All right, bipolar disorder. You try to take a lot of things from me. Sometimes you succeed, and sink your claws into your prize until I wrench it back. Fine. Keep trying to take my sleep. Or my energy, or my sex drive, or my consistency, or any optimism about the future…go on, I’ll keep fighting the good fight against you.
But not my ability to think. Not my intelligence. Hands off.
I want to believe that this creative slump I’ve been in is just that: writer’s block, or a dry spell. Perhaps the natural result of some life stresses, or mental fatigue from some recovery work. A normal, natural ebb tide in the rhythms of my mind.
I don’t want to see that a lack of creativity can also be the result of impaired ability to think…and I’m terrified of seeing that kind of impairment in myself. I know it’s a fact of life when living with bipolar disorder: depression can make it hard to concentrate, hypomania can make it hard to focus, and meds can have side effects that blunt our sharp mental edges. Intrusive thoughts, feelings of unreality and any number of mental hijinks mean our processing speed can go way down when responding to input.
“But what if it’s not just that?” a terrified voice whispers in my head. “What if in the last decade you’ve actually lost something? Forever?”
Am I getting dumber?
It doesn’t help to know that there are multiple ways to answer such a question. It doesn’t help to know that for everything I may have lost, there has certainly been growth in other parts of my psyche. It doesn’t even help to remind myself that all humans face mental as well as physical declines that come with age.
The terror I feel is illogical; it’s the terror that comes from a threat to my sense of self.
It’s the terror of the question: “If I’m not smart, what am I?”
My brain is the only thing I ever learned how to trust: not my body, and certainly not other people. My brain was what let me escape into books. It was the only thing that let me build some self-esteem with test scores and teachers’ approval; it helped me win a chance for more education and a different life. It let me build an internal world strong enough to keep me alive, a world ready to integrate the spirit when I finally began to discover it.
My brain runs the metaphor factory of my psyche. What would I do if its edge got too blunted? How could I live? It’s not a question of self-esteem, although it is a good idea for me to keep examining the idea that I have no worth if I lose a few IQ points.
It’s a question of survival.
Is my fear realistic? I feel anxious even asking. Okay, let’s look at some facts. Line up my current self and my…oh, let’s say 30 year old self. Before the painkillers, before childbirth, before any psych meds but the occasional antidepressant. Give both selves a battery of cognitive tests; throw in an SAT and GRE just for fun.
Results? Yes, there are some real phenomena here. I fall short of the 30 year old in data retrieval speed, working memory, manual dexterity, ability to multitask…ugh. I would imagine the gap is at least slightly wider than a gap created by only the passage of time, too.
Here’s one snippet I found on the subject:
“Mood typically receives the bulk of our attention when it comes to descriptions and discussion of bipolar disorder; however, in my sessions with individuals living with the disorder, it’s common to hear concerns about their lessened cognitive capacities. To be more specific, I’m referring to the experience of decreased cognitive capacity relative to the period of time before any sustained bipolar mood symptoms arrived on the scene.
Examples of the kinds of deficits reported are difficulties with linguistic working memory (word retrieval), difficulties with planning, prioritizing and organizing of behavior (executive functioning), problems with retention of what’s been read or listened to, as well as the experience of mildly dulled or slowed thought processes. For some with bipolar disorder, it’s like they’ve experienced a gradual decline of brain power from their previous baseline level of function.” —Russ Federman, Ph.D. in Psychology Today
This resonates with me; I believe I have lost something. Since I started out with a lot, I’m still very sharp on my good days–but I’ll never be the gleaming tack my younger self was.
Ironically, thinking about this in clinical terms helps me with the fear. By replacing a vague description with specific terms, it reins in my tendency to expand into dark scenarios. It also gives me hope by letting me see that the aspects of my brain function that have taken the hardest hits are not threatening the core of the metaphor factory.