Bipolar Anger

Image courtesy Comic Book Resources

We did a training  at work at the end of last week. One of the topics was managing anger, particularly as it relates to work-related interpersonal conflict. People shared their experiences. We learned different strategies for dealing with anger, and how to help diffuse situations. It was a good training. We were provided with some really useful information. That said, I didn’t participate much in it. This was that it was at the end of a very long, exhausting day, and I didn’t have much left in the tank. It also ended up being pretty triggering, in that it kicked of a self-loathing psychological spiral regarding my relationship with anger.

I experience anger differently than neurotypical people. I don’t say this as an excuse, but an explanation. When I get angry I respond, physically, mentally, psychologically, and emotionally, differently from neurotypical people. That’s part of being bipolar, and it’s something that I am working on with my therapist.

When asked in the training to recall a time when anger got the best of me I had a really hard time. I just don’t remember those times well, if at all. There is a physiological reason for this. Essentially, when I get angry, my brain goes haywire. The “fight or flight” response in the limbic system of my brain kicks in and overrides all other brain activity. So I am not able to think critically. I am less able to form memories. I am unable to do most of what the brain does because my brain goes into crisis mode. It believes that whatever is going on is literally a matter of life and death, and it kicks up the adrenaline and all the requisite hormones for me to be able handle being attacked by a bear or something.

But I’m not being attacked by a bear. My brain is confused. My brain is, frankly, full of shit on the subject. It responds disproportionately. That’s part of the whole bipolar experience. Your brain is just wrong about an awful lot of stuff. Meds and therapy can help, but ultimately your brain is fighting against you. That’s how mental illness works.

I have different strategies for trying to manage bipolar anger. On the whole I am improving tremendously in that area. But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about what happens when anger overrides everything else, and how terrifying that is to me.

Let’s start with a conflict. It doesn’t matter what the conflict is. It could be a significant conflict, it could be minor. It doesn’t matter. Conflict is conflict. Even seemingly insignificant conflict can kick my brain into emergency mode. That’s why this is a “disorder”. If my brain kicked into emergency mode when the conflict warranted it then it wouldn’t be a disorder, it would just be my brain doing what it’s supposed to do.

I can feel anger rising. I can feel my heart rate increase. I can feel my face flush. I can feel the rush of energy that the increase in adrenaline brings. In the early stages of bipolar anger I can feel what is going on. I am aware of it. Sometimes I can, cognitively, when I am in this place, shut it down. I can remove myself from the situation. I can practice breathing techniques, or listen to music, or take a walk or something and calm myself down. There is a narrow window here, but there’s a window. And I am working on making that window wider. It’s hard work but I’m doing it.

But if I miss this window things get pretty dicey. I essentially hand the wheel over to something that is not me, or is not the me I want to believe that I am. I use the Hulk metaphor a lot. I don’t turn into a giant green monster like Hulk, but I’ve got about as little control at that point as Bruce Banner does when he goes green.

After the fight or flight response really kicks in I am not captaining the ship. I am along for the ride. Sometimes I can tell what’s going on but a lot of times I can’t. I sort of blackout. Maybe “redout” is a better phrase for it. Either way I lose control.

After everything’s over I don’t really know what happened. My first thoughts are a kind of terror-filled wondering of what exactly it is that I did. What’s especially terrifying is when that process, the part where I regain myself and wonder what happened, occurs when I am not home.

Even when I reach “redout” levels of anger I generally try to remove myself from the situation. I never want to hurt anyone but myself. That may be beneficial in some ways but it can also be catastrophic. I have found myself several times, after a bipolar anger episode, walking in areas that I don’t recognize. I have called my partner, lost, confused, and scared out of my mind, seeking a way home. Sometimes I am near a cross street and can let her know where to find me. Other times I am hopelessly lost for what feels like forever, while she is on the other end of the call, helpless, and probably at least as scared as I am.

I have ended up in the ER. I’ve had concussions. I’ve broken bones. I’ve cracked ribs. I have abandoned the car. I have “come to” in the middle of downtown with no clue as to how I got there. I have found myself despondent, suicidal, and walking in the middle of a busy street. I have put myself in countless dangerous situations. There is a reason that people with bipolar often have PTSD, as well.

This does not happen every time I get angry. But it can happen any time I get angry. And that is what scares me the most.  

I may be getting better at managing bipolar anger, but it is not just going to go away. It’s how my brain works.

There is a fine line between recovering and relapse and anger walks right along that line like a tightrope, ready to fall off at any moment.