It 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.