World Bipolar Day: What the Heck Happened to my Brain?

Prozac Monologues is a book within a book. Its original form was a series of monologues written in an unrecognized hypomanic state. The rest of the story is what I learned about bipolar disorder after I learned that I have it.

In Balancing Act -- The Science Chapter, I answer the question, How did I get into this mess anyway? I compare it to another question, Why did the roof collapse? Both answers are to be found in a process that begins with something a little wonky and develops into a systemic mess.

The following excerpt skips the charming roof collapse explanation (inspired by true events during one Central Oregon snowmaggedon in 2017). Buy the book for that story! It goes straight to the science part. Let me know in the comments what you think.

. . . So what happened?

In the brain's construction phase, there were some genes that added variety to the plan. One or two would have been fine. But as the anomalies added up in what would develop into a mind-bogglingly complex network of interacting processes and feedback loops, the potential for breakdown rose.

Next, the brain built pathways between parts and developed those processes and feedback loops. Trying to accommodate its problematic genes, things got wonky.

Throw some environmental factors on top. Your mother's childhood trauma or even her case of the flu while you were riding along in utero counts as an environmental factor. Add a few adverse childhood experiences, maybe somebody who did his/her own jumping on your fragile roof.

Your already wonky brain doesn't have the resiliency that other kids have to shake things off. Trace that deficit to genes and environment both. You develop some practices, both neurological and behavioral to cope. Some of these practices bring short-term benefits but morph into neuroses that will take years of therapy to undo. Others get you into trouble from the get-go. Sleep would soothe the savage beast, but your sleep cycle is one of the wonkier parts of this system, and your impulse control shows it.

So many in the bipolar tribe have what they call comorbid anxiety disorders that anxiety could be considered a key feature of some variants of the condition. The alarm system in your brain may not have a functioning "off" switch. It can dial down within a limited range, but the buzz runs continually in the background, making you hypersensitive, hyperactive, hyperreactive, which gets you into trouble, creating more trauma, which sets up a cycle that continues to do damage, especially if you start self-medicating to ease the pain.

On the outside, all may be well. In fact, your bursts of activity, properly directed by the appropriate neuroses, may lead to great success, college scholarships, job promotions, friends and influence, lots of parties of which you are the life. Your brain processes information and reaches conclusions with lightening efficiency, and don't ever let your slowpoke psychiatrist forget it. If two feet of snow never falls on your roof, you turn into Christopher Columbus, Teddy Roosevelt, Ted Turner -- some astounding if slightly weird overachiever.

However. This is a progressive condition. Each untreated glitch creates another problematic issue, which sets up the next troublesome response, which reinforces a bad pattern, which continues to damage the underlying structure. Until something gives.

Since you can't replace your brain like you can your roof, enter a whole team of doctors, pharmacists, support groups, websites, and books (see the chapter Keep Going in this one) to help you prop it up, develop new habits to reduce the risk of collapse, and house you on those occasions when you need major repairs.

Brain nerds can describe it in one paragraph . . .

(which I delete here)

. . . Frederick Goodwin and Kay Jamison wrote Manic-Depressive Illness, the bipolar bible, where you can find a more detailed version of this description in head-spinning vocabulary, down to specific locations on DNA strands. They and others who are actually making progress figuring out this disorder say the bottom line has to do with the brain's ability to regulate its responses to a whole range of processes to maintain homeostasis, which is to say, to balance.

That's what went wonky in the developing brain, the capacity to balance.

Are you astounded at how any of us are walking around, taking care of business, raising families, and sometimes excelling in our fields of endeavor?

We work at it. We work hard at it.

There are tricks to better control the hormones. There are ways to support the cells. There are workarounds to this wiring thing...

The more we know, the better we get at it.

So this World Bipolar Day, don't spout bullshit like Isn't everybody a little bit bipolar? No. No, you are not. Maybe you are a bit moody. But you do not have to manage a brain disorder. Every. Single. Day.

Instead of saying something stupid, how about lending a hand? Or at least, a bunch of flowers?

I am so proud of myself, for the work I did to heal my brain enough to write that book, and for the work I do every day to maintain (more or less) my stability.

I am so proud to be part of the bipolar tribe, people who work against and work around our deficits to get the job done, sometimes even with brilliance and panache.

So as they say on the Red Green Show,

flair from
photo by author
DNA gif from Richard Wheeler, used under createive commons license
HPA axis image by D Rosenbach, used under createive commons license
blue ribbon from Microsoft clipart
book cover from
ribbon graphic from
meme from

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