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.

Dealing with the Shame of Mental Illness (or Not)

Shame is a very difficult concept to navigate. Its role in mental illness is different for every person. One of the first ideas I want to point out is that not everyone feels shame related to their mental illness. After being asked this question many times — specifically for advice — I thought it was about time I wrote about it. The quick version is I did feel ashamed of myself because I had a diagnosis of bipolar, but I don’t feel ashamed of myself anymore. Though I may have my moments of self-doubt, I’m proud of who I am.

Shame and pride are complex experiences; they’re not just emotions, but incorporate behavioural and cognitive aspects. I used to work in the lab of Dr. Jessica Tracy, who is a known scholar for the study of pride (and also on shame, which I worked on in my undergrad). In research, I often see shame subsumed under stigma, which is unfortunate. Shame is not necessarily a part of stigma. It’s kind of like saying stigma is this nicely gift-wrapped box handed out as a party favour to every person who finds themselves with a diagnosis. An example of this that ties into these concepts is self-stigma; in particular, it is the idea that self-stigma is not just feeling depressed, but can manifest as an energizing anger or just nonchalance (great open access article here).

I can certainly attest to being absolutely furious in the months following my diagnosis (for many a reason). I also acknowledge the deep depression I was experiencing and how that was affecting how I viewed myself and the world. Nowadays, I don’t give the idea of shame much thought because it’s not really part of my mental illness experience anymore. But acknowledging this is a very real experience for many, I’ll attempt to give some advice. So take it or leave it, but know that shame is transient and can be resolved.

Dealing with Mental Illness Shame

No, there is no step-by-step process. There is no guidebook, no easy way to dispose of shame. It takes time to grapple with this concept. It takes a willingness to face parts of yourself that you don’t want to see. Dealing with shame means confronting life as you live it and acknowledging it may not just be something you’re feeling. Is there a place you frequent that makes you feel shame? Are people around you contributing to your shame (be it good or bad)? Shame can be a monster squeezing you until you cry or can’t breathe. It can also be a comfortable, but old jacket that you’re scared to take off. It takes many shapes and forms. My foremost recommendation is therapy. Find someone skilled at holding your hand as you face your shame. You don’t need to, and probably shouldn’t, do it alone. This is especially true if shame is disrupting your ability to perform day-to-day actions.

 Is shame part of your lifestyle?

What does shame make you do? What does shame make you think? Or rather, how are you letting shame dictate your life? What percentage of your thoughts sound like shame? Are you harming yourself (mentally or even physically) because you feel shame? Is shame silencing other parts of your thoughts that you want to talk about? There is a myriad of questions I could list. I share them as a way to start thinking about shame. A technique that can be used to deal with shame is journaling. Whether it’s traditional diary-style or a concept map or even sketching and notes, this can be immensely therapeutic. The combination of therapy and journaling has helped me immensely throughout my mental illness journey. Mapping out which areas of your life shame affects can help you begin to say, “Okay, here’s where I need to start dealing with shame.”

Contribute to a Caring Community

While it’s easier said than done (especially if shame is getting in the way), a large part of help I received was simply by talking to other people who shared my experiences. So I asked a friend of mine to elucidate this concept by sharing her experience:

When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 1, it was really validating; mind you, I was diagnosed while I was in the highest mania I’d ever experienced, and barely anything affected me negatively at that time. The medication I was first prescribed didn’t do anything to abate the symptoms of mania, and I was also experiencing psychosis, which wasn’t initially diagnosed with the bipolar. When I was prescribed a medication that worked, however, the dreamy world of psychosis faded away, and my mood switched over to depression, accompanied by the notorious feelings of guilt, shame, and humiliation which flooded my every waking moment. It wasn’t until about 2 years later, after I had tried all kinds of medications, that I sought out support groups, and the shame finally started to abate. I also joined a speaker’s bureau and publicly shared my experience with bipolar and psychosis. This was absolutely the last thing I wanted to do when I was first diagnosed, but speaking about my illness with strangers, and talking to members of the audiences really opened my eyes as to just how common mental health issues are. There are so many people out there who are wanting to talk about mental illness, but who feel silenced by the stigma that surrounds it. The validation I received from speaking publicly has empowered me to move forward in my life and to not let my label hold me back from achieving my goals. -Tracy W.

Tracy brings up a great point that I think has helped me the most. Talking about my experiences to strangers has empowered me in my mental illness journey.

Labels, Labels, Labels

It also took me a couple years to work this stuff out, so buckle up because it will most likely be a time-consuming ride. Eventually what I realized is my shame was tied to the label “bipolar disorder”. This is a more complex section of this topic because it also ties into identity and how I came to understand shame in relation to my bipolar. I’m in the process of forming a new relationship with the word “bipolar”, which may sound a bit odd but it’s the stage I’m at with myself. Some people have said to me before, “How can you possibly be grateful for a bipolar disorder diagnosis?” I used to want to get rid of my bipolar more than anything in the world. Now, I celebrate having bipolar. It’s not like I want an illness, but it’s a part of me and I love who I am. It can be both beautiful and destructive, both expansive and chaotic.

Bipolar disorder has taken lives and created suffering for many. I respect that people don’t view it the way I do, especially since I was given the label in a time when I can speak out about it without consequences. I encourage critical thinking about emotions in not just their emotional senses, but behaviourally and cognitively as well. I hope some of this helps in the swamp that can be shame.

How do you deal with shame? I’d love to hear from you!

What does it feel like to have bipolar disorder?

Every time someone asks me this question, I ask them this question: “Well, how much time d’you got?”

It’s a good question. I’m glad people are asking it. But it’s not the best question to ask from my bipolar perspective. It’s kind of like if I were to ask someone, “So, what’s it like being you?” Where would you even begin to answer that question? More importantly, if you only had a few minutes, how would you feel about your answer? Would it represent who you are? I like to think we’re more complex than that.

When people ask what bipolar disorder is like, I think what they want to know is what it’s like being manic, being depressed, living with the stigma, taking medication, hospitalization, etc. — the details. But I think it’s easier to ask the broad question rather than the specifics — perhaps due to fear of prying and other factors, I’m sure. Yet asking “what’s it like having bipolar?” is a very personal question. Sometimes it’s a question that is very raw and emotional for the person now faced with answering it. Sometimes it’s a question people are still struggling to identify in themselves. There’s no simple answer and the answer is different for everyone. It’s no different than asking what it’s like existing on this earth; it’s just a certain kind of experience that not everyone has.

There are plenty of experiences I don’t have that I’m curious about. I’ve probably made this mistake somewhere along the way of trying to understand a broad experience rather than the person in front of me. What dismays me is there are more than a few articles out there on the World Wide Web that start with “this is what it’s like having bipolar disorder”. To my relief, some of them do come with the disclaimer *that this is just what it’s like for me. But many don’t, and therein lies the issue. Every person describing “bipolar disorder” is describing their lives in the context of having bipolar disorder. It’s an important distinction because we’re unintentionally stereotyping bipolar disorder by not pointing out the individuality inherent within that clinical label.

So in an effort to try to nudge people to ask different questions, here are some of my suggestions if you want to approach someone who has already disclosed their bipolar disorder to you:

  1. Ask them: “Hey, how are you? How’s your day going?” Have a genuine check-in with your feelings and theirs. This is how we start conversations when we sit down and acknowledge another human being.
  2. Everyone’s feeling okay? You might say something like this: “So I’m really curious about your experience of bipolar disorder. Can I ask you some personal questions?” Yes, they’re personal questions and it’s good to acknowledge that. If they say no, be respectful of their boundaries.
  3. If they consent to answering your questions, ask away, but be mindful of headspace. Did that person just get out of hospital? Maybe not the best time to be asking them about their experiences.
  4. Be honest with your questions. If you want to know about their most extreme manic episode, then for god’s sake just say so. It’s alright to be curious. Don’t dance around the burning question. You’re by no means guaranteed an answer, but I can definitely say I appreciate it when people get to the point. Also, don’t get upset if you don’t get an answer. It’s personal and confidential information, remember?
  5. Be thankful and express gratitude that this person is willing to share intimate details of their life with you. It takes a lot of trust to tell someone those details.

Even someone like me who writes extensively about my experiences online, I still won’t answer any question that’s posed to me. I choose what kind of content I’m comfortable sharing. There are some questions that only my closest loved ones will ever be privy to. So a rightful ending for this, I do believe, is the emphasis on interpersonal relationship building. You’re not getting to know someone with bipolar — you’re getting to know someone. Just think about that.

Rumination: Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That

So, shower thought (literally): Do I even have time to ruminate?

It was a Sunday night and I was vaguely tired after yoga. Yet, I still had a book to finish, a paper to review, and research to read for class. As I geared up with a cozy blanket in my papasan chair, I thought about the negative thoughts swirling in my head after taking a shower. I’ve always had body image issues, despite being quite active for most of my life. I was noticing familiar phrases floating through my mind:

Look at all that fat. See how much I can pinch there? Work harder, lose more weight. I’m ugly.

All these concepts surrounded me as I picked up my book Under the Bridge: The True Story of the Murder of Reena Virk. (Not exactly great bedtime reading, but that’s what happens when you take a course on school violence.) Suddenly a different thought interjected my stream of degradation:

Wait. I don’t have time to ruminate. I’ve got shit to do.

For some reason that clicked for me, and it’s got me wondering: Can negative rumination be turned off just like that? Is it just distraction, or does it really go away? And over time, will negative rumination disappear? Food for thought, indeed. This common symptom of depression (and other states of being) is a hard habit to break, if it can even be broken at all. For me, I never realized I had been ruminating for most of my life until someone pointed it out and told me I ought to stop. Yes, I’ll just try to be less depressed. I never saw negative rumination as a choice. (As an aside, positive rumination is also a thing.)

What I wonder about now is my participation in rumination. I mean, it’s me, right? Presumably, I’m the one thinking my thoughts. Of course, I recognize the diversity of experiences in the realm of thoughts. But I am an active participant in my thoughts. It’s a behaviour I can default on because I learned it before I learned other ways of coping with my personal negativity. So for those of you who resonate with where this is going, allow me to offer some tips on what’s helped me be more mindful of my rumination.

So you want to ruminate less?

What works for me will not work for everyone, or even anyone at all. At the very least, I hope it can inspire other creative ways to manage rumination — which, I’ve come to believe, can be managed very effectively. I’m not going to say rumination needs to be exiled from the brain; perhaps there are lessons to be learned from rumination, and thus I leave that open for interpretation.

Good Ol’ Mindfulness

Yeah, we’ve heard this one before. I used to be against the concept of mindfulness, calling it “impossible” because my brain just doesn’t do life that way. Slowly I came to realize that one of my largest personality traits, that of a stubborn individual, was inhibiting a healthier me. So I said, Okay, let’s try this mindfulness thing out — textbook style. I’m a bit of a rebel (cue friends “yeah, you don’t say”), so I think I was just being difficult because mindfulness is preached almost like a religion (and rebels obviously don’t need that). It still pains me to say mindfulness works for a brain that is perpetually slammed with thoughts 24/7. Take a look at this Tedx talk:

“Having a different relationship with sadness” is a wonderful idea. Mindfulness can help understand oneself and why negative rumination exists in oneself. The worst side effect of mindfulness is taking care of oneself. Terrible, I know.

Prove your ruminations wrong.

So I have what seems like a constant flow of body image issues in my mind. Take this thought, for example: I’m not skinny enough. Often rational thoughts don’t work on irrational thoughts, but any effort to decrease negative rumination is time well spent. So my process for proving my thoughts wrong goes kind of like this:

“I feel like I’m not skinny enough.” Well, I know that’s a reflection of beauty standards that change over time (neat video example here). So that means my feelings are based on what society considers beautiful. Also, I work out 4-5 days a week. Objectively, I’m in the healthy range of height to weight ratio. I know that bone structure and fat deposition varies immensely from person to person, and that “skinny” is a very vague term. If my body type, as it is now, was on every magazine, I’d be feeling pretty good about myself. So maybe what I’m feeling is more of a visceral insecurity about my body that I’ve had for a long time (maybe one that many women share in Western society).

At this point, I might still feel shitty, but at least it gets me thinking about why I have this thought loop in my head. And I have evidence to the contrary; even if I don’t believe it, that doesn’t invalidate my evidence which is based in an arguably more objective reality. And with this information, I can take steps to counteract my negative rumination cycles. For instance, I can add an extra day of cardio, I can reduce the amount of sugar in my diet, I can limit my exposure to the media, etc. That may not make the thoughts go away, but it means I’m putting effort into saying “no” to that negativity.

Distraction… does it work?

Sometimes I find the emotions attached to my thoughts (or even the thoughts themselves) too overwhelming to deal with. I need to know when to take a step back and when to distance myself from these thoughts. It’s not realistic, and perhaps not even healthy, to always dive straight into these ruminations and navigate them as soon as they come up. Perhaps, one day, that may be accessible for me. But right now, sometimes all I can do is immerse myself in a gripping novel or play a video game — anything to disconnect me temporarily from the intensity of my brain. When I feel calm and when the time is safe, I can go back and look at my ruminations.

Building that relationship with the self…

I believe the foundation of my mental health is built on my relationship with myself. When I know why I find myself “stuck” in thoughts, I can: 1) empathise with myself and 2) work with myself to stop the pattern of negative thinking. This is not an overnight process. I still find myself ruminating from time to time. But the more I get to know me, the more I find I can steer myself in a positive direction. Some other considerations:

  • This is not a method I have used in depressions when I’ve been suicidal. That requires professional help.
  • This is not a method I have used in hypo/mania. That’s a whole bag of goodies of a topic on its own. (Positive rumination, perhaps.)
  • I had to find “stability” in my life before I could tackle this appropriately. I have to figure out, with the help of professionals and loved ones, when I can do this on my own and when I need to seek help.

I’m in a good place in my life. Sometimes I have symptoms and feel the pull either down or up, but I take very good care of myself. So maybe this resonates with others and maybe it doesn’t. At the end of the day, all I hope to do is provide a sounding board for those in need of support.

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 or visit for more on self-harm.

Contextualizing Mental Illness and Recovery

Defining recovery has been a hot topic in my life lately. So what is recovery? There will be few answers in this post, but certainly lots of food for thought. I hope to provide a meaningful context in which to think about recovery. By no means will I suggest that there is a “correct” view of recovery. My only suggestion while reading this post is to keep an open mind.

How to Think about Recovery in the Context of Mental Illness

Is it a no brainer? Au contraire! This is an activity that requires your finest critical thinking hat you can place atop that wonderful think tank of yours (I prefer a top hat). Because examples are quite helpful, I will use bipolar disorder as my mental illness of choice (obviously). So let’s start by acknowledging that people with bipolar have different experiences with that disorder, as well as in life. If this is news for you, I recommend reading the rest of my blog. But for example, a common theme in manic episodes might allude to religious/spiritual experiences; I’ve yet to meet anyone who has had the same episode, or anything close to it. What I did in my manic episode may share common manic behaviours, true. Yet no one had the same milieu that surrounded my delusions, or my internal beliefs about how my world was manifesting. It’s like reading a short story; the structure is familiar, but the content is always different — even if the same topic is being told, it will be told differently. No one is me except me and my story is my own. Obvious, right? But I’m not certain we really think about what that means sometimes.

I have a theory that, for some, our experiences in mood episodes are “extensions” or reflections of our personalities, our thoughts, our beliefs, etc. I know others disagree with me, expressing that such episodes seem to “come out of nowhere.” So already there exists the idea that there is a great deal of variance in the very nuances of just one single facet of bipolar. And it seems that this variance becomes even greater when moving toward a larger scale. That is to say, when we think about an individual with bipolar, we’re thinking about an individual life that is truly unique in all these “little” ways. From those particular X and Y chromosomes to home environment to what kind of schooling (or lack thereof) to cultural norms (or rejection thereof) to the passing of time — every individual has a unique cocktail of the human experience. It’s why identical twin studies are so intriguing, because no set of twins is exactly alike (in part due to epigenetics that we don’t entirely understand).

We could debate this for a while. OR I think for the sake of being practical — because, you know, stigma doesn’t fight itself — we need to accept this reality in order to help others (and ourselves) be healthy and mindful world citizens. So let us begin talking about recovery with this groundwork, or foundational knowledge, to guide us through various postulations.

So how is recovery defined?

I’ll begin with some academic definitions:

Recovery is “a voluntary maintained lifestyle… characterized by sobriety, personal health, and citizenship.”

This definition is offered by the Betty Ford Institute Consensus Panel (2007) and was written in the context of substance abuse/addiction (as used in the article’s abstract). It doesn’t seem, to me, like a very… informed way to understand a group of people (e.g. sobriety has no role in my life because I had any diagnosable addictions). Ironically, the first sentence of the article says “Individuals who are ‘in recovery’ know what it means to them and how important it is in their lives” (p. 221). Already I’m bubbling with questions of such knowledge: Do we know we’re in recovery? Are we deemed “in recovery” by ourselves or someone else or collaboratively? Do we actually understand the significance of what “recovery” means? Like, what does it all mean, man? But seriously, already this makes a lot of assumptions about the person “in recovery.”

Here we are trying to define recovery and suddenly we’re barraged with another large concept of being “in recovery.” We could say the two go hand in hand, but that’s another assumption that actually might be incorrect. On a scale of 1 to “godly intuition,” how certain can we be about the relationship of two things we just started talking about a couple paragraphs ago? I’m gonna go with a -3 until I know more. Onwards:

Recovery is “…something that individuals experience, that services promote, that systems facilitate, yet the specifics of exactly what is to be experienced,  promoted, or facilitated — and how — are not often well understood…”

I enjoy this definition because I think it reflects the reality of recovery. I also like that it admits something we don’t admit enough — we don’t have all the answers. It comes from a 2001 article by Jacobson and Greenley (noted on p. 482) that offered a model to help the state of Wisconsin develop a “recovery-oriented” system for mental health. This particular article claimed that talks of recovery began formally in the 1980s because of research on severe mental illness. That’s over four, almost five, decades ago. The first definition presented here was offered ten years ago; read it again and see just how new it sounds to the authors. It’s like they had an epiphany about a reality many had been living, and still live.

To return to this first definition, a later article in 2012 by McLellan revisited the notion of recovery set by the original authors and offered some criticisms. The first criticism, and perhaps one of the most important ones for our argument here, is that recovery ≠ how recovery happened. Why is this notable? I’m so glad you asked!

Recovery is a Dynamic

Um, what? Feeling a little weird about this one? That’s okay. I’m still figuring out if I’m being clever with this term or if I have no idea what I’m talking about. Maybe a bit of both.

So here’s where we come back to the individual. We noted earlier that everyone is unique. On top of that, we might assume that individuals interact with ideas uniquely. From this point of view, we can ask how one person understands the concept of recovery as it has been labelled in their lives. The labelling part is pertinent to this argument because it changes our rejection, accepting, or modification of our experience of being “in recovery.” Change is why I’m making a dangerous move of defining recovery as a dynamic. To be a dynamic installs a force that stimulates a process of change or progress within an existing process. To put that in human speak: Recovery at its core is an agent of motion. To put that in more human speak: Recovery is what you want it to be and you don’t have to “enlist” recovery as an agent in your life. This allows people to connote the word recovery and make it meaningful in their own lives.

Elaborating on the Process of Recovery

As someone with a mental illness, I’ve thought about being “in recovery” before and identified with it. I don’t identify with it anymore, and I don’t see myself as “recovered.” Recovery itself no longer feels applicable in my life. Many might argue that having a chronic illness — as bipolar disorder is considered — that there is no complete recovery, only periods of being “well” and “ill.” To me this means one of two ideas: 1) one is always “in recovery,” or 2) we don’t fully understand every individual’s experience of their own mental illnesses. Seeing patients/clients “recover” from destructive mood episodes is one thing, but to put that label on them beyond that experience? Is that okay? Are we dichotomizing illness and wellness to an unhealthy extreme? My gut instinct here is to say people with mental illnesses have been subjected to realities shaped by research not informed by the reality of mental illness. Judging by the history of caring for the mentally ill and how much stigma I still face in my daily life (in and out of academia), I think it’s fair to say that.

So what is recovery?

What do you want it to be? Or rather, what do you want it to mean? Recovery, as I’ve argued here, is a concept that is shaped by an individual’s experiences. Some picture recovery as a before and after approach that grieves a “lost” self. Some see recovery as a lifelong journey that will always have bumps in the road. Some (like myself) are stubborn and rebellious and just don’t see the point in applying recovery to life (another post for another time). I don’t think this is something that necessarily needs to be defined so long as we appreciate it has many definitions. We can accept that every person has their own perspective, their own truth. This is messy and doesn’t sit well in post-positivist research that requires nicely packaged definitions and generalizations. But this is a reality that exists — we might even go as far as to say multiple realities because of the complexities of perspective in mental illness (e.g. psychosis).

Agree, disagree, partially agree, throw your hands up in rage or confusion — it’s all good. This is an ongoing conversation (like every other topic ever). There are many facets that I’ve left out of this because I don’t have time to write a book right now. But it’s a piece, a chunk to chew on and perhaps engage with in the larger domain of helping others through their struggles.

Timeless Reveries of the Me Trapped in Mental Illness

Amidst holiday frustrations, something wonderful happened to me: I forgot I was mentally ill. Let me deconstruct that sentence. And please note, as always, this is not meant to generalize to anyone and this is my personal journey.

For those who participate in holiday events in December, it’s well known that such times are full of not just merriment but also a lot of stress. Having finished both school and work for the year, I found myself with the unique opportunity to fully engage with that stress. So what’s a lass with bipolar to do? Well, the answer is, obviously, to take care of myself so my mood stays in check and thus my brain remains in a state of calm. The process I go through in order to take care of myself starts with figuring out what’s stressing me and causing all these imbalances. It didn’t take me long to figure out the core issue:

I’m tired of thinking about my bipolar.

No, like, really fucking tired.

What’s been stressing me out so much is the constant monitoring that I’ve been told I have to do as someone who lives with bipolar. Make sure you go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time. Take your medication at exactly the same time every day. Chart your mood every day. Watch your stress levels. It makes me feel like a time bomb waiting to go off when I know that’s not the case. It’s like I have to walk on eggshells around myself.

So I decided, amidst the holiday stress, to forgo the notion of being mentally ill. Because this is the field I work in, I realized I immersed myself so much that it was becoming unhealthy. So over the holidays, I took my medication as scheduled and I made my daily mood entries mood app. I stopped reading, writing, and thinking about mental illness. Instead, I remembered myself; I remembered the self I recognized before I was thrown into this world.

It was serendipitous timing, as I was in the San Francisco (SF) Bay Area visiting family and friends — where I went to high school and partly grew up. Despite being a time of immense suffering for me, being there was also where my stable identity was formed. I first dyed my hair blue and went to my first metal concert in SF when I was fourteen. The last time I had blue hair was last month and my last metal concert was a few months ago. I revisited the areas I used to frequent as a teenager: I went to watch the ocean at various beaches that have always brought me peace; I strolled up and down Haight street, peeking into those stores with the clothes I can’t seem to find anywhere else; I browsed the aisles of a notable health food store in memoriam of my days of being opposed to anything that wasn’t “natural” (and bought an amazing body wash literally made from Cascadian forest materials). I remembered me.

I ended my stay in Santa Cruz feeling quite at home with myself. I didn’t get much time to reflect on the 18-hour drive home (that we started at 12am — never again, I said), and I still haven’t until now. It just so happened that I had to move apartments and start a new school term the first week of 2017, and I’ve already seen my psychiatrist once. The stress train is still chugging along. Yet I’m not worried about losing myself to my world of mental health and mental illness — not after forgetting for a few weeks that’s a large part of who I am, but it’s not the biggest part of who I am.

For years bipolar disorder was the centre of my universe. Now it’s more on the periphery. Part of this is because I made it my mission to take care of myself and be dogmatic in treatment in self-care. And it’s not like I’m stopping that — I’m just making it less noticeable. I don’t go to bed at the same time every night because it’s not practical as a student. Sometimes a few hours will pass after dinner before I realize I need to take my meds. I learned to love exercise, which I truly believe is the best medicine for me. I finally have a nook in my home that I created to remind myself of my artistic side, and to be generally comfortable in times of discomfort. I have learned many interpersonal skills that help me navigate all my relationships to reduce stress and increase awesome. These are all parts of having a good quality of life that are very important for everyone, but can be especially so for people who have mental illnesses. I’ll always recommend “mental illness proofing” every aspect of life. Having established that in my own life, my journey moves on to other paths.

I have a hard time agreeing with the saying that mental illness does not define a person. It historically has, and what I’ve had to deal with myself is acknowledging that is part of the package — despite rejecting and knowing my bipolar does not define me. Entering psychiatry is not just entering an office — it’s entering the history of psychiatry. So perhaps my next journey is looking into this “historical” self and how it has shaped and continues to shape who I am. For now I am content knowing that I don’t feel stuck in what to write about and that I can write more freely about ideas that I’ve been on the brink of discovering. Stay tuned.

Picture taken along the coast of Northern California.