The Message and the Means
A little while ago, one of my blog entries was Freshly Pressed (I’ll link to it shortly; I don’t want to ambush-link it, for reasons I’ll discuss below). I was surprised by this and, to be honest, also a little alarmed: oddly enough, although this blog is public and I know people might read it, it felt a little weird and exposed (in the sense that we use the word in choral music or ballet) to know that suddenly people absolutely and for certain were reading it. Especially since the post in question was one of the more sensitive ones.
I’m glad that that happened, though, because some of the discussion that resulted gave me the means to think about a part of the problem of bipolar — and of mental illness and of privilege, for that matter — that’s sort of been gnawing away at me in a way that I haven’t been able to quite figure out. This particular post is the direct result of sitting with and thinking about some of that discussion.
So the post in question dealt with some of the ways in which bipolar disorder has contributed to positive outcomes in my life that I might not have experienced without it.
Note that I’m not using the phrase “ways in which bipolar disorder has made my life better.” It hasn’t. It won’t.
Bipolar itself is kind of an ongoing train wreck that you have to learn to live with; to manage. It’s not necessarily a train wreck that is guaranteed to destroy your life forever (though in my case it’s taken, like, more than ten years to figure out how to keep the trains, like, more or less on the tracks and more or less running; let alone running on time), but it’s one that absolutely can and does destroy lives in very real and immediate senses, either temporarily or permanently.
As sometimes happens with all disasters, good things sometimes come out of the bad: you meet people you might not otherwise meet. You take a different path in life than you might have otherwise taken, and maybe something good happens.
The thing is, this shouldn’t, doesn’t, and can’t nullify the very real loss that comes with the experience of disaster (literally the breaking apart of the stars, you guys; I can’t think of a better way to describe the onset of bipolar than the cosmos being rent asunder).
Nor does it mean that everyone has this experience: for many of us, disaster is only disaster — and many of us don’t survive to experience anything beyond the disaster (let’s not get into debates about the afterlife right now, if that’s okay).
Because, here’s the thing: a lot of it comes down to luck.
I am the first to tell anyone, everyone around me that I am, in short, lucky. Immensely, unimaginably lucky.
I have had every advantage in the world.
I’m white enough to count, I’m male, I grew up in a wealthy family, I had mental-health insurance, I had access both to special schools for kids with mental illness and special schools for gifted kids, I’m gay but I’ve actually never really experienced any direct oppression about it, I’ve always had enough to eat, etc. My effort had little to nothing to do with all of that. It was just luck.
And, here’s the thing: even with all this luck, bipolar has still managed to screw my life up significantly for long periods of time and, to be honest, waste some gifts I wish I could have developed. It is still experientially hellish from time to time; it still costs me relationships; it still means I do stupid crap like forgetting to pay the house insurance bill for two months in a row, or whatever.
And the good things that I have in my life that I might not have had without bipolar I have because, you know, also luck (and also because, you know, tons of therapy and aforementioned every-advantage-on-earth, which devolve back upon luck).
I didn’t mean my post to be written in a way that would invalidate the experiences of others (and this is why I’ve chosen not to link it at the top: I’ll pop a link in at the bottom, in case you want to read it; I also welcome comments on how to maybe make it less triggery; less potentially-harmful).
I did think about that a bit when I was writing it: specifically, about articles and blog posts that make mental illness sound like a happy coincidence — a serendipitous walk in the park — without also explaining that, you know, there’s a very harsh reality that comes with any serendipity one might experience, and that just because one person experiences some degree of serendipity, that doesn’t mean others can or should. That’s the problem with serendipity: it’s random. It’s chance. We have no control over it.
I hope that the post in question doesn’t read like the articles I hate (to be honest, I’ve read very few of them; the only way in which I seem to be chronically unlucky in regard to bipolar disorder is that I always seem to wind up reading the most negative, grindingly-pessimistic articles about it known to man; OTOH, that might be better than constantly being faced with chirpy BS).
I am still considering what to do about it. I feel like, at very least, I should change the title, because the title alone is enough to make people feel invalidated, stressed out, and pressured — which, frankly, we get enough of already.
Bipolar is one of those conditions that (thanks in no small part to America’s total inability to educate its populace about anything complex) tends to be treated by the average person as a kind of spiritual laziness.
Neither I nor anyone I have ever known who lives with bipolar disorder would choose to live as we do. Some of us would like to be rid of bipolar altogether; some of us wouldn’t mind keeping some parts of it if we could get rid of the hellish ones (IMO, both approaches are valid; neither harms the world in any way). None of us would choose to destroy our relationships, educational and vocational pathways, and financial lives the way that we do when we’re ill.
Bipolar disorder is a neurological illness. Positive thinking won’t cure it. We cannot simply choose to be well. That’s not how this works; that’s not how any of this works (yes, levity is one of my many coping mechanisms). Positive thinking is a tool that can be helpful at some points, harmful at others — but it doesn’t cure bipolar disorder, that’s for sure.
Nor can those of us with bipor choose to see gifts where there are none. For some of us — for many of us — disaster is simply disaster, unmitigated.
And here’s the thing: those blog posts, those articles? The ones that talk about disaster just being disaster?
People are writing them.
But they’re not getting Freshly Pressed.
Those articles, those posts, aren’t getting published on Huffington Post (which apparently hosted one particularly egregious article about bipolar being awesome; one I haven’t read, and hadn’t even heard of until I wrote the post I discussed above — I’m going to chalk this up to luck as well).
Those experiences are genuine experiences of mental illness, real voices that Need. To. Be. Heard. They are the experiences that are pretty much universal to mental illness: that’s why it’s called mental illness, because it’s suffering, it’s hard.
And they’re not being heard, and it’s not because they’re not writing — not because they’re not out there speaking, or singing, or creating poems, or dancing it out.
It’s because our culture (at least in the United States) admires “positive thinking” to a degree that’s actually kind of unhealthy.
It’s because posts like mine can be seen as a justification of several major cultural paradigm — be grateful; think positively; if you just work hard enough everything will turn out fine — even when their authors do not intend them to be.
It’s because, frankly, people who aren’t living with mental illness mostly don’t want to hear those messages.
(Or at least, that’s kind of how it looks from where I’m standing.)
The thing is, we need to hear those messages.
We need, in short, to know how bad it really is.
Until we know how bad it really is — how hard real, actual individual human beings; actual people, for G-d’s sake — have it, and that they are freaking well trying with every bone in their bodies, or have tried until there is no more try (because, honestly, it’s okay to give up; it’s okay to not try sometimes!) — until all of this happens, nothing, nothing is going to change.
Here’s a fact: a long time before I was born, institutions were pretty horrible places to be (not to say they’re never horrible now; but they were, on average, more universally horrible back in the day). People didn’t know that, though, because the people in institutions didn’t have voices in the culture around them.
They had lives and stories to tell, but there was no internet back then; no way for them to easily get their stories out into the world except maybe by escaping and, frankly, nobody was going to listen to someone who escaped from a mental hospital.
Then a few reporters starting taking major risks on their behalf to go into some of these institutions and bring out footage: footage that showed how bad things were on the inside; how actual living human beings were suffering in totally needless ways.
That footage, the stories that come out of that, reached people’s hearts and helped spark some real changes (admittedly, they’re not changes that have always worked out too well: we kind of dismantled a broken system but didn’t replace it with a working one, which has left a lot of people with disabilities SOL — but that’s a post for another time).
Things only changed because people started seeing the problem as a human problem: an us problem, instead of a them problem.
The cool part is that, nowadays, we have the internet, and not as many locked institutions, and it’s much easier for those of us living and struggling with mental illness to tell our stories. We don’t have to get other people to speak up for us; we’re already speaking up for ourselves.
The hard part is still getting our voices heard.
This is the part where “typical” people — people who aren’t living with mental illness, or who at least aren’t living with debilitating mental illness (because things like dysthymia are real and suck in their own ways, but don’t always prevent one from participating in the dominant culture quite as effectively as, say, bipolar or schizophrenia do) come in.
For better or worse, there’s still a kind of gatekeeper thing going on, where people who are more successful at doing what’s expected in our culture kind of get to decide which voices are going to get heard.
I don’t know how to help the gatekeepers see that posts like mine aren’t the only ones they should put out there; in fact, that posts like mine kind of aren’t even the important ones.
Because, frankly, we’ve heard the “overcoming” or “good coming from bad” kind of story over and over again; we’ve heard it so often that it’s reached the level of cultural mythos.
It’s time to put the hard stories out there.
We have the message. We just need to have the means.
So that’s it for now. As always, I hope this post hasn’t stepped on anyone’s toes. At least, if I have stepped on your toes in this post, please know that it wasn’t intentional, and I’m sorry to have caused you pain.
Same goes for my other post. Sooner or later I’ll figure out what to do about it, and how. I’m still thinking about it.
Edit: Oh, yeah. I guess I promised you a link, so here it is. Opens in a new tab.
Posted on 2015/02/16, in bipolar, life and tagged access, bipolar, mental health, mythos, privilege, the stories we never hear but should, the stories we tell. Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.
It’s just fine the way it is 🙂 And I know that conditions change from day to day, not every day is filled with gratitude but thank God SOME of them are!
Thank you! That means a lot to me (both points). Sometimes I feel like our culture doesn’t get that intermittent gratitude is still gratitude — and that, frankly, even the “Thank G-d today sucks less than yesterday!” form of gratitude is still gratitude!
yes any amount/kind of gratitude is good, even that last bit you wrote lol.
After all was written, Asher, at the end of the day I want happiness for you. Thank you for not writing horrible things about me and for posting the link to my blog.
You are most welcome! I think you have very important things to say about bipolar disorder, and your words also gave me some good for thought, which is always good. I think I stand to learn the most from people whose points of view aren’t exactly like mine, and I’m so glad that you both wrote your post and shared it with me.
*food for thought. I really need to find my little Bluetooth keyboard! 😀
I meant keeping the link to my blog post in my comment on your other post instead of deleting it! Duh! 🙂
I absolutely love you’re blog! It is so interesting and I love reading about this. Thank you for sharing!
Thanks again, Asher! I wrote my other two comments while working out at a high level of resistance on my elliptical (I use a Kindle) and hence, I wasn’t writing very coherent sentences. Now I’m in front of my Macbook and it’s much easier to type, ha ha! I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate your kindness & understanding, and I’m thankful that you’re being open to examine the issues from different sides. You could have taken the low road in your response (many people would have) and got defensive, yet you chose to take the high road and that’s truly awesome – I can learn from you!
I love the community of bloggers who have bipolar disorder, and I’ve found a wonderful “tribe”. Not all of my blogging friends agreed with my point of view, and I expected that, but at least we could agree to disagree about it, and move on. Have a great night! 🙂
Amen! One of the coolest things that has happened in my life lately was reading the same, reasonable debate on your blog. Sane debating on the Internet! Maybe there’s hope for humanity after all! 😀
The funny thing is, I haven’t really been reading other bipolar bloggers a lot, but this experience makes me want to. Thank you for that!
*sane. I am so embarrassed right now!
Love the sentiment and main thrust of this post, but I’ve gotta disagree with some of your points.
Nothing is an unmitigated good nor an unmitigated disaster.
There’s a lot of pain and suffering that comes with love. Lives are ruined and some people die because of it. But to suggest that love is simply a brain dysfunction that needs to be cured would be pretty pathological IMHO. Sure, if you’ve fallen in love in a way that’s going to break up your family and ruin your career then trying to suppress and get over it might be the only responsible thing to do. But that doesn’t mean it can never work for anyone. And people who talk about how wonderful love is for them aren’t invalidating the experiences of those who are sitting in the bath slashing up because of it.
I agree that our society is sick from all the positive thinking (especially in the US). And I think a lot of that comes from the delusion that it’s possible to achieve lasting happiness. Those who aren’t happy (or pretending to be) are treated as pariahs who may infect others and I think that’s the source of a lot of the stigma around mental illness. But I also think the mentally ill community has a contingent of those who have an opposite attitude that’s just as bad and they are always ready to leap on those who hint that is is possible to build a happy and fulfilled life on a foundation of mental illness (and other elements of course).
But mainly I think where a lot of people are going wrong is that they think that by calling their mental state a disease they can somehow separate it from themselves and put it in a basket labelled ‘nasty stuff’. For better or worse your mind is a factor in everything you are. To pretend that the ‘good’ things are ‘you’ and the ‘bad’ things something else is a continuation of the sort of thinking that once gave us ‘demonic possession’.
I too consider myself unreasonably lucky (though I’ve been through long periods when I thought the opposite). But I also know that I made at least some of that luck myself. And I’m a long way from being confident I could have done so were it not for bipolar. (In fact I think that in October 2012 I hit the jackpot when it comes to luck and I’m pretty certain I would never have got there as a neurotypical). No, I’m not lucky to be bipolar. But maybe I’m bipolar to be lucky. And frankly I wouldn’t have it any other way. Because I wouldn’t be me any other way.
I’m going to have to reflect on the idea of maybe being bipolar to be lucky.
I suspect you may be totally right, here — maybe nothing is really an unmitigated anything in this world, at some level. Your analogy about love is a powerful one.
I also really like the point you make about taking the god with the bad, basically: that’s such an important idea. Western culture — especially American culture — is very dualistic; the idea is that everything is either good or bad (so tempted to throw in a Hamlet reference here, Horatio ;D). I don’t think reality really works that way, though: mosquitoes are a huge PITA and carry malaria, but they’re also an important part of the food chain (this idea springs to mind because we’re investigating malaria control in my entomology class, btw).
Thank you for your insights. More good food for thought. As weirdly scary as the whole bring Freshly Pressed thing was, I’m really glad it connected me to people like you and Dyane: I can feel my consciousness getting bigger! 😉
In semi-related thoughts: I’m sure even ticks are not purely terrible and that they serve some important purpose in the cosmos other than turning me into a terrified blob of jelly. I will try to remember that next time I’m having a KILL IT WITH FIRE! moment.
Funny you mention malaria.
When I got a nasty dose of vivex in Thailand (not as nasty as falciparum of course) I spent nearly a week in a sodden bed thrashing around with fever until the anti-malarials overcame it. But the whole time I was in a kind of mystical bliss (I’m quite prone to that). My companion says the beatific smile hardly left my face.
But yeah, I hate mozzies too. One of the hardest months of my life was on retreat at Wat Suanmoke when I couldn’t squash the evil little buggers.
I’ve grown up with the world of Bipolar-by-proxy, as the daughter of someone whose extremes coloured my childhood. When I was at school it was still called Manic Depression, and it was most definitely a Taboo. Thank you for talking about it so beautifully, and openly. JacqieCT
Hey Asher, fantastic second post. I read the first, didn’t quite like it, but don’t dispute your talent for writing. I completely and totally agree that there should be more ‘balanced’ articles on Freshly Pressed and while I am not American, privileged, or as young as you, I do agree that the media (worldwide actually) would prefer to highlight the ‘positives’ of mental illness. Frankly there aren’t any, given you can’t have the good effects of bipolar without the bad effects of bipolar in tow. And therein lies the rub! Great piece though!
Agreed. It’s been heartening to hear this from you and others in the blogosphere: sometimes I think I’m being, I don’t know, paranoid, but I’m not the only one who notices that some stories aren’t being told.
I think the relentlessly positive picture presented by the media in general is a huge part of the problem for a couple of reasons.
First, when we’re struggling (which, let’s face it, is often), it can really make us feel more alone, rather than less alone, if we never see the stories of struggle.
Likewise, it can leave us feeling like the only “right” outcome is outright triumph, which doesn’t happen all that often. Reality is rarely that black and white.
I’m hoping that the more we who are living with mental illness talk about all this stuff out there in the world, the more realistic portrayals of mental illness we’ll see.
Asher your writing, particularly on this subject in both of your pieces, is brilliant, sensitive and nuanced. I am now fearing the worse, though, in that my the post I just published is likely to trigger many people. People react strongly to titles, which we write in a way that oversimplifies and sometimes shocks to get attention. But once I read your article, as well as the Huffington Post article, I did not find either to be simplistic or glossing over the difficulties involved with living with bipolar disorder. Ten years ago, I had myself hospitalized, and then partially hospitalized for months. I have not returned to work since. I chose to reframe the experience as “God’s” way of keeping me home with my son who needed a stay-at-home mother who once counseled children professionally more than he needed a workaholic mother who was spreading herself far to thin, indeed to the breaking point. I don’t know if that in anyway adds to the conversation other than to say that I believe it is human nature to find meaning even in suffering. I believe in the beauty of complexity. I believe in the beauty of imperfection. I did not always. I was once an overachieving hypomanic perfectionist. There is absolutely no way I can achieve perfection now. So, I accept it. To me, that is spiritual. To me, that is a major achievement.
Amen to the beauty of imperfection! There is a quality we need to recognize more.
There’s a lot of wisdom in your words, Kit. It takes courage to say, “This is the path I’m called to walk,” especially when it’s a challenging path.
I also agree that it’s part of human nature to find meaning in suffering. Sometimes it takes a long time to get there.
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