Social Mania

Back in the early days of his illness, before there was a diagnosis, I panicked with the appearance of every post. Would his friends desert him? Would everyone think our family was crazy?

Inevitably, people did ask questions. Desperate to protect Roland, my family agreed to keep answers vague: “stress,” “taking time off,” “family emergency.” We avoided labels, squirmed through euphemisms, focused on the fixable and walked on eggshells in his presence. I wanted to help Roland, but I also wanted everything to go back to normal. I didn’t know that this would become our new normal for over a decade.

Most people who suffer from bipolar disorder might have episodes that last days, or weeks. Roland, an overachiever even in mania, had episodes that lasted six months. There were hundreds of miles between us, but, during these bouts, I felt like we were in the back seat of our 1989 Honda Accord, throwing elbows at each other again. I’d reprimand him for going off his medications; he’d label me weak-minded. He’d call me 10 times in a row at work to demand money; I’d refuse. He’d threaten to cut off contact with our family; I’d use Facebook location services to track him and tattle to my parents. We’d hang up on each other, then five minutes later we’d do it all over again.

One day, Roland called me in a frenzy: “Facebook changed the algorithm! I used to get dozens of comments and likes on my posts. Now I get nothing!”

In fact, Facebook had started allowing users to control the content they see, and many people wanted to see less of Roland. Facebook is a mirror of society, after all: We showcase birthdays and babies, not unruly displays of mental illness.

But I never muted Roland. I came to need those posts, to dread the silence that followed them far more than I dreaded the mania. When he was posting, I knew he was still alive.

During his depressions, Roland would fall silent for weeks at a time, unable to get out of bed, caught in a dizzying suicide spiral. I’d hop on a flight to help my heroic parents and brother Ryan clean up the manic wreckage: vintage clothes piled high, business ventures gone wrong, strangers inhabiting Roland’s home. Every time my phone rang, I’d prepare to receive the news that Roland had killed himself.