Bipolar Disorder and the highly sensitive person (lived experience and those that care for us) – the lived experience perspective.
According to J. Raymond DePaulo Jr., M.D. caring for someone with Bipolar Disorder is akin to caring for someone with severe and terminal cancer. There are no other illnesses that compare to the continued effort and exhaustion experienced by carers of people with a lived experience of Bipolar Disorder (BD).
The manic depressive episode experienced by people with BD and those that care for them can (believe it or not) enhance family communication and ‘tightness’. It all comes back to how the sufferer and the carer manage. A person with a lived experience of BD can in actual fact enhance your life. Our perspective and our insight can enrich the daily grind. When managed well, a person with BD can change the way you see things. Thinking outside the square and the necessary need to develop insight and awareness can actually benefit those around the person with the BD lived experience. It’s how we survive. Often seen as ‘highly sensitive people’, intuitive and responsive, it is true that we can live our life in a state of high alert (elation), with intermittent periods of downtime (depression).
Expressing our lived experience to those either “around us” or those who care for us can be a difficult experience. To be able to demonstrate that our experience is an illness and not a weakness, can be the most difficult thing of all. Our sensitivity or acute awareness may manifest as a panicked episode or a heightened sense of our environment, resulting in an inability to manage information which for other people, may be easily processed (think trauma, animal cruelty and exposure to disturbing communication/s). For myself personally, I have had a number of events occur in my life where I am extremely sensitive to ‘energy’ around me. (Bare with me, this is left of centre…of course). I once was driving with my son into the valley where I live. It was late at night and I had a ‘sense’ that there was a meteorite about to strike the earth. My son was asleep as I began to panic. Then from his hazy slumber he said the word “meteorite”. It was enough to stop me in my tracks. I had to call my husband for him to come and collect us. Within my heightened state of awareness, I had an overwhelming sense of harm to people on earth. I think it was early 2013, maybe February? That night a meteorite struck the earth injuring over a thousand people in Russia. How do I know? Every time I get this type of sense, my husband watches the media for reports that what I felt to confirm whether my senses were valid. More often that not, it is. We use this as a tool to manage my wellness, since too many ‘misses’ means I may be heading into dangerous territory (psychosis, paranoia et al).
This is what makes my husband my greatest carer. He doesn’t disregard my experience. While I recognise that this is not what it is like for all people with BD, I have come across too many other ‘sufferers’ that have had similar experiences to disregard my own as coincidence. Fortunately my husband doesn’t look for coincidences either, he looks for the ways in which my senses align themselves with reality.
I can imagine (if I were a carer) that it would be much easier to look for more plausible explanations, or to disregard and not pay much attention. I truly see that this would be a reasonable response…after all we are “insane”.
The highly sensitive person (HSP) has been well documented. The person as highly sensitive and with BD is yet to be fully explored, although there are plenty of lived experience blogs which address this, yet for many the correlation can be disregarded. Part of the HSP/BD complex is that, where in Western culture success is measured by how busy you are, how much you earn and how well liked you are, all of which can be triggering for a person with lived experience. Unless I’m in a state of mild to moderate the mania, I’ll be frank, you would probably find me bothersome and with a history of holding down a job for no more than 2 years (mostly due to boredom and sometimes paranoia) it is difficult to achieve the stability required to be considered a success. In fact, what many people without BD seek to achieve in life, I find a stressor, triggering episodes of either depression or mania.
The experience of being a person with a lived experience of BD and thus a HSP means that during times of mild to moderate mania, I can be flooded with inspiration, creativity and a wealth of ingenious ideas. Now of course not all of these ideas can be harnessed, yet those that can may lead to the start of something great. For myself, these ideas often stop in their tracks due to the pattern of my experience. Mania; influx of ideas, the sense that things move too slowly and then the abandonment of the ideas due to restlessness, irritability and agitation, often resulting in a depressive episode.
I envy the HSP who tends not to fluctuate between mania and depression, since my fluctuations can indeed be life threatening, this is (to me) what distinguishes the HSP from the HSP/BD person. It’s not so much my down turn into depression that is the most risky moment for me, it is the stability that follows, the not knowing when the next up and down will be that really has me come undone. It is the thought of the depression that fills me with fear, not the actual depression itself (as strange as that may sound).
I have openly described myself as a HSP, well before I was ready to disclose my lived experience of bipolar. It seemed (and still does) that it is much more acceptable to be a sensitive type than to be a mood disoriented/fluxing person. After all, we all feel sensitive at some point, yet not all sensitive people loose their sense of self in the ride between the two opposing points; mania and depression. The highly sensitive facet of my illness is (to me) a gift, the rest (the disassociate highs and the unbearable lows) is a burden I feel I must bare, a circumstance of the sensitive self.
My husband has reflected to me that I appear to have a great capacity for empathy, for spirituality and a thirst to seek greater meaning in life. He and I also recognise that this quest for meaning can be interrupted by my illness, I take two steps forward into awareness and one-step back…this is guaranteed.
At one stage I could barely put one foot forward, so the effort of taking two steps resulting in one, is a good outcome all things considered. Through my BD lived experience I have come to recognise the value of meditation, of following a spiritual path, of getting out in nature and I am learning to master the art of distraction. Through distracting myself from my sensitive thought patterns (fear, gloom, paranoia, elation) I am able to begin to break the BP cycle. It isn’t perfect, but it is an improvement.