Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Bipolar's latest bow in the media

If you haven't heard, the media is buzzing with the story of a bipolar man who was shot and killed by federal air marshals earlier this afternoon. Although it's difficult to separate the rumor from the fact at this point, apparently, the man stood while the plane was on the tarmac and ran down the center aisle, acting erratically. His wife started screaming, telling authorities that her husband was bipolar and hadn't taken his medication. Her husband then said he had a bomb and when he failed to listen to the commands of the air marshals, they shot and killed him.

Some people are suggesting that the air marshals behaved inappropriately. Those people are wrong. A clearly insane person can still have a bomb and just because someone is behaving bizarrely does not mean they aren't dangerous. This man said he had a bomb and authorities have no choice but to take him seriously.

As a person with bipolar, I'm outraged by the media's obsession with the fact that the man's family claimed that he suffered from bipolar disorder. It's irrelevant. It doesn't factor into the air marshalls' deliberations about whether or not the man is a threat and the only reason the media even mentions it is because it makes the air marshalls look like assholes when they aren't.

At the risk of sounding like a heinous bitch, I have little sympathy for this man and his family. By the time you're 44 years old, you know what it's like to live with bipolar disorder and you know whether or not you're one of those people who requires medication to maintain sanity. Clearly, this man could not behave normally without his medication and there is absolutely no reason for him not to take it. It's not like a bipolar person is going to fly off the handle if they miss one dose of their meds. For his wife to be aware of his failure to take his meds, he had to have missed more than a dose and at that point, my sympathy dies. Even if he lost his bag and his medication was gone, he could still go to a hospital or contact a pharmacy and his psychiatrist to get more. There is no excuse for not taking your meds if you know that you pose a danger to others without them. None at all.

Perhaps he was taking an ineffective cocktail or he hated flying and the stress exacerbated some underlying, festering aspect of his illness. The blame still rests solely on his shoulders. As a patient, it's his responsibility to pester his doctor relentlessly until they find meds that work. It's his responsibility to take those meds. And ultimately, the consequences of failing to do so fall plainly in his lap. Clearly, it's unfortunate that the consequences were so dire.

Bipolar disorder is not an excuse for idiotic or dangerous behavior--an explanation, perhaps, but not an excuse. Being bipolar doesn't give me the right to flaunt the law. It gives me the right to explain that my periodic short tempered, cranky moments are a biproduct of the disease. It gives me the right to whine about my occasional need to sleep for 16 hours a day, or conversely, to sleep for 3 hours a day. It gives me the right to be hyper and full of zest and energy, or slow and devoid of all unique thought. It also gives me the right to acknowledge that without my little pills, I'd be in serious trouble. While I most likely wouldn't pose a great danger to other people, I know I'd be a danger to myself. I know that while I'd be productive and thoughtful, I'd also be dealing with suicidal depressions and manic shopping sprees and sexual adventures. That's why I take my meds every day.

Having bipolar disorder is like having any other major chronic illness. If a diabetic doesn't take their insulin and then goes for a drive, slips into a coma and kills an oncoming driver, are they any less responsible for that death than an alcoholic who does the same while drunk? Having an illness that has predictable consequences when you fail to take medication requires sufferers to take responsibility for themselves and their actions if they don't take their meds.

There are grey areas, of course. Not everyone can afford their medication (although lithium is like $25-50/mo, so buck up!) and some state agencies are less than helpful when trying to transition medicaid patients to non-charity psychiatric care. For many, maintaining specialized psychiatric care is challenging and my heart bleeds for those people because bipolar disorder, particularly bipolar I, is not something that can be handled without medication and regular doctor's visits.

But this man is not one of those people. Clearly, if he and his wife had the resources to fly to Equador, they have the resources to provide him with regular care. I mean, unless he's in the beginning stages of his illness, which I highly doubt, he should only have to visit his shrink once every 3-6 months to check in and report any issues or problems he's having with a stablized medical routine.

When push comes to shove, I think the air marshalls did exactly what we pay them to do. They saw a clear threat to the safety of the people on the plane and they eliminated it. They are not doctors and they are not given the luxury of sitting down with a suspect over tea and chatting about his motivations for blowing people away. To be honest, the fact that this guy was an improperly medicated mentally ill person only makes him more of a threat because there's really no telling what he'll do and if he was in the middle of some psychotic fantasy, he could do anything.

I hate that bipolar disorder is connected to this story at all. I feel like it gives the general public this impression of bipolar people as insane maniacs who pose some kind of danger to 'normal' people. And in some ways, I'm frustrated because that perception is accurate. An unmedicated bipolar person can be very dangerous, depending on the severity of their case and the depth of their delusions or hallucinations.

Speaking of which, I keep smelling spoiled milk and I've searched the house high and low for the source of the smell, but I can't find it anywhere and I'm convinced I'm having some kind of olfactory hallucinations or something. Or I suppose it's possible that I've been watching too much Deadwood.