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How I'm Embracing a 'Broken' Piece of Me to Make Something Beautiful

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As I sat and watched Meryl Streep’s speech with tears streaming down my face, a thought kept repeating over and over — how will we get through this? And then she said something that punched me in the gut and made my tears dry up. She quoted Carrie Fisher: “Take your broken heart and turn it into art.”

Ironically, I’d just finished watching the new HBO documentary about Carrie and her mother Debbie Reynolds, just as the speech was being shared all over social media. Meryl Streep’s words and Carrie Fisher’s prompting to turn our pain into something beautiful lead me to pick up my friend Jacob Nordby’s book “Blessed Are the Weird – A Manifesto for Creatives.” The book is my go to these days to help me understand the thin line that seems to exist between feeling a sort of madness and being creative all at once. When I am in a manic phase, much like other bipolar diagnosed creatives, I feel in touch with the “real” me, and this is when my fingers take to the keyboard, my brain comes to life and out of me flies creative and different ways of seeing the world. It’s moments like this one that always beg the question – does a touch of madness exist when we are our most creative self?

In “Blessed Are the Weird,” Jacob addresses this very question in his chapter on misfits, he lists out some of the people we know and love who were diagnosed with mental illnesses and who created brilliance in our lives. It is these people who embody Carrie Fishers statement. I think it’s OK to embrace that “broken” piece of us and allow something beautiful to come out of it. I think sometimes it’s part of what makes us human. We all have fundamental needs that require meeting, and for some of us it’s being able to say I have a mental illness and I’m going to be creative anyway. Art is a form of therapy in and of itself, and by art I mean anything that moves you to want to get outside of yourself and create something. A sort of healing occurs when we give this a chance. When I write, much like I’m doing right now, it is cathartic and helps me process the steady stream of “noise” in my mind. Some people paint, color, play music, draw, make movies, do stand-up comedy, write poetry or fiction, some even become so creative that whole new technologies emerge. And some write their life stories and share their struggles to feel less alone, it’s why communities like The Mighty are created or why books like “Blessed Are the Weird” are written, or why we revere words spoken by someone who championed mental health awareness and was full of creativity. We do these things to feel less alone, to hold onto the connection between all of us, even those of us who walk the thin line between madness and creativity.

In the challenging days ahead, that may lead us to wont to despair, I am choosing to turn my life into a piece of art. I’m choosing to find connections to the people and things that matter and make a difference. When we find ourselves in the thick of madness not of our own doing, but of merely being part of a maddening world, we feel usually one of two ways — like we’re stuck with no way out or like we want to run away as fast as we can. I challenge you, as I challenge myself, to feel a third way that is more liberating — find a way to make use of the broken feeling and turn it into your own kind of art. The world needs more of us to do that. If there’s one thing that you do this year for the sake of your mental health, find a way to channel your feeling of brokenness. I promise you, you’re not alone in this quest, you’ve got an army with you, rooting you on. Let’s go forth and create something, and maybe what emerges will be a better world.

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Thinkstock photo via Thomas Northcut

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10 Bipolar Basics for the Newly Diagnosed

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If you have recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, there are a few basics you should know. You’ll likely find them out on your own, but it might take a while.

So here are some tips to help you on your journey:

1. Being bipolar isn’t necessarily a tragedy. It’s a chronic illness. At times it’s better, at others, worse. It’s not a death sentence and it’s treatable. You can still live a full and satisfying life.

2. You will need help. To live with bipolar disorder, you need a support system. Unfortunately, your friends and family may not be all that supportive. Fortunately, there are online support groups. But the most important parts of your support system – at least at first – are your psychiatrist and your psychotherapist. I recommend having one of each. Psychiatrist for medication and therapist for talk therapy.

3. You will most likely need medication. And the odds are good you might need them for the rest of your life. Don’t panic. After all, diabetics need insulin, usually for life. You may hate taking pills. You may hate the idea of being dependent on them. You may hate the fact they remind you of your brain’s difficulty functioning. But realize meds will make your brain’s functioning less difficult. They are worth the hassle.

4. Everyone is different. Everyone’s symptoms are slightly different. Everyone’s medications are slightly different. Everyone’s reactions to their medications are slightly different. A support group can help you with general information, but it cannot tell you what is ultimately best for you. Your particular symptoms and your unique version of bipolar disorder may well require different medications in different amounts than your friends. And you may have different reactions to them. Some have no effect at all on one person, but are lifesavers for another.

5. Getting better takes time. Once you have your diagnosis and your medication, don’t expect to feel better quickly. It takes time. Then your doctor may assess how well the medication is working and change the dose or even the medication itself. Then you may go through another six weeks of waiting for the new dose or drug to take effect. Each case of bipolar disorder requires a medication regimen tailored specifically to the individual.

6. There are several different types of bipolar disorder. The two main types are called type 1 and type 2. Type 1 is the classical bipolar disorder, which used to be called manic depression. Type 2, a more recently identified version of the disorder, often manifests as mostly depression, possibly with hypomania, a less severe version of the ups that accompany bipolar 1. Other forms of bipolar disorder are rapid cycling, in which one’s mood states alter quickly, even within a few hours. Another part of bipolar disorder is called a mixed state. Mixed states occur when a person experiences both extremes of emotion at the same time – for instance, depression and irritability, or fatigue despite racing thoughts.

7. The odds are that you already know someone with bipolar disorder. One in five Americans will have a psychiatric illness in a given year. But because we don’t talk about it, sometimes no one ever knows. When bipolar disorder is treated properly, a person with the illness can maintain function in society and choose whether or not to share the diagnosis with friends and coworkers. Many people choose not to because of the stigma surrounding mental illness. It’s a valid choice, but it can cut the affected person off from possible support and understanding from others.

8. Relationships can be difficult, but are not impossible. Relationships are difficult for everyone. People with bipolar disorder have relationships that are difficult, too. The disorder may make relationships even more difficult, especially when a loved one does not understand the symptoms, medication, mood swings, anxiety, fatigue and other facets of bipolar disorder. The best cure for this is education. Sometimes it may not be possible for a relationship to survive bipolar disorder, just as a relationship may not survive trauma, grief, addiction, infertility, incompatibility, meddling relatives, infidelity, parenting or a host of other conditions. It may be better to look at all the circumstances surrounding a troubled relationship rather than automatically blame bipolar disorder for difficulties.

9. Learn all you can. Because bipolar disorder is so misunderstood by the public, because it manifests differently in nearly every case, because a person can be actively struggling or in remission, because a person may have any of the different types of bipolar disorder, because everyone is different – the need to educate yourself and probably those around you is essential. The more you know, the less you’ll panic when a symptom you haven’t experienced before suddenly hits. Rely on reputable sources. Medical, psychiatric or psychological websites are usually the best. Support groups can offer much information, but the people in a support group may not be any more well-informed than you are. And beware of people selling “miracle cures” that can lure a person away from needed medication and other services.

10. Keep trying. It’s hard. It’s frustrating. It’s difficult. It’s painful. It’s confusing. But bipolar disorder is something you can live with and even something you can rise above. The secret is to keep trying. Keep seeking out therapy and friends who support you. Keep taking your medication even if you don’t want to. (Stopping your medication without advice from your doctor can be dangerous, so please don’t try that.) Be stubborn. When you feel like giving up, tell yourself maybe things will get a little better in the morning. Hang in there. You may not realize it, but there are people who need you in the world.

Do you have any other tips for the newly diagnosed? Please share them in the comments section.

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Image via Thinkstock

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How My Recent Hospitalization Helped Me Prioritize Rest

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It’s Friday night. Not yet 8 p.m. and I’m a zombie on the couch. Beyond exhausted. I went back to work this week after a recent hospitalization. This means I had to “keep it together” for five days straight. Sometimes not even my husband understands what it takes to maintain. What it takes to keep the anxiety, panic, tears at bay. Stay on task. Concentrate. Remember. Not give in to paranoia and rumination. I’m just sure my boss and coworkers hate me for taking time off.

One of my goals coming out of the hospital was to learn to leave work at work. I’m a perfectionist and some might argue a workaholic. I think being successful at my job defines me. It gives me purpose. When I have to take a leave of absence because my out of control bipolar disorder symptoms are threatening my safety, I feel like a failure. I feel like I am letting people down. The idea of self-preservation can be so foreign to me.

I need to develop hobbies, likes and interests. After experiencing mania, psychosis and depression, I lose sight of who I am. I’m fighting so hard to find stability I get lost in a clinical treatment world. At home, what do I do with myself? I no longer want to compare myself to who I used to be. Hang on to remnants of the past that no longer serve me. It’s time to embrace myself as I am. Develop new hobbies and interests.

Another part of the equation is self-compassion. It’s OK I’m not out partying on a Friday night. I need some quiet time. Time to recalibrate. Have lower expectations. If I need to let out pent up emotions, that too is OK. This isn’t always my husband’s idea of a good time. We have agreed if he feels the need to “hit the town” after work he is more than welcome to do so. If I need to stay home and rest, that’s perfectly acceptable.

As I slowly melt into the couch, I experience the benefits of self-care. Honoring my needs is truly important. My hope is this attention to myself will re-energize me for the weekend so I can begin the journey of me.

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What You May Not Know About the Person With Her Phone Out at a Concert

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Has everyone heard the phrase, “Take a picture, it lasts longer!”? It’s usually in regards to someone staring and tends to be thrown out a little sarcastically. I sometimes live by those words.

I go to a lot of shows and concerts. It’s always a lot of fun for me, especially if I’m with a good group of people. Even on my own, I still leave with a smile on my face. Lately, I’ve started to notice this trend among artists and DJs alike: telling the audience to put their phones away and enjoy the music. Discussions on social media have popped up about the topic, often shaming people who take photos and videos at live shows.

Those comments have begun to get a little bit irksome, not only because of how generalized they are but because they hold judgement coupled with lack of insight about others. As technology progresses, more and more people seem to be complaining about those who take advantage of it most.

For someone coping with a mental illness, it can be more than just taking advantage of the amazing things we have right in our palms. It can be a coping skill.

When I’m depressed, or even just feeling a little blue, taking my phone out and scrolling to my favorite memories can make me smile. I can watch the videos I took at my favorite show or look at the picture I got to take with a band. I remember the euphoria of being caught up with a crowd, the all-consuming energy. I remember being in a swarm of bodies, everyone jumping and screaming and singing every word. I remember feeling so incredibly grateful that I get the opportunity to hear some of my favorite music live.

On the one hand, I get the frustration of others being on their phones. Screens are in front of you, occasionally blocking the view of the artist or someone knocks you off kilter because they aren’t looking up. But, ultimately… whatever, right? The show will still go on, and you can still have the time of your life just by taking a step to the side.

It can be incredibly difficult for me to dredge up things to be positive about when all that’s on my mind is how badly I want not to exist. Living in the moment can feel like living in a nightmare. Having some of my favorite memories at the tips of my fingers reminds me I won’t feel like this forever. It reminds me that, while bipolar is cyclical, I
have still made it through the times I thought I wouldn’t.

I watch the videos of my favorite DJs or bands playing my favorite songs and if I close my eyes, sometimes I can put myself back there again. And for a brief moment, the same feelings can wash over me and everything doesn’t seem so overwhelmingly terrible.

So, to all the other show-goers I share standing space with: I will be the one with her cell phone up in the air, recording a video during some songs and screaming herself hoarse. Let me know if my phone is in your way, and I will gladly move over. But anything that reminds me I’ll be able to be OK again is something I’m going to continue doing.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

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My Connection to the Life and Death of Carrie Fisher as Someone With Bipolar Disorder

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I can’t sleep. I’m heartbroken by the loss of Carrie Fisher and have cried a lot this evening, cycling between reading quotes from her, listening to audiobooks she wrote and performed, watching gifs of her on Tumblr and one video of a young boy getting a kitten for Christmas and sobbing his little heart out, unfettered and unedited by his family, who embraced his emotion.

Let me explain why I think Carrie Fisher dying has hit me so hard. I obviously didn’t know the woman. I wasn’t upset when we lost Prince, David Bowie or Victoria Wood. But there is a sense of kinship between people who struggle with mental illness.

I don’t really know if anyone else feels this. I suspect they do, but that’s part of mental illness. Isn’t it? It’s a solo experience. You never quite know if anyone else is going through what you’re going through.

She explained it well in her writing, in the things she said and in the beautiful way she explained bipolar disorder (the condition I live with) to that little kid at Comic-Con. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s this sense of family with people who speak openly about their life with mental illness that I really respond to. With some people, it’s stronger than others.

When Robin Williams died, I felt the same. I think that’s the only celebrity death, before this one, that’s ever truly upset me. I wrote about it at the time, but the tragedy for me was something along the lines of: There’s another one of us who didn’t make it. It ruined me. This idea that so many of us lose our lives to these conditions.

In one way, it’s frightening. When this particular line of thought comes into your brain, it comes with an unsettling sense of inevitability. Of course, this thing is going to get me in the end. Of course, it’s going to get to be too much, and I’m going to get lost amongst the rushes. Of course, I’m going to have to mark the end of the sentence.

The sadness, the mania and the sense of inevitability all tie together with a numb resolve at that point, and you’re just still/motionless. Perhaps because Robin Williams was high profile, or at least visible and accessible through his films, that was tragic and saddening to me. I know people die from depression every day. The knowledge of it is often faceless, until it’s a face you recognize.

None of this relates to Carrie Fisher. Yet, in the way she spoke about her mental illness when she said, “There’s no room for demons if you are already self-possessed,” it seemed like she was one who knew what she was talking about. She seemed smart and light, yet perfectly frank about her fight. So she proved you could be both: broken and alive, which sometimes feels like a completely impossible task. She was successful, but it didn’t feel like she needed to be. To me, how I read it, the success that was most important was the fact that she was still here, and this was good enough.

When I struggle to make anything resembling music these days or another essay falls flat or when I realize a week has gone by and I can’t remember any of it, I was always inspired by the sense of, “OK, I haven’t died yet, and I’ve often thought that I would.”

I’m sad when I think about all of this, and it’s triggered by the loss of Carrie Fisher. Although it’s not the same sadness I would feel if I lost someone who was in my life every single day, who I’ve grown with and loved, it’s a different kind of sadness for a different kind of loss. The loss of someone who was inspiring and who was a sort of sister and distant mentor if that’s not too grandiose. I don’t think it is too grandiose, though, because ultimately a mentor requires a student, and I learned a lot from what she wrote and what she said.

I’m sad there won’t be more of it. I hope I’m going to continue to find comfort rereading and revisiting the things I read from her. Sometimes, it’s not necessarily the things she said or did that were inspiring, but the way they translated into my mind, the way I took the raw material and mashed it into a lesson for myself.

There’s so many facets to mental disorders and how they’re experienced, viewed and discussed. There are so many nuances that sometimes make it worse. I don’t know how to finish this because there’s so much I feel like I want to say, and I can’t figure out how to organize it. So I’m sitting in my bed, smoking cigarettes and trying to put things into boxes in my head because it feels like a messy sewing box in there at the moment, pins, threads and spools everywhere, all clumped up.

I keep hoping it’s going to be easier at some point to not find it so difficult to talk about my mental illness. It’s one of the reasons I got off social media because I felt like I was becoming a caricature of my condition, with periods of absence followed by gushes of activity and garrulous chatting. I wish it didn’t feel like coming out of the closet again and again and again.

Given that I know this feeling is coming from me, it feels pretty futile to beseech people to talk more about mental illness. How much can that help when it’s me who’s resisting? Yet, I don’t know the answer to that. I have no idea if my reticence to live openly with it comes from something dark in me or if it’s something that’s been given to me by everyone else.

I don’t know. I don’t have a statement, a plea or a sanctimonious lesson to arrogantly dish out at this point. Yet, I feel like she was a hero for us people living with the shit that comes from nowhere, and I’m sad and feeling pretty undone.

Love,
Alan MX

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Image via Carrie Fisher’s Facebook page.

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What Not to Say to a Person With Bipolar Disorder (and What You Should)

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I’ve had some incredibly touching experiences in the midst of my struggles with bipolar disorder. Unfortunately, it’s also par for the course that I’ve had some really sh*tty ones, too. Over the last decade, I’ve heard so many things, like “There’s nothing really wrong with you, you’re just an attention whore” or “It’s all in your head.” And to that I cheerily reply, “Of course, it is happening inside my head, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” I feel like Dumbledore would be proud.

I’ve come up with a list of phrases I’ve heard over the last 20 years or so that I feel you should never say to someone with bipolar disorder, and why I believe they shouldn’t be said.

1. Snap out of it.

I really hate this expression, because I feel it insinuates I’m choosing to act this way, whatever way that might be. That I have a switch I can flip to go back to “normal.” Fighting the struggles of bipolar disorder can be an all-encompassing job, and to imply I’m not doing all I can to feel better is insulting. Sometimes, all I can do is make it from my bed to my couch, which can feel equivalent to a hike up Mount Everest when I’m depressed. While walking 20 feet can be too much to handle, “snapping out of it” is an even more impossible task.

2. “Why are you doing this to me?

Talk about a guilt trip from hell. I really despise this, because it can make you feel even worse about something you can’t control by implying that you’re doing this on purpose, to be vindictive, or for any other reason. It’s as if they’re trying to make you own their emotions, and give you a weight you don’t need to carry.

3. “Happiness is a choice.”

This one really gets to me. Yes, there are choices you can make to lead to happiness, but there is more to it than that. There are other people who can affect your path to happiness. There are neurotransmitters that affect your happiness. There are situational factors that affect it as well. I’m a fan of Viktor Frankl, who wrote about finding happiness after surviving the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. He even created a school of thought from what he learned there, called logotherapy. He knew you couldn’t just choose happiness — you had to work for it. Albus Dumbledore once said, “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” I love this quote, because it reminds me that what I focus on is what I see best. If I’m dwelling in the dark, I’m not going to find happiness.

4. “Have you thought of trying ____?” or “You should get off all those pills.”

I know this one may be well-meaning, and it’s usually brought up in a loving manner, but to me, it’s still patronizing. It hurts because I have a doctor, and 99 percent of the people in my life know I have a doctor, and we work quite well as a team to keep me stable. I’m not going to risk my stability on an herb that could have grave consequences should I try it. And quitting my meds? I’ve burned so many bridges that the people suggesting this to me likely didn’t know me when I was off all those pills. They wouldn’t want to see that. I know I don’t.

5. “You’ve got it so good, why are you depressed?

This one hurts, probably the most to me right now. I am fully aware of how incredible my life is, how blessed I am and everything I have to be grateful for. I still cry big tears of sadness and feel like I don’t deserve any of it. It’s possible to have a great life and still be depressed. Pointing out everything great doesn’t make the depression go away; it just makes me hate myself more for being an ungrateful brat.

So, what can you say to someone with bipolar disorder? You can say, “I see you’ve been struggling lately, what can I help with?” You can say, “I see you, and I am here with you.” You can even just be silent, and sit and give your presence as a show of solidarity with the person struggling. You can just listen instead of talking. You can offer a hug. I know for me, I had one experience in the psych ward where I was just devastated and the tears wouldn’t stop coming, and the nurse on duty just came and sat with me. And listened. And just her presence was enough to calm me down. She then gave me a hug and gave me an encouraging platitude, and it was enough. I’ve never forgotten that, even though I’m sure she probably doesn’t remember this at all by now. Never underestimate the power of silence.

We all just want to be accepted as we are, warts and all. Treat us as you would want to be treated. And remember this above all: In a world where you can be anything, be kind.

Image via Thinkstock.

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