Making Peace With Bipolar Disorder

By Brenna Walton

The congressman’s resignation shines a light on what happens when ambition and depression cross paths.

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. resigned last week after being on medical leave since July for treatment of bipolar disorder.
Photo: AP/Spencer Green

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois announced his resignation last week only two weeks after he got re-elected for a tenth term. Jackson has been on medical leave since July, undergoing treatment for bipolar disorder at the renowned Mayo Clinic.

Some Washington insiders criticized the timing of the decision, complaining that he should have resigned before the election. Now it’s going to cost taxpayers millions to have a special election to replace him.

As someone who also lives with bipolar disorder – which is characterized by extreme mood swings from good to bad and vice versa – I can make an educated guess as to what happened in the days leading up to Jackson’s announcement.

It’s likely that until the very end, the Congressman had been trying to convince himself and his inner circle that he could still turn it around.

The worse circumstances get surrounding a bipolar person’s ability to function, the more difficult it can become for them to admit. They can become paralyzed with fear at the idea of their peers and superiors considering them weak and incompetent.

As a student, I’ve done things like that before, like turning in an assignment late enough to warrant an academic probation letter. When things get overwhelming, bipolar people go numb. They pretend things aren’t so bad until someone else finally has to tell them the jig is up. That’s when it’s time for damage control. That’s when spokespeople make statements.

Jackson and I did those things because mental illness still makes people uncomfortable, and that includes the person suffering from it. I find it much easier to tell people I’m a former drug addict than to tell them I’m bipolar. That’s because I can now separate myself from my time spent addicted to painkillers, but I’ll probably always have to deal with my unpredictable mood swings whether I’m medicated or not.

Jackson’s famous political figure father has stayed uncharacteristically quiet in the media regarding his son’s decision. Members of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s generation often don’t know how to react to such admissions, having come from a time when people hid, rather than tried to understand, mental illness. My parents still don’t get why I would be depressed for no concrete reason.

Expectations can be a major trigger for bipolar episodes. From the very beginning of his political career, Jackson was compared to his father. Some reported he even had a sense of good-natured rivalry with his old man. There was obviously public and private pressure for Jackson to succeed his father’s legacy, which might explain his strange behavior last summer.

Jackson took off for two weeks in July before he finally acknowledged he was taking medical leave. Even his staff reportedly didn’t know where he was during that time. A disappearing act is another in a bipolar person’s bag of tricks. This type of avoidance is a coping mechanism. For me, it’s an alternative to having to say I can’t come to the party because I just can’t leave my apartment today. Because a bipolar person can also feel really good, they can convince themselves that their depressive episodes aren’t a big deal.

But those depressive moods certainly can be a big deal, and so can the manic ones, the ones when a bipolar person feels really good. Too good. Both scenarios are ripe for self-sabotage. For example, Jackson is currently under investigation for misuse of campaign funds. He’s been accused of using the money to decorate his home, which sounds like the impulsive and self-destructive actions of a bipolar person having a manic episode.

He hasn’t denied the allegations, referring to them vaguely in his resignation letter as his mistakes alone. When a bipolar person’s manic phase subsides, they often sink deeper into depression by beating themselves up over the reckless behavior they engaged in during that time.

I know because I’ve done it.

I believe Jackson’s departure from office is the result of a bipolar person who hasn’t made peace with the reality of their situation. As I struggle through the final weeks of the graduate program I’m enrolled in, I find that I haven’t either.

Jackson and I both have to learn that we can’t trust ourselves to handle our mood swings on our own.

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