My aunt had waited till her forties to get married. When she finally did, she paired up with a difficult and unusual man. The fact that she was, at this point, very set in her ways didn’t help her marriage at all.
She and her husband would routinely begin an argument over a trivial matter – a washing machine that needed repair, a bill that her husband thought was inflated, a restaurant one of them thought too expensive to patronize – these sorts of things. Her new husband found my aunt impossible to deal with. If he said A was the case about a particular situation, she insisted on B, dug in her heels — and was not prepared to relent under any circumstances.
At some point, when he felt helpless to communicate his point, my uncle would invariably roll the conflict into the streets. He’d turn into a wild man, stand outside of the house, and shout out to my aunt the filthiest names he could come up with. Hours would pass. He’d then go back in the house and beg her to forgive him for his offensive behavior.
This then was the pattern of my uncle’s behavior for his entire adult life until he died – an unfailing rhythm of tantrums and cursing followed by pleas for forgiveness. Intense manic outbursts followed by periods of depression. His was the unstoppable cycle of bipolar disorder.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar disorder – or, alternatively, manic depressive disorder – afflicts 2.6% of the U.S. adult population. The manic phase of this disease doesn’t express itself the same way in all those afflicted.
Not every sufferer of bipolar disorder goes off on a cursing jag. The American Psychiatric Association indicates periods of “inflated self-esteem” “uncritical self-confidence,” or “marked generosity” – all of which “may reach delusional proportions”. One person with the disorder might envision himself as having a special relationship with God or with President Obama. In the marvelous film 2007 Michael Clayton, the main character in the title portrayed by George Clooney, implores the Tom Wilkinson character (Arthur Edens) who’s charged with monitoring, to get back on his medication. “You’re a manic-depressive” Clayton says to him in a jail cell.” To which Eden replies: “I’m Shiva, the god of death.”
What you can learn from real-life cases of bipolar like that of my late uncle and from the obviously well-researched film Michael Clayton is that sufferers who ignore their symptoms or who neglect taking medication can wind up with repercussions in their personal lives and work. My uncle wound up being furloughed from his work for several months after a melt-down episode that involved another employee. His employer made a wise decision since my uncle was responsible for working in a railroad control tower from which he changed tracks to accommodate a change of direction for trains.
People afflicted with bipolar disorder are more likely to seek or agree to help while they’re in the depressive phase of their illness. This makes perfect sense when you give it some thought. Someone with a self-inflated image doesn’t feel he needs help or support of any kind, whereas someone who’s severely depressed might be more amenable to being shown a way out.
People who suspect they might suffer from bipolar disorder should consult a physician for a formal diagnosis. While there is no cure, the illness can be treated effectively with medication. Lithium and mood stabilizers work well in sustaining an afflicted person between manic highs and intolerable depression.