It struck me last night, when I was trying to put in a fifteen-second or less nutshell the concept of assumed negativity in the depressed mind, that the answer to the question of “why does J’s life suck?” has been sitting right in front of my face the whole time and even living a little in my own mind. This is the classic situation where you ask a question with a very real answer in a rhetorical way because you don’t want to deal with the answer because the answer is a little too close to home. With a sigh and 1000 yard philosophical gaze I have asked my co-worker many times why one of our regulars can’t stop getting screwed by the universe. The answer we always come up with is a dyad of, part a: J is a lazy son of a bitch and expects everyone to stuff money and opportunities right into his pockets, and part b: J is a slave to his issues which is not his fault, though refusing the help that is daily offered to him is.
The above is true but the complexities of the issue force me in front of a eerie sort of mirror and as such I have avoided going deeper both with J and my co-worker. More importantly I have avoided going deeper with myself in understanding what exactly keeps J in the gutter, and why his reality should be personally unsettling to me.
Something that can keep people from offering grace, or the right kinds of grace, to folks like J is an inability to recognize the fluidity of reality. To the vast majority of people, who by their ubiquity setthe standard interpretation of what reality is, J looks like a lazy unmotivated creeper who is a parasite in society and gives literally nothing of worth back. He expects others to meet all of his needs and whines endlessly about the unfairness of a universe that doesn’t revolve around him.
However, as someone who lives with bipolar disorder, if I am willing to face the fact that J and I aren’t that different in some ways, I can begin to see his reality and know him far better. This is the eerie mirror, and in the end I have a clearer understanding of myself.
Like Morpheus says in the Matrix, the first one which didn’t suck, if what you see and taste and touch is reality than reality is nothing more than electric signals interpreted by your mind. For most people these signals are balanced and consistent, and the culturally acceptable coping mechanisms we call social skills allow a person to navigate their emotional life in concert with others.
This is not so for J and I, though to deeply varying degrees. A co-worker at my church once said to me, when I was urging him not to be nervous before his first big public speaking engagement, that it was easy for me to say that because I “practically piss confidence.” This is true in that at one pole of my reality I am too strong, too magnetic, and have way too many charisma points to be stopped by anything. It’s me versus the world and the world doesn’t stand a chance. This end of the spectrum has its benefits, especially if it happens to be the functioning reality in place during a job interview, or major public engagement. But this pole of my reality is not in sync with the world. Its usefulness is transitory, and ultimately it shows itself not to be real at all. At the other end of the spectrum is the opposite pole, which very few people ever see which is why my friend made the comment he did. With bipolar disorder there is a balance to everything, an equal and inevitable pendulum swing. Instead of an iron will and the confidence to back it, there can be a crippling blend of self-doubt and self-loathing nestled beneath an omnipresent shadow if impending doom. Once again it’s me versus the world, but in this reality God is functionally absent. Just as with the mania this depression isn’t real. The fearful shadows prove to be nothing and the insurmountable obstacles are revealed to be the regular challenges of life which are no match for hard work and good friends. Thankfully, and this is the starkest difference between J and I, I live the vast majority of my life in between these two poles. The power of an informed mind, reinforced by reason and self-awareness can overcome much of the pendulum’s illusory power. Additionally, medication helps to restrict the extremes of the pendulum swing bringing the breadth of emotional variation closer to the center. As such I can see the reality I’m experiencing in light of what I rationally know to be true and dispel both arrogance and fear to a large degree. This does nothing whatsoever to change what I’m feeling, but it does give me enough perspective to endure it.
These tools are the gift of God’s grace, and with them my “condition” has become a powerful asset. Much of the time I can actually harness the force of the pendulum to my advantage. And even at the very least I am left with a strong mind and capacity for empathy, when I choose to use it.
These advantages are not available for J. He does not gain from the benefits of euphoria or mania. He has depression, which rather than being a pendulum is more like a thermometer. His reality is always colored by self-doubt and despair to one degree or another. This doesn’t mean he is trapped though. If J took his medication, got therapy and built the tools to see through his depression he could have a good life. But what seems so close and attainable to us, is not to J. J has been offered a job program, housing, a free cell phone, and already gets social security and food stamps. This makes it real easy for folks to say, as I do from time to time, that he should get off his ass and stop feeling sorry for himself. But in his reality, that is to say the natural laws that bind his universe together and which he has absolute faith in, there is an overwhelming probability that every hand that holds out an opportunity will be cruelly pulled back at the last moment. Every land-lord that doesn’t return his phone message immediately must hate him. Every busy civil servant who sounds tired over the phone must have a personal grudge against him. There is no use getting a cell phone because he’s too stupid to learn how to use technology and he’d only lose it anyway. He’s been out of work for so many years he would never be able to meet the challenges of a job training program. He’ll never find love or companionship because he will never have money or a job, and the list goes on endlessly. J can’t see past his self-loathing because it is so real to him he can’t question it, break it down rationally and push through it.
I know what this is like to some degree. Whenever I leave a message that doesn’t get returned, or have an awkward interaction my immediate assumption can often be that I have caused some offense. I regularly double or triple read e-mails, and texts after I’ve sent them. The assumption is that, if there is any ambiguity, my communications will be taken negatively. This is not true at all. I’m an excellent communicator, in part because of this mindset. But sometimes I can find myself slipping into these negative assumptions and I need to recite a litany to myself of all the rational reasons why a person may be tardy in responding and all the arguments in favor of my communication being accurately interpreted. This doesn’t change the self-doubt, but it does allow me to accept that it isn’t real.
J is the same in that any uncertainty to him is automatically negative, but worse in that he thinks most positive things are just negatives in disguise. This mindset has been in place for decades and he just can’t shake it. The layers of illusion around his mind are just too thick. Thus, even though medication and groups could help him strip back these illusory layers, he will never trust them enough to let them do so. This is why J’s life sucks. In a bizarre reversal that is why my life is awesome. For me God intervened and, in a moment I can only describe as infused with the Holy Spirit, I was given the trust necessary to allow people to strip away the illusion. The best I can do is pray that God will do the same for J.
So in order to love J, which I’ll be honest is a huge pain in my ass, I need to have the courage to accept that he and I have some things in common. Through the lens of these commonalities I can understand his reality and how frightening it can be and speak to him accordingly. I hate doing this because it forces me to admit my own weakness, it forces me to accept that I’m sick on more than a theoretical level. When I look at J I have to face one of the possible futures that may lie ahead of me. But if I have the balls to do so I will also be able to see how powerfully God has been faithful to me, what healing he has given me, and how much I can trust him with my future.
This is scary as hell and it’s a lot easier to just hide from it. This reminds me of all the war movies where all the healthy fresh soldiers are marching into battle as war-torn veterans are being carried in pieces back to the hospital ships. On the one hand a soldier can say, foolishly, that all these other guys didn’t remember their training and that somehow he’s better than them and won’t get hurt. Or he can say, wisely, that he’s headed into battle and one way or another God will take him home. So the best thing he can do is fight as hard and intelligently as possible.
And that’s just about all I have to say about that for now.