Present Day, April 15th, 2020

FURLOUGH – day 14

My wife and I have had some rough days during this period of lockdown, stay-at-home, whatever they are referring to it as where you live. Some rough days with some rough arguments. Not that we did not ever argue before COVID-19. Just that the current circumstances can amplify disagreements and conflict.

Our arguments have a typical pattern. Maybe not unlike that of many people. Someone initiates the discussion. The other person responds. Point, counterpoint begins to take over. Emotions, and often volumes begin to escalate. Eventually, someone has had enough and decides to punch out of the conversation. More times than not, this is me. I become emotionally overloaded and simply check out. I rarely walk out of the room or even declare that I have had enough. I just stop interacting. I am done.

My wife and I were discussing this pattern today when she made an interesting comment. I will not claim to quote her word for word here, but she had agreed with my above-described assessment. And then came the interesting comment. She indicated that the challenging part for her was not knowing when my normal self had left and my bipolar brain had taken over (that is the part I do not claim to have down word for word). What I got her to be saying as the discussion continued was that she did not know when the common, everyday me turned off and the bipolar me turned on.

And here is the thing. There is no point because it does not turn on. Why? Because it does not turn off. It is one of those ironic things about how we differentiate mental illness from a physical illness. We would never suspect a cancer patient of having times that they can just turn off their cancer. If a person suffers from diabetes, we do not wonder at what point of the day they turn on their disease. Lupos, Chrone’s, ALS, MS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s…we may refer to “flare-ups” or “bad spells” but we recognize that the good times are not times of miraculous healing. They are just that…good times. The carrier is still sick. The illness is still present. They have what they have.

People tend to look at it differently with mental illness. There is almost an implied assumption that it came with an ON/OFF switch. The only difference between our good times and our bad is our choice to throw the switch. Losing an argument, turn on bipolar. Feel like going a little manic, flip on the bipolar. Weather sucks for the third day in a row, hit that bipolar switch.

I have pretty much vowed from the start that I would never claim to be the spokesperson for bipolar, so I will not be today. I can only speak from my own experience, and that experience is that my mental illness did not come with a switch. Can I manage it better at some times than at others? You bet. Therapy, meds, sleep tracking, and other steps can make me feel almost “normal” at times. But I am not. I still have bipolar. And a slight deviation from the plan can make that abundantly clear fairly quickly.

My hunch is that it is the same for most people with a mental illness. Some days are better than others. Some weeks can feel almost triumphant. Some months might almost even go so smoothly that the illness does not dominate our thoughts and lives. But we are still sick.

I ended the conversation with my wife by trying to give her the most simple piece of advice I knew to give. When it came to trying to know when the regular me was shutting off and the bipolar me was turning on…just remember, it is always the bipolar me. Everything goes through my bipolar mind. It is always turned on.

I think it was about as comforting as being told your spouse has cancer.

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