Because I am crackers I am crackers-obsessed so subscribe to a bunch of bipolar-related lists and feeds. Now and then on one of these there’ll be a call-out for poems, essays, drawings, whatever for some kind of ‘living with bipolar’ project. This is all well and good and likely helpful for many and normally I think nothing of it, but one appeared recently and instead of ‘living with bipolar’, I saw ‘living WITH bipolar’. That word ‘with’ appeared to me as massive and it was glowing slightly around the edges and it filled my brain.
Now, the glowy thing is actually a bipolar thing. Visual processing issues are a known symptom/effect (thought to be caused by reduced amounts of grey matter). This time however the luminescence was less about my cerebral cortex and more about my intellect. The word ‘with’ suddenly hit me as contextually problematic and my forehead got all furrowed. It’s taken a wee while to figure out why but I (think I) did and now I’m sharing it with you (exciting huh?)
There are two reasons I don’t like that word ‘with’ when ‘living’ is to its left and ‘bipolar’ is to its right –
It doesn’t make logical sense
‘With’ and ‘without’ are converse antonyms.4 Converse antonyms are related words that cannot exist without each other and cannot exist simultaneously. So being ‘with’ means something only because it can be compared to a state of being ‘without’. It is also impossible to literally be ‘with’ and ‘without’ the same thing at the same time. It must be one or/then the other (unlike figuratively where a beloved dead dog will ‘remain with their master always’). ‘Give’ and ‘take’, ‘push’ and ‘pull’, ‘pee freely’ and ‘urinary tract infection’ are other examples.
The converse antonym means the sentence ‘live with bipolar’ is a comparative illusion, a linguistics term referring to descriptions that seem ok but once scrutinized are revealed as contradictory or unviable. It is really truly actually completely literally impossible for me to 'live without' my life-long chronic condition,5 ergo I cannot live ‘with’ it (I got to use the word 'ergo'. Squeee).
The ontological nightmare continues. If it were possible to imagine a state of living ‘without’ bipolar what would that look like? What is the counter factual? THERE ISN’T ONE. The variable infinities mean it’s impossible for anyone to know beforehand how an alternative life could or would be. (Although for those ‘living with’ some kind of chronic condition there is a general sympathetic assumed alternative certainty which is kind of why the phrase ‘living with’ gets used in the first place. In essence it’s ‘a life free from your condition and therefore heaps better and happier’. This is factually baseless and patently ridiculous; illogical and bollocks).
It is objectively impossible for me to ‘live with bipolar’.
It doesn’t make existential sense
The idea is also worth a subjective ponder. Removing any consideration of its cause and attitudes about having it, does my bipolar1 in some way shape the ways I understand and experience the world? And does that word ‘with’ have anything to do with it? It doesn't. In an existential context the concept of ‘with’ isn’t helpful, although it’s tricky so the explanation might be a bit fumbly…
I know there’s a lot of ‘my mental illness doesn’t define me’ discourse and feeling (a legitimate position that I respect the right to have) but this again implies some possibility of knowing what it is to be ‘without’ or ‘separate to’ your condition. I just cannot conceptualise this. I can cope with the idea of some emotions and behaviours feeling distinct from your base-camp self, and some body parts like hair and muscles. There is the ability to choose to change these things and then act upon this (sure, within limits and with varying results). But how do you act upon the part of you that’s doing the acting upon? It’s the brain and mind that do this and bipolar is a condition of the brain and mind.
Even when you’re not episodic you still have bipolar. Non-episodic periods are called euthymia (this is considered another potential state, alongside hypo and hyper-mania, depression, rapid cycling, mixed state, anhedonia, and psychosis. The ‘bi’ is really a misnomer). During periods of euthymia your brain is still a bipolar brain which has implications for cognition, mood, self-regulation, social interaction, energy, productivity etc. These can manifest in a variety of ways and it's different for everyone (bipolar is inherently bespoke and la di da). But it’s not big and dramatic and often no-one notices because there’s nothing to notice because it’s just who you are all the time.
To get really wanky and paraphrase Heidegger, it is not the case that I ‘am’ and bipolar is an optional extra I can provide myself with occasionally. I do not have a relationship with bipolar. I am the relationship (Heidegger could be very cringey). So even when I am not actively considering it via indulgent blog posts, it is a fundamental part of my experiencing self, my being-in-the-world.
I am not in anyway suggesting that the definition of me can be reduced to my bipolar. But this cannot happen with any of the parts I'm made up of. I can't be reduced to an arm or my eyebrows or kidneys, my love of Discworld novels or hatred of peas, my career, anxiety, passion, tattoos, or role as mother. Or my blog waffling.
4 You can also get auto-antonyms, complementary antonyms and graded antonyms. It’s a fascinating grammar wormhole.
5 I don't think it's the same for someone who contracts an illness or gets injured and can compare their differing states of being.
1 When I talk about ‘my bipolar’ I also mean all the effects of all the meds and other interventions I've had over the years. The experience of these is just as much a part of it.