My daughter, Martha, died of being bipolar, but I do not think of bipolarity as a disease. I think of it as a gift, and I am proud of her for staying true to it to the end.
The reason I think this way is that I share her gift—in fact, I gave it to her. I am bipolar, type I. I was first diagnosed in 2003, at the age of forty-three, but I believe I have been that way all my life. Bipolar disorder is clinically characterized by mood swings between periods of excessive energy called mania and dark periods called depressions, and those are part of my life. But bipolarity as I have experienced it is much more than that.
Bipolarity as I know it is mainly marked by pronounced creativity and intelligence, qualities people began noticing in me in childhood. I am not bragging but giving credit when I say bipolarity led me to graduate summa cum laude from Columbia and made me a writer, the author or coauthor of thirty-five books.
Bipolarity gives me great intensity and depth of feeling, whether in the religious euphoria I have sometimes known at the greatness of God and his creation, or the profound despair I have felt at other times when the world seemed evil or meaningless. Bipolarity has made me sensitive, empathetic, a perfectionist. When I strain toward something higher just out of reach, what moves me is the bipolarity.
Bipolarity makes me think differently from other people. I walk through the world observing it as if I were a stranger from another planet. This often makes me say things that people find odd, funny, or insightful, but are really just what any alien might observe upon visiting earth.
The manias of bipolarity gave me delusions that led to hard crashes and poor decisions. The depressions caused me to suffer, often to the point of wanting to kill myself. To try to relieve the pain of one of those depressions, I sought medical care, and that was how I got diagnosed with bipolar disorder. For fifteen years since then, I have been treated with psychotropic drugs.
During that time, Martha developed all the signs of bipolarity that I had, but to an even greater degree. She was more creative and intelligent; deeper; more intense, sensitive, and empathetic; a greater perfectionist. She too seemed a stranger in the world who saw things differently from everyone, although our strangenesses overlapped, allowing us to feel at home with one another as we could not with anyone else. Her delusions (if that was what they were) were greater than mine. I once believed falsely that a married friend who lived far away was in love with me. Martha believed the same thing—but her friend, Aleksei, son of Russian Tsar Peter the Great, had been dead for three centuries.
Martha’s depressions were more severe than mine too, as measured by her suicide attempt in 2010 and her completed suicide in 2012, at the age of eighteen. I have often felt suicidal but have never made an attempt. Bipolarity is said to have a genetic component, and in Martha this seemed clear, though how it became more intense in her I do not understand. Maybe I have a protective factor inside me that moderates the intensity. Perhaps Martha inherited the fire but not the firewall.
Martha was never diagnosed bipolar. Because of her age, she instead received the more cautious diagnosis “unspecified mood disorder with psychotic features.” This disappointed her, as if she had been incorrectly put in the children’s section of madness. We both felt that if anyone was bipolar, she was.
Martha was treated with medications, therapy, and two hospitalizations. None of it shook her bipolarity or prevented her suicide, though it did increase her suffering. Being treated as though your basic cognitive organization is sick is humiliating and traumatic. That was how I felt under psychiatric treatment and that was how she felt. If it had saved her life, I might say the increased suffering was worth it. But it did not save her life, and after her death it created a false impression that there had been something wrong with Martha, that she had been fundamentally damaged or impaired.
I am writing this now to say that she was not fundamentally damaged or impaired. In the core of Martha there was nothing wrong. Rather, she had a great gift, similar to mine but more exalted. It had many good effects—her extraordinary poetry and prose; the violin sonata she composed; the children she tutored because of the greatness of her heart; the wonderful philosophical conversations I had with her. And it had bad effects—mainly the emotional pain she suffered from depression, the persistent reaching toward death as a way to end the turmoil in her mind and penetrate life’s greatest mystery.
I am proud of Martha from beginning to end, from when she was a baby whom her mother and I called “gentle and intense” to the night she stopped her life. She was bipolar through and through. She never let anyone take her gift from her, and she died to express it in the full.
After her death, her example inspired me to reconsider what bipolarity is. I no longer regard it as a disorder to be cured but as an essential part of me I cherish. As a legacy of how I used to see it, I am still being treated with medications, but with the cooperation of my doctor I have gradually been reducing their number and dosage. I want to realize as completely as I can the bipolarity for which my daughter died.
If madness is a country, Martha was a patriot of madness. Following her example, I am too.