In a recent post, Ending the Stigma ... , based on your responses to a Question of the Week, we challenged the conventional wisdom that those of us with the bipolar diagnosis are more likely than those with normal to freak out when things go wrong.
What prompted my query was a question I raised in a talk I gave in April to the International Bipolar Foundation in San Diego. The audience naturally assumed that they - those living with bipolar - were more likely to flip out. Only one person thought it could be the one with normal.
Okay, there is good reason to assume that those with bipolar are more likely to melt down. Stress looms large in our illness. We have genetically vulnerable brains. We are hardwired to over-react to what goes on around us. In times of stress, our limbic systems are over-activated. Our prefrontal cortex tends to go off-line.
Also, our brains have difficulty filtering out the world around us. We get overwhelmed very quickly.
But, as you noted in your responses, we have one major thing going for us: We are used to things going wrong in our lives. Our daily battles with our illness and all its consequences have conditioned us to disaster. Thus, when our world comes crashing down on us, we often see the event as a matter of routine. We are cool as cucumbers.
The chronically normal, faced with similar circumstances, are more likely to view matters more apocalyptically. They are the crazy ones. Individuals with brains wired for normal are essentially out of their element in abnormal situations.
Moving on: There is another major reason we may not flip out, and this has to do with the different way we perceive reality. As I explained to my audience in my IBF talk, we connect dots in very unusual ways and come up with amazingly creative ways of looking at situations. Often, this means solutions present themselves in an instant - as events unfold - so there is no crisis to begin with. No reason to freak out for us.
It also works the other way around for us. We can sniff out bad stuff well before it happens. While others are sunning themselves on their deck chairs, we can see the icebergs over the horizon. Contrary to what many may believe, we don’t simply get excited over nothing.
But in other situations, our heads may be in the clouds. Good for when we’re painting the Sistine Chapel or writing our Choral Symphony. Bad for when that that fabled iceberg of inconvenience decides to crash the party.
Rather than divide the world into bipolar vs non-bipolar, crazy vs normal, I prefer to look at people as linear vs non-linear. Linear people tend to think: “1,2,3,4 ...” With non-linear, it’s more like “1,2,13, 28.”
Essentially, other people see four, we see 28.
What does four look like? Depends. Could be good. Could be bad.
What does 28 look like? Same thing. Could be good. Could be bad.
Thus, in getting along with others, we should not judge. Neither perception of reality is more correct than the other.
Unfortunately for us, the linear people are in the majority. We have to conform to their world. Their world is totally stupid and makes no sense to me, but there you go - I have no choice but to try to fit in. I like to joke that one day aliens will kindly abduct me and return me to the planet of my birth. In the meantime, I have to learn to adapt to life on this one.
But this does not mean I have to lose my sense of who I really am. When I jokingly asked my audience if they thought whether “normal” should be considered a DSM diagnosable illness, just about everyone raised their hands. Trust me, normal is not what it is cracked up to be.
Published On: May 12, 2012
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