On Moods and Self-Identity

I recognize that my moods follow a predictable pattern. There’s the high, during which every cloud has a silver lining, every goal seems within my reach, and everything on the Internet seems worth purchasing.

That lasts a few days before it gives way to a short but dramatic period of explosive tantrums, stomping, throwing things, and yelling creative swear words at myself and those whom I love the most.

After an hour or so, the rage burns a hole in the floor, which I fall through into a morass. There every path is tortuous and lined with boot-sucking mud. This is a dark place, a place of slugs and centipedes and eyeless fish, and the place I spend the most time. After ages and ages, without warning I’m hurled up into the light again. I’m blinking and I’m gasping and I’m dancing with joy and not caring who sees, and I’m so thrilled to be out in the world again that I spare barely a thought for the rage and depression waiting to bury me again in a few days.

I know this is a cycle, but when I’m in each mood, I experience a kind of mood amnesia, and it’s difficult to remember that the other moods even exist. They’re a crappy surprise every time, like blowing out the birthday candles only to find that they’re perched atop stale carrot cake.

Two weeks ago, I dug into thirty years of my journals and diaries looking for some little piece of information, and instead found, recorded over and over again, this cycle of glee, rage, shame, and depression.

I was struck by how optimistic I was. For decades, every time I felt the confidence and enthusiasm of the high, I was positive that if I just did everything right, I could hold onto that feeling of clarity and ease and personal agency. What a shock and disappointment when I failed…every time. I felt so sad for this past me, this woman trying so hard to hold onto the high and inevitably falling again into self-loathing.

I’ve always considered the happy, confident, capable me to be the real me and always expected that fixing the depression and the rage would free me to be the real me all of the time. Now on the other side of the bipolar II diagnosis, with the prospect of both my high moods and my low moods being dampened by a gradually increasing dosage of mood stabilizer, I’m reevaluating that assumption. Maybe the real me isn’t the happy one. Maybe the real me is the depressed me. Hell, maybe the real me is the screaming and swearing me. If my medication is straightjacketing all of those me’s, what will be left? If everything I’ve ever thought of as “me” were just symptoms of mental illness, who am I with those symptoms stripped away? Am I anyone?

(The medication may have dampened my optimism, but clearly it hasn’t dampened my propensity for existential dread.)