Thursday, November 19, 2009

Riding the Invisible Dragon

Once upon a time there was a princess who set at her desk most of the day and wept.  She tried to hide her face from others because weeping at her desk was not in her job description. There were times she wept because something sad had happened, but sometimes she wept because the dragon she was riding dove for the ground.

Some days, some nights this fiercely beautiful, wildly untamable creature arches her neck, spreads her shimmering wings , as they soar to the high upper reaches where the stars are always bright and the moon always full.  The dragon's flames light up the sky, the princess shrieks her joy.  Poised precariously on her dragon's back, she dances until she falls, still laughing as the moon and stars spin past her.

Sometimes the dragon catches her.

Sometimes she keeps falling.

And sometimes they soar too high and the dragon twists, plunging down into deep water, into caverns where there is no light, until the princess begins to believe that light is an illusion and all there is, all there ever will be is darkness.

The princess, though, is the only one who can see the dragon.  To everyone else she is gyrating frantically through the skies, shooting up, diving for the ground, and all of her own volition.

This is, of course, metaphor and an oddly mixed one at that, unless the princess's office is somewhere between Middle Earth and Hogwarts.  Obviously, too, (or at least I think it is) the princess is me.

I'm bipolar.

When I was crying at work--I cry, only princesses get to weep--I was in the midst of the break that finally sent me to the psychiatrist who named the dragon. I had been treated for depression for years because who sees the therapist when you're flying high in a mania? However, this final break was triggered by a medication that works great on depression--not so much on bipolarity.

Crying at work.  Certain that not only did no one like me, but sure that they were talking behind my back and telling everyone how damned incompetent I was.  (They probably were but I wasn't being singled out--it was just the way things are sometimes.)

The 3:00 AM awakenings were especially fun. I would wake up crying. The dogs that slept with me would looked baffled and one even--how maudlin--would actually try to lick away my tears.  (Shit--he probably just needed more salt in his diet.)  All my sins and failures, especially as a mother, would come and sit on my chest, going over a detailed laundry list of my crimes against everyone. There was no washing away these sins, either.  I knew I was unlovable and that the people who said, who thought, they loved me were either deluded or loved me out of pity.

Did I always cry?  No.  Anger and hysterical rage are also a part of mania. I could go from trembling lips and barely held back tears after being told I'd misspelled a word, to shaking anger and ice dagger words.

I had a sticky note on my computer with a list:. d. t., d. t.. d. e., l. p.--which stood for don't talk, don't think, don't eat, look pleasant. 

Being carried by the dragon was no joy ride for me, but being anywhere near me was certainly no pleasure either. I wasn't always angry, I wasn't always tearful.  I could still laugh--my family tends to have a pretty dark sense of humor--but I wasn't just fragile, I was brittle and ready to shatter at the slightest touch.

People (wisely) avoid being around you if they can and when they are--they tiptoe.

Or they try to help you.  Usually they're rational and reassuring.  People don't really hate you.  Your kids--or "we" when it was one of the kids talking--have turned out fine, so you didn't ruin them.

Cheer up.  Snap out of it.  Let's go do something fun.

I tried my own drugs of choice: buying stuff and things for other people, trying to help my friends and family with their lives (I think it's actually called interfering), refusing to open any mail that looked remotely like a bill--because if you don't open them you don't have to pay them--spending the time I wasn't working curled in my recliner with a book and the computer on my lap and the TV on.  Nothing could hold my attention for very long.  Oh, and by the way, if you're ever shopping in this aisle, the, uh, "admiration" of men can be quite an excellent drug too.  And you might be surprised at what can seem like a good idea at the time.

Humans tell stories and want to frame life and make order, or at least some kind of sense out of the chaos.  When the dragon is taking you for a ride, you sometimes try to figure out why.  Because there has to be a why, doesn't there? My ex-husband caught of lot flack on this one--blame for how I was feeling, blame for leaving me, blame for not understanding now, for being mean to me.  Now we aren't divorced for nothing and there are people, including our own children, who are amazed the marriage lasted so long. We're both battered and scared, but the dragon didn't walk in the door he opened to walk out. I brought her with me and I got full custody.

There is also the explanation of simply being unlovable, unworthy, and a burden to everybody whose orbit touches yours. That's when people start watching you closely and don't like to leave you alone.

Most of the time though you're just too busy trying to hang on, flailing around for something to grab hold of. What's hard to explain--to others and even to yourself--is that you didn't choose to get on the dragon and you didn't choose this emotional crack the whip. To other people, the people around you, you're doing the crazy dance, but the assumption is that at some level you WANT to dance and you'd get off  the dance floor if you really wanted to. (Do I have to remind you that the dragon is invisible to everyone else?  It's the best I can do metaphorically, so please keep it in mind.)

But the hard thing for you, the rider--meaning of course me--is to admit that while you didn't choose to get on this dragon, there's really no one to blame for the wild ride, not circumstances, not other people, and not even your own unlovable and horrible self.

It's an illness. A mental illness.

Frankly I hated the term.  When the psychiatrist first suggested it (her statement was, "I will not give you a diagnosis this quickly but if I were teaching a class to med students on bipolar--you would be a classic example to take to the class."),  I went into a kind of disassociated mental fugue.  Depressed was depressed but bipolar was really mentally ill. Mentally ill.  Which really means crazy. It takes awhile to wrap your crazy head around that, and a little longer to tell people what your doctor said. You walk the road to acceptance in fits and starts and the dragon doesn't stop the ride any time soon.

 The meds help amazingly.  The clinical sounding words "mood stabilizer" don't convey the tremendous, rainbow-hued relief they can be.  The clouds begin to lift and the reign of tears begins to end.

You learn that you can't cure this yet, but you can  manage it.  You can feed the dragon or learn to keep her in her stall. Take your meds.  Keep a routine, which is hard when chaos has been the only life you've known. Take your meds. Talk to yourself (usually better in private and maybe just on paper or in your own head) when the dragon starts sidling up to you.  Carrie Fisher (who talks about her own diagnosis) says, "The facts of my life don't change; the fiction does." That's when you have to remind yourself that feelings are only feelings and do a reality check.

I've learned to be aware of the signs that the dragon is creeping up and I'm putting on my riding boots.  When tears are right behind my eyes, when fears of a rejection that hasn't happened knots my stomach, some of the time I can step back and repeat the mantra of "feelings are only feelings. They aren't reality."

I told my therapist on my first visit that my goal was to sort out what was fucked up brain chemistry and what was real in my life. I'm still sorting.  It's like having diabetes, a good day yesterday doesn't mean you can be careless today. 

Mindfulness.  Self-awareness.  These are the gifts of managing this illness, this whatever it is, because these are the tools that help to gentle the dragon.

I'm learning to embrace the dragon rather than fight her.  Which is a fancy lame attempt at a poetic way of saying that while this illness doesn't define me,  it is a part of me, and that acceptance is the only way to stay grounded.

And it wasn't all bad; I can still remember the glitter of the stars and a full moon rising, poems pouring out like honey in summer, love so intense it was like lightning, rolled like thunder, and lit up the sky.

But I live now where light is not a illusion and the ground is under my feet.


  1. If Google deletes this comment, too, I'm going to get a complex.

    While I wouldn't wish this challenge of yours on myself or anyone I love, I don't think it's necessarily all that bad that you have the bipolarity. And I don't think it makes you mentally "ill." Yes, you have an imbalance that causes the mood changes, but you also have the opportunity to do what most of us don't.

    Most of us don't take the time to sort out what's crap and what isn't, to step back and remind ourselves that "feelings are only feelings," and not the end of the world. Most of us simply don't pay as much attention as we could. If it took bipolarity to make you mindful, then so be it.

    I think that truly ill people lose their sense of humor (laughing AT them is wrong, and doesn't count), but you haven't. I offer the following as proof of that:

    "trying to help my friends and family with their lives (I think it's actually called interfering)"


    "Oh, and by the way, if you're ever shopping in this aisle, the uh "admiration" of men can be quite an excellent drug too. And you might be surprised at what can seem like a good idea at the time."

    I'm sure I said something really important and deep in the comment that Google ate, but my non-bipolar mind won't cough it up for me now. We all have something to deal with. You're doing just fine dealing with your dragon. But keep taking the meds. :-)


  2. This post was exquistely written and helps me understand my daughter and a friend/acquaintance/friend (she goes back and forth w me) in a way that I hadn't before.
    Thank you and continued success in living with the dragon.

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  4. Thank you both. Living with the dragon is...tricky. And when you are younger, the wild ride can be very seductive. If I started writing letters of apology now I wouldn't be finished by the time I died unless I hit Biblical age.

    And it teaches humility, which is no bad thing.

    I wish all the dragon riders, and especially those who LIVE with them, good luck and for the riders, soft landings and peace.

  5. Reading this is like riding a roller coaster while watching a horror movie. You expressed yourself in a way that I understood your ebbs and flows in dealing with your 'situation'. I had a relationship with someone like this, many many moons ago, and didn't know how to handle it. She wouldn't share what was going on and thanks to you, I have a modicum of understanding. A little late, but thank you for expressing yourself thusly.

  6. "Riding a roller coaster while watching a horror movie" That is a great phrase Rick! You should write . I think that might be the perfect description for those who deal with people who are bipolar. (When I do, I think of it as penance.) In severe case it dives into hallucinations, hearing voices, and suicide. But mostly its just godawful to live whether you're on the dragon or trying to keep up with the person riding it.