Mental Illness, Part 5

Mental Illness, Part 5

Bipolar disorder, formerly called manic depression, is a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings that include emotional highs (mania or hypo mania) and lows (depression)…When your mood shifts to mania…you may feel euphoric, full of energy or unusually irritable. Mayo Clinic[1]

It appears our circles of reality, individually and collectively, may be shrinking. I attribute this, in part, to our social interactions becoming increasingly virtual instead of face-to-face. In the model I am using, mental illness (behaviors outside of societal norms) occurs when one’s circle either shrinks significantly in relation to others or when one’s circle shifts outside of the societal reality.

Figure 2 represents the realities of two people, A and C. Area B represents what both A and C agree is real, good, and true. When area B is large there is strong alignment between persons A and C. A small or non-existent area B is indicative of a lack of alignment. Circles A and C can also represent political parties, religious denominations, and any other grouping of people.

Figure 4 represents a communal reality where area A is the community’s shared reality. Circle B represents someone whose reality exists within a small portion of the societal reality. Circle C represents someone whose reality is completely divorced from the rest of the community.

One of my brothers lived two decades with adult-onset bipolar disorder. During a time when our shared reality was well-aligned, I drew this diagram for him. I told him that in his manic states, it appeared that his circle of awareness pulled away from the rest of us, like area C, so whatever he perceived was inaccessible to us. He would hear voices and see things the rest of us could not. He entered states that were called paranoid, schizophrenic, and psychotic. Powerful drugs and time were required to shift his reality back into alignment with ours. When I shared this diagram with him, he confirmed that this was what it felt like to him. He knew when his reality was shifting although he felt powerless to stop it. Nor did he necessarily want to.

When my brother’s reality shifted, he displayed behaviors that, although perfectly rational to him, were unacceptable and disruptive to the rest of us. His interactions with society from his manic state were frightening, frustrating, and confusing because others did not respond as he felt they would if they understood what he understood. At times he threatened violence, although he was not normally a violent person. He had tremendous difficulty focusing on what were mundane tasks for the rest of us and would spend inordinate amounts of time on grandiose plans to save the world or avert some global catastrophe. What is curious (and unnerving), given how much of reality we cannot perceive, is that his reality might have been more insightful than ours. Perhaps he could see solutions inaccessible to the rest of us. He could not act on them, however, from outside the greater reality. My reality aligned better with that of society, but does that mean it was more real in any way other than society’s agreement? As my mother and grandmother approached their deaths, they too heard and saw things the rest of us could not. No one, however, would have considered them mentally ill.

I share my brother’s shifting circle of reality because it may help illustrate the shifting realities we see in our world today. As our political circles of reality pull farther away from each other, the opportunities for legislative action in the common interest shrink proportionally. As churches condense and harden their teachings and practices into smaller portions of God’s all-inclusive nature, the opportunities for us to serve society as religious believers also shrinks proportionally.

My fear is that we are shifting towards groupings of social realities with little in common, meaning there are few opportunities for working and subsisting peaceably together. It is mutually beneficial to have inclusive realities that do not deny or threaten what is real to others (within acceptable boundaries), while encouraging open-minded consideration of and respect for the realities of others, which is the template Jesus modeled for us. As the boundaries of our realities become impermeable, our world shrinks and is constantly vulnerable. And we will react, sometimes with physical violence, other times by isolating ourselves from those we believe threaten our boundaries. Family against family, nation against nation, or in the case of my brother, one person against the world. Those of us who take pride in being aligned with societal norms should take care not to allow today’s acceptable boundaries to become hardened against consideration of what is outside those boundaries. Only by expanding our circles of reality will we learn, grow, and progress.

This is the 21st in a series of Life Notes titled Guns, Mental Illness, and Jesus. The opinions expressed here are mine and are not intended to imply the agreement or support of other individuals or organizations. If you wish to engage with my thoughts, or if you wish to explore contemplative spiritual direction, please contact me directly at

[1] Bipolar disorder – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic, accessed October 18, 2022.

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