The Black Dog: Bipolar Disorder Is For Life Not Just For Christmas

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Not long after Christmas I posted on The Bipolar Bear’s Facebook page. As is my daily tradition, the post consisted of a meme: a nice picture with a quote about bipolar disorder. I often add my own comments and thoughts to these quotes and on this particular occasion I was commenting on recovery. I was talking about hope, and how important it is to belive that, no matter how bad your illness gets, you can find a way back. You can recover. You can get to a point where your illness is manageable and you can live a full and happy life.

One of the comments on the post quite upset me. Not because it was negative or horrible, but because the person commenting was genuinely shocked by my post. They were amazed I was ‘better’ because they thought there was no ‘cure’ for bipolar.

Bipolar Disorder is for life.

I was supposed to be ill forever.

You don’t recover from bipolar, you don’t get ‘better’.

This, I feel, is taking the Black Dog metaphor a bit far.

The Black Dog: Bipolar Disorder is for Life Not Just for Christmas

The Black Dog of Depression

We also know that Christmas (and winter in general) are a bad time to be bipolar, or suffer from depression of any kind. The aptly named SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is so-called because it hits during the winter season. Churchill made the association of depression and black dogs famous., and the phrase ‘black dog of depression’ is a long-standing metaphor that dates back to at least the eighteenth century, and the correspondence between Hester Thrale, Samuel Johnson, and James Boswell.

But just because a puppy bought at Christmas should be kept for life, the Black Dog that moved in during the holidays does not have to be a permanent house guest.

There is no cure for bipolar disorder.

That doesn’t mean there is no recovery.

The very nature of the condition – a cyclical shift between moods – is reason enough to hope that at least some of those moods will be good ones.

Not depressed.

Not manic.

Not that god-awful flatness that comes in the middle, when you’re either so exhausted from the highs and lows you just don’t give a shit, or medicated into oblivion.

Just the normal, humdrum, everyday ups and downs that the majority of people so take for granted.

You know, life.

The Black Dog: Bipolar Disorder is for Life Not Just for Christmas

The right balance of medication can and does work. There will always be exceptions to this, but in my experience, people who persevere, are willing to engage in their treatment, and keep going until they find the right balance of meds, will get there eventually. It may not be perfect – the strength of these medications is such that the side effects are almost as bad as the disease – but they can enable you to live your life. To work. To have healthy friendship, healthy relationships.

Key to this also is therapy – real therapy, with a psychologist. Again, this isn’t a quick fix. It takes a long time, a hell of a lot of work, and I’ll be honest with you, it hurts like fucking hell. The temptation to give up is overwhelming. Just as you reach the point where it’s really helping, you also hit the point where it hurts almost as much as being ill did. You wonder, is it worth it? And the perception that there is no cure, and therefore there is nothing to do about bipolar but endure it, doesn’t help.

If you will never get better, what’s the point in taking meds? What’s the point in going through the agony of real psychotherapy?

What’s the point in doing the work?

THIS IS SUCH A DANGEROUS PERCEPTION, THIS IDEA THAT WE CAN’T GET BETTER!

We can get better!

The Black Dog: Bipolar Disorder is for Life Not Just for Christmas

Proper diet, exercise, meditation, mindfulness, alternative therapies like reiki and acupuncture, and other methods of learning to understand and manage your condition can all help you recover.

Recovery does not mean you are cured. It doesn’t mean there is no possibility you will relapse. It doesn’t mean the bipolar has magically gone away and is never coming back. But the reality is that just because you have had episodes of severe bipolar depression, or severe mania, doesn’t mean you will have them again. You may never have another episode of either as long as you live. You may manage the shifts in your mood so that, while still present, they are not nearly so extreme.

And when they’re not so extreme, you can learn to cope with them. You can put things in place to ensure that any damage you do to your life if you do get ill again, is minimal. You can ensure you know what the signs are, and how to recognise them, that your friends and family know what the signs are, and have effective strategies for helping you.

Not judging you.

Not yelling at you.

Not blaming you.

Just helping.

There is no cure for bipolar disorder.

That doesn’t mean you can’t get better.

The Black Dog: Bipolar Disorder is for Life Not Just for Christmas

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