Because of my role as a mental health advocate whose goal has been to motivate and encourage "recovery" to those living with depression and bipolar disorder, I've always been hesitant to be entirely honest about my own inner thoughts on the subject. But lately, I've been asked quite a bit if there is truly such a thing as recovery from mental illness, or if one just learns to cope with it on a daily basis. And now, after more than 20 years of ping-ponging between the two frightening emotional states of euphoric highs and desperate lows, I'm pretty sure I've come up with my answer to this challenging question.
Along with almost 3 million other Americans, I have bipolar disorder. When I'm manic, I'm so awake and alert that my eyelashes fluttering on the pillow sound like thunder and I immediately have to jump out of bed and experience the beauty and glee of the world. I live for these fabulous moments. On the flip side of the coin, I cherish my depression: although it's dark and frightening, it allows me plenty of time and an incredible perspective in which I can reflect on the darkness and the depth of the abyss of this depression.
So when I'm manic, I can be busy plotting my run for the U.S. Senate or thinking about hopping the next flight to Bali from LAX. And when I'm depressed and in pain, I can find myself questioning the world around me and digging deeper into it. I'll spend hours lying alone on the floor in my underwear just watching a lone snail crawling on the window pane and thinking about her place as a crustacean in this world (and praying that she doesn't end up on a plate with garlic and butter sauce).
Many people consider me a "recovered" bipolar patient, but I'll be the first one to tell you that this part of me is "alive and well" and it never will completely fade. After innumerable trials with medications, electroshock treatments, talk therapy, diet, exercise, nutrition and even spirituality, I've been stable, in control and free of major episodes for almost a decade.
At the height of my illness I was virtually homeless, squatting in an apartment in Manhattan and stealing food from the corner grocery store. Today, I have two young daughters. I live in the suburbs in a house with a pool, and my car has toddler seats in the back. But mostly I have my life back, and it's fair to say that it's a much more quiet and peaceful one than I had a decade ago.
I never imagined I'd have a life as a parent, let alone one volunteering to serve hot lunches to first graders at my daughter's school. But I do I feel like I'm a very good example of how treatment, as well as really wanting and working hard to get well, can be successful. That's what has brought me to where I am today.
Yes, I am certainly one of the lucky ones. But I know that my mental illness is not cured or even under lock-and-key, plotting its next escape. It's still very much part of the landscape of my life and often seeps out, sometimes when I least expect it. I slip a little and become aware that people around me notice my mania if I'm particularly aggressive, loud or silly. But I have such a better perspective on it now that I can usually rein it in - although sometimes I still act on the impulse. It's just that the impulses aren't as dangerous as they were years ago.
The old me constantly focused on the next high, whether it was a $25,000 shopping spree at Barneys, working into the early hours of the morning at an all-male strip club in Times Square, or as an art forger. This extreme behavior has abated, and so have the anxiety, the paranoia and the out-of-control mania. The light is no longer at the end of the tunnel; it surrounds me, even on the days that I am trapped inside the tunnel.
Mental illness cannot be treated separately from the person; they are inextricably linked. Bipolar disorder is not like a physical illness where you can point to an empirical issue and fix it. So I feel I've answered the question, "Where does mental illness end and where do I begin?" In my case, we are one. I've made friends with the enemy, and the illness is no longer my disability.
My successful and ongoing battle is a matter of understanding my mental illness, realizing when my moods are shifting, and targeting the destructive behaviors through psychiatric, psychological and spiritual professionals. I also rely on a few very close, compassionate friends. My treatment is successful precisely because it takes both me and my bipolar disorder into account and doesn't delineate between the two of us.
I cope with my mental illness every single day of my life, from the moment I wake up, and I truly believe I now lead a rich life, even with bipolar disorder. For me, recovery is no longer a destination; I am just traveling on a path called recovery.
Andy Behrman is a mental-health advocate, speaker and the author of Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania, which is available in paperback from Random House (compare prices to purchase). He maintains a website at http://www.electroboy.com.
From Guide Marcia Purse: Andy's essay here really strikes a chord with me. For 10 years I shared with you my life with bipolar disorder, beginning with What? ME? I'm Bipolar?, which was written on the day I was diagnosed, through more than 70 chapters that became My Bipolar Journal. For me, stability is a goal but also a journey, and the more I pay attention to this leg of journey, the longer it seems to be.