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When I whipped out my beloved (and still relatively new) digital camera to take a photo of some unusual birds at St. James Park in London, it didn’t work. I dinked around with it for awhile, to no avail, and after a few moments of panic, eventually took a much less satisfying iPhone photo instead. Later that day at Herrod’s I went to the camera department and we tried out one of their lenses on my camera body. It worked perfectly.

The salesman said it looked like the camera had been dropped. Dropped? I couldn’t imagine what would have caused that damage; I take pains to be exceedingly careful with my equipment. Until I realized that in a haze of exhaustion, I had forgotten to take it out of a carry-on that was gate-checked on the way back from Seattle. The bag was thrown around and jarred enough to break the delicate iris inside the lens, the diaphragm that allows the lens to adjust to different light levels. There was no damage to the body; the camera just needs a new part. It will cost me around $100 for an identical second-hand lens. I’m eyeing an upgrade that will cost quite a bit more but would make me much happier.

My lens is broken – another metaphor for bipolar disorder.

My mental lens on the world is off-kilter and I can’t adjust my view to fit the changing world around me. It was damaged by someone who didn’t realize there was precious cargo inside. My brain is the most precious cargo in my body, but a sharp shock to the head broke my delicate ties to reality as everyone else knows it. It was my fault, after a fashion, but I didn’t know I needed to be extra-careful, just like the baggage handlers who broke my optics. I didn’t realize that it was so easy to break such an essential piece of equipment. My body is otherwise undamaged; the rest of the circuits keeping my system together are more resilient than my brain.

Luckily, I can use classic manual lenses with this camera body; I have a special adapter that lets me use any of nine high-quality optical lenses in my collection that otherwise gather dust. My old lenses don’t autofocus, but that’s OK because I know how to work with a real camera. It’s a skill that most people don’t have anymore. So I have something I can use in the meantime, and in some ways the results are more beautiful despite having to work a bit harder for it. My brain has some ways of adapting, adjusting, and trying to compensate for the things that don’t work right. It does take a lot of extra work on my part, but there’s a lot I can do with my damaged equipment. It will never be truly repaired, but I can take medicines that make things work well enough. They’re a sort of mental adapter that lets me mount an old lens on the world, or something like it, making me feel a little bit normal most of the time. And maybe the world is a bit more beautiful through my eyes anyway: I’m often thanked for sharing my way of seeing the world through my photos.

But the similarities end there. Like a mishandled camera, the metaphor breaks down.

Because of the way the camera body is programmed, my broken lens won’t work at all without being dissected, and even then, it’s doubtful. The complicated machine of an autofocusing optical lens is hard to repair. My broken brain, however, works just fine for the most part. It’s a complicated machine too, but it can be repaired. I can repair it by taking my medicine and taking good care of myself, which actually creates potential for my neural circuitry to recover to some degree. Unlike my camera lens, I can’t replace my brain, or even just the malfunctioning bits. I have to handle my brain gently and with respect if I want to keep it functioning, even at partial capacity.

More damage to my camera lens won’t make a bit of difference; it’s not going to work, no matter what I do (so I might just dissect it…) But I can do a lot more damage to my slightly screwy brain; I can further ruin it with substance abuse and bad behavior. I could even drill a hole in it to let the crazy out, but trepanning doesn’t really work as desired. I can spend a couple hundred dollars more for an even better lens than I started with, but I can’t upgrade my brain, and in fact, it will probably continue to degrade over time. There’s no way to get a new version with lower f-stops or a wider zoom range, much as those would be delightful features from a cognitive standpoint. I’m stuck with what I have, so it’s my job to coax the best out of it that I can. Fortunately, I have a lot of practice with that.