Exposing your vulnerable self
This week, my essay "Lies Mania Has Told Me" was published in OC87 Recovery Diaries (this is my second time they've published a piece of mine. They're a great mental health resource!). It was deeply personal and vulnerable, as essays perhaps should be. I talked about my greatest shames and regrets, the ways bipolar disorder has threatened to overthrow me and my life. Of course, there's so much more that could be said. And you can read more about this and much more about my bipolar disorder, eating disorder, and alcohol addiction in my family, and how food has helped me heal, in my essay collection coming out in September titled "Feed Me."
This essay was emotionally difficult to write, but, when I set out to do it with a specific task from an editor, it just poured out. I think it's something I needed to get out there. In my experience, publishing my most personal, devastating traumas (including this near-death experience), has let them free from my body. By putting this huge, painful thing out there, in a way, I release it. And so it was with this week's essay. Admitting your challenges and asking for help is hard. Really, really, hard. And speaking openly about your mental health is a radical act that can change the world. Of course, you don't have to publish an essay or speak about it publicly, but normalizing it with your trusted friends and family will help you heal and avoid or at least control future episodes. I promise. Therapy and medications have also been a huge part of my (ongoing) recovery.
A few years ago, I couldn't imagine identifying myself as bipolar to anyone in my life. I was paralyzed when depression came up in conversation, didn't know what to say when someone who was in a workshop with me said, "What's with all this energy?" while I was careening into in a manic episode. I thought it was something I had to hide and I wasn't doing a very good job of it..
During a weeks-long manic episode (prior to my bipolar diagnosis) at a writing residency, I came across another person in my workshop while walking across a field to get to the barn where readings were held. We hadn't talked outside of workshop yet. I really admired her work and I could see the grip anxiety had on her in workshop. It was familiar. As we walked towards each other on a tramped-down path in the field, I could tell she was deep in the thick of it. Her body language, her face, the way she walked and looked down. She looked on the verge of tears. My husband and I had been having problems and emotional arguments had sent me over the edge. I think it was still building at that point, til everything spilled over. That evening was the first time I'd left my room all day. I'd spent most of the day crying. I could tell we were in the same place. I stopped her and said something like, "Look, I know we don't know each other well, and I hope you don't mind me saying this, but I can see that you're in it right now, right?" She nodded, teary-eyed, shy. "I'm going through it too. My marriage...I don't know. I just wanted to say I'm here, I'm having a hard time too, if you need to talk. And I'm not just saying that the way people say that. I mean it. I know what it's like. I can relate. And I just wanted to say I really loved your story. I feel like some people were kind of harsh. I fucking loved it." The look in her eyes was gratitude, relief. She looked lighter all of a sudden. "Can I hug you?" I asked. "I was gonna ask you that!" she said. "Thank you. Thank you." And we did talk later that week when I had an oncoming panic attack in a very disorienting/confusing space on campus. It was labyrinthian--long, winding hallways. I wasn't sure of how to get out of there when my chest tightened and heart raced and I felt dizzy. She commiserated; people with anxiety have to have an exit strategy. I went home and upended my life. She didn't return the following semester.
It was there, in my MFA program, that I first stood in front of an audience and said, "I'm bipolar. I was anorexic as a teenager and spent a week in a teen psychiatric ward of a state hospital." I was so nervous to say that in front of both strangers and people I knew, people whom I respected and admired. I was giving a graduate lecture on representations of mentally ill women in fiction and it felt dishonest to talk about The Bell Jar and not say, "I know how this feels." I felt so much lighter after that. People thanked me, told me of their struggles, some people I didn't even know. And seeing messages this week that friends and strangers connected to "Lies Mania Told Me" has been more than gratifying. It reminds me that I'm not alone, that none of us is really alone. You have a community here.
So, here I am, standing in a field, reaching out. To anyone who needs to know they're less alone, to anyone who wants to understand mental illness more and learn how to take care of themselves. Be well, my friends.