It’s getting old, isn’t it? Everyone these days is bipolar or has some other chic mental disorder that he feels excuses his self-centered conduct. Like the guy who once walked into my class twenty minutes late. I told him it was his last time to come in late. He said, “But you don’t understand, I’m bipolar.” And he said it in front of the whole class.
Having a mental disorder used to be a source of embarrassment. But, now, it’s often a request for special treatment, which, when granted, fuels self-centered conduct. That’s why a pastor friend of mine now hears the claim “But, I’m bipolar!” in approximately 80 percent of his marital counseling sessions. This means that approximately 40 percent of the people he counsels are claiming to be “bipolar.”
Is there something in the water that is causing a massive outbreak in manic-depression and other mental disorders? Or is it possible that we live culture of entitlement, which gives us strong incentives to claim some sort of disability rather than face the consequences of our freely chosen actions?
Just about everyone who really suffers from some form of depression (manic or otherwise) has something in common: He is engaged in self-centered conduct, which either a) actually caused the disorder (real or perceived), or b) greatly exacerbates the disorder (real or perceived).
People who suffer from, or claim to suffer from, some form of depression usually respond in one of two ways:
1) They seek psychological counseling, which focuses largely on “talk therapy.” During these talk therapy sessions the patient pays a doctor to listen to him talk at length about himself and his problems. Since this is just another exercise in self-absorption, it rarely works.
2) They seek psychiatric care, which usually results in a drug prescription. Paying someone to give you mood altering drugs, rather than addressing your behavior, involves a degree of self-absorption that simply cannot be ignored. But it usually is ignored. And that’s why the drugs usually don’t do the trick. In fact, they often lead people to suicide.
Behind the two generally misguided approaches to curing depression is the common fallacy that our emotions are usually the causes, not the effects, of our behavior. But, in reality, it is our behavior that usually shapes our attitudes and our emotions.
If you don’t believe what I’m saying I want you to try a little exercise the next time you wake up in a bad mood. All it involves is simply forcing yourself to smile and exchange simple pleasantries with every stranger you see during the morning hours. That simple act of saying something nice and seeing a return smile will kill any bad mood in less than half a day. It has a success rate of about 100 percent. And simple variants of the exercise work for more prolonged cases of the blues. Let me provide an example.
A few weeks ago, I had a strong compulsion to ask a neighbor to church. He was going through serious legal and financial struggles. I kept hearing that “you should” voice telling me to ask him to attend church with me. On July 4, the voice was really strong. But I ignored it and simply waved at my neighbor as I drove by his house.
On July 6, police cars surrounded his home. Just before noon they carried his lifeless body out on a stretcher. I was simply devastated by the thought of how things might have been different had I acted.
The next week was one of the saddest I’ve had in many, many months. And it was brought on by the same thing that always brings on sadness or depression. I had acted like a self-absorbed jerk. Rather than reach out to someone who was suffering I went on about my business. I was more worried that having a talk with him might be awkward or might cut into my time smoking cigars with my friends.
And this is where things begin to get dangerous. When we screw up - due to our own self-absorption – the chances are that we’ll screw up again by allowing the negative energy of one bad decision to fuel another similar bad decision. That’s often the way mild depression turns to serious depression. It is an unhealthy cycle that must be broken.
After a few days of kicking myself, I took out a sheet of paper. On it, I wrote the letter “A” and stared at it until I could think of someone who was hurting whose name began with the letter “A.” After a few minutes, I remembered a woman whose husband died of a heart attack last spring. I picked up the phone and called her and told her a funny story about her husband. I shared some things about him that brought back some memories and made her laugh out loud. Before I hung up I told her that many people loved her and were praying for her. The call made the day brighter for both of us.
And then I picked up my pen and wrote down the letter “B.” I don’t have to tell you that by the time I reached the letter “F” I was feeling like I was on top of the world.
The truth is that changing one’s behavior with an exercise in other-absorption, rather than self-absorption, will cure what most people label as depression. If that fails they should talk to a professional. If that also fails they should consider an experiment with prescribed medication.
But people who shout “I’m bipolar” usually don’t want to be helped. And if we feed their sense of entitlement we hurt them very badly.