Dancing With Your Bipolar Bear

polar bear dance

One of life’s great lessons is to accept, master, and ultimately enjoy that which cannot be avoided. Chances are you already know that bipolar disorder is incurable, however, there is a vast spectrum of experience in between being a victim of the illness and living a full, productive, and happy life that includes it.

Over the four decades since my first manic episode I have gone from one extreme to the other. It is not my intention to underestimate or romanticize this rude adversary. I’ve done loony bin factory time, engaged in all manner of reckless behavior, and rebuilt my ruined life over and over again. It’s a wonder I’m here at all.

That said, let me urge you to hold on tight to this one bit of advice while trudging through the foreign and forbidding landscapes – embrace your bipolar bear and take it dancing.

The epigraph for my bipolar memoir, INVISIBLE DRIVING, is by Rainer Marie Rilke.

Perhaps everything that is terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.”

Only through dealing with the illness did I come to understand myself and lose my fear of life. Learning why I was susceptible caused me to evolve in ways I never would have otherwise. Bipolar disorder has given me far more than it ever took; because of it I achieved the peace of mind and gratitude I enjoy today.

If you are new to the illness your instinct will be to deny and forget it – don’t.

If you are new to recovery you may think you are “cured” and stop taking your meds – don’t.

If you are early in therapy and meeting the demons responsible for your manic episodes you will want to turn away – don’t.

If you feel stigma, if you feel “less than” because of the broken genes you carry – don’t.

The problem you refuse to face is the problem that will continually present itself until you do. Bipolar disorder is not a cute little foe; it is a monster you must not battle alone. Embrace it; let it teach you and guide you to places so called normal folk cannot spell, much less imagine. Befriend your bipolar bear, it is part of you, embrace it and take it dancing.

Fred Astaire On Ice

thin ice

Having an unusual name is downright aggravating if you’re the type of person who wants nothing more than to skate through life unnoticed. In Scotland, Alistair is popular (Gaelic for Alexander), but on the unforgiving playgrounds of America it’s virtually unknown. I have grown accustomed to spelling it repeatedly, and even providing pronunciation tips. The most successful of these is pointing out that it rhymes with Fred Astaire.

Astaire was known for his elegant, fluid style; gliding through densely populated art deco sets like a bird. In stark contrast, when it comes to dancing I am two leftover feet. However, growing into a reasonable facsimile of adulthood I too developed a terpsichorean signature – dancing through human relationships without ever touching or connecting. Shark-like, I had to keep moving forward to survive and, also shark-like, I consumed pretty much everything I encountered.

Suffering in the shadow of a larger-than-life father who neutralized anyone reckless enough to compete with him, I aimed low. The atmosphere of fierce, unforgiving intensity and extreme achievement threw a warm, appealing glow onto failure, which beckoned like a welcoming friend.

Understand; I had no appetite for magnificent, fearless failure, far from it. I was drifting towards the quiet desperation Thoreau described as though it was a beach resort.

For many people, life has a rather linear quality. Certainly there are peaks and valleys; moments of triumph interspersed with difficult, challenging episodes. But overall, life is of one piece; there is a philosophy, a rational context, driving it inexorably forward. That, and only that, is what I longed for, safety in the comfort of reason!

Other lives contain a terrible moment of clarity when, either through the auspices of a transformational event, or a revelation of insight, you understand fully that you will not have the life you craved.

For me, this moment did not occur at 20 as I sat in a German prison cell after being pinched at the Austrian border with a kilo of Afghani hashish.

Nor did it occur to me at 26 as I lay in a hospital bed with dozens of stitches in my face, having been beaten and left for dead one winter night after roaming the desolate streets alone on a drunken jag, stewing in depression and rage.

It didn’t even dawn on me at 36 when, divorced and penniless, I wondered why I’d been fired from two corporate jobs in just six months.

My inability to face the inevitable fueled astonishing powers of denial. Despite the long succession of catastrophes I still clung to the precious fantasy of a mediocre, uneventful life where I would be spared the demands of greatness.

In 1989, after a spirited round of fisticuffs with two large police officers who ultimately managed to subdue me, I sat silently as the cruiser approached Norristown State Mental Hospital. At that moment I realized there was no chance of leading a quiet, bland life – and wisdom meant surrendering to the life I was actually living. There was no dancing out of this one.

The I’m Not Okay Corral

Russian Base Jumping

Most of us engage in a rather juvenile fantasy that goes, “If I paint by the numbers and keep my nose clean things will work out well for me.” We desperately want to believe in a rational, merit-based world, all the while admitting secretly that life metes out misery at random – at least, according to some concept of justice incomprehensible to us – and seems to be as predictable and responsive to bribery as lightning. As a friend of mine likes to say, “What are you pretending not to know?”

Those of us who have crossed that invisible line and wandered the crooked streets of Cookoopantsatopolis can no long pretend not to know that – at any given moment – it is entirely possible that things will go terribly wrong. For us, the knowledge, and the fear, are always in the foreground and shall remain there until confronted eye to eye.

This, of course, is the greatest fear of them all – because any foe with the power to turn your life completely inside out is a foe worthy of your respect. However, just because it has killed before does not mean it is going to kill you. You can live in fear or you can face the music and dance.

I was forced to have a shootout at the I’m Not Okay corral and I’m so glad; since that time nothing has had the power to frighten me. It happened when I was writing my bipolar memoir, Invisible Driving. Every spare minute for an entire year I threw myself back into the one place on earth I was most afraid to go, the memory of my most recent manic episode.

In doing so I was not merely reviewing horribly painful memories, I was running the risk of sparking another episode. I understood this well, but likewise I understood that I simply had to do it if I was to have any chance at all of getting through it, and starting down the road to recovery.

Like the fellows in this cartoon – (one of my best, and most popular) – I knew there was a chance I would not make it. For the first time I had to be fearless, I had to have faith in myself in a life-or-death situation. Importantly, I understood that the wisdom and bravery of this labor in no way guaranteed it would work, and if it failed, I would be dealing with the consequences on my own.

There is purity and beauty to meeting, at last, the adversary you’ve been avoiding all your life, the demon you’ve been pretending not to know.