Guest Commentary

Daytime TV is crap, but a recent storyline on bipolar disorder is worthwhile

Everybody knows daytime television is a load of crap. Of course, nighttime television is a load of crap, too, but that's beside the point. The point is, enlightened types like Tucson Weekly readers generally spend their daylight hours wrestling with Plato or trying to get through the first page of Finnegans Wake. And of course, nothing is so loathsome to us as the dreaded soap opera.

Except for one, recently: I've gotta give praises to General Hospital on ABC. Their timing is particularly auspicious, since I've been going through hell with a bipolar relative. In between storylines about teenage love triangles, dreamboat summertime weddings and Latin lovers with identity crises, there has emerged a plotline that actually matters. The subject is bipolar depressive disorders, or what used to be called manic depression.

A character, Sonny, finally recognizes that his life is falling down around him, and after much protracted agony and even more commercials, he comes to the realization that he is not a horrible person, but mentally ill.

If you don't think you're familiar with the syndrome, think again. You've probably known someone with bipolar disorder, only you couldn't figure out what their problem was. It took ages to come to the decision to get them out of your life, because on several levels, they were just fucking great: charismatic, attractive, insightful and with that irresistible gleam in their eye that just felt so impossibly rare. But in the long run, you just couldn't handle them.

Maybe it was the guy who swiped his father's car keys, disappeared for four days and then wound up calling you at 3 a.m. from jail in Nogales. Maybe it was the woman who was so excruciatingly brilliant--a Rhodes scholar with more letters after her name than the pope's had hot lunches--who fell off the roof while tarring it at 2 a.m. Or maybe it was that guy who got under your skin like nobody else, but who just couldn't be faithful, get off the booze, the drugs, whatever. But since you were young and dumb, you thought you could change him. OK, maybe he was a little scary when he had you dangling you off the edge of yet another of his manic precipices, but no relationship's perfect, right?

Bipolar depressive syndrome is a cluster of disorders characterized by dramatic mood swings, from elation (including delusions of grandeur--I knew a guy who in his extreme manic states thought he was Richard III) to rapid-fire speech, thoughts and extended wakeful periods. In its manic phase, bipolar disorder is often characterized by hyper-sexuality, feelings of invulnerability and substance abuse. This phase, however, is inevitably followed by periods of severe depression and emotional desolation during which individuals often hide from everyone like injured animals. You know that dynamic, emotionally volatile friend who used to disappear on you periodically with no explanation? There you go.

The weird part is, many bipolar people not only disappear on family and friends; they disappear on themselves. It's uncanny the way their manic phases seem to actually cause them to forget the seriousness and depths of their sadness. I haven't heard it discussed, but there's got to be a switch that washes away the memory.

This is why bipolar individuals have a higher suicide rate--as high as 20 percent--than unipolar depressives, individuals who never experience mania. When bipolar people are manic, they often go off their meds, genuinely believing they don't need them anymore. It makes sense. Unipolar depressives generally feel better upon finding the right medication. It's an improvement, and that's good. But if you only feel like shit some of the time, while at others, you're the king of the world, you get attached to that state. So what if it's completely delusional? Who wouldn't want to feel like the patriarch of all England? I knew a guy, writer--artists seem to have high rates of all kinds of depression--who had been up for three days and showed me a script he'd been working on the entire time, or so he said. It was all nicely bound, very professional looking. I fanned the pages. It was nothing but scribbles and rectangles of blacked-out paragraphs.

So kudos to General Hospital. And to Maurice Benard, the bipolar actor playing Sonny who's been working his fanny off for years to get the current storyline included.

If ever they include a paranoid schizophrenic on Survivor, I just might tune in.

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