Very fast or very sad, or both
In yet another blow to an already reeling public, Carrie Fisher was announced to have died at the tail end of 2016, a year filled with what felt like weekly obituaries of cultural icons and Hollywood stars. While she was most famous for her roles as Princess Leia and later General Organa in the “Star Wars” franchise, I knew her as the first celebrity I ever heard use the “b” word: B for bipolar.
Bipolar disorder seems to me to be poorly understood even among medical professionals. In med school we used “bipolar” as a pejorative for seniors and residents who seemed to alternate from being generally pleasant and student-friendly to ill-tempered and snappish. Patients admitted with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder were spoken of during endorsements as though they were contagious or to be feared, prompting me to want to point out that most bipolar patients don’t generally have a break with the perception of reality; we are not schizophrenics, we will generally not be violent, we do not pose an extraordinary danger except, in our lowest lows, to ourselves.
Bipolar disorder is characterized by periods of elevated mood with periods of depression. It used to be called manic-depressive disorder, giving one an image of an unstable person alternating between manic episodes—laughing maniacally, walking about making rash, poorly thought out decisions and with racing thoughts, like a bad Robert Downey Jr. movie—and depressive episodes, characterized by black moods, crying fits, zero motivation and the inability to enjoy anything previously enjoyed.
I do not know and can’t presume to know what it is like for people suffering from more severe forms of the disease. My own diagnosis came when I was convinced that I was merely depressive and in need of antidepressants; it turns out that the treatment for BPD is an entirely different kettle of fish. I ended up on six medications, three for the disease itself and three to counter the side effects of the other drugs. I sat every week at the psychiatrist’s office answering questionnaires about how I had been “something” that week: how angry, how irritable, how guilty, how sad, how tearful. I rated my progress by the number of service personnel I had yelled at in one week (one to two on better weeks, about five on bad ones). I was adamant that I was not crazy, but looking at my list of medications that no one I knew had to take, I was becoming less and less certain.
And then came Carrie Fisher. Never having been a big “Star Wars” fan—I had seen all the movies but had never felt myself a part of the fandom—I was surprised to feel a wave of affection for her when I read several interviews she had made in 2015 about her experiences living with bipolar disorder. It was with her characteristic frankness that she talked about launching a “Bipolar Pride” day. She said once about BPD that it was “a kind of virus of the brain that makes you go very fast or very sad. Or both. Those are fun days.” She said that she was “just like anybody else, only louder and faster and sleeps more.” I had seen other people talk about BPD but had never heard anybody put it quite in those words—so real and yet so normal.
Following her work, I also began to understand something of the link between my own mental illness and creativity. My version of manic episodes—hypomania—was something I grew to love, because it allowed me to plan, to pursue ideas and to generate thoughts that were bright or even brilliant. The rest of the time was just something I would either learn to live with or would come to love as well; it didn’t seem too impossible, if Princess Leia, in her esteemed old age, could sing-song into a microphone, “Oh manic depression, how I love you.”
If I am casual about the word bipolar; if I talk about this potentially shameful disease when it would be in better taste to keep silent about it, then it’s because of Carrie Fisher and the people she influenced; a woman who didn’t give two hoots about good taste but who cared about progress, about inclusion, about education, and most importantly, about finding something to laugh about.
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