After the Episodes, Who Are You?

The Many "True Selves" of Bipolar Disorder

The Many “True Selves” of Bipolar Disorder

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder relatively late in life… around 35. Not long after my diagnosis, I had to switch medications and everything fell apart: a bankruptcy, despite earning nearly $1M in the previous year. That brought me low from the heights I had been enjoying since my graduation from an ivy league law school a decade before.

My graduation from a prestigious law school was hardly pre-ordained. Although my parents were both college graduates, and my father had earned a law degree through night school, we were not a wealthy family and my father was not a lawyer. My mother did not routinely contribute to the family earnings and the years that she did were a psychological nightmare for me, for her, and probably for everyone else in the family too. After graduating early from high school with good grades, I went to college part-time while I worked during the day. Fortunately, my runaway summer with my (soon to become apparent) congenital liar of a boyfriend was over by the time college started in the Fall. In retrospect, I wonder, was that runaway summer my first manic episode?

Was it mania that enabled me to graduate with the highest GPA in my class six years later? Was it mania that enabled me to make it through a demanding law school curriculum with such an impressive record of grades and extracurricular activities that I was able to take my pick of job offers upon graduation? Was it mania that drove me to pick the most foreign, the most demanding job available? That of a management consultant for the most prestigious management consultancy in the world? Was it mania that got me through over two years of long and demanding hours, constant travel and a ridiculous commute with that company until my first child was born? Was it mania that made me a passionate learner about parenting and motherhood and then a passionate advocate for non-violent parenting and breastfeeding and bedsharing with infants… so passionate that I became a La Leche League leader?

Was it mania that drove me to open my own practice rather than return to commuting and working for a firm once my child was old enough for his father to care for him during the days? Was it my first serious depressive episode that drove my divorce? Or was it the divorce that drove my first serious depressive episode?

It was diagnosed as mania when I worked so hard on the days and weekends (when I didn’t have custody) that I earned nearly $1M in that practice, when I shopped (so aggressively that I fell into a bankruptcy that didn’t faze me the next year). I had become a nationally known figure on the speaking circuit. And I loved my life! I was remarried to the wonderful man who still loves and understands me today. Within another two years, it was severe depression that landed me on the ECT table with the remnants of my life strewn behind me, all but the most permanent soon to be forgotten due to the side effects of ECT.

So, was that the real me from the age of 17 to my spiral into suicidal depression in my late 30’s? Or was it me in one long manic episode? And if it was all an episode, how can I know what the real me is like?

How do we sort these things out? And, one might ask us, why does it matter?

It matters.

It matters because, just like everyone else from the age of 14 on, we want to know who we are. But, unlike most people, doctors and others tells us that there are episodes – episodes called mania and depression – when we are not ourselves. So we scramble to figure out which time periods reflect our Selves. And we try, with surgical precision, to remove our episodes from our “true life story.” We want that pure true life story so that we can examine it from every direction, turn it upside down and shake it to see what falls out, plop it on a table and see if it’s malleable, like clay, or if it’s fixed, like a marble sculpture. We want to understand who we are at the current end of that “true” life story.

We want to know who we are so we can choose to accept that person, knowing who s/he is! So we can love that person. So that when we’re confused about what we want or don’t want, we can turn to that inner vision of ourselves and see what the True Self wants or does not want.

But what if the doctors and others were wrong? What if we are ourselves during the episodes? Maybe not our favorite selves. Maybe not ourselves with the clarity, self-restraint and balanced emotions we enjoy when we’re not in episode… but still ourselves. I am not proposing that someone in a manic episode should be treated, in the justice system for example, the same way as someone not in a manic episode. I am not claiming that we have total control over our actions when we are in episode. I am not blaming anyone for their episodes. No. No. No. Nothing like that. What I am suggesting is that maybe that out-of-control, not-legally-responsible-for-their-actions, person is still you.

If I cut out all of my episodes, what would I be left with? Not much. Should I say that I don’t know myself at all? That I’ve not had any opportunity to get to know my True Self?

Or should I say that my True Self has spent most of her adult life in a manic episode that was probably a coping strategy for her childhood life. Then, when my True Self finally felt secure and ready, it faced the reality of my childhood and went through several years of darkness. It was my way of learning how to cope consciously, and without the need for protective mania, with my childhood feelings. When I say it that way, I feel good about myself and my life. I feel proud of what I chose to accomplish with all the energy that mania provided. I feel proud that I didn’t wait until I was at death’s door to see what was true about myself and my life. And I don’t feel like I’m left a bloodied stump because almost all of my life has been cut away from me because it was compartmentalized as “episodes.” I own my whole Self, my whole Life, my whole Experience.

Try it on. You might find you like owning your Whole Self.

(The comments area was, unfortunately, not working for a long time. I didn’t realize this until I did some testing recently. It’s fixed now. So I hope you will share your stories and reactions.)

First published on