The Lion and the Turtle: Life with Bipolar Disorder

On the second floor of the building where I work there is a painting; I look at it every day as I try to climb six flights of stairs, stifling my huffing and puffing as colleagues ascend next to me. The painting depicts a person grasping two leashes: one around the neck of a despondent turtle, the other around the neck of a frenzied, roaring lion. Every work day as I look at that painting, I ask myself, “Am I the turtle today, or am I the lion?” I want to be neither the downcast turtle nor the more appealing (yet overpowering) lion. I strive, instead, to be the person holding the leads, the one in the middle and in control.

To live with uncontrolled bipolar disorder is to split one’s life between the lion and the turtle. Many people unmaliciously use the word “bipolar” as an adjective to describe perfectly normal mood fluctuations: “I’m so bipolar today,” they say, when they really mean that they’re feeling a bit capricious. Or “My boyfriend is fricking bipolar,” when they mean that he’s inconsistent and frustrating. They don’t use this word from a place of ill-intent, but from a place of misinformation – or at least due to an insufficient vocabulary. They’re talking about everyday feelings that everyone has. They’re not describing the struggle to control the turtle and the lion.

The lion, as I said above, is the more appealing of the two states of bipolar disorder. But just as real lions can be, this lion has the potential to be dangerous. The lion represents mania. Mania is a state of over-active, enthusiastic, sometimes agitated behavior that can (at times very negatively) impact one’s life. Hypomania is a milder form that usually lasts for only a few days, whereas mania is more severe and can go on for weeks.

When I am manic – when I’m being pulled by the lion – I am invincible. I am golden, charming, magnetic, and free. People are drawn to me when I am in this state because I speak with confidence and passion, and my mind races with interesting and engaging thoughts that I’m able to spin into engrossing topics of conversation. Eventually…I become exhausting. My loved ones are ready for the come down, to call it a night and rest, but I’m just beginning to peer into the chasm.

My energy is boundless; I can go for several days without sleeping (which, while it sounds like a great way to get stuff done, is very dangerous for one’s health). The way I direct my energy is uncontrolled and obsessive: I become fixated on things, and they fascinate me for entire weekends in which I’m bound up in a tireless frenzy. Sometimes, these fixations seem productive. Once I wrote almost 40,000 words of a now abandoned novel. Other times, these obsessions are pointless. One time I inexplicably became gripped by the filmography of Meryl Streep. I watched almost a dozen of her movies and hours of her interviews in a span of three days, all while taking copious notes on her acting process. I’m not even an actor. Periods of mania are also when I spend the most money, drink the most alcohol, make reckless, sometimes perilous decisions, and it’s when I’m most likely to commit to audacious, far-fetched plans that future me has zero capacity to fulfill. Future me is also the one who must deal with the fallout that manic me has created. And almost always, after the tumultuous fight with the lion, future me must wrestle with the turtle.

The turtle, as you have probably now guessed, represents depression. After mania, the pendulum in my brain swings back in the other direction, and I am sucked dry. The opposite of mania, for me, is not sadness. It is nothingness. While manic, I am everything and all powerful; there’s nothing I can’t do. When I finally come down, I am suddenly nothing, and powerless to complete even the most basic tasks. Getting out of bed is a struggle of cosmic proportions. Eating is horrible. Showering and getting dressed take more energy than I have to spend. It’s not that these things are difficult in and of themselves; it’s that my depressed mind has been cleared of everything that makes a human being go. The exuberance of the lion is gone, and the turtle just won’t move.

Sometimes my depression is less severe and I’m able to fake my way through my workdays and training sessions. Other times, I barely manage to text my boss that I’m sick and won’t make it into work, then spend most of the day staring into space, forgetting that the jiu jitsu academy even exists. After a few days of this, the only feeling that situates itself in my being is a sense of overwhelming guilt. I can’t believe that I’m like this. I have no right to be like this. I’m useless, a burden. I hate myself. I’ll never amount to anything. The turtle withdraws into its shell and ruminates on its hollow misery.

When uncontrolled, bipolar disorder manifests for me in long periods of mild to severe depression, punctuated by brief instances of hypomania. I actually like the lion. When I first started my medication, I briefly mourned the lion’s disappearance. Who wouldn’t want to feel like a demi-god for a few days at a time? I don’t like the consequences the lion brings, of course: the hangovers, the damaged friendships, the dented bank accounts, the crippling exhaustion. But I absolutely abhor the turtle. When I feel the cold grip of apathy and emptiness creeping into my chest, my first emotion is rage. How dare you skulk into my life and take everything away?! Soon, however, my emotions vanish, and I’m husk.

With my meds, I’m neither the lion nor the turtle. I have some hiccups, when external stimuli such as stress, poor sleep, or overindulgence at a beer festival can trigger a brief manic state or a mild depressive episode. But for the most part, my medicated self is incredibly stable. I’m the figure in the middle, holding the leads.

Why can’t I control the pendulum of these moods by myself? I’m a dedicated and disciplined person. I was a straight-A student, a good kid with a loving family. I strive to be excellent in all that I do, intent on bettering myself every day. I want to succeed at work, train consistently and do well at tournaments, coach others, show up for my family and friends, and reach a place of wellness in all areas of my life. I don’t know why my brain chemistry sometimes tries to sabotage me. All I know is that the lion and the turtle, taken separately, are not who I really am. They are both part of me, yes, but I now hold the reins. And medication is giving me the extra boost of control.

If you ever find yourself dealing with moods or behaviors that are seemingly uncontrollable, that hijack your life, that turn you into a version of yourself that seems like a stranger, please don’t be afraid to seek help. I denied help for years because I thought I could control the lion and the turtle all by myself. I’m a smart, strong, independent person, but even smart, strong, independent people sometimes need a little assistance, whether through finding a supportive community, talking with a therapist, or taking helpful medication (or a combination of those things!). There is absolutely no shame in needing some or all these supports to live your life. A person with type I diabetes needs insulin. A person with hyperthyroidism needs anti-thyroid meds or beta-blockers. A person with a mental disorder needs therapy and/or medication. As human beings, we all, at one point or another, will have to ask for help. I hope this article has given you some insight into what bipolar disorder really is and what life can look like when it’s untreated. I hope that if you recognize the lion and the turtle in your own life, you’ll seek help. Struggling at the reins, being pulled this way and that, is a difficult way to live. Stand firm, be centered, and please find what helps you to hold fast to those leads, in control and at peace.


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