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Sometimes I Can’t Practice Positive Thinking With Bipolar Disorder, and That’s OK

Those of you who read my blog regularly probably know I’m not a big fan of positive thinking memes. In fact, they have the opposite effect on me. Someone who claims a positive attitude is all I need to change my life is likely to get only a “pfui” from me. As a person with bipolar disorder, I sometimes have major depression, and no amount of thinking is going to pull me out of it. In fact, the only thinking I can do at times like that is likely only to pull me farther into the depths.

If affirmations and positive thoughts work for you, I say, good. If mindfulness and meditation are your jam, then I say, whatever works. But please don’t try to deny my perception of reality.

That perception is there are some things positive thinking can’t do. There are some situations that are immune to positive thinking. Positive thinking can’t change the outcome of everything. Admittedly, positive thinking can change one’s attitude toward one’s circumstances.

One can choose, as my father did, to be determined, stubborn and positive. My father did this in the face of his diagnosis with multiple myeloma. It likely helped him live long past what his doctors expected. But not everyone can do that, and maybe not everyone should.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said acceptance was the final stage of the process of dying, not the first. The same, I think, is true of grieving. Anger, denial, bargaining and depression are natural responses to cataclysmic events, including diagnoses, and in this case, particularly diagnoses of serious mental illnesses.

Although my father was well-known for his “positive mental attitude” about his cancer diagnosis, I remember a time when he could not even say the word.  He swallowed it, leaving out the vowels: cncr. And I remember at times he was in denial about his illness and tried to do things he was physically not capable of doing — which at one point, was walking down the short hall to the bathroom. Even positivity could not help him there.

I watch a lot of competition shows on TV — “Chopped,” “Forged in Fire,” etc. — and I often hear the contestants say they are doing it to prove to their children they can do anything they set their minds to.

A part of me always says, “OK, then. Flap your arms and fly.” I know that sounds cynical and bitter, but it’s also the truth. The contestant who was cut in the first round has not done what he or she intended to or believed he or she could do. After that, they espouse the more reasonable and attainable lesson their children, or others, should try to follow their dreams and take that trial as a noble effort, even if it doesn’t end in victory.

I have bipolar disorder. There are some heights I can never fly to, no matter how hard I flap my arms. I know I will have to take medication for the rest of my life. I know, even with medication, I will still experience mood swings. I know I will never be able to really trust my moods — that a setback might send me teetering over the edge, or a triumph might make me imagine I can indeed fly.

And, you know what? I’m OK with that. What I’ve accomplished with the help of medication, therapy and the support of my family and friends, is good and is good enough. My dreams are down-to-earth, not grandiose. I do not dream of flying, but of remaining as stable as I can, right here and now. I choose not to delude myself with unattainable goals.

My father didn’t think he was going to live forever, but he was determined to live as long as he could, and to enjoy what he could in spite of the pain. I think that’s as ambitious as someone with a catastrophic illness can get. I admire him for his sustained effort and his stubborn resistance to despair.

I admire those of my friends — and there are some — who can choose not to be dragged down by the circumstances of life.

Maybe it’s different for me because my disorder by its nature involves a component of lowered mood. But my expectations are not to flap my arms and fly, but just to keep on keeping on.

Getty image by m-imagephotography