I’ll try not to pretend to know more about bipolarity than I do, which is admittedly very little. Despite it being everyone’s favorite self-diagnosis, I think I’ve only been privy to two individuals who could be considered clinically bipolar, and out of respect for them, I’ll try to avoid saying too much. One of them allegedly believed himself to be Jesus, and then later shot himself. The other was trying to start an illegal business venture selling marriages for citizenship before having a nervous breakdown. Neither myself nor most people I know share the wild delusions brought on by extreme highs and lows, yet we’re all too tempted to identify with the terminology. Perhaps we’re eager to explain why sometimes we’re happy and sometimes we’re sad when nothing else makes sense, and we refuse to take “the standard human experience” for an answer.
My therapist once insisted that feelings don’t create themselves – they are reactions to catalysts that produce conscious or subconscious thoughts, and those thoughts provoke the emotion. He compelled me to analyze my emotional reactions and see if I can identify the catalysts and the thoughts that stem from them, and then try to change those thoughts, thereby changing the emotion, even if the catalyst remains constant. If I am to believe myself to be chemically balanced, I have to take his word that it might work.
So I identified two core thoughts that roughly correspond to my feelings of depression and mania:
Everything is the Same v. Everything is Different
Everything is the Same
“Things Being the Same” and “Things Being Different” both have important functional purposes for navigating life. Things Being the Same, for instance, helps us process our experiences by categorizing them. When things are similar to other things, we can apply our categories to come up with answers to life’s difficult problems, like, for instance: where to eat. Let’s take this process:
Spicy Cuisine: Thai, Indian, Mexican
Hearty Cuisine: German, Italian, American
Further Away: German, American, Thai
Closer: Indian, Mexican, Italian
Brain, do I feel like spicy?
No, you feel like hearty.
Do I feel like German, Italian, or American?
Italian is closer.
Italian it is.
Congratulations, you made a decision! Things Being the Same just helped you narrow it down immediately!
Let’s take the same situation, but now Everything is the Same.
Cuisine: Thai, Indian, Mexican, German, Italian, American
Brain, do I feel like spicy?
Spicy, hearty, it’s all the same. Food is food.
Sure, but what do I want to eat?
What difference does it make? Italian, Thai, it all winds up in the same place.
C’mon, I need to make a decision.
Do you? National cuisines are just manufactured concepts anyway.
No, shut up, each one is special.
There’s no inherent difference between them. Take a grain, a vegetable, a meat. Mix it all together. Bam! Two hundred national cuisines right there.
Brain, why are you doing this? Food tourism used to mean something to me.
It means a lot more to the people who’ve conned you into believing there are national cuisines. They got you to buy into it. They have your money.
No! I refuse to believe national cuisines were invented for patsies!
You really think a Polish sausage is that different from a Bratwurst? The Poles and Germans are both just northern plains people anyway. Their food comes from the same terroir.
But the Germans have Schnitzel!
Or do you mean: ‘kotlet schabowy’?
The language might be different, but their words all have the same intent. Language is just code for things. You strip away the code, and you just have people wanting things. Like your money. The whole world is just people who want your money. Countries don’t exist. Language doesn’t exist. Cuisine doesn’t exist. It’s all just people and money. Governments, religions, and cultures are just constructs to organize people and their money. And especially you and your money.
Brain, no… why….?
Go make some ramen. It’s fast and cheap.
Perhaps the dialogue above might be too cynical or extrapolate too far, but have you never reasoned yourself into boredom with something you once liked, with nothing more than the creeping thought that it’s all the same? Everything is the same?
Maybe a once-beloved song, but as you listened to more songs, you were dismayed to realize it’s just like every other song? Just four chords? It starts with an intro, it has a buildup, it drops the beat, and then a fade out? It’s all the same, isn’t it? Vibrations and vibrations and vibrations…?
You ever go to an art museum, and you see Mother and Child? And then another Mother and Child? And then a portrait, a portrait, a portrait with less definition? Paint on a canvas, paint on a canvas, paint on a canvas…?
Do you ever meet people, and then those people remind you of an old friend, and then your old friend reminds you of a stranger, and then suddenly you’re surrounded by people, friends or family or strangers, that are all seemingly interchangeable with each other? – and you have conversations like this:
[maybe some inquiry into how you’re doing]
[ideas – if you’re lucky]
Or really is it just…
And then you hear your own words and realize you’re no different. Your originality is an illusion. You’re just a thread in the fabric of society, same as anyone else, and all of art and culture generations over is a desperate attempt at yelling the same message into the void: I exist.
And please, if you, in our egocentric western world, have ever truly found peace with losing your subjecthood to the vastness of the cosmos, I’d love to hear how.
Or!… maybe we can realize that everything I just wrote is crazy talk, and we need to cling onto those small yet significant differences so we can derive meaning from what should be a rich and endlessly varied existence.
Everything is Different
I believe our tendency to differentiate things probably comes from our development as children trying to make symbolic meaning out of chaos. We learn the names for things: cat, dog, apple. A cat is typically not an apple. Then as we grow more knowledgeable, we differentiate things even more: Granny Smith, Honeycrisp, Dachshund, and so on.
Then if we have the patience for it, we differentiate even more. Bolivian Trance Rock, Orchestral British Glam Punk, 1970’s Russian Disco Pop, Yiddish Metal Hop, and so on. Go to a record store (if they still exist); there are more genres than bands.
Hey man, you like Finnish Folk Metal?
No, dude, that stuff is garbage. I like my music four beats per minute slower with electric banjo instead of electric guitar.
Ugh, not Nouveau Bluegrass Collective. That stuff is the worst.
Differentiating things inspires academic curiosity. We discover something, we determine what makes it different from something else, and we learn about it as a new and endlessly unique phenomenon, which can inspire more exploration.
Indian food is great! I think I’ll learn about the people of India.
Oh, whoa, I didn’t realize there were so many different groups of people. Cool!
But then, at the end of the spectrum, as things become more and more different, we ask ourselves not: “What is the difference?” but rather, “How are there so many different things?”
Unchecked by reality, curiosity can give way to exhaustion.
Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, Marathi, Gujatari…
How many ethnic groups are in India anyway?!
Wikipedia: Over 2,000.
Augh! How did I ever have the audacity to think I could understand India?!
History: The British tried for hundreds of years. Sort of. ‘Try’ is a generous term.
This sort of overwhelmed exhausted with the complexity of the world can spill over into the strangest places. Behold an anecdote!…
I remember once looking at a brick and thinking to myself, I don’t know how to make bricks.
Why should I know how to make bricks? But alas, the thought spun from there. I began thinking about everything that goes into making a brick.
Materials have to be found to make the brick. I don’t even know what materials go into bricks. Is it clay? Is it rock? Is it taken out of a quarry somewhere?
Materials have to be pressed into a brick. Did the ancient brick-makers press it with their hands? How do they do this? What kind of brick-pressing machinery is required, and how is that built?
So there I was, completely baffled by a brick, wondering what makes it, where do they get the materials, how do they refine the materials, what is the actual process it takes to press the brick, and how have people been making bricks for thousands of years? I can’t make a brick! It’s just a rectangular prism of stuff! If I can’t make a brick, what can I do? Am I just useless? Am I dumber than a caveman, provided cavemen made bricks? If society breaks down, and a survivalist tribe comes to me and says, “Sir, we need bricks,” and my answer is, “Well, I can make hand-turkeys,” I would get killed immediately for food, having no other use. And I wouldn’t know how to make hand-turkeys anyway because I wouldn’t know how to make crayons.
Where does the wax come from?
How do they press the wax?
Where do you get the dye?
How am I so useless in this world with infinite things I don’t even know how to understand! What right do I have to exist if I don’t even know how to make a crayon?!
See, my brain could’ve said: You know what, let’s throw crayons and bricks into a category: ‘Things you don’t need to know how to make ever.’ Better now?
What’s interesting to me is that falling into the trap of thinking everything is the same as well as everything is different can both result in the same issue of self-esteem: the feeling of being worthless. On one hand, you have worthlessness through a lack of uniqueness, and on the other, you have worthlessness through a loss of confidence in your ability to comprehend the world and function in it.
But not everything is the same, and not everything is different. If you set out looking for everything to be the same, surely it will be. If you set out trying to find everything to be endlessly unique, you’ll confirm that too. We are all atoms, but we are all different atoms. How you approach your analysis of your life is up to you, and you should alter your analysis based on your psychological needs, if possible.
But of course, I speak out of my ass. I’m not a therapist. I’m not a psychologist. I don’t know what you go through. This is what I think I know: my sanity is a balance between seeing things as being the same as other things and seeing things as being different from other things. That is my battle, and because I will never know what it’s like inside your head, I can only hope that maybe understanding my battle may help you win your war.