Last week I talked about my rollercoaster-style creativity cycle. Some people said I sounded pretty abnormal. Others said my behavior sounded pretty familiar. It was an interesting discussion on what makes some people tick. (And sometimes why they stop ticking.) But there’s a bit of family history that I left out of that discussion on purpose.
My grandparents on my mother’s side were Virginia and John. I’ve posted a picture of them before:
Virginia is the short woman on the right, in the white shirt. John is to the left. Both of them were stable people with no mental peculiarities as far as anyone knows. They were teens in the great depression and had their kids during or just after world War II.
They had three children: Bruce, Sharon, and Larry. All three of these kids had some sort of mental, uh… irregularities? All of them exhibited signs of what is generally called bipolar disorder and all of them had discernible psychotic episodes. Nothing tragic, thankfully. They all had basically healthy families and held down jobs, but all of them experienced periods where either their reasoning or emotions were completely out of touch with reality. (From delusions in some, to paranoia in others.) These episodes were rare: I think my mom had perhaps four in her entire life. Larry had two that I know of. Bruce lived far from the rest of the family and spent a lot of his years alone, so nobody is really sure about him. (And he’s gone now, so we can’t ask him.)
In all three cases, their episodes were isolated. They lived normal lives for the most part, but then once every decade or so one might have an episode and wind up in the psychiatric ward in the hospital. Or maybe just exhibit an extended period of really strange behavior before leveling off and going back to a normal life.
In turn, these three siblings had families of their own. There are seven of us grandchildren of John and Virginia. The oldest is just short of 50 and the youngest is in his 20’s. And so far, none of us have exhibited the problems our parents had.
So we had a generation of stable people. Then a generation where everyone was bipolarI really dislike the term bipolar for a lot of reasons, but let’s just go with it for now.. Then another generation of stable people.
By a strange coincidence, my best friend growing up also had the same problem. He was fine in high school, and then had his first episode when he went away to college.
I will say that being around people during a psychotic episode is exceptionally creepy. There is something scary – and I mean “horror movie scary” – about sitting across from a loved one and realizing that even though they’re talking, they aren’t really “there”. Their words don’t make sense, their personality doesn’t match what you know, and you can never be sure what they’re going to do next.
An example: My friend David had a part-time job working the switchboard at college. His job was to take incoming calls and route them to the appropriate person or department. When he was sick, he thought he was connecting people to the afterlife. They would call, and by connecting them to the right place he was helping them reach heaven. The entire time he was terrified because once everyone was gone into heaven, he would be left behind. He sat there for an entire four-hour shift with this idea in his head. He did his job without saying anything crazy to the callers, but the entire time he was in this strange state of confusion and fear. If his colleagues noticed anything, it was probably that he didn’t really answer questions properly and kind of had a terrified look on his face all day.
The explanation for psychotic behavior has changed over the years. When I was young, doctors explained it as though the patient’s extreme emotions caused the freak-out. Like, you got so happy/sad/scared/angry that your brain had to start inventing justifications to feel that way. I never liked that. It sounded like saying your symptoms caused each other, which is just a convoluted way of saying, “We have no idea.” More recently I’ve heard it suggested that bipolar psychotic behavior is actually a sleep problem. This makes a lot more sense to me. After interacting with people during and after an episode, I’ll say their thinking sounds exactly like dream logic to me.
As the author of a dream, you often know stuff that you shouldn’t actually be privy to. You know that someone else wants to kill you. Or that the building you’re in is about to fall down and you have to escape. Or that everyone around you hates you. If you jump off this precipice you’ll suddenly be able to fly. Or that the sun will never come up again. Whatever. It sounds a lot like the scenarios psychotic people have. They seem to be inventing a story around themselves. You can try to talk sense to them if you want, but you just end up folded into their dream. “Oh my God! Shamus doesn’t realize the building is about to fall down! I must convince him! I have to save him!“
I’m not a doctor and I have no idea if this is true, but it makes more sense than any other explanation I’ve ever heard. My guess is that part of your brain is doing whatever it does when you’re asleep.
Over the years I’ve always been terrified my turn would come. Sometimes I’ll come down off one of these manic periods and suffer some mild depression. Then I’ll start worrying, “Oh no. This is it. I’m going to go crazy. I’m going to have a psychotic freak-out like my mom and her brothers. I’ll scare the kids, alienate the wife, and lose my job.” I worry when I’m at the other end of the spectrum, too. I’ll have a few days of mad productivity and little sleep and I’ll start to worry I’m about to lose my grip on reality.
But the psychosis never comes. So far I seem to be a mostly normal guy with a couple of quirks. Yes, it sucks being depressed. But I generally level out after a couple of days or weeks and get back to normal life. Then after some random interval – years or months – I’ll have another manic period and it all begins again.
In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a bad setup at all. Three months of maximum productivity in exchange for a week of feeling sad and listless? That’s not a disability. That’s nearly a superpower. It might even explain the existence of this site.
 I really dislike the term bipolar for a lot of reasons, but let’s just go with it for now.
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