“The symptoms and the illness are not the same thing. The illness exists long before the symptoms. Rather than being the illness, the symptoms are the beginning of its cures. The fact that they are unwanted makes them the more a phenomenon of grace—a gift from God, a message from the unconscious, if you will, to initiate self-examination and repair.”
M. Scott Peck
I have a nasty little secret that rarely makes its presence known. It’s not a secret that tries to remain unknown from the world. It’s a secret because it tries so hard to disguise itself and blend in making it difficult to be distinguished. I’m talking about the hardest to explain episode of bipolar: the dreaded “mixed episode.”
Often times the most dangerous episode and more often the most overlooked are forgotten. Even by myself until it’s too late and after it has subsided as I look back in its wake do I realize has just occurred.
Not quite depression, not quite mania, but a hideous combination of the two. Sometimes flip-flopping from one to the other, from one day to the next or as quick as from morning to night. Sometimes the despair of depression laced with the energy and urgency of mania all in one. Trying to explain how a mixed episode feels is like trying to explain colors to the blind. Or the vast differences of the sounds of languages to the deaf. Impossible. But I’ll give it a shot.
Consistent research has shown that people with bipolar are like vampires when it comes to sunlight. Too much is not good. Exposure to extended amounts of sunlight has the capability to trigger mania. I do my best to avoid it. So it would go without saying the summer months carry the highest rates for manic episodes. Sleep deprivation is another trigger; of which I am accustom to, never having been successful at obtaining a healthy sleep cycle.
It would be easier if I had some kind of warning notice that alerted me when something was wrong. However, my mood shifts are sneaky and subtle. Slowly changing. I tend to swing on the depressive side which last longer than my mania.
This recent episode was more difficult to recognize. Some days I had to force myself to get out bed only to face the day full of irritability. Others I would take on the day with gusto and full of energy. Some days were intertwined with both starting the day with happiness and ending with self-loathing. Most consisted of anxiety.
Not in behavior, but at least a depressive episode is consistent. And so is a manic episode. Their moods are somewhat the same until treated. Mixed episodes are not. Each day is different. Evening is different from the morning. The only thing consistent is that neither mood is good. Hopelessness, fear, self-loathing, despair; all the classic signs of depression, but are overlaid with the seduction of mania. Not quite euphoric, or elation. Not quite sky-high. No soaring giddiness that makes a manic mood worthwhile. Instead a pulsing energy that seized hold of my body that urged me to move, move, move. But move where? Move why? In both, depression and my mania, I sought stimulation and attention. I sought comfort.
The constant see-saw ride makes the seduction of mania so much more alluring. It’s an escape. One that’s not available in a depressive episode. It’s the cool springs of water in a dry wasteland. Uncontrollably you jump in head first. Immersing yourself seeking relief after drudging in a desolate episode. In that episode you’ve already begun to believe lies your depressed brain has been feeding you.
Depression is full of sweat, blisters and planning. Even tears. Depression is work. Like toiling an empty, barren field. Without rain, there is no harvest, no life. When it comes to life, it sometimes feels like the rain is being withheld. You believe those lies:
“I did what was expected of me, but it didn’t matter.”
“I made a decision, and now I’m paying the price.”
“It makes no difference if I’m here or not.”
“I’m never going to get anywhere in life.”
You start to believe you’re sentenced to a dry, sterile life–fruitless efforts, broken promises, let downs, addictions, pain, un-fulfillments, and hopelessness. You crave rain. And when it comes it’s not just a sprinkle it’s a downpour. That same part of your mind that believed those lies dances in the outpouring soaking up every bit of relief possible dispelling any fear that it would never arrive.
When it arrives it’s more than feeling like waking up to the sunshine. It’s like coming alive but it’s not you. Before you know it, you feel a sense of invigorating aliveness. Energy is readily available that you didn’t have. No more desire to lay around in a cocoon of blankets. Thoughts are moving faster, you’re connected to your creativity and you experience the desire to open up, just like everything else around you. Everything is a breeze. Somewhere your mind grabs a hold of it and runs with it.
Then all of a sudden your mind crashes, but your body is still moving like a runaway train. With the same constant explosion of energy during mania, you now feel even more hatred towards the inability to be satisfied. If I don’t understand how my mind can barely work and function while my body is speeding faster than the rest of the world then, how can I explain the phenomenon to you?
The problem is, this is no physical ailment. There are no sniffles to warn you of a cold. No body aches to warn you of an impending flu. There’s nothing that intuitively feels bad about the early aspects of a mixed episode.
Mixed episodes are all about breaking things–my hand, relationships, best of intentions. I got arrested and later landed in ICU, then placed in a psychiatric hospital after attempted suicide. I’ve had to sever ties with friends due to inappropriate relationships. And I’ve quite my job because the alcohol is too easily accessible. All due to my recent mixed episode.
I’ll say it again, the mixed episode is the most dangerous. Maybe it’s because so difficult to recognize. The sane person is left with the consequences and the messes to clean up. Bipolar is about losses and aftermaths. It’s about unpredictability and playing catch up. A mixed episode is the worst of both worlds–a horribly disorienting and painful experiences.
I admit I don’t believe that just because I did things during an episode with the majority of the time not in my right mind that I think I’m not accountable. I can’t say how much I could’ve controlled and how much I couldn’t have. There’s distorted thinking. Irrational. I have pieces of time missing. I know I tried to get control of it and I was consistently on my meds.
It’s not a matter of “if” I’ll have another episode but “when” I’ll another. And when that happens I have no control over it no matter how consistent I stick to my meds. Whether I believe the lies in my depression or whether I have messes to clean up in the wake of my mania’s, I beat myself up the hardest over the mistakes and trouble I make. I tend to think of myself as a failure.
I have messes to clean up yes, and as long as I carry this thorn in my side I’m almost positive I always will. But in the aftermath I am showered with grace. Grace I don’t deserve. Grace from my wife who continually sacrifices. Grace from my family. Grace from my pastor and the rest of the Celebrate Recovery leadership team that I serve with. But where I felt it the most strongest and the most abundant was from God.
There are no rules, obligations, or tests to receive grace. It’s freely and unjustifiably given, and that’s what makes it the most radical love there is. When you’ve fallen in a hole, still reeking of the messes you’ve created, and someone looks in and says, “You are loved, you’re forgiven, and you matter,” you learn about the true depth of grace. To some they see you. Others see a disorder. Others see you with a disorder.
Grace isn’t the same as rain. Grace falls freely and dependably…God’s gift of life granted to dormant seeds waiting to produce fruit. God’s grace is sufficient to grow, to heal, to reclaim, and to renew.
While there are consequences and discipline that are attendant to all of our choices, the challenge is to not let those past actions define our present and future destiny. To do so is to deny, again, our relationship with Jesus. Because he doesn’t accuse. He doesn’t despise. Instead he takes the humble, the repentant, the broken, and he restores and redefines us.
I hear the lies my mind tells me and wants me to believe. I look back and see my actions and behaviors I committed. They are accusing and attacking. I have to make a conscious choice to reject them. They are not who God says I am.
I worry about not being used by God. That I will mess up so bad he will refuse to put me to work. The day after coming home from the hospital my pastor, who was faithful in checking on me, called to see if I was up to leading group at Celebrate Recovery the following night. That’s God’s grace.
I rethink the people of the Bible and remember God’s word is full liars, murderers, prostitutes, adulterers, cowards, deniers, abandoners, the depressed, cheaters, the arrogant. I could go on. These are the men and women God used.
Here I am: I am redeemed, set free, washed clean, and given a new identity in Jesus. God sees me for the real me, loves me, has restored me and continues to restore me. My past or my failures do not define my present or my future.