How I came to see bipolar disorder as my greatest strength

Yes, living with bipolar disorder is a struggle. But this 21-year-old Minnesotan came to embrace the sudden shifts along with the surges of creative energy.
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It was 75 degrees with a slight breeze, and my family was descending the ferry onto idyllic Nantucket. We were there to celebrate my sister’s graduation from Boston College. Homes were being spruced up for Memorial Day. The quaint cobblestone roads were lined by wine barrel trash cans. Pedestrians seemed to be modeling clothing from the island’s upscale boutiques. I savored the scene.

And then, suddenly, I warped to a world apart. I found myself resenting Nantucket homeowners for inhabiting these stunning homes for only a handful of days each summer.

An hour passed, and I pivoted again. I found myself revering these same homeowners as curators of American exceptionalism.

A little while later I recalibrated into “architect mode.” I began to intellectualize the structural flaws of this seemingly perfect island. I envisioned the existence of a narrow public beach, which would accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians while treating everyone to views of both the town and the dockside scene. And I pictured surface parking being moved behind buildings, protecting the pre-colonial aesthetic.

About one in 100 people are diagnosed with bipolar disorder during their lifetimes. I’m one of them. I don’t hide from it. I don’t deny it. But I don’t let it belittle me, either.

It’s true that turbulent mental states constantly sway how I think and feel. But I’ve learned that bipolar disorder can be a great gift when I’m able to harness its powers.

A life-changing diagnosis

As a schoolkid, I lived in the midst — or rather, the mist — of mental illness. I was simultaneously fortunate and unfortunate to have been born on a gold-plated path. From kindergarten through junior high, I attended a Minneapolis prep school that prepares students for the world’s most prestigious colleges and universities.

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The problem was, I never learned to feel and think like most of my classmates. I was a kindergartner when I was first diagnosed with severe depression and medicated with a potent antidepressant for feeling suicidal. I was diagnosed with severe anxiety and medicated with a secondary antidepressant in my adolescence due to frequent and seizure-like panic attacks.

So when I was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder, in the latter part of junior high, it was a revelation. Suddenly I understood why I’d struggled to manage my anxiety and depression all those years.

It’s not an overstatement to say the diagnosis set me free, finally granting me permission to be my true self. I’d always been a fiercely independent person. The diagnosis helped me summon the strength to forge my own path for high school. I mixed morning classes for arts and sciences at Minneapolis’ Washburn High School with tutor-guided English and Spanish, and I enrolled in online courses for the rest.

Unplanned states

Adaptation is essential to human survival. But I’ve gone beyond adapting to my disorder. I’ve come to embrace it, recognizing its power and even its gifts. And I encourage others to do the same.

Sometimes I experience a slight mania that unleashes a stream of inspiration and positive energy. That’s when I see things that can be simplified or eliminated. Other times I experience a powerfully negative state. This is when I can perceive the dirt and dysfunction in anyone or anything. These states are not planned, but I’ve come to see their creative perks.

That’s not to say all states are to be celebrated. I must survive bouts of severe depression, when I feel isolated from any desire or interest. And fortunately, lithium medication fends off intense mania, or a crippling tornado of paranoia.

As you can see, I don’t live within the stereotypical binary of states. That’s why I prefer to describe myself as “multipolar.” I am whoever, whenever, for no darn reason.

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My daily life is still a roller coaster, but I have learned to endure it. I do my best to be patient, to remember that my psychology can be entirely divorced from reality. And I’m constantly practicing how to harness the strengths of my “multipolarity.”

I still have to survive daily collapses. I still have to accept that my best mental states are as fleeting as anything else. But if I can master this roller coaster, I’ve come to believe, it can take me further than any monorail ever would.

 

Will Bildsten is an intern at a Minneapolis advertising agency. He also volunteers for House Of Talents, Woody Matters and Kill Kancer. He lives in Uptown.

ABOUT 10,000 TAKES: 10,000 Takes is a digital section featuring first-person essays about life in the North Star State. We publish narratives about love, family, work, community and culture in Minnesota.

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