Restless Brain Syndrome: A Better Way to Describe Bipolar?

Patient Expert

As always, the best reading about our illness is to be found in the community discussions here on HealthCentral. Last week, as a Question of the Week, I challenged readers to come up with a replacement term for bipolar disorder. This was no mere naming activity. Rather, the exercise demands ruthless enquiry into what is really going on with ourselves, and how we choose to play the hand that nature dealt us. Let's get started:

Willa likened our condition to stepping on a tightrope. Sometimes it's a thing of grace and beauty, she related. "Sometimes I wobble. Sometimes I flat fall on my ass."

Tabby does not refer to herself as bipolar. She sees herself, rather, as "uniquely unique," like "the cashew found in a Planter's can of just plain nuts." Description-wise, she "cycles" between high and low, with more lows than highs. Her cycles come without provocation, though provocations do complicate matters. Otherwise, its the "ebb and flow" of the illness that she rides.

Of-Two-Minds (OTM) proposed "Restless Brain Syndrome," a play off of "Restless Legs Syndrome." "Our brains," she stated, "have a difficult time finding stasis or staying relaxed."

OTM's observation, sent me to an article on my website, mcmanweb, Bipolar Disorder - Really a Cycling Illness, where I had written:

Bipolar is entirely the wrong term for my illness, your illness. "Cycling" is far more apt, suggesting the brain in perpetual motion - moods, thoughts, perceptions, everything - nothing standing still, everything shifting, nothing predictable.

OTM nailed it. So did Willa, so did Tabby. All three commentators invite us to contemplate our brains in a constant state of flux, never standing still, always full of surprises. Sometimes, we thrive. Other times, life becomes too much to handle.

Tabby did add an extra twist, noting that when the depressions hit, it's more like "Brain Sludge" rather than "Restless Brain Syndrome." I would say in response that when we experience brain sludge, it is within the context of our restless brains. Thus, when everything seems to shut down, we need to be anticipating the next turn of the wheel, to when everything starts speeding up - and slowing down (yet again).

As I put it on my website:

Day slips into night, the moon waxes and wanes - my brain is a veritable I Ching. I may head out into the world cool, calm, and collected, but will my brain be working for me two hours from now when it really matters? I already know what I'll be like on the way home, a wrung-out dish rag, too spent to stop off at Trader Joe's. Is there enough food in the fridge?

KiwiE-J views our condition as "extreme normal." "We all have our up's and downs," she writes, "but when it becomes an extreme that is beyond our grasp then it becomes 'illness'." Yet, when "I'm 'unwell' I get things done." Even depression serves a purpose.

So, are our restless brains a gift or a curse? That is the question Alfredo contemplated. Alfredo sees a distinction between "humanitarian gifted people" and those who "just have bipolar disorder." Same symptoms, but different results. The humanitarian gifted, he says "continue to develop in a very positive way." As he puts it:

Gifted people need to experience the same moods of depression experienced by people with bipolar. Once we understand these emotions and moods we begin to control them and use them to our advantage. All people who suffer with bipolar have the potential to become humanitarian gifted people ...

And so we cycle back to Willa's initial observation of us about to step out onto that tightrope. What will it be this time? Thing of grace and beauty? A wobble? Flat fall on our ass?

Our restless brains are cycling, in constant flux. Can we anticipate the wobble and thus avoid the fall? Or can we at least learn to incorporate our persistent wobbles into our normal cycle of life and somehow learn to live with our inevitable falls?

Questions, questions ...