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Bipolar Disorder: Elisa Lam’s Blog Shows She Was Worth More Than How She Died

Earlier this year, I watched the Netflix series “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” and felt deeply troubled throughout.

This was not the first time I’d encountered this tragic story of the traveling 21-year-old Canadian student Elisa Lam, who lived with bipolar disorder, and her death inside the Cecil hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Like millions of others, I’d seen the unsettling final footage of Elisa in the hotel elevator, which was initially released by the police while she was still missing. The footage is undeniably strange and in response, people read her behavior in broadly two ways; either she was experiencing a psychotic manic episode and deluded that someone was after her (which is my reading), or more popularly, she was being chased by a sinister or even supernatural being inside the notorious Cecil Hotel.

This second reading was promulgated largely by the many “web sleuths” who rapidly spread their hunches and conspiracies virally. My problem is they too readily take the final footage of a woman alone in an elevator and acting strangely as clear evidence of some malevolent supernatural forces or foul play. It was like they had stumbled on some found footage from a Japanese or Korean horror movie.

I see this preference for fantastical explanations or secret conspiracies over the facts of serious mental illness and the life-threatening impact it can have on a person as not limited to online true crime communities but still so pervasive in most cultures. That is, rather than acknowledge the severe impact mental illness has on our lives and in our communities, it is easier to turn away and seek another explanation no matter how disconnected from the evidence. Perhaps it is easier to imagine a fictional world out there than face what can trouble the mind.

It is clear that in Elisa’s death, her mental illness was misunderstood, discarded and deprioritized for something more sensational and ultimately more “comfortable.”

Elisa herself frequently referenced the difficulties of living with bipolar disorder in her Tumblr blog, Nouvelle Nouveau. Bravely, unsparingly, beautifully. I can really imagine Elisa as a Mighty contributor. Her posts ache with profound pain, longing for normalcy and at other times burst with vitality and insight.

She was one of us and deserves better than to be reduced to speculation around the manner of her death.

I want to bring it back to Elisa herself and pay tribute to how she brilliantly captured the experience of living with a major mental illness. Therefore, I will attempt a tribute to Elisa’s poignant writing because I feel it can bring clarity to who she was and speak to us now. Also, it is an injustice that her own writing has received much less attention than the last video of her alive.

“You’re always haunted by the idea that you’re wasting your life.” — Chuck Palahniuk

Elisa began her Tumblr page, Nouvelle Nouveau, in March 2011 with the above anchor quotation, and she continued posting art and fashion photographs, profound quotations and personal reflections for the next two years.

A significant proportion of her content is not related to mental illness but I focus on how she articulated her mental health struggles. I won’t offer my theories as to her death as I am much more interested in how she lived.

Unfortunately, I can only include a limited number of her many posts — the most affecting ones — and most are abridged. There is no substitute for reading her still-active Tumblr yourself.

Firstly, her experience of highs and lows:

November 4, 2011
“Seriously life
do you think I am built of steel?
I am human after all
I am just flesh my skin can hold only so much together.”

November 6, 2011
“Right now
I am deliriously happy.
My emotions, you are uncontrollable.”

She is equally as vivid writing about the bleakness of her depression, even as she attacks herself for being the reason she can’t get better, and the elevated, fast-hurtling energy of her mania, or hypomania as she calls it. At one stage, she titles the post “Adventures in Hypomania Part I and II.” Here, she writes of the toll this had on her:

October 22, 2012
“A few good days followed by a week of sleeping. That is the pattern. That is the cycle and that will repeat again and again. Maybe there will be a change every once in a while but sheer willpower no I don’t think it [sic] I have it in me anymore to put the effort in once knocked down.”

Elisa’s overthinking and overfeeling are shown clearly in the sense of betrayal she feels in a number of her relationships:

November 3, 2011
“The fact is I am a good person.
I have always been a good friend
I have always been a good sister
and in return I have not been shown respect
I do not deserve this.
No one deserves this.”

Later, only a few months before her death, she shows piercing insight into her intense feelings of empathy and betrayal: 

November 13, 2012 (Abridged)
“I suppose I have accepted that part of me that feels inadequate, so long as I know how it is useful and know that it makes me human and know that is why I try to empathise with people and why I feel emotions so strongly why rejection and betrayal cut me so deeply.”

Elisa goes into great detail to give the origins of her mental illness, which she traces back to the 12th grade of her high school. Firstly, she went on a program living in a different part of Canada but didn’t make a single friend. Then, when she changed her sport from cross country to volleyball, she was constantly sidelined by the coach and also by her teammates.  Lastly, many boys she thought were friends abandoned her because she wasn’t popular or “hot” enough. After this, her depression collapse began:

September 1, 2012 (Abridged)
“So basically my problem was caused by repeated disappointment and rejection concerning ‘friends’ that happened years ago and I still haven’t gotten past it and then it was compounded by my shame because I wasn’t able to handle school.
That’s about it. Everyone has moved on with their lives and I’m stuck in this waiting room, being a professional depressed person and trying to ‘get better’. But get better from what exactly?? What am I supposed to do now.”

But Elisa is by no means a victim of her illness. She writes initially to make sense of her illness, to plan ways out of her illness funk and asks her Tumblr community to hold her accountable. She describes this community as her “solace.” While she remains ambivalent about her diagnosis and especially the amount and efficacy of the medication she needs to take every day, she continues to seek this solace from others both online and offline, even up until a month before her death:

January 21, 2013 (Abridged)
“But I am so very full of … love because last night was evidence that I do have amazing beautiful things in my life and even though everyone is busy and going off doing great things, they do care about me.

“I’m not a profession [sic] depressed person. I am so much more than that and these people are my reminders that I am very lucky. Life is long and difficult and people will always be stupid and complain.

“But it is worth it so long as you have special moments. There will be lots of these moments in the future and there have been a lot in the past. So what if everything is shit and all the plans have gone to hell. If I ask for help, someone might even be willing to spare a hand.

“Thank you friends, family and tumblr. The world is just awesome. Boom de ah dah.”

Finally, I think the post that best demonstrates the essence of Elisa Lam on Nouvelle Nouveau is the advice she gives an anonymous poster who tells Elisa that they love life but sometimes get so depressed. Elisa’s response, just over three months before her death, is profound. Really, the designer of any therapy or therapist would be proud of what Elisa so kindly and eloquently offers this depressed person, and what she offers for all of us living with a mental illness.

This proves she was worth so much more than how she died:

October 16, 2012 (Abridged)
“Oh greyface you have unfortunately become a member of the sad club. We number in the millions and we roam the internet feeling very lonely and desperately want some sort of human connection. We’re petrified of what we’re going to do with our lives, we’re scared shitless but we have to appear cool, we fear the judgment of our peers because we want to fit in and we are all very very lost. […]

“Unfortunately there is nothing that will make this feeling go away immediately … anti-depressants [sic] take at least 4-6 weeks before it kicks in. You’ll fluctuate between high, low, really low, normal, meh, apathy, super great to the pit of darkness of self-loathing and hopelessness before settling into OK I can handle this. Therapy is time-consuming and seems pointless … You still need to do it. Overthinking is BAD and you’re overthinking right now. Going to therapy will help you overthink less about crap you can’t control so you can overthink about the things you can control. […]

“You say you love life and that means you have to live it IN REAL LIFE. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to drag yourself out of this ditch. You don’t have to do it all at once; it’s not going to be a straight path to OK-dom. There will be days where the most you can do is wake up … and that is a PERFECTLY LEGIT ACCOMPLISHMENT. Let those days pass and don’t let them stop you. Put headphones on and blast music. Don’t listen to that voice that says you’re a failure. Go for a walk. Talk to a friend. Do something you used to enjoy. These are the hardest things to do in your current state but I believe you can handle it. Humans can adapt but you must give it time. […]

“We are all suffering. We’re all learning how to deal with it. We all feel the same way and we understand. You are not alone. Please take care of yourself. Sending you all the videos of kittens and otters holding hands … and love.”

Image via YouTube