What could be good about being bi(polar)?

glassesIt started with mulling over my disorder. I know pretty well how being bipolar has negatively affected my life, particularly my relationships with people. But after gazing at my crazy navel long enough, I began to think, Yeah. Being bipolar sucks. But maybe, just maybe, there are some good things about being bipolar. Maybe my mental state actually makes me pretty good at some parts of parenting.

So, I Googled “positive aspects of mental illness.” Big fat nothing on that one. Fortunately, I was in grad school at the time and working on a massive research project. I realize now that it needn’t have been nearly as massive as I made it; some of my fellow students passed with work I would have failed, but how high I set my personal bar is fodder for a separate post.

In addition to the privilege of reading and writing every spare hour of every day for six weeks, grad school got me free access to just about every academic, psychological and medical literature database available. Research nerd that I am, I searched “positive aspects of mental illness” again. One article this time, but it was big, fat and exactly what I was looking for. Written by Juan Francisco Galvez, Sairah Thommi, and S. Nassir Ghaemi of Tufts University, the article examined the “almost completely neglected” study of “positive psychological features on the outcomes of mental illnesses” among the bipolar population.

Turns out there are, indeed, good things about being bipolar and not just one or two. Reviewing “the literature,” (81 articles) the researchers (better them than me) found these aspects of being bipolar they deemed positive: spirituality, empathy, creativity, realism, and resilience.

I wasn’t that surprised to find realism on the list. There really isn’t a romantic bone in my body. My husband, on the other hand, is tremendously romantic or, as I see it, mushy, Pollyanna, and frankly, a little delusional.

He wants to celebrate anniversaries on the actual date of our marriage. Me? Asked when I got married, I say, “Saturday. I know it was a Saturday.” How many years? Twenty? Twenty-one? What difference does it make really? We’ve been married way past the time limit anyone gave us and our marriage is probably stronger than ever.

I have no impairment when it comes to seeing my children in the cold clear light of reality either. A former co-worker, describing mothers in her neighborhood, called them “Not My Vito Moms.” Even faced with evidence of their offspring’s wrong doings, these moms declared, “Not my Vito.”

I am not a Not My Vito mom. While I’ll give my kids the benefit of the doubt and certainly listen to their side of the story, when my daughter is accused of being mean, I know she’s got it in her.

My son gets my scrutiny, too. He’s a musician; many musicians do drugs. My son could well do drugs. But like many with bipolar disorder, I’ve done my own share of drugs, illicit and otherwise. My son, also something of a realist, has so far just said “No.” “Mom,” he tells me, “If I ever do drugs, you’ll know, so what’s the point?”

Ironically, my realism led me to see that honesty isn’t always the best policy when it comes to parenting. My son will graduate from high school soon. His ACT scores are high enough that he might just qualify for a scholarship or two. “I could get as much as $1,500,” he said, reading promo materials from a particular college. “That’ll pay for the first year’s books,” I quipped. Son and husband, simultaneously, gave me a withering look. “You’re so negative,” son said as I withered. Husband concurred.

Later, feeling ugly, mean and negative, I realized they were right. And it’s that ability to reflect and admit to errors that is a mark of the value of bipolar realism. In fact, a depressive state actually enhances insight. Of course, in bipolar disorder, there is frequently a yin to the yang. Increased insight on the down side is countered by a decrease in insight on the manic side.

My approach to housework presents the realism conundrum rather neatly. Hypomanic, I can breeze through the entire 1800+ square feet, cursing my family for their slovenly ways the entire time. This is a piece of cake, I think. Who needs cleaning ladies? I do a better job all by myself. I’m aglow with pride in my Martha Stewart ways.

Depressed, though, I realize I’m part of the problem. My books are stacked on the bedroom floor; my office looks like the shoreline when Sandy’s waters retreated. It is not all my family’s fault that the house is on its way to a Hoarders episode. Then, somewhere in the middle, I know that it’s going to take all of us chipping in to keep the place in order.

What about you? What do you think is good about your own mental makeup? Share your story in the comments.

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4 responses to “What could be good about being bi(polar)?

  1. I love that you highlight the positives of mental illness. I’m the kind of person who likes to think there is at least a bit of good in everything, even though I can be overwhelmingly negative many times. Go figure. I think my anxiety makes me more mindful of my children’s, my husband’s and my own well being. Some of my anxiety began over my own health, and that led me to start making better choices for myself, convincing my husband to do the same. And while I can sometimes be a bit over the top about what will harm or kill my children, I think my anxiety has led to me creating a pretty safe environment for them to feel comfortable in.

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  2. yes! I have a great deal of anxiety, though I don’t take anything for it other than meditation. Wish I could convince my husband to make better choices. I get very anxious if the house is too messy. As it’s impossible to keep it completely clean and clutterless, I have almost made my peace with keeping just the linen closet exactly the way I want it. If everything were the same color, it would look like a photo from Martha Stewart. It calms me to look at it.

    I agree that anxiety necessarily makes us more vigilant about protecting our families. And that can be a very good thing.

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  3. A week ago I might have posted a very different comment, but having just ‘outed’ myself on my own blog I can be a lot more honest…..at long last. Ditto for being very productive in the mania phase and pretty slovenly in the down…..after 24 years of marriage, with one adult child (nearly 27) now married, a mother and in her own house, and the other adult child (23) coming and going like it’s hotel, I’ve finally got a cleaner. I reconciled it this way, it’s only for 2 hours a week and I’d rather use the hyper weeks for writing or doing something else creative or active in that time than wasting it just on cleaning nowadays, (and as it turns out, my husband wholeheartedly agrees). In the downs it’s just one less thing to feel guilty about, and has been worth every cent in forcing me to just let go of some responsibilities a bit. In a 100 years no one’s going to care about how clean our cupboards were, but we just might be remembered for something we’ve written! I used to think, even when I was working full time and taxiing the kids to all their after school stuff, that I was failing at my home ‘job’ every time I was in a depression. I think that’s still a social pressure that’s more focussed on women/mothers than men/fathers, but partly we do it to ourselves as well. Though Martha’s been to jail hasn’t she so that’s at least one up to me?! My daughter unfortunately is really struggling at the moment, and as heartbreaking as it is to watch her go through it and beat herself up about whether she’s a terrible Mum, it has given me a lot of insight into how cruel mental illness can be when it warps your perception of your relationships so badly. Her son is so very loved and happy, and along with her brother, my daughter has turned out to be smart, resilient and often oblivious to the failings that I thought I had as their crazy Mum – you have absolutely summed up with this blog that there is a huge difference between being a crazy bad parent and a crazy good one x

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    • Thanks so much! My heart goes out to your daughter. I have a friend who says you can’t be a Good Mom, you can only be a Good Enough Mom. I try to remind myself of that.

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