Sunny side up: fringe benefits of a troubled mind [Talk]

This talk was given at VIMHANS, New Delhi on World Mental Health Day. Versions of this are also scheduled for a few other talks.

Hello everyone, I am Diwank. I am an engineer and an entrepreneur. I dropped out of college when I was 19. Since then, I have mainly been working on technology startups in the Silicon Valley. I came back to India last year and now I am working on a heavy industry automation startup in Delhi.

Other than work, I love traveling, reading philosophy and stargazing (when I can). I am also an extremely lousy writer so please bear with me today.

The goal of this talk is to share my experiences as a bipolar person. Through that, I want to highlight the positive aspects of having a mental disorder, a side which is often overlooked in most discussions and depictions of mental diseases. Towards the end of the talk, I also want to present an artificial resilience framework, a coping strategy, that has seemed to work quite well for me so far.

The talk is loosely divided in two sections. The first bit is about my experience with my own mental condition and the second half describes its positive aspects.

So, what is bipolar disorder? In short, it’s a mental condition marked by periodically alternating periods of elation and depression. People having this condition undergo cyclic changes in their mental state with varying intensity. The effects are serious and have a major impact on the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. I want to make it clear that these cycles are different from the normal ups and downs that everyone goes through from time to time.

Bipolar disorder is one of the most common mood disorders in the world affecting roughly 3-5% of the population. It is chronically under-diagnosed. And while it’s treatable to an extent by medical intervention, almost 70% cases usually get a misdiagnosis, many more never get diagnosed at all.

So much for a clinical description of bipolarity but what does it feel like having bipolar? To sum it up, it’s awesome. And it sucks big time. It’s like being locked inside a rollercoaster the keys to which have been given to a baboon. Like being tied to wooden plank and tossed into the stormy seas. One month you’re high as a kite ready to change the world, the next you hate yourself so much you can barely get out of bed.

In most patients, bipolar usually onsets in late teens or early adulthood, although it can occur as early as childhood or as late as the thirties. In the short span since my first symptoms appeared when I was 18, I have managed to drop out of college, attempt suicide, be a part of one of the most prestigious programs in the world, get kicked out of it, switch careers, drink my intestines to failure, start 5 companies (most of which failed) and fall in love more than once in no particular order. All before my 21st birthday.

Mania is the defining feature of bipolarity. It’s what sets it apart from other mood disorders with somewhat similar symptoms like clinical depression. During mania, a person experiences abnormally elevated energy and excitation levels with varying intensity. Mania is often accompanied by grandiose delusions and psychosis. It’s very interesting because it’s as if the brain decides to create it’s own hormonal hallucinogenic high. It’s like, one day the brain decides, “Let’s manufacture some cocaine today! What could possibly go wrong?”

One of my favorite ice-breaker questions is, “what’s the craziest thing you have ever done?” mainly because I almost always win.

Like this one time, when I jumped a motorbike into a river. The funniest thing was, it wasn’t even mine, it was rented. [Pause for effect] When I was studying in Goa, one day my friends and I, we decided to visit Dudhsagar falls. It’s a gorgeous four-tiered waterfall about 60 km from Panaji. So we rented some bikes and took off. We had no idea, of course, that the entry road was littered with rivers of varying sizes. After traveling for so long, I was like this shit ain’t stopping me and off I went. In my defense, I did make it across.

My first manic episode was really interesting. I was in a boarding house in high school and for whatever reason, I started believing that I was a reincarnation of Krishna. It started with a perceived resemblance and a morbid fascination with his character and slowly progressed into a full-blown delusion. I read and re-read the bhagavad gita, seeing myself in his shoes. I started talking like him, imagining every little scuffle to be a pre-planned moral war. What was hilarious was that I even accumulated disciples! It’s really embarrassing to think about now.

However, the most life-changing one was my decision to drop out of my college on a whim. In the very first month of joining college, one day, I decided to drop out and go to the Silicon Valley. I bought a one-way flight to San Francisco. I had no money and knew absolutely nobody there. Thank heavens for some amazing people I met through the startup community who let me crash with them and later even work with them. I was really lucky it all worked out in the end. My poor parents had no idea, by the way, that I was dropping out for good. I must be fined a billion dollars for what I have put them through!

But it has not been all rosy and sunny for me.

My first major depression episode happened when I was in class 12 following the manic attack. It was just awful timing. My board examinations had just started and I distinctly remember the night before my English paper; I wouldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t study, I just sat in a corner staring at the wall. Of course, I fell asleep during the examination. More or less the same thing repeated itself through the other papers. I was completely dysfunctional for like 6 weeks straight.

And then there was this one time, when I was in the States, I had fallen into a deep depression. Everything seemed hopeless. Everything. I was the biggest loser in the story that played in my head and for whatever reason, I decided that I had had enough. At the time, I used to abuse a common street drug called whippets or laughing gas. It works as an anaesthetic so it was perfect for the job. I just filled my lungs with it and held on. I almost succeeded.

Among other things, I was really lucky to have been part of a program called the Thiel fellowship. The Thiel fellowship gives a $100,000 and mentorship to young people who feel the urge to build things instead of sitting in a classroom. Being part of the program remains one of my most treasured memories. And yet, towards the end of my fellowship last year, I was kicked out of the program.

I had been struggling with my condition and adamantly refused to take medication. One thing led to another and soon I was abusing drugs. That didn’t help. It kicked me into a severe manic episode. I got delusional. I wasn’t easy and I don’t think I was surprised when the news came. I came back to India. I was devastated though. Knocked right out and reduced to a zombie for months.

But, despite all, I think the single most painful thing about having this condition isn’t the negative bits that come with it. The depression, the turmoil and heartache. Naw, you get used to them over time. The most painful bit is the fear of being branded a looney, the fear of rejection from people around you. I have only come to appreciate this lately because I have been luckier than most in having a most wonderful set of parents, amazing mentors and some kick-ass friends who’ve supported me unconditionally.

You see, our society isn’t very good at dealing with oddballs like me. We have a tendency to develop an irrational fear for non-conforming elements in the group.

The worst is when an individual buys into society’s misconceptions about mental health. By internalizing negative beliefs, individuals experience shame, anger, hopelessness, or despair that keep them from seeking support and treatment for their conditions. I have been there.

The way this stigma manifests itself is quite interesting. It’s not like in the movies where bullies kick you around and random strangers pass slurs at you on the street. It’s much more subtle and perhaps more dangerous as a consequences. Most of the time, the offenders don’t even realize they’re doing it.

People subconsciously behave in a certain way around stigmatized sections of the society. Let me give you a demonstration, try to note what your gut reaction is to the following: “schizophrenic”, “gay”, “lesbian”, “faggot”, “transgender”, “retarded”, “AIDS”, “drugs”, “rape”, “bipolar”. Most of you must have felt an automatic lurch in response to one or more of these terms. I like to call it the “flinch”. It is a culturally conditioned response but it can be devastating to witness it happen against you.

I think it can be really interesting to approach these conditions from a sociological perspective instead of a clinical one. You see, most of these “disorders” are simply population classification on behavior. Imagine, for a second, a world where bipolarity was the norm, where everyone had these cyclic mood swings just like having PMS. Then being “normal” would have been a disorder and one of you would be up here talking about it.

From that perspective, I think it’s extremely unfair to call these conditions “disorders”. I would much rather prefer the term “eccentricities” maybe. Considering how subjective these experiences are, I don’t think we can label them as “diseases” in the strictest sense.

So, where does this stigma come from? Why do we hate and discriminate against our own brethren? Are we fundamentally just awful creatures? This is where the idea of cultural determinism comes in. Cultural determinism is the idea that the culture in which we are raised determines who we are at emotional and behavioral levels. In a world of economic inequity and deficit, the society’s survival as s network becomes a function of the net product of all individuals. In such a system, social forces organize themselves to eradicate low-performant members of the network.

Imagine a world of massive economic surplus and equity, a utopia if you may. There wouldn’t be a social need for economic performance pressure and stigma as a result. In fact, a huge class of people wouldn’t even be labeled as mentally disabled. Maybe even a schizophrenic could simply live in his own world of delusions without disrupting his life or of those around him.

Even though we don’t live in a utopia nor can we build one, there can be many upsides of having a mental disorder. Take the bipolar paradox for instance, almost all people who have the disorder agree that it’s effects can be debilitating. Yet, when offered a hypothetical off-switch that’d take away all features of the illness, the overwhelming majority chose not to press it. As for me, I can’t even imagine not being bipolar anymore, bipolarity has become an ingrained part of my identity.

This shouldn’t be all that surprising if you look at depression, mania and other mood disorders as just prolonged emotional states. Then their evolutionary function becomes more apparent. Mania can be an astonishingly powerful motivator. In its milder form, mania enhances creativity and gives a massive boost to one’s confidence. In fact, when celebrated actor Stephen Fry, also a bipolar, asked his agent about being successful in Hollywood, he replied, “Sure! Contrary to popular opinion you don’t have to be gay or Jewish to get on in Hollywood, but by God you’ve got to be bipolar.”

Another interesting effect of mania is the amplification of spirituality. Spirituality represents a powerful source of comfort, hope and meaning for most people. Even though I am an atheist, I have found that in moments of mania, I find an incredible solace in appreciating myself as a part of the bigger picture, a teeny tiny part adrift in this massive cosmos. I know it’s rather peculiar.

The positive effects of depression are not immediately obvious but research shows increased empathy and understanding in depressed people. Depression is mind’s effort to introspect and restructure in response to a drastic event. Depressed people tend to be more realistic in their assessment of situations, much more so than “normal” people. While, some people affected are not able to recover from deep depression, most come out more resilient than before.

I go through a major depressive episode every 4-5 months. For weeks, I am in dreadful agony and completely incapacitated. I inevitably spend all my waking hours in deep introspection and without fail, I emerge a better, stronger person. Depression really teaches you a thing or two about being humble.

On the whole, going through these cycles over and over, gives me a lot of perspective on suffering and I can deeply empathize with people in distress as a result. Also, the emotional rollercoaster takes me through the entire spectrum of the human condition. I have experienced absolute euphoria, the lowest of lows, terrible fear, deadly anger and almost everything in between. There’s definitely something to be said about that.

Although, the correlation is not well understood but there is high occurrence of the disorder in creative people. If managed well, many famous people like Stephen Fry, Frank Sinatra and Richard Dreyfuss have led incredibly productive lives and even attribute their success to the condition.

I mention these not to underplay the serious impact these disorders can have on one’s life but to reflect on what there is to gain from them. People suffering from mental illnesses have a difficult struggle as it is. For every successful bipolar person, there are two who are not able to cope with their illness. Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Cobain and Robin Williams. They all ended up taking their lives as a consequence.

Over the years, I have curated different tactics that help me into a framework for developing artificial resilience against the turmoil that bipolar plays in my life.

The most important bit, I think, was accepting my bipolarity and developing a metacognitive understanding of my emotional system. It wasn’t easy swallowing the fact that I was “differently wired” and many people disagree with the approach but it has really helped me reach out and seek support when I needed it.

It is also crucial to build a strong support system that you can rely on. People that would unconditionally support you without judgement. I have been lucky to be blessed with a wonderful support system and it won’t be an exaggeration to say that it has literally saved my life.

One of my biggest worries in the early days of coping with bipolar was medication. I didn’t want to be “controlled” by a chemical but I have come to regret that as a harmful and irrational frame of mind. One thing that is absolutely clear is that my condition is not a question of mere psychology. I can’t just choose not to be bipolar. I take medication now and even though I am still not at ease with it, I have come to accept it as a necessary compromise I must make for my safety and that of my loved ones.

I have to reiterate this because it’s so important. Medical intervention is absolutely crucial for being able to lead a somewhat normal life. Medications and psychotherapy have played a very important role in helping me start leading a wonderful and productive life.

Lastly, fuck social expectations. They were designed for “normal” people. I am not one of them and I choose not to buy into their system. I have found the things that I do best and I do them without the approval of “normals”.

Thank you for listening.