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The Dark Side of Bipolar Disorder

The Dark Side of Bipolar Disorder


Bipolar Disorder is currently classified in two types, distinguished by the severity of the episodes. Bipolar was previously called Manic Depressive Disorder because afflicted individuals swing from extreme states of mania to deep depression. Along with Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder is a psychotic mental illness. Patients lose touch entirely with reality. They have delusions both of grandeur (in the manic phase) and of worthlessness (in the depressive phase). Causes are debated and are likely a complex mixture of abnormal brain chemistry and early childhood trauma. Treatment involves medication carefully monitored by a psychiatrist coupled with talk therapy. It can be managed, but not cured.


The dark side of the depressive phase is pretty obvious – suicidal ideation, lack of energy, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, inability to see a positive future. Others see you as someone who needs help, someone who is not “normal.”


The dark side of the manic phase is less recognizable. To those on the outside, it can look like someone full of energy, fire, and self-confidence. Others often like the manic phase and reinforce it with praise. It’s fun to be around the life of the party.


I had a friend I’ll call Fred. He committed suicide in his early 60s. Fred was by all accounts an excellent clinical social worker who provided help for a multitude of hurting people. He built a successful private practice and fathered three beautiful children. His suicide did not come out of nowhere. It was the result of the dark side of Bipolar Disorder.


During his manic phases (which often lasted for many months) Fred lived under the delusion that he was the best therapist in the world. He saw himself as working magic with clients. He saw himself as a lady-killer. He was full of swagger and confidence. He interpreted other people’s dreams as being all about him. He made videos, wrote and self-published books and poems that he thought were brilliant. He had himself tattooed with superman emblems and tigers. He viewed his narcissism as healthy. He saw himself as a great basketball player, talked smack to opponents, drove a Harley, donned necklaces and earrings, and made himself the center of attention at his daughter’s wedding.


He divorced his wife of 20+ years, all but abandoned his children, and got deeply involved in one very toxic sexual relationship after another. He eventually wound up in jail for harassing one such woman. He impulsively moved to another city, bought a huge house he could not afford, spent money he didn’t have on furniture, cars, and a hot tub.


Many people saw him as brilliant, a superior therapist, and fun-loving guy. In some ways he was. He was a good therapist. He was good at basketball for his age and weight. He had great empathy for the hurting and keen insights. He was energetic and fun to be around.


But his manic persona was just that – a persona, a mask, a false front that he wore to disguise the real Fred. The real Fred was a broken, hurting little boy searching for a mommy and longing to be held and loved. The real Fred was mentally ill.


When his last manic phase crashed, the real Fred was exposed. Finally, he could no longer hide behind the swaggering, trash-talking, tattooed, motorcycle-riding, lover-boy, brilliant therapist that he had invented. All the masks dropped off. Fred realized he had been severely mentally ill for at least the last 17 years. He saw clearly the damage he had done to his first wife and his children. He knew he was not the greatest anything.


He could not face being an ordinary human being. He knew what he needed to do – take his medication, engage in depth-psychotherapy, simplify his life, pay off his debts, avoid dating, sell his practice, get a spiritual director to help him reconnect with his center, and try to live the rest of his life humbly trying to help others and being the best father possible to his adult children. He knew he had to give up the false self, forget all the superman stuff, and embrace who he really was.


But he was so invested in the false persona, so identified with it for so long, if he could not live it in reality, he despaired to live. On a cold dark winter night, he purposely stepped in front a semi speeding down the interstate.


I loved him deeply. He was a very good friend. We shared our hearts. I knew and loved the real Fred. I shook my head at the persona so many others seemed to adore. During the last month or more of his life, we spoke on the phone almost every day. I miss him. I mourn his loss. From him, I learned the importance of stripping away our personas and bringing our true selves into the light. Doing so is painful. It can feel like a powerful loss. It can throw us into existential angst.


Compared to the personas, reality may look dull; embraced, reality anchors us. The sea is usually relatively calm at its depths, even if tumultuous on the surface. A combination of spiritual direction, counseling, authentic spirituality, deep connectedness with the Divine, sacred meditation, contemplative prayer, stillness, and silence anchors us in the love that lies at the center of creation. Meanwhile, our daily lives go on, sometimes calm, at other times turbulent, but we are moored, and so we remain.


If you suspect you might be bipolar, please get help. See a specialized psychiatrist (MD) for medication and monitoring of medication. Get into weekly long-term, in-depth psychotherapy with a qualified psychologist (PhD). Get into regular spiritual direction with a qualified spiritual director who can help you connect with authenticity. You will likely need the medication, therapy and spiritual direction for life. And that’s ok.


If you suspect someone you care about is bipolar, please encourage them to do the things above, and try to be supportive, understanding, and caring without reinforcing delusions of grandeur or encouraging destructive behavior.


And, let’s all of us support the mentally ill that all may get the help they need. The bottom line is that there is true joy on the other side. This disease is manageable.


If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 988.




Disclaimer: I am not a licensed anything (psychologist, clinical social worker, psychiatrist, etc.) I am an ordained minister, which means the American Baptist Churches, USA (ABCUSA) feel I have the qualifications of ministry. I am endorsed as a chaplain by ABCUSA, which means a special ministry division feels I’m qualified as a trained healthcare chaplain. I am a certified chaplain, life coach, and spiritual director, which means that legitimate organizations attest to my skills, ethics, and calling in those areas of ministry. Licensure is a state government requirement for those practicing as psychologists or clinical social workers in that state.


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