The Perks (or So I’m Told) of Bipolar Disorder

“In the terms of ‘Mental Illness’ isn’t stable a place they put horses that wish to run free?”

– Stanley Victor Paskavich

If you follow my blog regularly, don’t worry if I’ve strayed from my personal journey of positive thinking. I haven’t. But I am wondering if someone’s playing a joke on me. I’m behind the computer as we speak, waiting for someone to jump and shout, “GOTCHA!” Just know I went in with the idea for this post relieved and even a little bit excited. By the time I was done, though, I couldn’t tell if I was baffled, underwhelmed, or downright appalled.

It may seem ignorant (or arrogant, depending on which way you look at it) to suggest that there is any kind of upside to the bipolar condition. I would not be able to see past the question before giving an answer that was less than friendly. Understanding that now does do a lot of good but makes up for very little.

That said, I’ve always had my personal beliefs about any connections between bipolar disorder and intelligence, creativity, etc. They were in no way unbiased, universal, or set in stone. It turns out, though, there is research to suggest that being bipolar doesn’t always have to be all bad.

Many people think genetics is the only factor that plays a role in this disorder’s existence. One study on the matter suggests that “despite the clear contribution of genetics to the etiology of bipolar disorder, little of the genetic architecture is currently understood.”

That same study also found five positive psychological traits dominant in those with bipolar disorder:

· Spirituality

· Empathy

· Creativity

· Realism

· Resilience

These traits “are generally viewed as valuable and beneficial morally or socially.”

I can only speak for myself, but I wouldn’t have guessed those to be the traits amplified in a positive light by bipolar disorder.

One of the psychiatrists who worked on the study, Nassir Ghaemi, is turning some heads with some of his research.

Ghaemi, psychiatrist and author of A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illness, has evidence supporting the study’s contentious findings.

“Depression enhances empathy and realism, and the mania enhances creativity and resilience … so when people have bipolar disorder, they have the full gamut of benefits.”

According to Ghaemi, those with bipolar disorder “are better equipped for times of crisis.”

This is playing semantics as far as I’m concerned. I personally don’t find it offensive but would understand why someone else suffering from bipolar disorder might. The word “crisis” is applicable in many different ways and on many different levels. To suggest that someone with bipolar disorder has the “full gamut of benefits” is offensive in general and, even more so, inaccurate.

The idea of resilience being a positive trait of this illness kind of makes sense to me, but the cynic in me can see how that might be offensive to others, as well. It may also be the cynic in me and not the bipolar disorder that makes me think, “Resilience? At what cost?”

Ghaemi said he believes exposure to adversity can provide a kind of “mental vaccine” against future adversity, in turn creating a kind of organic resilience.

“People with bipolar disorder … have traumatic manic or depressed episodes, and then it goes away. They actually recover from these episodes,” he said.

This is a misleading, reckless statement. I’m walking proof that that isn’t a rational assumption. I can only speak for myself, but even when I “come out” of a depressive or manic state I am always reminded that I only have a certain number of tools to work with – and they’re never enough. And they never will be. That’s part of the disorder: When you go into remission, you think you’ll be ready for next time. And then next time comes and you realize too late you were far from ready.

I can’t speak to the sense of spirituality that inflates by the madness; I myself am not a spiritual person so I can’t speak to the idea’s logic or lack thereof. The idea is that someone with bipolar disorder may “rely” on spirituality to help them through. Although this makes sense to me, I still cannot relate.

David Miklowitz, director of the Child and Adolescent Mood Disorders Program at UCLA’s Semel Institute, believes traits such as spirituality, in fact, are worth developing as safeguards.

He says, “for people with bipolar disorder to think about their personal goals for recovery—not taking medication and only taking medication, but are there other things that could be helpful to their long-term quality of life?”

This is true, but we must not lose sight of where, and in what order, our priorities need lie. “Recovery” in the land of mental illness and make-believe doesn’t mean “recovery” in the standard, typical sense here on dry land. For me, recovery is like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: the idea is fun, but that’s about it. If you’re going to worry about being resilient or creative, you better have the “basic” stuff (like a medication regimen and therapy) MORE than down pat beforehand. Remember, this is war.

But, Miklowitz does note the danger in romanticizing the “mad genius” concept.

“…where we get into trouble … is when it’s implied that bipolar people are more creative than other people and then the logical leap that people make is, ‘Well, if I go off my medications, then I’ll be really creative.’ And that’s when disasters tend to occur.”

It seems like Miklowitz wants to have his cake and eat it, too. He seems to be nailing down the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle while at the same time entertaining a hypothesis that, from where I’m sitting, seems a little too unrealistic.

So, what about depression? Does one’s close nature with suffering allow them to tap into a secret vault of empathy? Well, according to the study, kind of.

“I…think that people with bipolar disorder have a unique way of perceiving the world,” Roumen Miley, psychiatrist and clinical director of the Providence Care Mood Disorder Research and Treatment Service, said. “They have increased sensitivity. When people are depressed, they experience the world in a different way. They become more sensitive to the world and to the pain in the world.”

This ideology does make me wonder if I’m a bipolar anomaly in that I disagree. Sure, I see the world through a lens that only I can. And someone with breast cancer sees the world through a lens only they can. It makes me feel like a spectacle. I don’t want to be interesting or knowledgeable in that regard. I don’t want to be “fun” to be around if what I’ve gone through continues to be the price. I’m flattered, but no thanks.

There has been a known correlation between creativity/intelligence and bipolar disorder for decades now, but no one can point to the reason why. It’s been common knowledge for some time that there is an extreme genetic component to the illness, but no one knows anything about which gene that is and why.

I’m not in complete disagreement with some of the conclusions these researchers came to, but I question the unusual directions they followed to reach said destinations.

I’m not offended to a point of irrational defiance, and granted, I know very little about the professional backgrounds of the researchers involved…but their intentions weren’t entirely in the right place.

On another note, the study also puts out the idea that having a “positive cognitive bias” shows people without a mental illness often misjudge both their own capabilities and control. They also tend to interpret events with too much of a positive attitude. So, are people without bipolar disorder different than “us” because they’re too positive and lack a certain kind of control?

The study aside, even the title of Dr. Ghaemi’s book, A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illness, makes me wonder about some of the connections made. I’m sure the research is there, but it sounds silly taken at face-value.

A catalyst for Ghaemi’s research, Tom Wootton founded what’s called the Bipolar Advantage in 2003. Its mission is to “focus on learning how to thrive DURING manic and depressive episodes. Those who achieve remission end up in crisis the next time it happens. Those who learn to thrive never have to worry about their next episode again.” I never knew a mission statement could be so irresponsible and potentially dangerous. But, hey, for the right price you can learn to harness delusional mania or that earth-shattering depression to your advantage.

Do I believe that’s possible to a certain extent? Yes, but only to an extent.

It’s the language that scares me. Not everyone’s brain chemistry is going to change by taking some overpriced web seminar.

This illness is like walking through fire. You become stripped down to your most raw, bare form and then you feel. You’ll feel feelings that you could’ve gone your whole life without. Feeling them in a way you know no one else can relate to or tolerate. I’m not special. I already deal with the disorder so don’t belittle me by trying to fit me inside one of your boxes because I’ll get out.

To quote the study, “By gaining a better appreciation for the positive aspects of mental illness and exploring methods to enhance these traits, we may improve clinical outcomes.”

Maybe they’re right. Through all the research maybe they’ve found the way in and cracked the code. But just because we can’t start the book on page one doesn’t mean we have to rewrite the first three chapters. I understand there is no linear approach when researching and treating bipolar disorder, but the conditions in which these conclusions were drawn are unusual and self-serving.

Like I said at the beginning, I approached doing this post with a proud enthusiasm; I was ready to be able to have something of tangible, evidentiary value that there was an upside to my downside. And there is, of course. I’m just not sure Dr. Ghaemi or any other researcher here pointed it out.

“In the storm of crisis, complete sanity can steer us astray, while some insanity brings us to port,” he said.

Needless to say, I won’t ever be getting on a boat with Dr. Ghaemi, proverbial or otherwise.

10 thoughts on “The Perks (or So I’m Told) of Bipolar Disorder

  1. I think that there are things one can learn or skills that one can develop (like empathy) through experiences of mental illness, and those things can be useful when the illness is in remission. In the midst of a mood episode, though, I think those things are likely to be either inaccessible or inconsequential in the greater storm of illness symptoms.

  2. My favorite type of research are qualitative studies. I like to read block quotes from the participants in the study and hear what they have to say in their own words. That probably explains why I enjoy reading about people’s lives on their blogs… their experiences, described in the way that feels authentic to them. Great post, Josh 🙂

  3. I can look at (and compare) this to my OCD perspective. Without searching too hard, you can find plenty of literature about how beneficial OCD can be. I think this is an irresponsible argument. Yes, I’ve benefited (sometimes strongly) from my OCD, yet I medicate it to minimize the overall effects, because they hurt. Once in a writers group, I wrote an essay about how I was continually injured because I couldn’t moderate my exercise. One woman gushed on and on about how lucky I was to be so single-mindedly focused. I was pretty offended. Would Cobain have made his music without bipolar disorder? Maybe, maybe not. There are plenty of musicians without mental illness. But without being bipolar, most likely he’d still be alive. I don’t see it a a positive tradeoff.

    1. Yes, I’ve also benefited from my condition, but the pros usually don’t outweigh the cons. It’s an interesting, yet dangerous argument, in my opinion. I’d like to do more research on the matter, but I was too taken aback to continue forward with the full study.

  4. Great post. What Bipolar has taken away from me far outweighs what it has given to me. I wrote a whole post about it last month. I’d rather be able to work full-time and not be heavily medicated than living the way I am now at home everyday by myself not even able to grocery shop when I want to.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: