It has been astutely noted that I've stolen a lot of my rational checks and balances from the bipolar people of the world. I actually wondered for a while if I was bipolar -- particuarly worrying, as at the time I was around the age where traditionally you have your first full-blown manic episiode -- so I did the usual and started cramming everything I could find into my noggin.

The first thing you do, obviously, is start keeping track of what's knocking around inside your head. It was how I started blogging, in fact. That was back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, so this was all in a terrible trashy LiveJournal read by about three people, all of whom I also talked to in person. It became apparent rather quickly that I don't fit the standard symptoms of (hypo)mania; I have a depressed mode and a non-depressed mode, and the non-depressed one is the one where I eat and sleep properly, and venture outside, and don't go on crying jags, und so weiter. In the years since, I've met a lot more diagnosed bipolar people and gotten some more subjective descriptions of the experience that are even further from what I do. Mania is the factor that distinguishes bipolar disorder from unipolar mood disorders, and since I don't have that mode, I am, ipso facto, not bipolar.

[I also discovered right quick after graduation that my moods weren't cyclical so much as my life was. One of the worrying bits was that I tanked really hard at the end of every semester. My alma mater was shit at interim housing. First I had to take a week of exams, and then I got booted off campus -- an environment where I felt reasonable safe and competent -- to stay with my parents, in a city I hated and a house I really couldn't escape without a car. Once I fell off the academic calendar, I got reliably miserable at Christmas, and then at whatever random times my family decided to stick their noses in.]

Despite missing half the equation, a lot of the coping techniques that proper bipolar people have developed have proved useful for me. My depressed mode is essentially stress fatigue; too many upsetting things happen in too short a time, and my ability to cope just fizzes out. From my perspective, it's obvious illness behavior, and in fact something similar is part of the prodrome of colds and flu for me -- I get unaccountably emo about twelve hours before my throat gets scratchy or my head gets all gooey. A lot of the checks bipolar people run through are designed to catch changes in functioning in the early stages, before they get obvious to people outside your head, and they're also useful for monitoring my stress level. I have a tendency to be stubborn past the point of usefulness, and I learned to cover it up when I struggled early on, so sometimes it's only noting that I'm starting to compensate for fatigue or creeping anhedonia that tells me I'm about to be in real trouble if I don't take some sort of break.

I really should have gotten some advice on this from the various people I've asked for help with depression, but I didn't. Surprising no one, psychiatry is damnably inconsistent about how they conceptualize mood disorders. When you go in to get treatment for depression, the goal is to beat it. They have a long, long list of things to throw at you, from relaxation techiques to CBT to psychoanalysis to about a million drugs. The unstated implication is that one of these nostrums will work, and when you find it, you won't have depression anymore, and won't that be nice?

It sounds very optimistic, but it can turn on you in a hurry. If you put your foot down and say "no more," because none of them are working and all the trying is more disruptive than being depressed, then suddenly the depression is your fault. Clearly you want to be miserable, or you'd be eager to try this next handful of magic beans. (It's a particularly nasty corner to be in if you're trying to get treatment for other things concurrently. You get the choice between lying about following the depression treatment, lying about whether it's working, or being declared non-compliant and forfeiting your opportunity to get anyone to listen to you about anything else.) They like to tell you that the impulse to say 'no' is the depression talking, which is bollocks. Depression is not an autonomous thing that crammed itself into my calvarium from outside like one of Khan's giant ear worms. I should think that if I ever heard things coming out of my mouth, in my voice, that did not originate from my own personal thoughts, the fact that none of my hobbies were fun anymore would slip pretty fucking far down on the list of Brain-Weasels That Worry Me.

Bipolar patients tend to get more explicit cognitive monitoring techniques, ironically, because they think y'all are a lost cause. Once you're declared bipolar, that's it; no one thinks you're going to be un-bipolar ever again. It's a part of you that can be managed, but not snipped out. The downside to that is that they throw a lot of terrifying psychoactives at you, of course, but on the upside, they consider your treatment program a success as long as you're not suicidal, and they're not fielding 3am phone calls about that cop you punched after he tried to stop you from dancing naked in the middle of the turnpike.

There's a lot of emphasis in depression counseling on attaining "normal" functioning -- they yell at you a lot to train yourself to power through or just absorb some arbitrary amount of 'ordinary' stress, and shame you a lot if you try to tell them 'look, I know other people can deal with that bit, but I can't, can't I just figure out some other way to do this instead?' I've done too much soc-sci to believe in statistical artifacts like 'normal' anymore, but trying to tell a psychiatrist that I don't care if I function weirdly as long as I function does not go over well. (It's aggravating with regards to things that are traditionally seen as symptoms. The sleep disturbance is when I alternate between sleeping for three and twelve hours at a time because I'm crying and avoiding the other humans in the house, fucknut; it's not when I can sleep perfectly fine as long as you let me do it from 4am to noon every day, without trying to force me awake at nine in the morning.) With bipolar patients, they're so afraid of breaking you and making you go bugnuts that they've accidentally backed off to a more sensible point of 'if that makes you lose it, then don't do that anymore'.

Some of the worst times of my life were when I was listening to people urging me to 'beat depression'  by living a 'normal life' no matter how I felt. I've never bulled my way through one of those breakdowns and felt proud of myself for doing things the ordinary way despite it making me miserable. When I was younger I felt like a failure for not doing it as easily as everyone else did, and after I wised up, primarily what I felt was that I should stop taking life advice from whoever told me to do that. Other people still occasionally get pissy with me for declining to do things in person on a 9-5 schedule, but on the other hand, I've never broken down into overstressed tears going into my afternoon office hours at the publisher's, or my evening desk shift at the dance studio.

Falling into depressive fugues as a defensive reaction to overload has been a part of my personality for as long as I can remember. I'm not sure it can be gotten rid of, much less gotten rid of without tearing out other bits I actually need. This whole idea of setting me in a fight against a perfectly legitimate part of me that isn't going away seems like an excellent way to set me up to lose, constantly, and for the rest of my life. Stabbing myself in the brain doesn't seem to work very well, but using it as a stress-meter and then working around some of the odder results hasn't gone nearly so badly.

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