I used to be a phony optimist, pretending that things were always delightful and going well, despite my terrible inner turmoil. You see, I have bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depression. For most of my life, I did not know that I had a mental illness, and instead, I thought that everyone had these extreme, tumultuous feelings, but that they hid them better than I. So, I too was determined to conceal my feelings, and I pretended that I was always looking on the bright side of things.
In my late thirties, I finally went to a psychologist for help, and bit by bit, he helped me see the dishonesty behind my telling people that I was always fine and that my life was wonderful. In fact, when I started seeing him, I was suicidal and infinitely pessimistic, but nobody around me had a clue about my depression and attitude. I refused to let anyone see it. (Again, I didn’t know that I was ill.) The therapist explained that I was actually lying to my family and close friends. I had never thought of my covering the sadness and mania as being dishonest. I liked to think of myself as a trustworthy person, so I wanted to change. With that change, I had to stop pretending to be an optimist.
Ending the pretense, I had to show my vulnerability, which took a lot of courage at the time. I thought I would inadvertently lose all of my friends and that I would distance myself from my family if they knew the “real” me. Eventually, I would say, “I am a little down,” when I really meant that I was suicidal. However, this was a start. It took years before I could confess any more than that to the people closest to me, but it was necessary. Until then, no one realized the depth of my despair until I landed in the hospital for it. Eventually, I learned to talk about my difficulties.
(The mania, by the way, was often easier to share, as sometimes it left me animated, awed, and outgoing. When I became obsessive about my actions, sleepless, angry, and self-absorbed, I hid again. I had to learn to recognize my symptoms to begin to change my behavior, but that is another story.)
Anyway, that is how I deconstructed the phony optimist. How, then, did I become a real optimist?
The first thing that I had to do was get mentally healthy through therapy, medication, and the practice of many newly-learned coping skills. This took many years, but then, once my mood was stable, I felt (and continue to feel) a profound sense of gratitude. Life is much, much easier when my mood is stable, and it’s been stable for almost a decade now! I have ups and downs with the bipolar disorder – it is not something that can be completely cured – but the moods are not nearly as extreme as they used to be, and they pass much more quickly. I feel content most of the time because I am stable and able to deal with what comes my way.
So, again, when did I become an optimist?
Somewhere, in my progress to become mentally healthy, I had to stop staring at the dark side of life. Otherwise, it would sink my mood. I began to realize that the good side of life is just as valid as the horrible side. This world is full of good and evil, but I have come to believe that good is what we are destined to pursue; evil is a sort of illness.
Moving along the path to seek goodness, I have come to believe that Love is the most powerful force of good. Love connects all of us. Hatred is powerful too, but I believe it comes from fear. Love comes from strength. So, looking at life’s situations, I search for times the Love rises to the surface, and I dwell on that. These observations replenish my strength.
In this way, searching for Love in situations — the rescuers in a disaster, the random acts of kindness, the gestures of friendship, and so on – I have become a true optimist. I have thrown away the falsely cheerful self, acknowledged traumas as they have arisen, and looked for the best in people as we contend with the ups and downs of life. Over time, optimism has helped me thrive.
Note: In my discussion of bipolar disorder, I hope to help destigmatize mental illness and the shame behind it. I realize that this essay sounds confessional, but it is more so an observation of an important element of my life – how I became an optimist – and contending with mental illness has been an important part of the journey.