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How a Silly Joke My Grandfather Told Made Me Rethink Mental Illness

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When I was a child, my family and I would go visit my grandparents for Christmas. And every year, my grandfather, who has been gone for a little over a decade and who I continue to miss to this day, would tell me the same joke, and yet laughed the same time as if it were the first time he told it. And the fact my grandfather had a very heavy Chinese accent made this joke even funnier:

• What is Bipolar disorder?

“What time is it when the clock strikes 13 o’clock?”


“Time to get new clock.”

After more than a decade, I think about this joke from time to time and laugh at it still. When I was a kid, I used to laugh at it just to make him happy, but I genuinely laugh at it now. Not only is it just the kind of silly humor I engage with now, but it reminds me of the good times I had with him. But now, as I think about it, it is also a fantastic metaphor for my journey with mental illness.

As someone with bipolar disorder, life is a series of ups and downs, but recently, it has been a lot of downs. And depression can make life feel like time is going in all sorts of directions, directions I didn’t even know were possible. And struggling with an addiction can make time focused on reaching a destination, a particular feeling through the use of substances. But what happens when mental illness finally hits the point of making you think differently about your entire life?

I don’t define my life by my mental illness, but I do take some degree of pride in it. There’s nothing “wrong” with having a mental illness, despite what society would like to make us feel. People with mental illnesses are not “crazy” or “broken.” We’re people. We all play a role in society that is important in demonstrating every person, regardless of a diagnosis, or even a lack of one, struggles in some way. Most of us feel like life is out of control sometimes, most of us wish we didn’t feel the way we did at times, we often wish the positives would only happen, rather than the negatives.

But eventually, the negative feelings do catch up with us. Eventually, we do feel feelings we wish we didn’t. Eventually, we all have to grasp with the reality that is our lives, our minds and our feelings. And time, being the constant that it is, can offer either a sense of security, or a sense of disorder.

Time can be a difficult thing to deal with. In one moment, we can feel great, but we aren’t guaranteed to feel that way as time goes on. Similarly, we can feel down and sad and depressed in one moment, but the tick of a clock can bring on new feelings. Feelings of hope, joy and excitement. Time is simply a measure of processing our emotions at one particular moment.

So, as my wise and beloved grandfather once asked, “What happens when the clock strikes 13 o’clock?”

What happens when the unexpected becomes reality? What happens when our lives change in a way we never expected? This can come in the form of a new feeling or thought we don’t particularly like, or it can come as a diagnosis we never saw coming.

No one ever expects the clock to strike 13 o’clock. But we should be ready for it anyway. And not just that, we should be ready for what it means after that. I do not see mental illness as a 24/7 burden (though I do realize some see it that way, and I am not belittling or discrediting that). But I see my mental illness as, sometimes, the clock striking 13 o’clock, and I can be unprepared for what happens after that.

But what brings me back down, what brings me back to reality, is the fact that regardless of what time or what season, what feeling I am in that moment will not last. This can either be discouraging or it can be encouraging. Our good feelings will not last, as much as our bad feelings will not last.

So, all I can do is be prepared for the 13 o’clock. Because it does happen, it does hit all of us suddenly. Life is unpredictable, life can be unstable at times, life is challenging in ways we never thought it would be.

The only advice I can give right now, in the season I am in, is you should expect the 13 o’clock. And when it does hit, realize that time, just like life, can be unpredictable. So, take a deep breath, wherever you are in life, let the clock strike 13 and see what the next moment after that has in store.

Getty image by stockimagesbank

Originally published: February 18, 2020
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