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A few years ago when ‘Orkut’ was still going around, a young woman sent me a query, seeing me respond to something about bipolar disorder. She sent me a list of ‘symptoms’ and asked me if it amounted to bipolar- was she bipolar by any chance? I was perplexed to receive the query in the first place- it seemed as though she wanted to be classified as bipolar. It was as though it were a club for the privileged and she wanted to part of it! Nothing is farther from truth, for those who have been there, know the suffering of everyone, once gets a mental illness diagnosis. Nobody who is really ‘bipolar in disorder’ wants to be there, rest assured- it is NOT the club I would have chosen for myself. In fact this post is about recovery and why we want to recover from the suffering, rather than remain its captive for the rest of our lives- a captive of moods that imperil your very life, existence and fabric. Schizophrenia equally or more so.
This is also one of the attitudes that I encountered in the course of my own long association with bipolar. To be honest, once the association starts, there is no going back- there is no stepping out of the field of experience any more. I cannot go back to my pre-psychosis days, for instance. Of course it has brought much by way of experience, (and I have been tough enough to put myself through the rigour of seeking knowledge out of the enterprise)
What was recovery then?
One of the most difficult things, for even me to accept was the possibility of recovery. No matter what anyone would say, I would not believe that recovery would mean going off psychiatric medication. To me recovery was the fact that I was ‘stable’ (not having psychotic breakdowns any more) and relatively functional in most domains of life- from writing, singing, teaching, performing to other social sides of me. But to be off psychiatric medication– only the fools would attempt it! Little did I know that someday when I would think of recovery from serious mental illness, it would really begin with the end of psychiatric medication.
Co-morbid conditions notwithstanding (I suffered from thyroid malfunction for 13 years due to lithium, and then due to valproate, there was liver malfunction, which I have not been able to recover from. Apart from this there was PCOD and other issues) I would not believe that someone could go off psychiatric medication and never have a relapse of any sort. To the extent, that I remember that there was a senior psychiatrist in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, one of the premier institutes in India, who suggested to me that possibly I need not remain dependent on medication for the rest of my life. I was still in my twenties. I was so shocked at his suggestion, that I though possibly he did not understand bipolar very well! I did not go back to him- the fool that I was. Possibly if I had, I would have got off psychiatric drugs long back. But nay, I had to go round the mulberry bush for another decade easily, before I would be able to come to that clarity.
Families and Medication
This brings me to the idea that mental illness has a way out, and medicine is not the only way it works. A few years ago, I had referred someone to my own homeopath, who also had a bipolar diagnosis. He was a younger man, in his early 30’s then. He went and took the homeopathic medicines and started getting better. Unfortunately his life and situations were such that they drove him towards alcohol in the past. Due to his psychiatrist’s advice he stopped drinking while on medication. So once he started getting better with homeopathy, he started drinking again.
His parents started arguing with me that due to homeopathy he was back into drinking again! Nobody starts drinking because of medication – but due to stresses in their daily life, which they are trying to deal with in ways that they understand best. He was unwilling to come into therapeutic dialogue, because that was not something that could have any outcomes as far as they were concerned- it was only for fire-fighting (dealing with emergencies, such as his panic when his wife was pregnant). He would really not come into any clearing- just live his life, do his stuff and then in the evening go out to drink with his friends.
Anyways, the summary of that story is that the boy was brought back into psychiatric medication, because (sadly enough) he could not deal with his parents’s opposition to homeopathy on the one hand, on the other deal with the reasons that caused him the suffering- which were all embedded in his family dynamics and the family communications, as I could make out quickly.
His father had been dominant all his life (though not in an unkind manner), even as he grew up. It undermined his selfhood and when he grew up, he could not get over the criticism that would come to him from the paternal side, which made him remain ‘small’- as though ‘incompetent’ or ‘incapable’, in spite of being a young man, married and with a child too. Parents can undermine children and, without knowing, mothers become a another pillar of support to the patriarchy which torments young boys – they never understand that their suffering comes from what goes on in their families- not any biochemical imbalances. So how can medicines rectify something which is simply not there– but is there in how people are talking and construing one another?
Most people think that those who recover do so because they are lucky or they have done something special, which they themselves cannot do. The reality is that they have worked on those sides of them, which others are ignoring repeatedly. And getting past parental domination should be on everyone’s agenda- including the parents, to be certain. And this is not meant as an offence. That autonomy which needs to develop in teenage, never develops due to parental over-concern. So parents, if you are reading, please understand your child’s distress is a function of your engagement too- please do not be offended by this statement, because that is not my sentiment. I want to bring this to your knowledge, to help you think of newer ways to go over the same paths.
Otherwise, families will continue to suffer for decades and decades and nobody will know the way out. Please be kind to yourself and your loved ones- but not over-kind.