Redefined Bipolar

To be short and sweet: I’m closing the chapter in my life that is Redefining Bipolar.

But don’t panic. For me this means I’m moving toward a redefined Redefining Bipolar. The person who started this blog and the person I am now are two very different people. After many months of not understanding why I couldn’t write, I realized that I actually can — I just can’t write under the idea of “Redefining Bipolar” anymore. And, for me, it has always been an idea. It was the question of what bipolar disorder could be, and weirdly enough I feel like I’ve stumbled upon an answer (for now).

For the last year or so, especially near the end of my Master’s degree, I have struggled specifically with calling bipolar a “disorder.” I have written, on many accounts, of the positives bipolar has brought me. But, I have always held back because of the fear of having rose-tinted glasses, or minimizing the struggles of others, or being too politically incorrect. Ironically, I ended up minimizing my own experiences because of these fears. So I’m not going to do that anymore.

For me — and I am speaking very personally — my bipolar is not a disorder. If anything, “bipolar” is the umbrella word that others have used to characterize an enormous amount of experiences in my life. So I journey to step beyond that curtain to find something that resonates with me more. I have always stressed the importance of language and it is with this spirit that I journey forth. There are many other words I want to find.

I don’t expect any of this to be relatable. But it will explain why you won’t see any more posts from me at this particular location.

Oh, I forgot to mention: I’m starting a new blog. Follow my twitter for updates on that. What, did you think I would just leave like that?

Where I’ve Been and Where I’m Going

For the last three months I’ve struggled to open my dashboard and start writing a post for this blog. In August, I was immensely depressed to the point of suicide. In September I was ecstatic, but quickly fell into the grasp of stress and reality. Now it’s the middle of October and I have to admit I’ve been functionally ill.

Times of transition are difficult for everyone. Ending my Master’s degree was both a huge success but also a bittersweet goodbye. In the midst of searching for a job, I was left with nothing to guide me to my next step in life. It was devastating to feel like I had left a life behind and fallen into a void, and that darkness seeped through me like a sponge soaking up water. I was convinced that my life had come to an end. I started planning who I should give my belongings to. I had a plan.

For the longest time, I never thought I would live to see my 25th birthday. I was convinced I would end my life by then and follow in my brother’s footsteps. And yet every time I find myself about to shake death’s hand, I feel a tug in my stomach that tells me something isn’t quite right. For reasons I can’t quite explain, I keep moving on. I trudge through the black, ichorous swamp in darkness; eventually I find land. I can’t explain my resiliency, but I hope one day I can.

When I woke up on my birthday, I realized I would have to keep going. My window of opportunity was over. It was time to move on. But to what? So ensued several more weeks of that numbness that chills to the bone. I didn’t ask for help. I just curled up into my depression and stayed there for a while. And then I got a job and immediately had to try to smile.

The funny thing about working in mental health is I keep thinking people will — at the very least — have the tools for maintaining their own mental health. Sadly, I keep having to remind myself this is not true. So while I was extremely enthusiastic to land a job in my line of expertise, I was also thrust into an environment that is still ignorant when it comes to mental illness. Thus my stress continued.

It’s difficult wanting to write about mental health and mental illness when I go to work and have to be an advocate for myself and others. I feel like I’ve been fighting stigma on a daily basis, and it’s been completely draining. So when I look at Redefining Bipolar, my mind has just said, “I can’t today. As much as I want to, I just can’t.” As I write this, I have a headache that I’ve been trying to manage for the past couple weeks. It’s been taking a huge mental and physical toll.

But, it’s not all doom and gloom. I’ve managed to submit a PhD application and I truly enjoy working with the individuals I have the privilege to care for. I stopped keeping everything inside my head and reached out to friends and professionals for help. I started journalling and found it inside me to write this very post you’re reading now. I’m finding my inner strength to make change in the workplace and looking forward to hearing about whether or not I can return back to school.

So that’s a little of where I’ve been and where I’m going. I’m not sure how active this blog will be for the time being. But hey, I’m here.

Fighting Depression, Fighting Myself

I feel like I’m fighting myself. And how could it be otherwise? Depression is a condition beyond my control, and yet it is part of who I am. It doesn’t define me, but it still is me.

Even after a decade, this kind of pain still feels like a fresh cut. It’s the feeling of being filled with cement. It’s the ache in my chest and my abdomen that tells me I’m freezing up. Every movement is a fight against gravity; every step is a resistance against the thought telling me to lay down and stop. Every body gesture is heavy with the shackles of depression. Yes, I know its name. It is my familiar. It saturates my fluid and coagulates without killing. And I have to sit here with it and wait for it to run its course.

My self-care list is strong. Exercise? Check. Good diet? Check. Social support? Check. Hygiene? Check. Check. Check. Check. I’m doing everything right. Medication change? Check. So why do I feel so responsible for being depressed? Why do I continue to fight myself, to blame myself for these experiences? Overcoming the self-stigma of mental illness has been a love-hate relationship. I know this is not my fault, and yet paradoxically I still think it is.

It’ll pass, they say.
Yes, I know.

Just focus on getting better.
Rent doesn’t pay itself.

Don’t worry, things will work out.
Can I get that in a notarized document?

Fighting depression isn’t just a battle with myself — it’s a battle with society. Could I use a month to figure this out? Absolutely, but I have bills, deadlines, the pressure of work and the reality of not having money if I don’t. There isn’t a “no strings attached” government bailout package for a high-functioning person not sick enough for hospital but not well enough for daily life. I have forever been in the gap of care.

As I sit and write this, I want to maintain that message of hope. Because I do know it will pass, despite not feeling like it will. But it is these experiences make salient the great changes we need to conjure in society. We need a new culture of health that better supports people living with mental illness. I need this. We all need this.

For anyone else who finds themselves relating to this point, obviously you’re not alone. As strangers, perhaps we can take comfort in knowing we fight ourselves — we fight depression — alongside visible and invisible support.


Photo Credit: Stocksnap (CCO License)

Why I Don’t Hide My Self-Harm Scars

In helping people who self-harm through peer support, I’ve listened to a variety of perspectives of one particular type of self-harm: Skin tissue injury. Typically, people think of this as cutting, but it’s more than that; it can be picking at the skin, plucking hairs, scratching, hitting body parts against hard surfaces, and other methods that have the consequence of hurting “superficial” (anatomical term) tissue. And even when thinking about cutting, often there is a narrative that includes razor blades that someone uses on their forearms.

I find it interesting that this has become the stereotype of self-harm. For example, my self-harm used a specific tool — a thumb tack. And I would always cut on my thighs because that was the body part I hated the most, and was significantly easier to conceal than other locations. There’s an interesting logic to my self-harm behaviours. When I first started self-harming as a teenager, I found a thumb tack on my shelf in my bedroom and I began wondering what it would feel like to drag it across my skin. I began by just using it to scratch the skin, often not drawing blood. But eventually I cut a little deeper, and now all these years later I have these fine, white vertical lines on my thighs.

Thankfully, it’s been a few years since I hurt myself like that. A few weeks ago, I was walking in my dining room with shorts on and the evening light was beaming from the window; as I stopped to put something on the table, I noticed the light caught my legs in a peculiar, and somehow beautiful way. The small ridges on my legs, the usually unnoticed whiter parts, stood out like I hadn’t seen them before. I’ve always referred to them as my battle scars, but in that moment — seeing them in that light — they had a luminescent quality about them. They weren’t ugly, flaws, or even scars. They just were. It was a peaceful moment.

For many years I felt a deep sense of shame about my self-harm scars. I tried every method in the book to try to get rid of them — or at least lessen their appearance. And I was moderately successful; it’s hard to see them now unless you’re really staring at my bare thighs. Part of me regrets going through that process. It was a tedious and felt miserable hiding my scars and always being conscious of what I was wearing — especially for dreaded events like swimming.

If I happened to have a self-harm relapse today, I wouldn’t go out of my way to conceal the wounds. I know from personal experience that self-harm wounds and scars tend to make people feel uncomfortable. To all those who do feel uneasy around people who have visible self-harm scars, just imagine what it takes to show those scars. I’ve had people stare at me like I’m a dangerous, wild animal. I see the stories such people begin to fabricate in their minds. And it leaves me at the disadvantage of not being able to explain the pain, trauma, and turmoil that resulted in those scars forming. It is another form of objectification, and it can be particularly vicious in that we the self-harmers tend to have few allies.

The percentage of people who self-harm in Canada and the United States is an educated guess at best. When we look at the research, the prevalence of self-harm has been plagued by many problems in accurately measuring how many people self-harm, and what self-harm is even defined as. But on a day-to-day basis, knowing that doesn’t matter. What we do know is that people do intentionally inflict harm on themselves and we need to care for these people with compassion even when we don’t quite understand what we’re dealing with.

There are various messages to elaborate on, which I think can be summarized in short (for now):

For those who feel uncomfortable with self-harm and have never self-harmed:

If you can’t understand why someone self-harms, you can certainly try to understand the person who self-harms.

For those who feel uncomfortable with self-harm and do self-harm:

It’s okay to hate yourself, to feel ashamed, to be depressed, to be angry, or whatever else you feel about self-harming. I’m not here to tell you how to go about your process or healing journey. I’m just here to say someone out there understands and wishes you wellness.

For those who want to be allies to people who self-harm:

It’s scary and you’ll probably make mistakes, but that’s okay. Education is key. Continue listening and asking, “How can I help you?” (Also read here and here for other stories I’ve written about my self-harm.)

For those who self-harm and don’t hide their scars:

I admire your decision to do so.

In breaking down the myths of self-harm, I always look to others. I am only one story out of many, and I think it’s crucial to remember that if we want to break down walls to authentic human connection.

Sometimes Lithium Makes Me Feel Boring

Lithium… my saviour, my stability, my solace from manic melodies. But sometimes it just makes me feel like I’m always in the shallow end of the emotional pool. Yet the question I always wonder is if I’m actually swimming with everyone else. Have I lived my life in the deep end of the pool? Sometimes I see the divers at the other end and I want to go back. I want to drown in deeper emotions. I feel like lithium has made me the boring one.

How do I know this is lithium’s doing? Well, that would be trial and error (or more like error and “yup, definitely need to take it”). Don’t get me wrong — I function well on in. Despite some minor issues with memory, it’s just a white and dusty pill to swallow at the end of the day. Taking lithium is like being upgraded to business class by accident and then knowing that you can only afford to be in economy; I know the glories of a larger and more comfy chair, but I’ve settled on financial responsibility.

On days like these, the temptation is in the air. I remember having a wider range, a more extensive capacity for emotion. I remember feeling like electricity was a constant current through my body — supercharged and truly high on life. It wasn’t entirely dysfunctional; in fact, it felt quite functional and immensely inspirational. I saw with emotion just as I saw with my eyes. Life was on fire in such a good way. Emotions had become a sixth sense.

I made a trade off for a healthier lifestyle overall and I don’t regret that. I like to tell others that what they felt and did in mania was them and they can take that back from mania if they so desire. Even though on the worst days I feel like I’m floating in vacuity, I know that my manic emotions are inside me. How do I access those emotions in a healthier way? I believe it is possible, even on medication. The quest, then, is on figuring out how. Somewhere inside me that spark still exists. If only I had a map.

Perhaps that is one of the frustrating features of the bipolar reality. Such a journey requires a lot of safe exploration into dark uncharted territory. It’s not the kind of path to walk alone, although in some ways it will have to be. No one else can reach into the crevices in my mind and pull out exactly what I want. But many can aid me when I take the wrong fork in the road or have to dodge a car. One does not run out into the night without a flashlight (or a friend who has one) — even though that can seem exciting in its own right.

Even though I feel like banging my head against a wall because I feel so dull, I know it will pass. Rather, I know I can do something about it. I can work with my psychiatrist, I can talk to my partner and my friends, I can journal (or tell the internet about it), and I can research the not-well-understood literature on emotions. The process can be just as nurturing as the desired end result.

Being Bipolar and Having Bipolar: My Current Self

In a post I wrote in 2015, I gave an academic overview of how to understand the difference between saying “I’m bipolar” versus “I have bipolar.” It’s been a little over a year since I wrote that; while I still agree with my interpretation and analysis, I wanted to reflect more on this concept. Near the end of the article I stated that I prefer to refer to myself as “a person with bipolar” over “a bipolar person.” Lately I’ve been considering adopting a paradox in how I understand bipolar disorder. This paradox is accepting that I am both a person with bipolar and also just simply bipolar on my own.

When I was first diagnosed with bipolar, I was told that I had it — as per medical practice guidelines. Unfortunately the psychiatrist who first told me that was not supportive in helping me make sense of that label. Instead, I abruptly entered the mental illness community with no guidance or map to follow for recovery. Around me were people mostly saying that they were bipolar, which I didn’t understand because it clashed with what I had been told about myself. But I had more important issues to deal with — mostly finding sanity again — and I accepted the incongruous reality in which I lived. My main focus was finding out exactly what bipolar was because no one had actually told me. Thus ensued a couple years of exploring the boundaries of that question.

It had to be sometime in 2016 when I began questioning my position as “a person with bipolar.” From my conversation with friends, I formulated a hypothesis: “Telling people they have bipolar when they’re first diagnosed is important for a less stigmatized recovery, but they should be supported in their identity journeys and having bipolar versus being bipolar should be a choice later on.” Although at the time I still disagreed with being bipolar, I thought (and still think) this makes sense and could be clinically significant.

Lately, though, I’ve been feeling a bit of both. I’m wondering if being bipolar and having bipolar are two ends of a spectrum. At one end (having bipolar) is a complete acceptance that bipolar is an illness and the separation between the self and the illness is distinct. At the other end, being bipolar is an acceptance of the illness self as inherently and completely intertwined with every aspect of the other selves. These two extremes of the spectrum are often painted as a dichotomy, as if one must make an unalterable decision about one’s identity. The more and more this occurred to me, the more I saw myself in the middle of this spectrum, and the more fluid I began to think about these concepts.

I have to accept that I have bipolar because I have mood states that can be controlled with medication; it is undeniably an illness that comes and goes. I also have to accept that I am bipolar because it is part of me in many ways; my understanding of depression, mania, psychosis, suicide, self-harm, and many other experiences has either changed me fundamentally or was simply with me all along. Thus, I must acknowledge this paradox of knowing. Not that I’m averse to that. In fact, I think it allows me to be open to new ways of knowing myself and to new ways of understanding how people “make sense” of their bipolar disorders.

The Allure of Self-Harm

She is beauty, she is grace, she is… longing for self-harm again? Trigger warning for self-harm method descriptions.

Self-harm is a much more complex topic than we think. It’s not just cutting or other direct tissue harm; it’s binge drinking, unsafe sex, reckless driving, stopping medication… it’s intentionally hurting oneself, and it comes in many forms. Self-harm is often associated with borderline personality disorder, yet self-harm is not specific to any one disorder. The relationship between self-harm and suicide has often been portrayed as tight-knit and unbreakable, but this is not usually the case. There is a distinction between self-harm with suicidal intent, and self-harm without suicidal intent. More often than not, self-harm is associated with low or the absence of suicidal intent. Research on this topic is murky at best.

Self-harm is arguably more taboo than talking about suicide.

And research portrays this. As someone who has self-harmed in the past, I wanted to bring up a topic that’s been nudging me for a while. It may make no sense to anyone who has never self-harmed, but it is a real phenomenon that is not addressed when we actually do talk about self-harm. The thought here is this: Sometimes I yearn for self-harm. There is an unspoken allure to it.

My methods of self-harm were either cutting or scratching, and on occasion starvation. When I started self-harming as I transitioned into being a teenager, no part of me wanted to self-harm. Back then, self-harm was a coping mechanism. I hurt myself because I needed to deal with the pain of my life. As I progressed into early adulthood, my self-harm began manifesting in different ways — sometimes in psychosis. When I finally sought treatment for depression, I told every doctor about my self-harm. Strangely enough, there were no questions other than their saying, “Could I have a look? I just want to make sure your wound is okay.”

The only wound that wasn’t okay was the wound in my soul — but we don’t talk about that, right? And so I went on self-harming until I realized I needed to stop. With my bipolar medicated and “under control,” I wasn’t just hurting myself anymore; I was hurting others with my actions against myself. It took a while for it to sink in. The last time I self-harmed was almost two years ago.

One might think that I’m happy knowing I can cope differently, that I can resist the urges and be proactive. Yes, I can. But sometimes I miss the feeling of self-harm. I miss the release it gave me, the ache it soothed. It has a certain mystique to it that I tried to deny for a long time, seeing it as unhealthy on its own. Self-harm has a seductive quality to it — a certain dark charm. From my discussions with a few others, I know I’m not alone. And I know not talking about it only encourages that seduction and tightens its grasp.

The allure of self-harm is real and we need to talk about it, just like we need to talk about suicide.

It felt good to run a needle over my thighs. It felt good scratching my skin until I bled. It felt good not eating much for a while. But I also felt a tremendous amount of shame afterward. Self-harm has always been the most private of acts for me, and knowing that others would see my self-harm made me go to extreme lengths to make my scars as invisible as possible. With that said, sometimes I still miss it — perhaps like I might miss a mysterious lover who is gone before I wake up, taunting me with her infrequency in my life. The better part of me knows to give her up, but sometimes it’s a reverie I get lost in. Sometimes she seems irresistible. But I know I can’t return. With every passing day, her tendrils become farther out of reach.

Yes, the allure of self-harm still entangles me in its fascination. For those of you baffled by this, have compassion for our struggles, if not empathy for our experiences. For those of you struggling with this issue, know that you are not alone.


For research on this topic, please feel free to contact me at ntk@redefiningbipolar.org or visit vivreshare.org for more on self-harm.