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Zen and the Art of Emotional Maintenance

Amos Chen, St. Louis, MO.

 

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If you type the words, “Missouri bipolar,” into Google, the first suggested search result is, “Missouri bipolar weather.” Ask anyone who’s spent significant amounts of time in the Show Me State and they’ll regale you for hours with tales of the volatile unpredictability of the climate in a state where it can be cold one day and unbearably hot the next. It’s a popular metaphor because it’s remarkably fitting. Just as Missourians go to bed often not knowing what the weather will look like the next day, oftentimes I have no clue what my emotional state will look like from a day to day basis.

My name is Amos Chen. I’m twenty years old, I like watching basketball and talking about movies, and I have bipolar disorder.

What is bipolar disorder? People often mischaracterize it as simply mood swings (e.g., “Alice is all chill one moment and then totally irritable the next, ugh she’s so bipolar!”), or just plain indecisiveness (e.g., “You’ve changed your mind on where to eat five times in the last ten minutes, stop being so bipolar!”). I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’d love it if that’s just what bipolar disorder was, irritability and indecisiveness are totally things I’d switch in a heartbeat for the suite of symptoms I deal with constantly. However, most current psychiatric definitions describe it as extreme shifts between periods of extreme elevated mood, known as mania, and extreme depressed mood, known as depression. These periods often last for weeks, oftentimes even months.

Bipolar disorder is like many other mental illnesses in America in that the understanding around it is rather poor--most people still associate it with screaming mental patients you’ll see in medical dramas like House, or violent criminals. Not to mention that it’s considered a pre-existing condition, meaning that it’s very likely I and millions of others are going to be out on health care in the near future (thanks Republicans!). Furthermore is the fact that because people with bipolar disorder often have erratic patterns of behavior because of shifting mood patterns, they frequently have trouble with finding and maintaining steady employment (shout out to the disproportionate amount of American unemployed and homeless populations with mental illnesses though). Oh yeah, did I mention that bipolar correlates with increased risk of substance abuse and suicide? All in all, one can see how this particular mood disorder makes living a healthy, well-balanced life slightly difficult.

Because of these factors, the idea of mental maintenance becomes important. As of right now, there’s no medical cure for bipolar disorder, meaning that any treatment of bipolar disorder merely treats the symptoms of the disease. The best goal is to achieve extended periods of stability, a state between the two extreme moods. This often comes in the form of taking lots of psychiatric drugs with lots of hard to pronounce names. Do I like having to deal with an army of side effects and changes to my lifestyle to pursue this magical dream of stability? Not particularly, if I had to be honest. There have been many times when I’ve wondered whether the incremental steps towards better wellness were worth the massive amounts of effort expended to reach that point, if stability is even possible to begin with. But for situations like those, I think back to a quote from the popular Netflix series Bojack Horseman, which says, “It gets easier. But you have to do it everyday--that’s the hard part. But it does get easier.”

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