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My Strategy for Riding the Waves of Bipolar Disorder


At the beach as a kid, I practiced bodysurfing. One of my uncles taught me the basics: watch, wait and hurl. I probably never got it quite right, but I had fun trying. If I picked just the right moment to launch myself into the forward motion of a breaking wave, I could ride the momentum all the way to the shore.

After a while, though, all that pounding water would inevitably wear me out. Sometimes the waves slammed me straight into the sand, and I would emerge scraped and bloodied. Sometimes the salt water poured into my mouth, my lungs, and my belly. Sometimes I forgot to watch my back and a wave would catch me unaware, catapulting me into violent, unexpected somersaults. All of this probably contributed to my adult preference for lakes.

In that battered, exhausted state, when my youthful stubbornness prevented me from simply getting out of the water, I developed another strategy. Rather than leaping again into the oncoming waves, or uselessly attempting to resist their onslaught, I learned to duck.

Going under takes you to an alien world. It sounds, feels, and looks different under there. But it turns out (or at least, it seemed to me, unscientifically, at the time) that the force of a wave plays out mainly on the surface. A few feet down, your hair will swirl, but your body will not be slammed. I wrapped my arms around my knees and allowed myself to spin aimlessly underwater. For a few seconds, I felt hidden, safe from the insistent tossing just above my head.

Life feels a little bit like trying to hang out several yards from shore on a day when the surf’s up. Sometimes you ride the waves with exhilarated abandon, everything that comes your way moving you purposefully forward. Sometimes, you look out wearily toward the horizon and see nothing but cruel, chaotic body-slammers that promise to shatter you.

My recent diagnosis of bipolar disorder makes me feel like I’m bobbing in a choppy sea. Bipolar messes with your mind, changes your sense of self, and makes people look at you funny. It makes you say and do things you don’t want to say and do. It can go away for a while, but experts assure that it never goes away for good, and it may only get worse. The side effects of the medications you must consume can be as horrifying as the disease itself. Sometimes when I contemplate a lifetime with this illness, it terrifies me. It feels like I’m facing an endless series of tsunami-force waves that will pound and pound and pound, until there’s nothing left of me.

And so, I’ve returned in my mind to that childhood strategy of going under. I don’t want to just ride the bipolar wave. I can’t resist it, either. But I can duck. Going under has become for me a metaphor for that old-fashioned concept of submission. It means choosing an attitude of trust and surrender. It means saying, OK I see what you’ve got coming for me. I don’t like it, I can’t change it, and I will trust you anyway. I will duck under the waves and hide myself in the certainty that nothing can toss me from the ocean of your love.

“Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.” – Psalm 42:7