I like to feel sorry for myself. I like hearing a “woe is me” story from a friend, knowing I can outdo her on any level of sadness. No matter what bad thing has happened to someone else, should she choose to share it with me I can usually top it with some horror story from my past. It’s a pretty selfish personality trait, one from which I derive almost no sympathy. But it’s taken me years to realize I’m not doing it for the sympathy, or empathy of others. I’m doing it because I like to believe my sorrowful past and present is a direct result of my bipolar disorder, and that gives me something on which to blame it all.
To shed some light on my past, I should give you a few examples of what I consider to be a life full of unfortunate happenings. For starters, my sister died before I was born. I never met her – I just like to tell people I lost a sister because it gives me an excuse to be sad. Additionally, my older brother died in a plane crash when I was 23 and my father died of a heart attack on the floor of my children’s playroom while I stood and watched because I couldn’t remember how to do CPR. My only surviving sibling doesn’t much like me or my disease and therefore doesn’t speak to me, my husband left me after 17 years of marriage, and I cannot find a full-time job to help pay my mounting pile of bills. In addition, my non-smoking mom was just diagnosed with lung cancer and my 10-year old daughter has Oppositional Defiance Disorder and is likely also bipolar.
Yeah, yeah – I realize that my problems are trivial in comparison to what is going on in the world around me. Wars and global warming and starving children. I am aware of all that, and yet the selfish person who I am refuses to recognize that there is anything wrong with any part of the world that does not directly concern me. It’s like I’m oblivious to anything or anyone other than myself and my problems. Selfish? You bet. Incredibly, ridiculously selfish. But it’s as if I can’t help myself.
I often refer to a great book called, “Loving Someone With Bipolar Disorder” by Julie A. Fast. The book was intended for the spouse or partner of someone suffering from bipolar, but I don’t have a spouse or a partner anymore so I read it hoping to learn to love myself. The book repeatedly references the selfishness of those suffering from bipolar disorder. They can only think of themselves. They think they are the only ones with real problems. They believe their lives are worse than anyone’s around them. I recognize that I am incredibly selfish, and it’s not a trait I’m proud of. But as I mentioned earlier, I can’t seem to focus on any problems but mine.
In addition, bipolar people are often narcissists. I believe there is a direct link between believing yourself to be better than everyone else and wanting everyone to feel sorry for you. Part of being a narcissist is believing that you have control over the world and what happens in it. For example, if only I had known CPR, perhaps my father would still be alive. Control. If only I had recognized my bipolar disorder earlier, then I could have sought treatment before my behavior became so intolerable that my husband could no longer remain with me. Control. If I had known that I was bipolar and that my future children had a 20% increased chance of becoming bipolar as a result of genetics, I could have prevented my young daughter from possibly developing the disorder by simply not having children. Control. Ridiculous and unrealistic expectations of control.
I also feel like my bad luck is contagious. Don’t get too close, it might rub off on you. Sometimes I believe my bad luck extends to the outcome of my son’s baseball game; I’ve had a rough day, so I shouldn’t attend or he will surely lose. I probably shouldn’t go to the picnic or it might rain because of me. Bad luck follows me around so be sure to keep your distance. A pathetic state of mind, don’t you think? My therapist thinks so. Once, in the middle of a tirade about how I was directly or indirectly the cause of all bad things that had happened in my life or in the lives of those around me, she stopped me to declare, “My goodness. I wish I had that kind of power. Imagine what I could use it for. The power to control people’s lives and the events of your own. I would love being that powerful”
I felt like an idiot.
But she was right. Who was I to think I had the kind of power to control whether or not someone dies, or someone’s team wins or loses, or whether my child develops bipolar or not? My perception was that I was in control of all of these things, when the truth is that I am only in control of what happens to my own person on a day-to-day basis. And what happens to me each day is largely dependent on my mood, which is largely dependent on the current state of my disorder. I’m not really in control of my illness, even though my doctors assure me I should be. Sure, I can do DBT and ECT and take medication to help control it, but the true reality is that it controls me. My bipolar determines, indirectly, how I spend my days and whether I’m happy or sad. It decides if I’m feeling up to going to the movies, or prefer to stay within the confines of my safe, warm bed all day. It determines whether I yell at my kids or shower them with indulgences. When it gets bad, it decides that I will undergo ECT with the hope that voluntary electrocution will set me straight, buying me a few more weeks of relative sanity. My bipolar disorder defines me, because I let it. Because it gives me an excuse to be pathetic. Because it allows me to fall back on my stories of sorrow and woe. My disorder allows me to be the “winner” of the “who has a more terrible life” competition. At least I get to win at something.
Do I hope that someday I will be in completely in control of my bipolar disorder, instead of it being in control of me? You betcha. I’m just not there yet.