- Low Self-Esteem
- Self-Help Strategies
- Bipolar disorder
StressingOut speaks to Andy Behrman, author of Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania, about his experiences of Bipolar Disorder, its effects, public perception and treatment.
StressingOut: When you first started writing Electroboy, what did you know about bipolar disorder and what had you read?
Andy Behrman: I started writing Electroboy in 1999. When I had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder a decade earlier, it was referred to as manic depression. I actually knew not one other person with the illness and remember panicking that I had a brain disorder and would not live to see my next birthday. I went to my first support group meeting shortly after in Manhattan and there were only five people in attendance, which today would be unheard of – I have spoken to support groups in small towns which can draw one hundred people or more. The only book available to me at the time was An Unquiet Mind by Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, so I went to hear her speak and realized that my manic depression was nothing like her brand of manic depression (I was significantly younger and male). That evening, I started writing Electroboy, which is only the second memoir written by a man about his battle with mental illness (Darkness Visible by William Styron was the first).
SO: You were misdiagnosed with ‘regular’ depression for years by many different doctors. What were they missing, and what might make someone with depression suspect they might really have bipolar disorder?
AB: It is true that I was misdiagnosed several times with depression and not manic depression, or what we now call bipolar disorder. It would be too easy to blame poorly-trained psychiatrists for these misdiagnoses, although this was often the case with me and still is today for many patients. But I believe that I also tended to ‘present’ inaccurately, meaning that I would never make appointments with my psychiatrists when I was feeling manic and on top of the world and would only visit when I was severely depressed. In addition, I hardly even spoke about my manic episodes, which were so powerful and surreal that they frightened me and I kept them to myself.
SO: You tried all different kinds of treatments, including some really extreme ones like repeated rounds of electroshock therapy (hence the name Electroboy…). What was it that finally made the difference and allowed you to live a relatively normal life?
AB: I absolutely tried many different treatments from standard psychiatric medications (more than 35 over the course of a decade, during which on some days I was taking up to 30 pills) to talk therapy to meeting with a Kabbalist who was certain he had the cure for me. I even went as far as interviewing a dominatrix who believed she also had the cure. In the end, I opted for electroshock therapy (ECT) which really was not (and still isn’t) considered extreme, although there is much opposition to it from many mental health groups. I do believe that ECT did break my cycle of mania, but in the end, it was my absolute fear of continuing to battle this illness for the rest of my life which turned into my willingness to learn to cope with it on a day-to-day basis, spend more time in therapy, make tremendous changes in my lifestyle (focusing on my addictions) and leading a much healthier, calm and stable life. I think you could say at one point I became aware that I would be dead before my 35th birthday if I didn’t start focusing on getting well.
SO: Counseling and self-help techniques can be very effective for the most common mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. What place, if any, do these have in the treatment of bipolar?
AB: For starters, I spent too much time in therapy with psychologists who had very little knowledge of mood disorders and were really better equipped to help people strategize ‘life issues’ concerning relationships, finances, work and functioning on a day-to-day basis. I found myself sitting in offices with professionals who had very little experience with bipolar patients. In retrospect, I find this shocking, but the same is true today. In my case, my psychiatrist and psychologist were in constant contact with each other and my psychologist, a cognitive behavioral specialist, focused on specific changes that were critical for me to make in my life.
SO: What aspect of bipolar do you feel is most misunderstood, or do you wish you could communicate to people who have not experienced it for themselves?
AB: The most misunderstood fact about people with bipolar is that we are an aggressive and violent population. In the United States, when a gunman shoots twenty people on a college campus or someone robs a bank, the immediate instinct is to label them as bipolar. Even in the trial of Casey Anthony, who was believed to be a sociopath until her acquittal, I was shocked that the media quickly tried to label her as bipolar. Bipolar has become a ‘catch all’ diagnosis used by people who really know nothing about mental illness and diagnosis. In addition, what was always so difficult for me was that as a high-functioning person with bipolar disorder, both my family and friends actually believed that I had control of my manic and depressive episodes and that I didn’t show self restraint and then quickly became lazy. I continue to remind people that bipolar disorder is not a choice, in the same way that diabetes and cancer are not choices.
SO: As someone who has battled with bipolar for more than 20 years, what insights into the condition do you have that others on the outside looking in (including mental health care professionals) do not?
AB: I’ve never been asked this question but I can tell you that patients appreciate my knowledge of mood disorders and mental health care professionals often criticize my knowledge as being either amateur or not valid. I was speaking to my own psychiatrist several months ago and she told me that in the last twenty years she had seen more than 2,000 patients. I responded that since Electroboy was published, I’ve received more than 25,000 letters from people with bipolar disorder (or depression), spoken to more than 350 audiences and probably met another 5,000 people on the road and heard their stories. Oddly, although I am not a mental health care professional, I have heard more war stories which include everything from symptoms to side effects to medication to strategies for getting well and coping with mental illness and dealing with family, friends and the stigma of mental illness. Mental health care professionals can’t grasp our pain, our fears of never getting well and our hatred of being treated like guinea pigs with medication that can have horrendous side effects. And at the same time, after 20 years, I can tell you that I don’t believe in recovery from mental illness, but learning to cope with it – and that family, friends and professionals who hope for recovery for us are unrealistic and put tremendous pressure on us.
SO: Is anxiety a component of your bipolar disorder?
AB: Anxiety has been and continues to be one of the most difficult features of my bipolar disorder for me, because it’s usually more frightening than mania. I can admit that mania – even hypo-mania, a more mild form – can be enjoyable. Not anxiety. I have nowhere to hide when anxiety strikes and cope with it through medication, exercise, meditation and cognitive therapy.
SO: Ok, so… where can we find out more?
1. Stephen Fry’s documentary is outstanding
2. Absolutely any of Marya Hornbacher’s books (Madness: A Bipolar Life is my favorite)
3. Terri Cheney’s book, Manic, is brilliant
You can also find Andy’s book Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania, along with other resources, on his site www.electroboy.com