The Courage to Roar

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I have a theory about the way the world works: we all experience some form of imposter syndrome at some point during our lives. That is, there comes a time when each of us questions our own legitimacy, owing to an overwhelming perception of ourselves as fraudulent or less than capable in the face of increasing expectations and a higher level of accountability. Imposter syndrome is often associated with the experiences of young adults who, emerging from the carefully controlled confines of academia, begin to question their own skills and judgment in the real world. I would argue, however, that life finds each of us in this uncomfortable position at least once, and it is usually time-dependent and contextual. For instance, friends who have recently become parents tell me that all the book-reading, babysitting, and planning in the world could not adequately have prepared them for this latest leg of their journey. Some of them even admitted to feeling an overwhelming sense of fraudulence (“I’m not really an adult”) or not being capable of “parenting properly” despite their extensive preparation.

Here’s an example from my own experience. While earning my doctoral degree, I had an overwhelming sense of fraudulence, as if the program administrators hadn’t yet figured out that I just didn’t belong. At some point, they granted me my Ph.D., though it took me a while to realize I deserved it. Even after six years of successful training and a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears, sometimes I feel doubt has become my permanent residence in my new academic position. Who am I to speak up, to try to contribute to a project or venture when everyone else has so much more experience? I’m just not “there yet,” right? I’d better keep my mouth shut!

And the weird thing is, these feelings are contextual. I have no problem speaking my mind or employing my considerable skills in “real life.” It’s only in the vocational arena that I feel so woefully unequipped and inadequate.

This sense of inferiority—in my experience, that’s the exact essence of it—is associated with anxiety, self-criticism, and feelings of depression. Moreover, self-suppression impedes our own growth and actualization, and it may even hurt our career because, when we tell people that we are a certain way (meek and unequipped), over time they begin to believe us.

My theory, however, is that we each are granted a moment that signifies we have arrived, that some notable milestone has been reached and our journey is valid, even if it is still burgeoning. In this moment, we emit a fledgling roar as a slow pearl of realization settles in our gut: we are legitimate. We are the real thing. We are intelligent, insightful, and skilled. We matter.

My moment was simplistic, and it came one sunny afternoon when my precocious three-year-old niece referred to me by my title.

“Who said you could have the last Oreo cookie?” my mother had asked her, furrowing her brow because she had earlier imposed a restriction on sugary indulgences for the day.

“The doctor did,” Kaydence responded matter-of-factly, not even cracking a grin as she enjoyed the treat I had surreptitiously slid to her.

My heart leapt at that little spark of recognition. Somehow, hearing that I am “the doctor” from my niece was more meaningful and validating to me than hearing it from my colleagues. After all, when a kid declares you official, you’re official. Did her one casual reference resolve my work-related feelings of inferiority and fraudulence? No, of course not. But it let me know that what I had achieved in my doctoral program was real and that I have a shiny, new, legitimate title now. That gave me the courage to keep trying. Something inside me roared.

Earning a Ph.D. is difficult. With mountains of readings, papers, statistical code, and comprehensive exams—and that doesn’t even include your life-encompassing dissertation—it can force even the strongest person to her knees. I’ve been told, though, that earning it from the second highest-ranked institution in the United States while suffering from type I bipolar disorder is damned near impossible. I did it, though. How I did it is beyond me. I wish I could say I adroitly channeled my inner badass into an almost military command of the program, all while wearing Louboutins and Chanel lipstick in Star Red. Honestly, though, I just dragged myself by my sweaty collar over each hurdle, bloodied and battered by the journey but fortified by my family’s love and a stubborn sense of determination. Okay, so there might have been some Chanel lipstick, too. All things are possible with Chanel lipstick.

We all have that sense of determination stirring inside us. Life challenges us to tap into it with conviction and take it out for a spin.

Rather than an exercise in frustration dominated by the Imposter, let’s allow life to be about recovering our voices, finding our truths, digging deep within ourselves, and transcending our challenges. It should be about living out loud, being real, and opening ourselves to experiencing the universe around us.

Life is about finding the courage to roar.

On Love and Mania

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One of the most heartbreaking things about living with bipolar disorder is not knowing whether what you are experiencing in a romantic relationship is truly love, versus a manifestation of mania. Both feel euphoric, like a great whoosh of wind has picked you up and tossed you around playfully in its embrace. Both are precarious, and both can leave you shattered.

I realize many people have written about love and mania (and how to tell the difference between the two). Most of them are far more qualified than I to write about the clinical manifestations of each. Here, I offer a personal and, I hope, balanced perspective based on my own experiences with each.

In perhaps their most (in)famous song, my beloved Def Leppard declare, “Love is like a bomb.” It kind-of is, right? Its explosion upsets your world because, all of a sudden, it’s not just about you anymore:

What are WE doing this weekend? WE really need to explore this city when we’re able. I don’t like the way this new highway system affects US; it makes it more difficult, not easier, to get to each other.

Love is like a bomb and should be incorporated into your worldview in a way that leaves you empowered, not shattered. If you find yourself bleeding from picking up shards, it isn’t love. The people who love us reinforce our strengths and offer positive complements to our weaknesses. What I can’t do, you can do. What you can’t do alone, we do together. Our love doesn’t care whether we are complete dorks or mean girls; we can be free to be ourselves expressively and with power. You feel good. You feel strong. You are confident in your feelings because you know they are returned.

But love can become an obsession when we allow the other person to take up residence in our minds, dominating our waking thoughts, nightly dreams, and everything in between. Obsessiveness becomes a special concern for people living with mania. We become addicted to the euphoria that is love and don’t ever want to let go. We may even find ourselves ending other valued relationships, slacking off on the job, or doing other things to harm ourselves socially so we can elevate the person we love.

If you find yourself doing these things and you have bipolar disorder, you might be manic. This is especially true if you also feel “sped up,” have racing thoughts, or are acting impulsively.

Let’s talk about mania for a moment. Super quick review.

Mania is characterized by feelings of euphoria and irritability. You become extremely impulsive and may act without thinking something through. In my experience, you can be quite single-minded. That’s a GOOD thing for getting work done, because you are task-oriented and driven. That being said, there’s also a flight-of-fancy aspect to your behavior, where you may find yourself distracted by normally mundane things that suddenly become vastly fascinating. You think quickly (“rapid thoughts”) and may start to feel super paranoid (“my friends are trying to ruin my relationship”). That obsessive focus on your partner could actually be dangerous to both of you, even though it feels really good.

So, how do you tell the difference? It’s not simple.

Love is responsible.
Mania is reckless.
Love heals.
Mania destroys (self or others).
Love hopes.
Mania assumes.
Love accepts.
Mania judges.
Love empowers.
Mania disempowers.
Love takes its time (which sucks, I know).
Mania rushes into things.
Love tries. And tries again.
Mania forces it. And continues forcing it.

I think it all comes down to trust and honesty. If you’ve lived with your bipolar disorder long enough, you know what mania feels like. You can trust yourself to identify it under normal circumstances. But when mania collides with love, it’s much more difficult to recognize the patterns of destruction because you feel so damned GOOD. I think the more self-aware we are, the greater our chances are of surviving this whirlwind. I believe only through honest self-assessment can we answer some of these questions:

  • Have I rushed into this relationship?
  • Am I destroying other things to see it through?
  • What am I losing? Is it worth it?
  • Am I obsessing to the point where it’s interfering with my ability to get things done?
  • Am I being responsible? (e.g., with sex)
  • Am I taking care of myself?
  • What am I gaining?

In my opinion, if you can answer those questions honestly and assess where you are, and if your answers are satisfactory to you and others with whom you choose to share them (objective views are critical with bipolar disorder), you’re probably not manic. Of course, a good evaluative visit to a mental health care provider may be in order as well.

You have to trust yourself. Even if your bipolar disorder has gotten you into trouble in the past, you have to trust yourself now to know whether what you are experiencing is real. Equally crucially, you must trust the other person not to feed the mania and to be honest with you about what he or she is feeling. This agreement requires a long, frank discussion about your condition and what it may mean for both of you.

Love, like mania, is intense. Both require TLC and patience. It breaks my heart when people say love isn’t possible for people living with bipolar disorder. That sentiment couldn’t be further from the truth. I think we love more intensely, more deeply and fully, than others do because of our condition. Perhaps mania intensifies everything it touches such that, even when we aren’t acutely “manic,” we can still feel ecstatically alive in love.

You have to remember than mania isn’t all bad.

Handel wrote the exquisite “Messiah” in two weeks; people often say he was manic. Mania takes you to new levels of passion and creativity. Treatment for mania feels like it is crushing those qualities, which is why so many of us do not stay on our meds. I think passion and creativity seep from our very DNA, directing how we interpret our world and shaping our personalities. It’s all connected. And such ferocious passion drives us to feel love at a whole new level compared to our “normal” counterparts. It’s a factor for which you have to account, but it’s also a very deep blessing.

In the end, trust yourself. You’ll know if it’s love or mania. Never be afraid of love. Just enjoy the ride responsibly.

–Jaimie Hunter, PhD, MPH