>Any inclination of mine to become a famous bipolar author — the kind that writes a best-selling book, gets invited to national conventions, gets coverage in the national magazines, etc. –is curbed by one reality: that I live with bipolar disorder and one of my symptoms is grandiosity. Grandiosity — for you outsiders — is different from narcissism in that the latter is strictly an extreme self-love while the former is a beyond-passionate-conviction in a crusade and the belief that one is ordained to be the leader of that crusade. It is a thing that easily falls into a shambles as people are scared away by our hyper-exuberance. As we ramp up into psychosis, we may style ourselves as prophets or even God him/herself. I have been there — once I talked a Quaker Meeting into sponsoring me for a trip to former Yugoslavia in the middle of the 1992 war when I had no clue why it was important for me to be there, other than it being important for me to be there.
Oh, I developed a rationale for my spiritual mission, and I did interesting things such as become one of the first non-journalists to report first-hand on a crisis using the Net. The governments over there didn’t like me much but that is to be expected when you know the Truth and report it through that warped, half-melted lens. The incident leaves me with several doubts about myself — where was this belief that the Spirit was calling me to do this really coming from? and Should I repay those who financed me now that I am disabused myself of the sacredness of my mission? I believe some people — quite a few — tell you that I did good and maybe I did. Others grew to hate me. Since my diagnosis, I am wary of any motivation which suggests that I alone possess a message that should be heard.
A minister friend told me “Joel, you’re a leader.” I don’t know what to do with this since people seem to ignore me out there on the Net. The other thing is that I detest branding. The word smacks too much of the days when cattle were seared on their buttocks. I see many people get out there and become pundits in this disease, but I have to ask for myself “But what else?” As I have said before, I think it is healthy for us to remember how our actions in mania have disturbed the lives of others. These memories can help us identify warning signs of impending psychosis. Two things I watch for: first, just repeating what everyone else is saying. Second, believing that the uniqueness of my voice and activities entitle me to special consideration and respect. I don’t want to be one of those people who says what everyone else says, I don’t want to dress in business suits for talk shows (though I will go if invited), and I don’t want my “brand” to define who I am as a human being anymore than I want people to say “Joel Sax and Bipolar Disorder are the same thing.”
When you experience grandiosity — and its close cousin religiosity — it can destroy what is truly unique about yourself as you sacrifice your very identity as you crash around promoting the Cause. Someone says something interesting? You’ll say it, too, because you want them to join you in The Vision. If someone contradicts you or questions you, they become The Enemy. Paranoia easily enters when Grandiosity opens the door.
I never liked defining myself as functions, so branding never appealed to me. It has been for the better and for the worse. On the one hand, it has freed me to do many things that might be denied me if I labeled myself too narrowly. On the other, it has two negative effects. First, it denies people who think like this a way to condense you into a handle. (I tend to test as hyper-perceptive so labeling feels poisonous though I do it so others can crudely understand what I am on about.) Second, it can lead to a lack of focus: just what am I supposed to be doing in this world? That is a problem that has hounded me since I got my degree.
The idea of purpose also disturbs me. I had a purpose when I was manic. It drove everything I did, reaching into every moment, every interaction. Then in the emptiness of depression, the feeling vanished. I was a dead leaf floating in a brackish pond unable to act. Was this loss of motivation, a product of my attitude or my illness? I suspect the latter. Just like the admonition to exercise, the insistence to set goals is demanding of depressed me to do the impossible.
But purpose or no, I continue to write and take photographs because I do have my own experiences to which few others can relate. I’ve come a long way from my mania days when I felt my gifts were the only ones worth having. As for fame, I have learned to do many things without crediting them to this face. Leadership has changed from being the center of attention to being the one who ensures that things get done, often without fanfare or recognition. I shy away from calling this a purpose because that reminds me too much of the days when I thought I was God’s anointed. Things get done by me because I see that they need doing. That is what drives my volunteer activity, my blog, and my photography. I take satisfaction in what I do and celebrate the contributions of others. I hope people can learn things from me. I hope that the tendrils of the grandiosity kudzu don’t wrap me so completely that I become scattered, unfocused, and certain that I am more glorious than others.
Joel, this post really speaks to me. It puts a lot of things into perspective.I have to say, one of my biggest problems with being bipolar has been when to believe something grand is God leading me to do it, and when it just grandiosity. One of the hardest things I have ever had to do was give up on an idea because I came to the conclusion after 6 years that it was all in my head. And yes, there is confusion with regard to purpose, too. I got my degree, and was then denied acceptance into graduate school (long story). So after getting my degree I’m left holding this worthless piece of paper in my hand wondering what the heck to do with my life.To this day I’m still wondering. Anyway, thanks for the conversation. I really enjoy reading your articles.
Thank you for this piece Joel. One of my symptoms is also grandiosity. In an Amtrak train once during a psychosis state, I tried to heal everyone in the disabled carriage. Let’s not get into what happened next. The point is, we who have Bipolar or any mental illness for that matter, have to develop a hyper sense of self. Know when it’s us reacting versus our diagnosis. Hard to do sometimes, and we all struggle with it. But at least you’re trying.