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.