Context or Chemistry? Separating Emotions from Mood Swings

Bipolar disorder adds an extra layer of complexity to whatever emotions we experience. It can be hard to tell the difference between a fleeting feeling and an impending episode.

Sometimes, I am sad. And when I am sad, I start to think, “Am I too sad, or is this normal?” Other questions follow: “Will I be able to stop feeling sad? If not, what then? What if this is the beginning of that long, slow slide into the darkness?”

Because I have bipolar disorder, there is always this extra layer of something entangled with whatever emotions I am experiencing.

I have struggled with mood swings, manias, and unforgiving depressions my entire adult life. In my experience, feelings can’t always be trusted.

Getting through the days too often reminds me of an old-time fun house. Without warning, what I thought was a solid foothold swings into motion. What I thought was forward is now slipping backward. Stairs bob up and down, floors tip from side to side. The challenge is simply to get from one end of the room to the other without losing your balance.

After many years in the fun house, I have come to realize that navigating the challenge has mostly to do with remaining light on your feet and avoiding judgment. Instead of “this is wrong” or “this is making me look foolish,” accept that the ground is moving in random, unpredictable ways. “Think of it like skating,” someone once told me. “Glide forward. Don’t get stuck to one spot.”

There will always be some element of second-guessing my feelings and emotions, but I have worked hard to learn how to separate “chemistry” from “context.” Say a dinner I made isn’t appreciated the way I think it should be. Rather than vowing never to cook again, I take a step back and listen to my self-talk.

It helps to name my emotional state: “I am angry.” (Hmm, that’s interesting. What else are you?) “I am anxious.” (Hmm, and this, too, will pass.) “I am irritated.” (Hmm, please be more specific.)

There are other useful tools: taking a centering breath, writing thoughts in a journal rather than expressing them aloud and considering gratitude.

Sometimes when I’m upset, friends ask me if I’m taking my meds. Considering my history, this is a reasonable question—but annoying all the same. Should I now include that individual in my irritation?

I cannot control whether my emotions—irritability, anger, sadness, mirth, anxiety—will be regarded as symptoms. But I can choose to take a breath, feel what I am feeling, and glide forward without getting stuck to the fun house floor. I can choose to be thankful there are people in my life who can ask the difficult questions.

Often, I need to ask myself the same questions—to dig into the issue of chemistry vs. context. I remember one Friday afternoon when I sat weeping in my car, alone in an empty parking lot. I had been to see a medical professional who tossed off an insensitive comment about living with bipolar, and that set me off.

What he said exactly isn’t important. We have all heard comments that make us feel as if our diagnosis is somehow a character flaw instead of a legitimate medical illness.

Was I overreacting? A single comment, made in ignorance, can and should be ignored. But, over a lifetime, comments like that add up. Occasionally, one takes us by surprise, reopens old wounds, reminds us of the price we have paid because of that kind of ignorance.

Even when it is managed well, there is an aspect of bipolar illness that never goes away—a profound grief for what might have been. Would things have turned out differently for me in a more empathetic environment? Is it possible to create a more understanding, educated world?

That is my goal. Still, I hear the demeaning comments. And sometimes I get sad. And sometimes I weep. But that’s okay. I have learned that being sad can also be a symptom of being well; of finding our footing, of moving ahead.

Printed as “On My Mind: Emotional Intelligence,” Summer 2015

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