Living with bipolar 1 disorder with psychotic features

After graduating from Harvard, Jason became aware of his mental health condition and spent twenty years learning how to alleviate his symptoms and fashion a life worth living. Now, he has both the professional career and personal relationships he once feared he wouldn’t be able to have. Jason chooses to look at his condition through a positive lens and uses his lived experiences to encourage others to take the steps they need to get well.

Jason’s Story

Briefly, how has your condition impacted your life? 

My illness has impacted me in ways that I could never have imagined, for good and bad. There were times that it seemed I would never have a professional career. Likewise, it seemed that personal relationships were impossible to establish and maintain. Today, I have both. But not before I endured twenty years of difficult struggle, not just to alleviate symptoms but also to fashion a life worth living.

I first became aware that something was wrong during a post-college season when I should have been riding high on graduating from Harvard. That should have made me so proud of myself and so hopeful for the future. Instead, I was in a constant funk, and nobody could make me happy. It affected everybody around me, mostly my family.

Who in your life or what specific strategies helped you to get well and move to stability?

At first, I needed (1) my own motivation to get better, which kick-started the whole process. Then I focused on doing three things, in quick succession: (2a) garner the trust of my treatment team (2b) secure the love of my family (2c) gain the respect of my community. In this manner, I obtained (3) stability. This whole process becomes a virtuous circle when (3) stability wraps around to encourage more (1) motivation to get better. And then the cycle repeats itself.

What do you do to manage your condition and stay healthy on an ongoing basis?

The most important part about managing my condition and staying healthy on an ongoing basis is, for me, having a perspective on things. I was an overachiever back in the day, in a manner that was unhealthily ambitious, and may have hastened (if not necessarily caused) the onset of my condition. Now, having chosen to become a writer, where for every J.K. Rowling there are a million anonymous writers, I realize the chances are that I may labor in obscurity for the rest of my life. But that does not concern me, as I am much more self-assured of my abilities at my age. Living well involves living with purpose and meaning. Living well is also a balance between the professional and the personal. Imbalance between these two spheres of human activity threatens to undermine what I work so hard to achieve.

What was your most difficult time? 

During recovery, I think the hardest time was not the hospitalizations, the “5150” holds in California, the manic flights, or even incarceration, but rather the despair that occasionally blanketed and suffocated me. Without hope, the condition gets to you. You have to be hopeful, no matter how high the deck is stacked against you.

What positives have come from having a mental health condition?  

Yes. You learn to be efficient with your time and energy. I cannot handle nearly as much stress as I used to, because of my condition. So, whenever I do something it is veritably “with one hand tied behind my back.” But when I apply that efficiency to all aspects of my life, it is amazing how much more I can do, and conversely, amazing how inefficient I was as a young man!

What words of encouragement would you give to someone struggling with a condition similar to yours?  

I would have to say a number of things:

  • In the early part of recovery, make yourself priority #1. Stay close to your physicians.  Do not put the interests of others ahead of yours, even of those closest to you. You have to be selfish. Once you’re stabilized, then you can reconnect. But until then, you are priority #1.
  • Assemble a team of advisers: (1) physicians (2) family (3) friends. The physicians will comprise your psychologist and psychiatrist. Your family will comprise your blood relatives. And your friends will comprise your surrounding community.
  • Have patience. It will seem like slow-going much of the time, but as they say, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” And your own perspective on things will suggest to you that change is not happening, whereas from the perspective of observers, you are doing well. So be patient.

Are there resources that helped you that you would recommend to others?

I’m a bookish type, so I would recommend reading books. Elyn Saks’s The Center Cannot Hold, Kay Redfield Jameson’s An Unquiet Mind, and Touched with Fire, and Patty Duke’s A Brilliant Madness. All very well written, and not necessarily all about bipolar disorder, but about mental illness in general, too.

Is there anything else you want to share?

I think this space allows me to conclude this interview in a special way.

For those of us who are currently part of the organization, we lived our first few decades in a certain way. Then the illness struck, and we had to change our lifestyles to accommodate it. That is where it really tests you: we leverage our strengths in order to excel in some respects, and we compensate for our weaknesses to avoid struggling in others. Our condition introduced a new weakness, while we had to learn new strengths.

Let me give an example. The boxer Cassius Clay did not become Muhammad Ali simply by a change of name. The real change occurred when he was prevented from boxing in his 20s—the best years of a boxer’s career. He also became 25 lbs. heavier as his body type changed. He became a real heavyweight, and no longer a light heavyweight. Muhammad Ali could no longer “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” nor do the center-ring jig known as the “Ali shuffle.” He had to reinvent himself. He had to invent a new boxing style that leveraged his new body type as a strength while it compensated for his weight as a weakness. That was the “rope-a-dope,” which showcased Ali’s tremendous ability to take a punch and his ability to counterpunch viciously after his opponent tired of hitting him, which he used to great effect in his bout against George Foreman.

All of us must learn to reinvent ourselves, perhaps not exactly as Muhammad Ali did with his boxing style, but through our own changes in “lifestyle.” We simply cannot live our lives in the same way that we did before our diagnosis. But if we can learn to reinvent ourselves, to live in a new way, with less stress and pain, then we should really be proud of ourselves.

And remember: whenever you get knocked down, get right back up!