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My Bipolar’s like Diabetes-of-the-Brain

Finding parallels with my husband’s Diabetes helps me cope with my own condition

Each year at my physical, my GP doc says it: even when I’m struggling, I’m one of the most “self-aware” bipolar patients she’s known.  (Um, I think that’s a good thing.)  Okay, to be fair, I’ve had this a loooooong time, and I’m relearning how to live with my condition every day.

But much of my understanding/coping I have to credit to my husband, and his diabetes.

Some of the parallels between the conditions are striking. Number one is that word: condition.  (Remind me to post another time about how I hate the term “the mentally ill.” Would you say “the autistically ill” or “the cancer-ill?” We need some new lingo here.)  When my worst symptoms are at bay, I don’t think of myself as “sick” or “disabled.” Neither does my husband. Yes, at their most acute, both his type-one diabetes and my bipolar disorder are extremely disabling. (We joke about how we need to take turns, so we can take care of each other … kinda funny, though it’s also true.)

No shame in meds

After all these years, I have (mostly) come to terms with the fact that I’ll need to take meds for the rest of my life, or until a cure is found. I know many people with depression fight the good fight and rise above, and by God, my hat is off to you if you can do it without the drugs! But it’s taken me a long time to understand how different bipolar disorder is from other types of depression … namely the huge effect it has on brain chemistry.  (Just Google fatality rates for untreated bipolar vs. untreated depression.)  Yes, there is a lot I can do besides just the meds, and believe me, I work very hard at managing my condition. But I no longer fool myself (except in wishful thinking) that I’m gonna make it med-free.

There’s no shame in that. Just as there’s no shame in my husband taking insulin to regulate his diabetes. (Rah for the insulin pump, by the way!) It’s a chemical his body can’t produce on it’s own, and it would be utter stupidity to say, “Well, if you work real hard on your diet and exercise, and think more positively, you should be able to manage without the drugs.” C’mon. That’s an excellent way to end up in a coma. No, he’s not “weak” because of it, he’s not “an invalid.” Unless his blood sugars are way out of whack, he’s not “sick” with diabetes.

It’s a chronic “illness,” which is to say a medical condition that is currently uncurable and causes extreme and sometimes dangerous chemical imbalances … but that is treatable. Hmm, sound familiar?

“Managing” takes work

Now, that’s not to say taking insulin “cures” diabetes. Even taking the best of care, there are surprise drops or sneaky rises in blood sugar, and we have to deal with those and the subsequent fallout. (Ask me sometime – we’ve got some hilarious paramedic stories.) He works at managing his diabetes every day.

In the same vein, I take my meds – some to keep my brain chemistry (mostly) stable and some to keep them from crashing. No, they don’t always work. But with them, I have more good days than bad; without them, I know exactly what kind of a mess my brain falls into; it’s not pretty. But it’s not because I’m “weak,” anymore than his condition is.

Add in one blonde kidney…

Over the years, we’ve added to the mix the fact that he has a (very healthy!) transplanted kidney, the gift of an amazing young woman (who is herself healthy and living with her husband and two young children on the West Coast). One reason my husband takes such good care of himself is that he wants to do nothing to jeopardize such an incredible gift. (15 years and going strong! Woot!)

Nobody in their right mind would suggest he should knock off the anti-rejection meds and just “be stronger-willed” about keeping his kidney healthy. Only the seriously misguided would suggest he stop taking insulin.

As for depression, I’m not belittling the efforts many people have put into overcoming their condition with or without meds, or arguing with those who say they won’t consider their depression an “illness” because it makes them feel like a victim. I say, go with what helps you be healthiest.

It’s what works for me

I just know that in my case, I’ve already spent years splitting those kinds of hairs, and it always comes back to this: For me – and maybe just me, mind you – I am healthier dealing with my bipolar disorder like its a kind of diabetes-of-the-brain.

Q:  Anyone else dealing with chronic illness / conditions out there, I’d love to hear your thoughts. How do you cope with everything?

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  1. Thanks for this post! Most of it could be about me and my husband (except the funny paramedic stories). As to how I cope with everything: I can’t. I cope with what I can, he copes with what I can’t, we both cope with it together, or it doesn’t get coped with until one or both of us has more spoons. There are flaws in this system, but it mostly works. There are things I can cope with now that I couldn’t last year, and more last year than I could cope with the year before. We just keep on keepin’ on. And you’re right, it does get ugly when we both crap out at the same time.


    • “…until one or both of us has more spoons…” I totally agree!

      I wish it hadn’t taken us so many years to realize that sometimes, stuff just has to go by the wayside. So we pick our battles, and try not to kick ourselves and — surprise! — the world does not come to an end.


  2. HboneMM

     /  August 26, 2014

    I sympathize with each of you having a condition. I recently was in the hospital in ICU for diabetic ketoacidosis which was brand new for me and I already am Bi-polar (rapid cycler) eventually I figure one will get the other one. So I am glad to hear the two of you are splitting the duties and not riding the same horse. Good luck to both of you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for making this connection. Mental illness/condition is a chronic illness/condition. Stigma attached to mental illness is a form of discrimination. Mental health issues are health issues.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I totally agree, Kitt. I’ve heard other people using the diabetes analogy, too; it has helped me help others understand about my own mental illness. (Unfortunately, you’re also right about the stigma, as I’ve learned the hard way.)

      Liked by 1 person


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