by Laura Yeager
I was diagnosed with severe bipolar illness in 1991.
I once wrote that if I could choose to come down with bipolar illness again, I would because I like the way my life has unfolded (with the disease.) In other words, if I didn't have bipolar illness, I probably wouldn't have gotten married when I did and probably wouldn't have married the same guy. And we probably wouldn't have had to adopt, so I wouldn't have my current child. The thing is I dearly love my husband and child.
This is not to say that bipolar illness is a wonderful experience. It can be a bitch. For instance, I wouldn’t wish the psychiatric hospital on anyone, and the paranoia that sometimes comes with mania isn’t fun. But bipolar illness isn't a complete disadvantage, and here’s why.
Bipolar illness actually has helped me as a writer.
The first way is that the disease has expanded my mind. We all know that some writers and creative people in general have taken drugs or alcohol to expand their consciousness, Jack Kerouac, Jack London, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allen Poe and William Faulkner – to name just a few. Kerouac once said, "As I grew older, I became a drunk. Why? Because I like ecstasy of the mind."
The "good" thing is that I never had to take drugs to have my mind expanded. My illness, particularly the psychosis that sometimes comes with my mania, did it for me. I've gone beyond the edge of reality and back. Once when I was "sick," I took a walk to a field of flowers. I remember sitting down in the field and just looking at the beautiful colors and smelling the beautiful petals. I actually "entered" the colors pink and red and purple. I listened to the bees buzzing. My reality was completely heightened. It was like an acid trip without the acid. I truly believe that experiencing this heightened reality has helped me as a fiction writer, for fiction is nothing but expanded reality.
The second way is that the disease gives me periods of intense productivity. When I'm manic, the ideas for stories and articles continually pop into my head. Once I wrote ten pieces in one day. The writing just flows out of me. I literally have to force myself to stop, or I'll write all night long. And even while I try to sleep, the ideas come and come. Whole paragraphs pop into my head. For a writer, mania can be a great money-maker because of how much the manic person can produce and sell when he's manic.
The third way is that the disease has made me a better human. Bipolar illness takes a person from one emotional extreme to another. One is completely elated for a time, and then, when one least expects it, one is plunged into despair. I truly believe that because of this, in addition to one's mind being expanded, one's humanity is expanded as well. Since I became bipolar I've become extremely empathetic to a population of people I might have overlooked—the disabled. This is because I'm now disabled. In a profound way. In fact, I'm more empathetic to all marginalized folks. I've become more human.
The final way the disease has helped me as a writer is that this illness has given me a niche to write about. Since I’ve come down with bipolar, I’ve written and published two short stories and over a dozen articles about it. One of the bipolar stories was an O. Henry Short Story semi-finalist piece in 2000. Jane Smiley, one of my former teachers, told me that I was lucky to have a personal subject about which to write.
This is not to say that "coming out" to the world about my personal disease has been easy. It hasn’t. I’ve chosen to reveal very personal details about my life in the hope that I can help others to live with their disease(s). Last year, I wrote a blog for empowher.com. I think people liked it because I got much positive feedback about my blog entries. People were learning from me and my experiences.
So you see, bipolar illness, although sometimes an absolutely horrible thing, isn’t a complete disadvantage.
It’s all how you look and think about it. I’ve decided to make lemonade out of the proverbial lemons.
And I believe that my writing and I are much better for it.