If I Could Push a Button and Get Rid of Bipolar Disorder, Would I?
In his fascinating documentary, “The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive,” Stephen Fry asks a number of people with bipolar disorder whether or not they would get rid of bipolar disorder, if they could simply push a button. Almost everyone answers, “No.” Stephen Fry himself says that he wouldn’t, and he ends the documentary on that note.
This question really got me thinking. Would I be willing to push that button if I had the opportunity? I realized that the question made me address a number of difficult questions. The first one was how I conceptualized bipolar disorder itself; is it a part of me or is it something that I have? The second and perhaps deeper question was what I think the place of suffering is in my life.
So, I thought I’d write a post about the question itself. I’ll admit right up front that I’m still torn about the answer. I guess in some ways, that is kind of the point.
Some Quick ClarificationsI just want to make a couple of quick clarifications before I start. First, the question is about whether I would push the button for the future, not whether or not I would rather not have lived with bipolar disorder in the past. Those are two separate questions, and I’ve dealt with that second question in another post about the healthy me.
The second is that, no matter what answer I give, I don’t intend it to be a general answer for everyone. The question is necessarily a personal one, and each person may give a different answer. There is no “correct” answer. There is only what each of us would want.
Is Bipolar Disorder a Part of Me or Is it Something I Have?
I think a lot of the answer to this question rests in how I conceive of the place of bipolar disorder in my life. If I think of bipolar disorder as something that is a part of my personality, it is very hard for me to answer that I would push the button. After all, pushing the button would be wanting to be, at least in part, a different person. There’s something strange about wanting to be someone else.
On the other hand, if I think about bipolar disorder as something I have, then it would be a lot easier to want to push the button. I would not be wanting to change my personality if it were simply a disease that I have, rather than a part of my personality. In that case, it would be a lot easier to push the button.
When it comes to conceptualizing bipolar disorder, I believe that the best narrative is what it is most therapeutic to believe. I actually mean this literally, though I don’t have room to justify it here. The relevance, though, is that I’m looking for the conceptualizing, the narrative if you will, that will help me, personally, be healthy.
Personally, I have found the conception of bipolar disorder as being a part of my personality as being the most therapeutic way of thinking about the condition (I’ve also stated that I also don’t conceive of myself as my personality, but that is another story). For me, personally, treating bipolar disorder as something to integrate into my life rather than fight has really helped me.
So, the score is 1-0 for not pushing the button.
The Place of Suffering in My LifeAnother question that I realized the button challenge made me deal with was the place of suffering in my life. Being bipolar has led me to a lot of suffering. It has harmed relationships with other people, impeded me in my career, and often, simply sucks in its own right. I’ve often thought, darn it, if I hadn’t been bipolar, I could have done x. This has led to a lot of regret and, unfortunately, self-blame. I have no doubt that bipolar disorder will cause me more suffering in the future.
But here I need to ask myself a second question. What would I get if I were to push the button? Happiness? That seems like a lot to ask of removing a condition, especially since happiness is something hard to attain, regardless of whether or not one is mentally ill. If I were to get rid of bipolar disorder, other types of suffering would replace it, though I know not what. I would find that there would be something else to replace it.
Bipolar disorder is something that is I have largely learned to deal with. It is the enemy I know. Therefore, this is the life that I know how to live. To get rid of it would be to replace it with something else, and I’d effectively need to learn to live my life all over again. So much of my own therapeutic approach to bipolar disorder is learning to incorporate it into my life, and to decide to push the button would be to go against my entire approach to life.
Now, I realize I’ve created a paradox here. After all, if I didn’t have bipolar disorder, I wouldn’t need to approach my life therapeutically, at least in that respect. However, I’m not in a position right now to conceive of my life from outside of my condition. I’d need to push the button while bipolar, and conceiving of bipolar disorder as something to integrate is such a part of my personal narrative that I simply can’t push the button from within that narrative.
So, the score is 2-0 for not pushing the button.
Other People in My Life
However, the decision about whether or not to push the button is not merely about me. That I am bipolar affects other people in my life. Though I constantly try to shield others from the negative aspects of bipolar disorder, I know that it is not within my power to do so completely. I believe that if I were not bipolar, I could be of greater help to the other people in my life.
This really gives me pause. It is true that I might have to relearn to live my life, but that can be conceived of as another sacrifice that I would be making for other people. Another part of my personal, therapeutic narrative is that I want to be able to benefit the people around me. I believe that I largely do. However, I can see the ways in which being bipolar can impede me in that regard. I simply want to be better at it.
So, that would seem to change the score to 2-1 for not pushing the button. However, there are a lot of other people in my life, so maybe I shouldn’t be scoring all of my reasons equally. After all, my other reasons just relate to me, while this relates to many other people. Since I have a wife and two children, let’s give this reason one point for each of them.
So, the score is 3-2 for pushing the button.
On the whole, then I would probably choose to push the button. This would be my own personal decision; other people may choose differently. For me, though, I can see that if I were not bipolar, I think I would be able to increase the amount I benefit the people around me. I know I had two reasons against and one for, but the latter reason is for me overriding.
I would push the button, no doubt, in large part for the reason you cite. Also, because I don’t believe bipolar is an essential part of my soul, it would not remove some critical part of me.
I believe life would be simpler and easier if I did not have bipolar. End of story.
Thank you, Gilda. How we conceive of our relationship with this disease can really affect how we answer this question.
Hello- I’m new to your blog (about a week and a half) and love it!!! My son’s and I are featured in a small part of the Stephen Fry documentary referenced above!!! it’s a very small world! thanks for this venue and the interesting content!!! keep up the good work!!!! Congrats!!! Suzy Jensen
Hi Suzy! Thank you for the kind words :). I remember your segment quite well, as does my wife. Thank you for visiting, and I hope your boys are doing well. Best, Daniel.
Hi Daniel! actually, “well” is a very relative term as you well know!! My eldest got into some very serious legal trouble but fortunately I was able to advocate to get him into a mental health diversion court. If he’s able to satisfy the terms of his probation and complete the program (2014) the charges will be decreased to misdemeanors then he can apply to have them expunged. My youngest son is actually doing beautifully which was not the impression you’d have gotten from the documentary!!! one day at a time…one foot in front of the other!!! thanks for responding! Suzy
Thank you very much for letting me know, Suzy. I’m very good to hear that your younger son is doing so well, and I hope everything works out with your older son, too. It’s great to have you on the site 🙂
I love the way you went about questioning this question! As soon as I read the title of this post I was hooked. I have pondered this type of question and every time come to a different conclusion. I am a mother of 8 wonderful children one of which is bi polar as well. I don’t think I would have had the courage to have such a large family without the disorder but on the other hand my son would most likely not have to suffer with it had I not had it. I have been a very creative person I think because of being bipolar and have loved that part of my personality. I just don’t think even with all I have suffered I ever would have wanted to push the button and loose the me I have through years of therapy and friends and family’s support come to accept and love! So some days I would like to turn it off but wouldn’t be able to “give it up”!!
Thank you for your great response, Angela. I’ve changed my mind about this question, too. Even when I haven’t changed my mind, I’ve often found myself with new or different reasons. I’m not sure what it is about this question, but it’s hooked me, too, so I wanted to share it :).
Angela, may people are creative without bipolar disorder and it’s not axiom to be bipolar and become genius, in my perpective its hardly to think that some part of chronical condition could give you enormous power. Who knows, if those all popular people wouldn’t had disorder, maybe they would stay in the same personality state. In my opinion If you have creativity, you have it ! You are talented, only you and by yourself 😉
Great qs Daniel. From how you set up your reply I was sure you were not pushing the button. Your answer was inspiring. When I saw the prog I wondered why so many of those featured would not press the button.
I am also married with 2 kids. Me and my illness are selfish and have caused huge pain to others. I have good creativity in music and released a CD last year. But the world is flooded with music and people writing. The CD sank without trace. And I learned that even if it sold 100 or 100000 I would still want more and end up unfulfilled.
So I would press the button and try for a change to put my loved ones ahead of myself.
Thank you for the response :). Even though it sank, putting out a CD is quite an accomplishment. This question once came up at my bipolar support group, and I was surprised too how many people said they wouldn’t push the button. It really got me thinking about it.
No way I love me n wouldnt be me without it. ; ) Have had it medicated from me several times eugh but necessary @ time. Was a proper shock finding out too late what a mental health section was. Have had several now.Mostly I am blessed & tend 2 the happy side. I do have lows but I deal with them & rarely if ever share or open up. I found my incarceration in 95 similar to st trinians 4 adults. conditions border on archaic through ignorant right down to dire. Although there was also some good folk trying bloody hard against all the everything. These days I only see my psychiatrist twice a yr. I have meds @ home but rarely take them. As 90+% of the time I am able to keep a lid on myself. What is v.hard is sleep pattern & eating for me?. Working for bosses can be v. difficult & being awake the right part of the day is out of the question on times. Self-employment is the answer but the climate out there for unqualified burnt out nr 50yr olds who have had a heart attack is slim ; ( Ah well I keep grinning it confuses the hell outa folk.
Thanks for the response, Paula :).
hi there, I just join. I have been diagnosed 15 yrs. And have other mental health issues to deal with also. I wanted to join to see how other people deal with their illness…
I treat Bipolar, like other diabetic,high blood pressure, eplisy. I have it and
I deal with it. I can’t change it I don’t tell people, I will not be labeled….
TV is a good one, they make it that all bipolar people are killers, I hate when they do that….grrrrrrr anyways….. thanks!!
You’re welcome, Dori. I find the portrayal of bipolar disorder on television frustrating, especially the news, which is constantly covering, “So-and-so has bipolar disorder, and he/she did this.” There are a lot of different people here who handle bipolar differently, so I’m hoping we’ll all have a chance to learn from each other.
Definitely push the button!!
Great post. Personally for me livIng with bipolar for about 23 years it really is a big part of my identity, who I am, so I would not push the button. I also don’t ascribe to the PC thing of saying I suffer from Bipolar Disorder; toe it’s more natural to say I bipolar, but many people think that is wrong. But why do people say I’m an alcoholic and always will be? It’s very similar…
This is a very difficult question. Having bipolar disorder has made me a much more empathetic person, no doubt and less judgmental. However, if it meant that my two daughters would not have to face their own depression and bipolar, then yes, in a heart beat. I can deal with my own fallout from having bipolar disorder, but watching my daughters suffer has been enormously painful, awful experience. I’ve had bipolar for almost 20 years. My youngest, hospitalized at 16 for suicidal ideations and cutting, should have been spared this kind of pain. So, you’re right. The answer is: it depends.
have just read through this and find it very interesting. I have had bipolar for many years, in fact looking back with hindsight I would say since my childhood.
I guess the first thought was how do I address it. Do ‘I have’ bipolar or ‘am i’ bipolar. I really can’t figure that one out. I think as more time has passed since I was diagnosed, I find myself saying ‘I am’. Does this mean I am becoming more accepting of it ? Maybe so. I think ‘I have’ gives the impression that one day it might just go away and friends and family may find that easier to deal with. I think what I am saying is, I use both terms as and when I feel the situation calls for it. In my own head, I think ‘I am’.
So would I push a button.. Looking back I have had great times and done some great things during the ‘up’ times. Saying that, I have also done destructive things when hyper. The downs for me can be very low and very dark. Would I want this to carry on into the future.? I honestly don’t know. I have been bipolar for so long I wouldn’t know any other way to live. I guess it would scare me to be ‘normal’. Would I live a life of little changes of emotion.? Would I want to live that kind of life.? What do I want to look back on at the ends of my days.? There is no doubt that I could of been quite successful in some of my business ventures if I had not had the ‘lows’ hit at the wrong time. But it was the ‘highs’ that got me to that point.
I think that the only conclusion I have come to is that I really don’t know. I love the highs and the feelings of confidence and that I can take on the world. I really hate the lows. For me these are really dark and can last a long time. Would it change my personality for better or worse, that I also don’t know.
So for me, there is no answer, but thank you for raising the question and making me think about this.
stay safe, Jon
I’d push the button. 30 years of treatment, misdiagnosed for 20. Psych ward stays, hospital stays. Almost 50 different medications.
If people choose to have that in their life I wish them well. 95% of my disorder, like many people, is about 95% depression. If someone could explain the romanticism with depression and wanting to keep it I’m all ears.
Plus, BP has costs me tens of thousands of dollars. It’s odd to explain to a friend how horrific BP is to live with. So the friend says, so you’re pushing the button, right? Well, no, you see, well, OK, no, I like it this way. Goodbye sick puppy.