Back in college I needed help paying my rent, so I asked a coworker at this grocery store that was looking for a place to stay if he wanted to move in. He was excited and jumped at the chance, since he had been living with his parents and wanted an opportunity to become independent.
From the moment he moved in, however, I could tell something was off. He spent days at a time playing this text-based game online (no images), sometimes for as long as 36 hours straight without sleep. When he did go to sleep, he stayed in bed for what seemed like days.
He also had unusual little quirks. For example, even though he paid rent, he didn’t consider certain parts of the house to be “his.” He refused to use the refrigerator because it “wasn’t his,” but he did use the freezer. He wouldn’t use the toaster but he would use the microwave. He also did not believe the garbage can to be his, so he would let his trash pile up around his computer until he was motivated to place it in a bag and carry it outside.
It took me a while to realize he even had bipolar disorder. His manic phases were more focused than I was lead to believe, because he spent them doing nothing but staring at his text video game. His depressive phases were also somewhat tame compared to what I had heard the experience of bipolar disorder was like. He didn’t seem to experience severe depression in the manner I believed it to present itself. He simply slept. That’s all.
It wasn’t until I tried to bond with him more that I realized the extent of what must have been going on inside of him every day. He told me he enjoyed playing basketball, and described his abilities as “surprisingly good,” so I asked him if he wanted to shoot around at the local park. We decided to play “Horse” since, quite frankly, we were lazy and neither of us wanted to run around the court.
We shot around for a bit. He was pretty fond of shooting half court shots rather than doing anything fancy from closer to the basket. I decided I’d shoot from there too, since I also liked to shoot farther back. I made one, so he had to take the same shot. He missed. I shot again and managed to make enough – so that I made twice in a row. I was pretty pleased. He shot the same shot, and he missed again.
He walked over to the basket to retrieve the ball. Then he stood there staring at the ball for a bit without saying anything. His face was starting to get red. Suddenly he said, almost in a growl, “you don’t have to be better than me at everything” before staring at the ball for a few more minutes and taking a layup.
There’s no moral to this story. We lived together for 10 months before he got a job out of state and left. We weren’t particularly close and didn’t keep in touch after he left. But the reason I bring it up is because every day I deal with a mental health problem of my own. For years I have been dealing with my own stress and anxiety issues, and I know the experience of living with something that affects you every day.
But what I think is so fascinating – and what I think this short story illustrates – is just how different everyone’s experience truly is, and how everyone goes through very different mindsets and struggles, even when they have a diagnosable behavioral condition.
Often in the field of psychology and behavioral science there is this belief that everything can be quantified, and that people’s behaviors can be put into groups as though everyone experiences the each disorder the same way. In many ways they are right. With anxiety, for example, there are a lot of commonalities between the way people experience the symptoms and how they can be diagnosed, which is why treatments for anxiety are fairly effective for almost all anxiety sufferers.
But there are also personality differences as well. I often feel anxious in situations that I know are unique to me, and it’s clear that my former roommate’s bipolar disorder symptoms were heavily influenced by his own personality – not everyone with bipolar disorder plays a text game online during their manic phases, because not everyone with bipolar disorder has his personality.
Behavioral science has come a long way, and it’s great that there is still research conducted on all of these issues. But researchers – and the public – would be wise not to forget that the people they’re treating are still personalities, and what affects one person may not work the same way for another.
About the Author: Ryan Rivera spent most of his life suffering from intense anxiety. He shares information on anxiety treatments and the disorder itself at www.calmclinic.com.