought before.
This is way, way healthier than thinking everything is meaningful. When you live a normal, boring, Diet Coke-type life, you can focus on occasionally doing something true: loving someone well, or painting something beautiful, or not fucking up your kid. The reasonable mind is empty much of the time so that it can be wholly occupied when something good comes along. I am now actually capable of emailing an old friend, because I no longer think that every message I send is a major moment in world history. I’m a better boyfriend now that every pretty person I see doesn’t assume the importance of an avalanche.
I agree with all of what I just wrote. But I still sometimes think I'm missing out. Without bipolar — without a diagnostic that completely describes my traits — I face the question of who I am. And the question has an obvious, unsatisfying answer: I'm not one thing in particular. I'm a set of organs composed of cells that are constantly being recycled, all conspiring in the service of all kinds of behaviors no longer united by a disease.
Perhaps this is why I'm not hesitant about telling people that I'm bipolar: It's something big that I can say I am. I always mention it on second dates. I usually tell employers about it after I've established that I'm a reliable employee. While the motive is not entirely selfish (I feel like it's important to warn people what's up in case of the unlikely event that I have an episode), there is a selfishness there. Because, weirdly, it lends me a kind of credibility. It's a more florid identity than I would have otherwise. After all, there are tons of other cisgender 26-year-old white guys. There are many, many writers. Sometimes I can't help but feel like, Yay, look at me. I nearly killed myself, I swam in interior heavens, I was seeing two psychiatrists at once. I'm so, so special.
Really, it's all a little disingenuous, because my medication works so very well. Sure, I'm still technically bipolar, in that I require daily management. Whereas before I trusted every passing whim, I now constantly wonder if my feelings are unreasonable. Rather than compulsive twitching being my only exercise, I regularly hit the treadmill to manage my mood. But all of that maintenance work occurs privately. If you met me outside the context of a personal essay, you'd just think, Here's a guy with a gap tooth who talks loud. Mostly I keep it together.
Being open about my bipolar disorder does have some negative consequences. When I piss people off, people who know I used to be a total maniac, they wonder if my behavior is pathological. For example, a couple of years ago, I didn't want to have sex with my then-girlfriend every day. As far as I could tell, that was just my moderate sex drive talking. She, however, went away and googled something like "bipolar men sex drive relationship." Subsequently, she confronted me with the results: pages and pages of other girlfriends complaining that their bipolar boyfriends were inexplicably bored of their bodies. The implication was that I should ask my psychiatrist about how I could fix this particular problem. I responded that, surely, our every difference wasn't the result of my damage. But, of course, I couldn't prove that.
Although I didn't love this moment in our relationship, I think there was a reasonable impulse behind her actions in that moment. She was looking for something I also look for: an explanation for my characteristics. The most natural reaction in the world, to anything, especially something undesired, is to believe that there must be some explanation. Consequently, we all like matters that are ultimately explicable, or at least neat: detective stories that resolve with an elegant dovetail, or the rare object of Ikea furniture that comes together without protestation.
Accordingly, I sometimes think I should resume being the same vivid character I was before, rather than remain the more laid-back protagonist of my own life that I am now. This is the small voice that makes me pause when one of my little pentagonal pills is balanced on my tongue. This voice is always, as of now, successfully interrupted by the larger, more rational voice in my head saying that I like being the more boring, good kind of person: a person capable of calm.
But the smaller voice is still seductive, because it's not totally wrong. It says that without my medication, my life would be more dramatic, if also more lethal. It would be a life with a central defining feature, rather than a life with multiple causes of its many mundane events. While I like the reasonable reality of staying intact, I also like the simple fantasy of exploding.