Get on the bus to bipolar summer camp, but be careful which one you choose.
Being diagnosed with bipolar disorder is jarring. Because public perception places the burden of mental illness on behavior and not biology, so do you. Right now you are more worried about individuality and less about health. Your natural tendency for self-preservation is screaming, “But, this is just who I am!” What now?
Let’s Go to Camp!
Imagine you can get away to post-diagnosis summer camp.* There are four buses waiting — each one takes you to a different compass point around Lake Bipolar: Camp Denial, Camp Defiant, Camp Despair, and Camp Driven. Which one do you choose?
Camp Denial (East)
Denial [dih-nahy-uhl], noun, disbelief in the existence or reality of a thing
Wow! This is one crowded bus. This is because pretending you don’t have a problem is the easy way out. It’s easy because you are already so good at it. Odds are you didn’t land on the doorstop of your diagnostician at the first warning sign. Despite how crowded the seats are, it’s comfortable and familiar. You have been hovering on the outskirts of Camp Denial for a long time. Now you can come right in and you will have a lot of help getting here.
“Keep calm and carry on.”
“Tomorrow is a new day.”
“It’s okay; we can pray it away.”
“Are you sure you have a problem?”
Sound familiar? Camp Denial might be comfortable, but it isn’t healthy for you or those around you. Campers here don’t take medications or visit the camp counselors. They treat camp like just another summer vacation. It is very much a land of make-believe, but no one here is living a fantasy life.
There are two one-way paths leading out of camp — one going north and one going south. Denial campers can switch camps, but they can never return once they accept Lake Bipolar as reality. The north path is narrow and appears challenging. The path to the south is wide and clear; it’s easy.
Camp Defiant (South)
Defiant [dih-fahy-uhnt], adjective, boldly resistant or challenging
“I know me better than anyone else!”
“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”
“I’m not like those people.”
“Look at how much fun I’m having!”
The campers at Camp Defiant are a motley crew. Think twice before joining them. Make no mistake, the choice is yours. Choosing to attend Camp Defiant means you know your diagnosis is very much real and accurate. You know it is affecting you and everyone around you in a negative way and you make a conscious decision to ignore it. People drown here all the time. This is the path to addiction — drug addiction, sex addiction, alcohol addiction. It leads to unemployment, family court, and, in extreme cases, prison or death.
We hear about Camp Defiant often. Mainstream media loves reporting the salacious and tragic things that happen here — to excess. These campers are vocal and belligerent. They are tipping the balance of mental health conversation and influencing what people believe. Unfortunately, they seem to be having so much more fun than the rest of us and campers from Denial and Despair are drawn here in droves.
Camp Despair (West)
Despair [dih-spair], noun, loss of hope; hopelessness
While there were only a handful of people on your bus, the first thing you notice about Camp Despair is how many people are here. Most campers do not get on this bus immediately following diagnosis; they transfer from one of the other camps for a variety of reasons.
“I’m so tired.”
“It’s of no use.”
“I can’t do this anymore.”
“No one wants me like this.”
Like Camp Denial, this is place of passive response to your diagnosis. Maybe you were partying hard at Camp Defiant, but now you’re in withdrawal. Perhaps you accepted your diagnosis and, unable to remain a Denial camper, you got lost wandering around the lake and ended up here. Even campers to the north end up here on occasion. We all do. Living with bipolar disorder is hard. We all feel like giving up sometimes, but it is important to not linger here. The longer you stay, the easier it is to never leave.
Camp Driven (North)
Driven [driv-uh n], adjective, being under compulsion, as to succeed or excel
Camp Driven is your True North. It is the fixed point in your spinning world, but few of us get on this bus in the beginning. It is the active, but often difficult choice because you know it’s going to be hard work. Having lived in various states of denial, despair, or defiance without knowing why, a few campers fully embrace their diagnosis and jump on the bus to Camp Driven because a diagnosis gives them an answer. They have an immediate desire for change.
Even if you’re ready, the bus ride to camp is not an easy one. The road is bumpy. There are a lot of distractions and you will probably deviate to the local amusement park for a ride on the medicinal roller-coaster before your journey can continue. Once you get here, and start doing the work, camp is pretty great.
Most of us came from another camp on the lake. We share in at least one of your experiences. Let us help you. Like us, the counselors here are comprised of people who want to see you succeed — friends, family, coworkers, physicians. We have lifeguards! Every day volunteers venture down the east and west paths to help other campers, step-by-step, make their way to Camp Driven. It turns out the paths heading north are lined with helping hands — once you get past the entrance. We even send a lifeboat to Camp Defiant.
Here lives a community of people with bipolar disorder who are doing their best to manage this strange and mysterious illness. No two have the same story, support system, or prescriptions. Some campers came straight here on the first bus, others have spent time in every camp around the lake. You might even meet someone who disappears and comes back on a regular basis, but they come back because they are driven to be better.
In Camp Driven, you learn to replace the panicked voice of self-preservation with one of self-affirmation.
“Me and my life are important.”
“I need help.”
“I am not alone.”
“I am not defined by my illness. I am still me.”
If we can drown out media cacophony of other campers and change the conversation around mental health, then maybe Camp Driven will become the most popular spot on the lake.
This article was originally published May 3, 2020 on Medium. In 2020, I migrated that writing content to my personal webpage.
*This is written from personal experience and meant to inspire or provide hope. If you have, or think you have, a mental illness, please consult a physician. Though bipolar summer camp does not exist, there are many organizations and facilities available to help you cope with both your illness and the diagnosis itself. To learn more about finding success in the workplace while living with bipolar disorder, read The Myth of High-Functioning Bipolar Disorder.