Kelsey Hamilton, who blogs at Musings of a Mad Woman, recently wrote a post asking why society views bipolar disorder as a joke. As evidence of society’s view of bipolar disorder she alludes to media fascination with such ¬†bipolar casualties as Amy Winehouse. Kelsey also mentions movies such as Silver Linings Playbook that provide a humorous take on characters with mood disorders. Elsewhere, there’s plenty of humor directed at bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions; consider this Pinterest page, for example.

Why is there a fascination with bipolar disorder, depression, OCD, ADHD, and other mental health conditions? There isn’t a similar fascination with physical disorders such as diabetes or arthritis. Kelsey mentions one possible explanation for this preoccupation, namely the suspicion that these conditions aren’t real disorders. Possibly that contributes, but there are probably other factors that also play a role. One such factor might be our fear that bipolar disorder represents something that is wrong (or might go wrong) with us.

We all have doubts about ourselves. Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Marti Horowitz describes us as having desired self-schemas and feared self-schemas. Our desired self-schemas are who we want to be; our feared self-schemas are who we are afraid we are. Each of us have our own individual fears about who we might be–an incompetent bumbler, a greedy ingrate, an emotional cripple. I suspect that some feared selves are common to all of us because they relate to larger societal messages about what sort of people we are supposed to be. I wonder whether the two most serious forms of mental illness–schizophrenia and bipolar disorder–besides being actual disorders that afflict millions, are manifestations of fears that we are not the selves we ought to be.

Here’s a vast oversimplification: over the past four hundred years, the two most important intellectual developments affecting how we view ourselves were 1) the ¬†Age of Reason beginning with modern science and culminating in the 18th century Enlightenment and 2) Romanticism, a reaction to the Age of Reason emphasizing emotion and nature. Each of these is, as philosopher Charles Taylor described in his dense and detailed book Sources of the Self, highly influential in shaping our identities, filtering down by means of popular culture even to those people who don’t read books and have never heard of the Enlightenment or Romanticism.

So, what sort of self did the Enlightenment encourage? An independent self capable of carefully observing the world as would a scientist. An eminently rational self that reasons dispassionately and is free of bias.

What would be the feared self of someone pursuing the enlightenment ideal? A self characterized by ignorance and superstition, incapable of careful observation. A self unable to think rationally or objectively because it is beset by massive biases.

What would an extreme version of this feared self look like? A person with schizophrenia, whose hallucinations prevent any sort of accurate observation and whose delusions so bias thinking that rational or objective thought is impossible. (Actually, most people with schizophrenia are rational most of the time; I’m speaking here of lay perceptions, not reality.)

The Romantic Self: Looking Deep Within. Portrait of Romantic Poet Adam Mickiewicz by Walenty Wankowicz

The Romantic Self: Looking Deep Within. Portrait of Romantic Poet Adam Mickiewicz by Walenty Wankowicz

And how about Romanticism, what is the desired self according to that system? A self that experiences and expresses strong emotions, and sees deeply into reality as a result. A self that benefits from relying on imagination and intuition. An artistic self that is authentic and true to one’s inner nature.

What would be the feared self of a Romantic? A self in which emotions, rather than being a sure guide to truth, mislead the person. A self whose internal gaze sees chaos and confusion rather than one’s authentic nature. A self in which imagination misfires and intuition misleads..

And what would be an extreme version of this feared self? A person with bipolar disorder, prone to episodes of extreme emotion–mania and depression–that distort rather than reveal the truth about oneself, conjuring up fantasies of grandiosity or nightmares of extreme inadequacy. (Again, this is the popular perception, not the lived everyday experience of most people with bipolar disorder.)

So, this may be what fascinates us about schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Perhaps they represent our feared selves, the flip side of the desired selves that the Enlightenment and Romanticism tell us we should be. I’ve noticed that over the past forty years or so we’ve become progressively less fascinated with schizophrenia and more fascinated with bipolar disorder. Maybe we are less concerned than we used to be with achieving the Enlightenment ideal, but more concerned with being good Romantics. That change may or may not be for the good, but it’s the world in which we find ourselves.