Diagnose this

I found an empty seat in the lounge car of the Coast Starlight and settled in for a quiet afternoon of listening to audiobooks, sipping coffee, and watching the scenery roll by. Then I made the mistake of glancing to my left, where a fellow passenger had been eagerly waiting to make eye contact. Once he started talking, there was no escape, at least not for this doormat.

In some ways, the man was an older and more extreme version of me. Probably in his mid-70s, he divides his time among about four different places, rolling around much of the time in an RV. He owns numerous rental properties in various states and, in contrast to my perpetual worry over the one house I own, seemed pretty nonchalant about the landlording business.

He had been happily married for 37 years but was now a fairly merry widower. About an hour into our conversation he began diagnosing the women in his life, starting with ex-girlfriends and moving on to one of his daughters-in-law. This might have been an interesting discussion except that (1) the man had absolutely no training in medicine or mental health, and (2) all of the women had the same diagnosis: bipolar disorder. How did he know that they were all bipolar? Because they would yell or talk back to their men. More specifically, they would keep talking, in a disrespectful manner, after being told not to.

From the stories he told about one of these women, I was ready to believe that she might have borderline personality disorder. She did seem very impulsive and somewhat explosive. But the key sign for this man was that the woman didn’t shut up when he told her to, and to him that meant she was “bipolar.” I didn’t ask him where he got this bizarre notion of what it means to be bipolar. He never described any of the women as having days of not talking at all. He never even really commented on their moods, just their interactions with him. But he was absolutely convinced that this was the correct word to describe what they had.

There’s certainly a long history of medical professionals (usually men) labeling inconvenient women as mentally ill, but I guess in the last few decades it’s become more and more common for people with far fewer credentials to do the labeling. Maybe this is because, beginning in the narcissistic 1970s, two of the best-selling book genres have been self-help and memoir, both of which tend to focus a lot on our neuroses, psychoses, and whatever else ails us. I mean, after you’ve figured out how to label yourself (I should be so lucky), it’s natural to want to do the same for others.

After a couple of hours, my chatty neighbor ran out of steam and went to take a nap. He would be leaving the train in just a few hours, while I had another 15 before my “final destination” (as they so ominously call it in the travel industry). I thought about the fact that if we spent more time together, he would soon see that I’m as “bipolar” as the next gal, and then some. I guess it’s healthy every now and then to have a long talk with someone who doesn’t know how sick you really are.

 

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