RANTS AND RAMBLES

Because sometimes, things just need to be said.

How Not to Talk About Ray Rice

By all means, let’s talk about Ray Rice and domestic violence. But before you broach the subject, let’s put a few caveats in place.

Let’s stop questioning Janay’s decision to stay with him. The reasons women stay with their abusers are well-documented, and blaming Janay for her abuse is part of a culture that shames women who have already been victimized.

Let’s stop lauding the Ravens for their decision to terminate Ray Rice. The evidence to support such action was available four months ago, had highly paid investigators been incentivized to get to the bottom of things instead of protect the NFL’s reputation and the competitiveness of the Ravens as a team. The only reason action is being taken now is because TMZ (of all sources) gave them no other option.  The NFL? They didn’t fire Rice. That wasn’t on them.

Let’s stop being excited that the NFL has stiffened the penalties for domestic abuse charges. Beating the hell out of another individual the first time around means a six game suspension. Doing it one more time means you’re banished for at least a year, but after that, you can always get picked up again. Those same behaviors would destroy a traditional career the first time around. And let’s not forget that these NFL penalties for domestic abuse are on par with the punishment for marijuana use. Yes, getting stoned is apparently the same thing as brutally attacking another human being.

Let’s stop bemoaning the dismantling of a career for a promising young man. This isn’t an unfortunate accident. This is a man who brutally attacked another person, and is paying the price. That’s not a tragedy. No, the only tragic part of this story is that there’s any sympathy being given to him at all.

Let’s stop talking about the fact that the victim was a woman as the primary reason for outrage. It frames women as victims in need of protection. The more important issue is that an assault took place. The gender of the victim is only relevant in the context of broader discourse, as we recognize the rate of violence against women as a whole is exponentially higher than instances of domestic violence against men (while acknowledging that the latter still happens and is condemnation worthy itself).

If you want to talk about the prevalence of domestic violence, or the cultural norms that discourage reporting, or the backlash that victims face for reporting at all, or the continued belief that domestic abuse is a private struggle, then by all means, let’s go. Even better, let’s talk about solutions. But if you want to dish out shame and blame and undeserved pats on the backs of those who fell down on the job, you can take your drivel elsewhere.

Wandering Aflame

I’ve always been a storyteller in one way or another. For a while, it was art, with my Grandma crooning advice and comfort while I clumsily wove colors into ideas. For a spell, it was poetry, with disjointed words giving life to the jumble inside. At one point, it was performance, with the stage giving me and the characters that counted the life needed to tell a tale. But in the end, language was my greatest love. My hard drive is littered with half-finished manuscripts. A dozen blogs later, and I still can’t resist the call of the keyboard.

A friend recently asked me why I feel compelled to write. The answer came quickly, without much thought required:

“Because some stories need to be told.”

Does this story really need to be told? I’m not entirely sure, but I feel like I need to tell it. For too long now, I’ve let its fractals swirl in my mind. I wasn’t really sure where to start – the pieces a turbulent ocean of choices – words, syntax, plot twists and more eliciting choked laughter in the face of absurdity. The really important stories are like that, you know. If you’re not careful, the mixings rise up in a painfully beautiful wave of possibility before crashing down and drowning you in a dizzying riptide detached from reality.

Eventually (if you’re lucky), you find yourself smashed against the rocks. Bruised and broken, pain searing deeper than a body can explain, there is grief and gratitude as the deceptively gentle foam from the storm ebbs. For the past month or so, I’ve rested on such rocks – healing, reflecting – but before the wounds fade to scars and the pain becomes an addled memory, I feel compelled to write this down. It’s selfish in some ways, but it’s not just about me. I’m not the first to weather this particular kind of storm, and I won’t be the last. So yes, maybe this story does need to be told.

In any case, I’m going to tell it as best I can.

What They Saw

I was always THAT girl. In second grade, I launched a “Stop the Violence” campaign at my elementary school after my teacher described the negative impact of violent television on a child’s development. Posters, essays, and even an ill-fated rap song were created for the initiative. In fifth grade, I successfully rallied the student body to get a stop sign put in on a busy corner by the school where several accidents had taken place. Proudly brandishing the petition I’d been passing for weeks, I stood defiant in the face of my scowling Principal. He thought I was making him look foolish. I didn’t care; I won.

In middle school, I was the student who told her teachers to either stop wasting my time with juvenile activities or go back to school themselves. I gravitated towards and excelled in the performing arts. I was fearless. The opinion of others was of little consequence, as far as I was concerned.

In high school, I was involved in everything. National Honor Society, French Honor Society, Choir, Theater, Speech Team, Yearbook, Student Council, the Newspaper – I kept busy, to say the least. I was always hungry, always searching, always reaching. My activist ways hadn’t disappeared. Once again, I pitted myself against the school when they tried to change our finals schedule to something less like collegiate final exams. Once again, I left my Principal frustrated and fuming. Once again, I got my way. It’s amazing what happens when you threaten to go to the school board with a lengthy petition and research to back your case.

In college, my ambitious nature and passion for advocacy was bolstered by Speech and Debate. I was one of the oddities of the forensics community: someone who racked up achievements in all categories of competition. From interpretive performance to public address to limited preparation speaking to debate – I collected accolades across the board. I used the activity to speak on subjects that mattered to me and to refine my communication skills. By the time I was done in 2009, I’d had quite an impressive run of things.

My daughter was born just before my senior year of college. Her father and I had been together for years, but we weren’t good for each other. It was one of those romances that brought out the worst in each of us. He – a normally congenial, compassionate individual – became callous and derisive. I – someone who others regarded as strong and resilient – became a simpering shadow of myself. I called off our engagement towards the end of my senior year, and while the months that followed were difficult, both of us to this day will say it was the right decision.

And so I transformed into the embodiment of the strong single mother. I eventually moved back to Chicago and landed a fantastic job with a niche investment firm. Despite having no background in finance, I managed to deliver tremendous results for the company in a very short time period. Industry peers were often flabbergasted when they met the author of our research in person; they never expected a bubbly, 24 year old blonde to be churning out the analysis our brand boasted. When crisis hit the industry, I kicked things into high gear, steering the company through the chaos, framing our leadership as champions of the investor base, successfully running a campaign to get our CEO elected to the regulatory agency’s board of directors, and pushing the agency’s President to tender a letter of resignation.

I left that job to pursue consulting work. I continued to blog on subject matter that held importance for me. I worked with a wide array of companies, and was lauded at every turn for my brilliance, capacity for production, and dedication to excellence. Friends and family frequently commented on how much I inspired and impressed them. I clearly had it all together.

I’m not telling you this out of ego. I’m telling you this so you understand the contrast between what the view was from the outside looking in, and what was really happening.

Because inside, my mind was burning.

The Fire Within

I had my first panic attack in sixth grade. My family was vacationing at my grandparent’s lake house, and I really wanted to call my “boyfriend” at the time. I knew it was against the rules, but I did it anyway, and got caught. Grounding was a sure bet when I got home, but I was more angry with myself than anyone else was. How could I be so careless? How could I be so thoughtless? As I spiraled in self-constructed shame in the night, I tore at the flesh on the back of my hand, peeling back layers of skin. In the moment, I wasn’t really thinking about what I was doing. I just knew, deeply and profoundly, that I was deserving of punishment.

The panic attacks continued throughout middle school and high school. I would hide when they hit. They were terrifying experiences. I scared myself, sure I was losing my mind. I coped by punishing myself for being so broken. Safety pins, scissors, pieces of glass all found their way into my arms and thighs. It was never about wanting to kill myself; it was simply about accepting what I viewed as much deserved consequences.

In college, speech and debate provided a new coping mechanism. I could throw myself entirely into the work involved, hedging against the panic that had plagued me in the years before. The nature of the team meant self-injury was no longer an option, anyway. While I’d been able to hide my stealthily stolen cuts with the business of extracurriculars before, it would have been too difficult to pull off when I spent 24 hours a day, 4 days out of the week, with the same group of people. Someone would have noticed the blood stains on my shirts, the shining new scars popping up each week.

I still had panic attacks, of course. At tournaments, errors in round would send me scrambling for a stall in a bathroom where I would bite down hard on a pen and silently sob, willing my mind and my body to relax so I could continue with the day. When I wasn’t at tournaments, I would walk or drive until the attack passed, assuring those around me that I just needed some air or to be alone with my thoughts.

No one had any idea how bad things were.

When I called off the engagement, the nagging feeling that I’d been losing my mind became a truism in my head. I could feel myself losing control, which was a big part of the reason I moved home. Once more, I was scared of myself, except this time, I couldn’t lock myself in a closet and rock back and forth until the fear subsided. There was a little girl depending on me. I needed to pull it together.

The new job helped in much the same way that speech and debate had, but I soon found the panic attacks increasing in frequency and intensity. I wrote it off as depression, and made an appointment with a physician to try to get something prescribed. I didn’t have time to go to a psychiatrist, I rationalized. I just needed a quick fix. I felt like I was in a fog on the meds, though, so that didn’t last long.

In the meantime, I was losing myself in what had become a merciless cycle. There would be weeks where you couldn’t hold me down. I would be productive beyond measure, with boundless energy and grandiose visions of what would come next. Then there would be stretches where I could barely bring myself to get out of bed. The spells of clarity between the extremes were becoming shorter and shorter. The highs were higher and the lows were lower. Activities of daily living were optional. My house was in a state of constant disarray. When I was down, I’d go a week without showering. When I was up, I’d go days without sleeping. I put up walls that made the Chinese look like amateurs. Some use the adage of keeping people at arm’s length; I kept a football field between myself and everyone else, fracturing relationships and isolating myself from the world.

The only constant was the self-loathing. I hated myself for not being a better friend, sister, daughter, mother. I hated myself for not being better at my job. I hated myself for being such a mess. I hated myself for being so hopelessly, helplessly, broken. I saw myself as a disappointment and burden to those that mattered. No amount of reassurances to the contrary could change that.

And still, no one knew. Years of training in theater, speech, and debate meant I knew how to put on a helluva performance. I gravitated towards work that would mask the turbulence beneath the surface. Startup environments and consulting work were ideal. I could justify staying in bed for a week because I knew the next week I would be “back” and all would be forgiven. I kept everyone out of my apartment so they wouldn’t know how undone I’d become. I put all my energy into making sure my daughter was cared for; everything else was victim to my madness, and that was an acceptable tradeoff if it meant she was ok.

I didn’t think that meds would work for me, but I knew I had to regulate things to some extent, so self-medication became the name of the game. I couldn’t go a week without sleep, so I would force it with a couple bottles of wine or a half a bottle of Jack Daniels. I knew my family had a long history of alcoholism, though, so I would only allow it on occasion. Two nights of sleep a week were better than nothing, I told myself. I found other ways to hedge against the panic attacks, stealing into alleys to find the release necessary for maintaining a façade of composure among the normal people of the world, spritzing perfume on my way back to mask the smell.

It wasn’t healthy. It wasn’t sustainable. And over the past eight months, those tactics had been slowly losing their efficacy while I fell to pieces.

I had known for years that something was very wrong with me, but I was a coward. I didn’t want to be viewed as flawed or inadequate, even if that was how I saw myself. I didn’t want to risk someone taking my child. I was scared of what the diagnosis might be if I did seek help, and even more afraid of what the aftermath would look like. I told myself if I could just white knuckle my way through it, if I could just be a little bit stronger, it would all pass. I clung to those lies like a child to their security blanket.

But my mind was on fire. When I was down, the crevices of my brain were filled with glowing embers that slowly burned any sense of self-worth I had. When I was up, the flames were all consuming, my eyes white hot with deranged certainty. There was no putting it out. Even the steps I took to dampen the inferno were counter-productive, clouding my vision with smoke as pockets of the charred labyrinth within began to spontaneously combust once more.

I don’t remember much from the day before the lying stopped. It was at the tail end of my final two weeks on a job that had become a poor fit for reasons separate from the struggles within, but probably not helped by them. I remember going into work before anyone else had arrived. I remember the beginnings of a panic attack ten minutes before the rest of the team was scheduled to come in. Mostly, my memory of the events that followed are just flickers. From what I’ve been told of it all, I’m grateful for that. It was a full blown nervous breakdown, accelerated with alcohol and successive panic attacks. I was lucky to have coworkers who cared, and lucky to have made it home in one piece.

I woke up at 2 AM. I learned my mother had seen me stumble into the apartment complex, and decided (thankfully) to keep my little one for the night. Looking at my bruised and scraped legs, at the heavy bags that had grown under my eyes, and around my disaster of an apartment, I knew the jig was up. I begged a ride to my parents’ house and snuck into my daughter’s room, silently crying myself to sleep on the floor next to her bed. I’d left a note for my parents to find by the coffee maker.

“I’m sick. I need help. I can’t do this alone.”

Rapid Revelations

The following day, a plan was put in motion. I was to stay with my parents until we could figure out how to get me back to good. I did an intake assessment over the phone with a local mental health crisis center. They immediately scheduled an in-person assessment for the following day, at which point I entered into an outpatient mental health crisis program.

It was there I learned that, for at least ten years, I had been suffering undiagnosed with severe generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and bipolar disorder.

The diagnosis was equal parts terrifying and liberating. On one hand, the very words sent a chill down my spine. On the other hand, so much of the ruins surrounding me began to make sense.

Like any good debater, my first instinct in facing what was undoubtedly a massive challenge was to research the hell out of it. A double edged sword, the activity that had taught me to mask my illness so well was saving my life in turn. Though I considered myself a fairly well-educated and informed individual, I quickly realized I knew next to nothing about my illness. Let me walk you through the cliff notes.

Bipolar Disorder is not a singular diagnosis; the illness manifests on a spectrum, with a wide bevy of variables determining where on the spectrum you might fall. Generally speaking, though, it is marked by periods of mania and depression.

Manic periods are the “highs.” Individuals who are manic often experience high levels of energy, a decreased need for sleep, and major productivity. Episodes with only characteristics like these are best described as periods of “hypomania,” and their appeal can make those suffering from Bipolar Disorder hesitant to get help; who would want to get rid of feel good periods of super human capability? But as your thoughts race more and more quickly, the control that would make hypomania desirable falls apart, and things can get scary fast.

You see, manic episodes can also include some less than desirable behaviors. Impulsive decision making and spending, reckless sexual choices, and delusions of grandeur (I’m sure this risky business venture will make me a millionaire despite no research or evidence to support my claim!) can quickly take over. At its peak, mania can include even more major delusions (I am a descendent of royalty!), paranoia (Because I am a descendent of royalty, people are out to get me!), and even hallucinations (Look! There are the assassins!).

(For the record: I never thought I was royalty. These are just extreme examples.)

Mania is the place where logic goes to die. Or more accurately, the place where logic loses its influence on the mind. There are times when you can recognize your behavior or decisions as irrational, risky, or perilous, but the voice of reason inside is shouted out by impulses stronger than anything you’ve ever experienced. It what makes those manic periods so dangerous.

And then there’s the other side of the coin – depressive cycles. Most people today are generally familiar with the idea of depression, as it’s one of the more socially acceptable mental health issues to discuss publicly. But it’s not just sadness. It’s apathy. It’s no energy. It’s a desire to sleep constantly. It’s this feeling that you have no purpose. When depressive cycles hit their lows, you become convinced that you’re a burden to those around you, that the world would be better off without you. You feel hopeless. You feel helpless. You feel worthless.

And then there are mixed states. These are downright terrifying. The impulsive behaviors and racing thoughts of mania combine with the shame spirals and feelings of worthlessness experienced in a depressive cycle, and you feel like you’re coming undone at the seams. These states can be the most dangerous of all.

There are so many other factors that impact how Bipolar Disorder manifests. It’s a very individual experience. Doctors, in an effort to treat this quicksand of an illness, use different buckets for a generalized understanding of the disorder. Bipolar I is considered the basic manifestation of Bipolar Disorder, with pronounced manic periods and deep, debilitating depressive cycles, episodes lasting for months, and longer time periods between the end of one cycle and the onset of a new cycle. Then there’s Bipolar II, with hypomania and long, pronounced depressive cycles. There’s cyclothymic disorder, where there’s frequent alteration between mild depression and mild hypomania, often mistaken for issues with an individual’s personality. There’s even “soft” Bipolar Disorders, sometimes referred to as Bipolar III, where symptoms are far more moderate.

And then there’s Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder, most easily denoted by four or more manic, depressive, hypomanic, or mixed states a year. Though I display most, if not all, of the symptoms of Bipolar I, the frequency of my intense episodes puts me in this category. It’s miserable. Incredibly miserable. It didn’t used to be this way, but in the year or so before my diagnosis, things were pretty awful. My cycles would last a few weeks, and then one day, it would be like someone had flipped a light switch, and I’d be sliding into a new cycle. It wasn’t something I could explain to anyone, either, making things much worse. Those who cared about me were left wondering why I had suddenly fallen off the face of the planet, or why I’d reappeared like someone had shot me up with adrenaline.

Understanding the illness made so much of my past make more sense to me. They say hindsight is 20/20, and the clarity that came with increased comprehension of my diagnosis and how the illness had progressed was truly horrifying. I could clearly identify periods where I had been manic, making wild relationship decisions, spending money I didn’t have, working to the point of exhaustion, so sure that the project in front of me was the most important thing in the world. I could see the depressive periods more starkly – those times when Ava had come into my room, pulling up the covers, assuring me that it was ok and that my heart would feel better soon.

There were a lot of tears during this period of revelations. It also kicked off a tour of apologies. I started reaching out to the people who cared about me and who I loved dearly to break the news of the diagnosis and express remorse for any pain or embarrassment I’d ever caused them. I’m lucky to have a lot of wonderful folks in my life; the response was overwhelmingly one of love and support. I would (and still do) need it. There was much work to be done.

Required Revolution

Treatment, particularly in the beginning, was a complex challenge for the professionals working with me. Ten years of masking my illness, even if I wasn’t fully aware of what I was doing, necessitated complete and total transparency with the program facilitators, my assigned therapist, my psychiatrist, and my parents. In other words, I needed my carefully maintained walls to be obliterated, leaving me exposed and vulnerable. To say that was difficult for me would be the understatement of the century, but I was acutely aware of its importance.

So I gave the variety of therapies the program was built upon my all. Expressive therapy through art smacked of my childhood, but it also provided an outlet for the jumble of emotions in my mind. I began journaling extensively. Sometimes the entries made sense. Sometimes they didn’t. They did, however, help settle me in times of high anxiety, and provided documentation of my cycles while we figured out the best treatment path. Despite intense skepticism, I embraced DBT, or Dialectical Behavior Therapy – an approach involving identifying and correcting distorted thought patterns. With the help of anti-anxiety medications, I participated openly in small group therapy sessions, laying my soul bare.

Eventually, though, the program was no longer a fit. That put me in a tough spot. While Bipolar Disorder is not something you recover from the way you might the flu, the trauma involved in confronting the diagnosis and the changes required do necessitate recovery, and I was still working through that. I wound up having to piece together a program of my own, much of which involved a complete overhaul of my lifestyle.

I made the decision early on to unplug. I pulled away from social media. I stopped watching the news. I cut myself off from blogging. Part of it was that I knew I needed to focus on me for a while. Part of it had to do with emotional health.

Despite having closed myself off from meaningful, balanced, consistent emotional connection for years, I had always been an exceedingly empathetic individual. I knew that until I had a grip on things, that empathy was dangerous to me. I could see, looking back, how my obsession with speaking out against injustice and engaging with readers of my writing had exacerbated my symptoms during manic and depressive cycles. As bits of news regarding the immigration crisis, ISIS, and Ferguson trickled in, I struggled to stay quiet, but I knew I couldn’t make an exception. It wouldn’t be healthy for me, and truthfully, I wouldn’t have been able to do the subject matter justice without a clear mind.

Gone were the days of pulling all-nighters, or even successive late nights. Regulating my sleep wasn’t just a good idea, but necessary for my medications to have their maximum effect and for my stress levels to be effectively managed. Exercise was no longer something I did when it was convenient; it was not a luxury, but crucial to maintaining a healthy balance in my energy levels. Even my diet had to change. Caffeine consumption was cut down to a fraction of what it had been, sugar intake was slashed dramatically, and proteins paired with whole grains and healthy fatty oils became the norm. Lucky for me, I love guacamole.

I continued expressive work on my own, picking up the paintbrush alongside my daughter for some bonding and therapy all at once. I started writing poetry again. I journaled voraciously. Anything to keep the emotions flowing in a productive manner instead of bottling up to the point of explosion. I went to two support groups regularly: one run by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance that met twice a month, and one run by the National Alliance on Mental Illness that met weekly.

I continued practicing radical transparency with my parents. Each morning, I would check in the way I had at the program: rating my anxiety, depression, and physical discomfort, relating whether there were any passive or active suicidal thoughts, describing where I was in a given cycle. If things began to shift rapidly – as they did on several occasions – I immediately told them what I was experiencing and what I planned to do to keep things in check. I took all medication in their presence.

And make no mistake, medication was an issue. Because every manifestation of Bipolar Disorder is unique to the individual, much of the process of determining the proper medicinal treatment equates to Pharmaceutical Roulette.

In the beginning, the top priority was getting my anxiety under control. At the time I entered the outpatient program, it was completely debilitating, with any level of interpersonal interaction a potential panic attack trigger. Lexipro and Buspar were prescribed for anxiety management, along with Clonazepam to counter panic attacks, a caffeine/codeine hybrid to counter the headaches everything else generated, and Trazodone to regulate my sleep.

My anxiety did lessen, but as I started to notice the beginnings of what I could finally recognize as a manic cycle, it became clear we needed something additional in the mix. Lexipro was out and Lamictal was introduced, but slowly, to make sure I wouldn’t be in a small subgroup that experienced a rare but lethal rash as a side effect. Like I didn’t have enough to worry about, right?

Unfortunately, the Lamictal wasn’t enough. It was begun at the onset of my first major manic episode without self-medication, and the peak of that episode was nearly catastrophic. I got to a point where even my go-to for self-care – fiction – was working against me. It was as though I absorbed the qualities of the characters involved in whatever I was watching or reading. While binging on the TV series Fargo, I became paranoid, fearing that someone was trying to build a case to take my daughter away, and was convinced that with diligent investigation, I might crack the case. I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a novel narrated by an autistic 15 year old boy, and suddenly found myself hypersensitive to auditory stimulus and obsessed with order. I knew none of it made sense. But the rational part of me was losing ground.

(Side note: Both the show and book are excellent and highly recommended otherwise.)

Things finally reached a boiling point. Overcome with the sensation that my mind was quite literally aflame and in the throes of the worst panic attack of my life, I ground my teeth so hard that I cracked off half of a tooth. A phantom cacophony of merciless and cruel thoughts about myself and my worth filled my ears. As my muscles contracted and my body contorted, I looked like I needed an exorcism while I wailed hopelessly against the night and my parents looked on helplessly. Had a heavy dose of the Clonazepam not cut through the attack, I’d have been admitted to the local psych ward for inpatient treatment. We were a mere two minutes away from getting in the car and driving to the ER.

Then came Saphris. Following the major attack, I scheduled an emergency meeting with my psychiatrist. While advising me to actually go to the hospital if things ever got that bad again, he prescribed Saphris, saying that it’s what he would have introduced had I been admitted that evening. An atypical antipsychotic drug, its rapid impact was nothing short of miraculous. Within two days of incorporating it into my pharmaceutical cocktail, I felt more stable and clear-minded than I had in years. It was something I thought I’d never experience again. Slowly, I needed the Clonazepam less and less. Slowly, my confidence returned. Slowly, I started feeling human again.

Flames Tamed

Today, I can honestly say I am healthier and happier than I can ever remember being. Not every day is easy, of course. I’m not sure if it’s best described as an abundance of caution or doubt instilled by the diagnosis or the result of years and years of stymied emotional expression, but I sometimes struggle to discern symptomatic behavior from the normal range of human responses. I know this is common. It doesn’t make it any easier, and it’s tension that isn’t likely to dissipate anytime soon.

The fact of the matter is that my illness is one that I will be managing for the rest of my life.

Much like a diabetic, I will always be on medication. While there is promise in genetic mapping for better treatment in the future, any type of real understanding of what causes the disorder – let alone some kind of “cure” – is decades away. And while my symptoms may go into remission, going off the medication, no matter how good I feel or how long it’s been since a major cycle hit, could set me up for a painful, extreme relapse.

Much like a diabetic, I will have to be careful about what I consume and how I consume it in life. Sugar’s only a part of the equation; I have to watch the thoughts I let dwell in my mind, the people I let into my world, and the work I bring onto my plate in order to effectively manage my health. This deliberate approach to the world is new to me, and far from intuitive, but it isn’t optional.

Much like a diabetic, I will have to be diligent about monitoring my levels. It’s not blood sugar I’m evaluating, of course. It’s about the efficacy of my medications, as they can fade over time. It’s about not isolating myself, and leveraging my support network to hedge against relapse. It’s about journaling consistently to keep records of my experiences, should my mind become unreliable again.

This is not going away. This is part of who I am now. Having Bipolar Disorder does not define me, but the roller coaster I’ve been on has certainly shaped me in ways I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to adequately articulate.

There’s no way to avoid the doubt that comes with learning you suffer from Bipolar Disorder. No amount of DBT has been able to quell fears that my diagnosis will cause someone to take my daughter from me, or that it will undermine my advocacy efforts. No amount of evidence to the contrary has quashed the concerns that medications might dampen my cognitive abilities or neuter my empathy.

It’s during times when those thoughts bubble to the surface that I remind myself that I’m in good company with my diagnosis. I’m talking Virginia Woolf, Ludwig van Beethoven, John Keats, Vivien Leigh, Patty Duke, Edgar Allan Poe, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Ben Stiller, Gaetano Donizetti, Robert Schumann, Vincent Van Gogh, Sting, Carrie Fisher, Winston Churchill, Tim Burton, and Tennessee Williams, just to name a few. The way I see it, if Isaac Newton could rise to become one of the most influential and celebrated scientists of all time while combating Bipolar Disorder, surely I can make my own way.

I know, though, that I am extremely lucky. I am lucky to have such supportive family and friends. I am lucky I had access to high quality medical care. I am lucky I got help when I did. Bipolar Disorder, untreated, is often fatal. The rate of suicide deaths among those suffering from Bipolar Disorder is 15 times higher than that of the general population. I am very, very lucky indeed.

The amount of gratitude I feel for the people and treatments that have brought me to this stage is overwhelming. I’ve started working again – slowly, carefully, gradually escalating my case load. I structure my day to ensure I don’t backslide into habits that have worsened my symptoms in the past. I’m proud of what I’ve been accomplishing. Things are going well, and I’m cautiously optimistic about what the future holds.

This was the story I needed to tell. As I said earlier, part of my motivation was selfish. I’d be lying if I said the process of writing it all down – confronting everything, even the ugly parts – hasn’t been cathartic. But, again, this isn’t just about me.

I’ve always known that there was a stigma surrounding mental illness, but being in the thick of it crystallizes just how bad it is in spectacular ways. I suddenly became hyper-aware of how often people throw around the term “bipolar” or any number of other words related to mental health in derisive manners. Each instance hit me like a slap across the face.

No offense folks, but unless you’ve experienced the paralyzing, hopeless stupor of a depressive low or the dizzying, terrifying frenzy of a manic high, you’ve got no right to throw the word “bipolar” around like it’s nothing. It’s right up there with using the term “gay” to describe something you don’t like, in my book. Knock it off. My life is not your punchline.

A great deal of the stigma surrounding mental illness comes from what most irrational behaviors and fears stem from: ignorance. Bipolar Disorder and the myriad of other mental illnesses human beings encounter are complex and challenging. We’re a long way off from understanding the what and the why and the how of it all, but in the meantime, these are still human beings we’re talking about. Mental illness is not a character flaw. It is an illness, with those diagnosed no more to blame for their symptoms than a cancer patient is for their tumors. For the love of God, show some compassion.

As I write this, I know I’m taking a risk. This confessional and the lack of understanding of my illness among the broader population could very well impact my professional and personal life in definitively negative ways. But illness or no, I still consider myself an advocate, and those struggling under the weight of their illness and an undeserved stigma deserve advocacy. I would have felt like a hypocrite if I hadn’t given voice to this pain.

To be very clear, I don’t assume to speak for everyone who has ever been diagnosed with some form of Bipolar Disorder. My experience is my own, and theirs is their own. I only hope that in sharing this story, someone gets something out of it. Maybe they feel less alone. Maybe they find the courage to get the help they need instead of suffering silently for a decade. Maybe they better understand the people in their lives who are suffering, or make a renewed attempt to get there. Maybe they change the way they view Bipolar Disorder or mental illness in general. Maybe they’re able to share the story with someone else who needs to hear it.

This story needed to be told, but – unlike the stories in which I so often find solace – it doesn’t have an ending yet. It will continue, with me doing everything in my power to stay healthy.

I will keep fighting the good fight, because there are issues that deserve my attention with a clear mind and heart.

I will keep fighting the good fight, because my family and friends deserve better than the unreliable mess I’ve been for too long.

I will keep fighting the good fight, because my daughter deserves better than a basket case for a mother.

I will keep fighting the good fight, because I deserve happiness and love.

This story isn’t over, but I’m sure glad you took the time to read where it’s gone so far, and hope you stick around for the chapters to come.

 

Looking for help? Want to be a better ally to those in your life who are suffering from or managing mental illness? Knowledge is power. I highly recommend the following resources:

Bipolar Disorder: A Guide for Patients and Families 3rd Edition by Dr. Francis Mark Mondimore (It’s essentially become my Bible, and no, I won’t make money if you buy it.)

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) for information and support groups

The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) for information and support groups

 

Confessions of a Privileged White Girl

People talk about privilege. I grew up swimming in it.

If you combined Elmore City, Stepford, Devil’s Kettle, Pleasantville, and Montrose, multiplied the fake factor by a hundred, and threw in a little bit of Puritan Massachusetts for good measure, you might come close to understanding the terrifying time capsule that is Wheaton, Illinois.

In Wheaton, there’s a church on every corner, a luxury car in most garages, and a ferocious dedication to maintaining the illusion of suburban utopia. Its sky-high home values come with a median income in the six figures and no shortage of classism. With a population that’s 83% white, diversity isn’t the town’s strong suit. In fact, for those who lived there, 83% might sound like a stretch… if only because of the way the city’s population has segregated.

The latest designer styles and smartphone models in hand, kids draw clique lines by pew lines and battle for congregation conversion against lockers after attending their first class public schools. When the movie Saved came out, we were all convinced it was based on our hometown. I’m not kidding. There were conversations in the film that I’d seen play out word for word in the hallways.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s no shortage of sin in Wheaton; it just gets swept under rugs or placed so far down in the artificially constructed hierarchy of upper-middle class morality that they don’t have to worry about it while they lament the fall of traditional “American” (read: straight, white, Christian, cisgender, affluent) values. Wheaton expats, and even some of those who never quite got out, refer to this lovely town as “The Bubble.”

Wheaton is where I grew up. My family wasn’t wealthy by Wheaton standards per se, but we were comfortable. My dad worked, and my mom was able to stay at home with me and my three younger siblings. I was able to get an amazing education, participate in a wide array of after school activities, take advantage of rich cultural opportunities, and enjoy childhood in a relatively safe community. Going to college was never a question – just a fact of life. On top of all that, I was white, straight, cisgendered and able-bodied with a generally socially acceptable physique.

In other words, I was privileged. Really. Fucking. Privileged. As in, the kind of privilege you expect resting on the shoulders of a clueless caricature off the silver screen.

———-

There was a problem with that first class education of mine, though. Let’s see if you can spot it.

We learned about the Civil Rights Movement. The takeaway? Segregation was gone and racism was dead. We learned about suffrage and the bra burning feminists of the 60’s and 70’s. The conclusion? Women were in the workplace now and sexism was a thing of the past. Prayer had be relegated to before school circles around the flag pole, so clearly, religious tolerance had been achieved. We basked in the knowledge that we were living in an era of equality. We were blind to color and gender and class. The driving ideology tasted like a resurgent American dream: everyone has a fair shot, and anyone can achieve anything if they pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

This conditioning was omnipresent and well-intentioned, but ultimately little more than wishful thinking. The hope was that by raising a generation to reject discrimination as an artifice of the past, discrimination would cease to exist. Certainly aspirational. In some ways, maybe they thought that, with the way we’d been making progress, by the time we’d grown up, this carefully cultivated selective blindness would be without consequence because we’d have finally arrived at some state of social utopia. Whatever.

Instead, it masked the very real inequity faced by people in our society, compounding its impact and sending out ripples across public policy and discourse.

If I’m blind to difference, I have nothing to learn from the experiences of someone who is different from me. If choose to hear their narrative, I usually compartmentalize it as their individual experience, and not representative of the whole. It doesn’t matter how many narratives add up, because they are all individual experiences, and not representative of the whole.

And that assumes I’m willing to hear the narrative at all. If I’m blind to difference, if I am insistent that difference is irrelevant, I may dismiss those narratives out of hand. Because I never hear their narratives, I never humanize the experiences, which makes it easier to dismiss statistics that say there is a systemic problem as indicative of personal problems instead.

When someone dares to share that narrative anyway, I find ways to explain why it’s not inequality. Those ways usually involve telling the speaker that whatever they’ve suffered is their fault somehow.

See, if the problem isn’t the system, then the problem is the person.

If it’s the person, and that person isn’t you, it’s not your responsibility. If it’s the person, and that person isn’t you, you, as a person, are probably better than them in some way. You’re smarter or you work harder. We shame the person who never had a fair shot. We tell them it’s their fault.

So when black people have a higher unemployment rate, a lower median income, a higher rate of incarceration, or a lower graduation rate, that’s clearly their fault. When a woman is sexually assaulted outside of a bar, she shouldn’t have been wearing that skirt or drinking that drink, or maybe she should have been carrying a gun. When women make less than men year after year after year, maybe they shouldn’t have so many babies. When gay men are assaulted for kissing outside a bar, they shouldn’t have been flaunting it.

These thoughts aren’t always articulated, especially so directly, but it’s these kinds sentiments that fuel the defensiveness encountered when the idea of privilege gets raised. It’s an ego thing. The idea is that if the game was rigged from the start, our accomplishments or struggles are somehow discredited. So we personalize the narrative of someone less privileged into an attack, and default to the position that the system isn’t rigged and the person is the problem.

It’s certainly easier that way, isn’t it?

———-

To say college was a bit of a culture shock after growing up in Wheaton would be the understatement of the century, but I was lucky enough to be surrounded by intelligent, compassionate, patient people with the biggest hearts in the world. They were teachers, friends, and family all at once. There are more than a few of them who are deserving of their own posts, but we’ll save those stories for a different day.

My education regarding privilege is far from over, but I certainly hope that I honor those who taught me so much about race, gender, classism, and more as I try to be better today than I was the day before. Still, the past year has continuously highlighted how much more I have to grow.

I’m struggling with all of this. I’ve been struggling. I’ve been coming to terms with revelations that don’t fit comfortably on the frame of the self-image I’ve built for myself.

I know I’m not the only one who’s struggling. I know there are others who continue to avert their eyes to avoid the struggle as much as they can for as long as they can. I know there are others still who have a sucker punch waiting for them somewhere along the road.

So I thought to myself, why struggle alone? Why struggle in silence? Why leave others to do the same? Struggle needn’t be lonely. More to the point, we may find our struggles shorter if we face them together. Right?

I think about how often I have measured myself by the male gaze and I shudder, cringing at the thought that I may have already taught my daughter to mirror my behavior. I think about how I’ve shrugged off sexist behavior in a professional setting in an effort to keep the peace, and I feel ashamed. I think about how frequently I have excused misogynist behavior among my male friends because of how they treated me individually, and I am angry with myself. I think about how I’ve danced along to songs like “Blurred Lines,” and I’m inwardly sneering. I think about the unwarranted judgment I’ve cast on the decisions of other women, and all I want to do is tearfully beg their forgiveness, whether they were aware of my transgressions or not. I think about how I have been color blind myself, dismissive of the distinct, important experiences of women of color in feminist circles, and I fume over my own arrogance.

I have so far to go. I just want to keep listening and learning and improving.

But the only reason I can say that is because I’m privileged enough to do so comfortably. And that’s fucking bullshit. While way too many of us are busy learning about injustice in the abstract, way too many other people are busy living with it. We need to pick up the fucking pace.

———-

I wound up getting sucked into a conversation about privilege the other night with my siblings, Luke and Brittany. This is usually a cringe-worthy event in the Nelson family, and since we’d spent the afternoon and evening drinking at a barbeque, it was particularly dangerous territory. Brittany is very passionate about social justice issues, and can become especially emotionally charged on the subject of privilege. Luke, on the other hand, is what you might imagine a cartoonish representation of straight white male privilege to look like. He’s a good-looking, 6’4” former athlete who works in sales and may have overdosed on the Wheaton Koolaid growing up. When the two of them engage on the subject of privilege, Luke tends to take her criticisms as personal attacks. It probably doesn’t help when she says, “Well, you ARE part of the problem.”

Typically, I end up trying to play mediator in these scenarios. Maybe it was because I was still a little raw from the #YesAllWomen conversations, maybe it was the whiskey, but this time around, I didn’t bother attempting to keep the peace. When the conversation veered to the subject of male privilege, I weighed in.

“Luke,” I said, testing the waters. “Let’s start with this: I’ve never walked into a bar without having someone grope me.”

“What? No,” he said, shaking his head.

“Yes. Every single time.”

“How come you never told me? I’d have kicked his ass! Er, asses!”

“Because you’d have kicked his ass. And even if you wanted to, you don’t have enough time to beat up that many people. And even though you want to, you shouldn’t have to. I shouldn’t need you to.”

The look on his face said things were starting to register. Brittany jumped in at this point, saying, “I tried one time to go for a run at night. There was a guy following me. I was so scared I went a couple blocks out of my way so I could be sure I’d lost him and he wouldn’t know where I lived.”

When Luke gave her a quizzical look, she replied, “It would never occur to you to do something like that. But it’s what we’ve been taught to do for our own protection.”

“That’s privilege,” I said. “At least, an example of it. It’s not that you, personally, necessarily did something terrible. It’s that your experience is dramatically different because of the lot you drew in life, and that’s not really fair. When we talk about privilege with you, we’re asking you to acknowledge that fact, reflect on how your decisions may unconsciously be impacting the experiences of those who are different from you, modify your behavior accordingly, and help us call out people who are being assholes. But before any of that, we’re just asking you to listen. Really listen.”

I teared up a little as he nodded his head. It was the first time I’d ever seen anything we’d said on the subject really click with him, and it meant the world to me. He’s still got a long way to go, but that was a huge moment.

And all I can think is that it sucks that it took the suffering of a woman in whom he could see himself for the shift to happen.

———-

Sometimes, I get overwhelmed by the scope of the work that needs to be done. Men I’ve always liked and respected will tell me they don’t believe me when I describe my experiences with sexism. Friends will insist that reverse racism exists. Some random jerk will holler obscenities at me out their car window while I’m walking with my daughter. I’ll get another email from a guy who is hell-bent on explaining why men have a harder time of it than women, or some anonymous troll screaming about how I’m destroying the world who sounds a little too much like Elliot Rodger for comfort, and all I want to do is stop caring. It’s too much. It’s too exhausting.

But there are too many people who don’t have that luxury.

I’m going to keep listening. I want to hear your stories if you want to tell them. But I’ve got to keep talking and I’ve got to keep writing because we can’t keep waiting for the right time to have the uncomfortable conversations we so desperately need. I’m going to fuck up. And I’m asking you to call me out when I do, even though you don’t owe me that courtesy.

One way or another, we’ve got to do better.

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