National Alliance on Mental Illness
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BP Magazine Winter 2012

By Elizabeth Forbes

In the decade since she was diagnosed with bipolar I, musician Sara L. has developed some ideas about what might be called the upside of the illness.

“This is just my own kind of pet theory,” explains Sara, 39, “that it confers personality characteristics … drive, ambition, energy, enthusiasm and self-confidence. And when you’re well, those things come across in a positive, pro-social way.”

Of course, Sara knows all about the “life-trashing” side of bipolar. As a punk rocker with dark moods, she spent her 20s overindulging in alcohol and marijuana. When she rebounded from a deep depression into extreme mania after a romantic breakup, symptoms like religious delusions, incoherent speech and agitation landed her in the hospital.

With medication to smooth out her mood swings and talk therapy to defuse the distorted thinking of depression, she’s able to see some pluses to having bipolar.

“Research is showing that there are links between creativity and bipolar disorder,” explains Sara, who is now studying for a master's in counseling psychology. “I think it remains to be seen exactly if or how, but in my own life I’ve always been a creative spirit. Or maybe not so much that bipolar causes a creative mind—it may, but it’s more that it gives you drive and ambition.”

That combination of creativity and drive helped Sara make her mark as a singer-songwriter, recording and touring with her indie-pop band Vancouver Nights and a well-received project called the Gay. She still performs with her band and other musicians occasionally, but facing off against bipolar has given her a new passion: helping other people with mental illness.

She’s developed the view that “it’s a belief about having bipolar disorder that really can make or break our ability to live well.  I think when people get the message that, ‘Oh, this is a chronic illness and you better just hunker down and try to get through life, and you’re going to be very limited in what you can do’—people internalize that message,” she says.

“I think it’s still a struggle day-to-day with everyone who has bipolar because of the moods … so it takes vigilance and it does take resilience,” Sara adds. “And I guess part of that is acknowledging the positive things it’s brought to you.”… [end of excerpt]

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