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Finding Where I Fit Within the Language of Diagnosis

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Last summer I curled my hot body between the cool dark aisles of the university library basement.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

I wanted to lie so that my thighs didn’t touch together, so that my arms didn’t have to rest on the other parts of my body. I wanted to find a way to position the thing of me so that I no longer felt my thingness at all. Could I float just above the ground, could I exist without the feeling of hot touch on my prickling skin? I was crying, but it wasn’t like feeling sad — it was itchy. I wanted to climb out of myself. I couldn’t stop moving — I pulled a white button from my long skirt. I pulled all the thread from the skirt’s hem and I wrapped it around my finger. I watched until my finger turned purple and numb. I was afraid someone might dig me up from this place, afraid I might not be able to slither back into my normal way of being. I was meticulous about performing my sanity. It was important I kept these experiences private. I thought my experience might make me sick. I didn’t want to be sick — didn’t want other people to reinforce the narrative of sickness on my body; my mind. I wondered if my experiences were allowed to happen without being called anything at all.

My partner found me down in the bowels of the library — he who I’d made complicit in my silence. He became the only person who felt safe to be around when I was struggling. Often, I’d stay at Uni until one in the morning before catching the tram to his hot, damp apartment, unannounced. Sometimes I’d sleep all day while he worked at his desk with his shirt off, sweat dripping down his back. I found it hard to be alone, but there was nowhere else to be, so I clung to the space around his body. We were irreconcilably different in our beliefs, our interests — but I pushed for us to stay with one another because I wanted the closeness. He held my hand through the dizziness and I unfurled from the basement of the library. We hobbled up the stairs. It was almost 40 degrees outside. The air felt like it was searing the insides of my lungs. We spoke of getting better and the narrative of sickness and how it might be time to do something about it.

I hadn’t slept for two days. I wrote, wrote, wrote, deliriously, in bed with my laptop on my knees. I drank instant coffee. I walked all the way into the city at four in the morning to watch the sun rising over the river. The work I produced during those overexposed days earned me first class honors marks in half my subjects. I failed the other two. My academic transcript is like some weird reflection of the way I live in quiet extremes. I’m most creative when I’m scratchy inside my body, not sleeping or sitting still. It’s also a time when my control slips, so I might speak too fast for too long to somebody I’m close to. So I might begin to feel afraid. Other times, I am hollow — this is easier to control. It’s as though everything that defines me has been sucked from my body, like marrow from bone. This is the place the scars on my arms and legs come from — scars that make me angry and embarrassed now, because I don’t know who it was that made them. I don’t know how to explain. When I am burrowed in cottony emptiness, it’s easy to stay hidden. I know how to act from this place. Some days I’m like an exposed nerve being scraped against a rough carpet. I can’t breathe.

I told it all to my psychiatrist — I tapped my foot too fast on the carpetty floor and cried and cried. I said I was sorry and I laughed at my crying. I wriggled and my body stank like sweat. He said I had bipolar — said this was hypomania — said I should be taking medication. Valium and lithium. Later, I thought this was funny. It seemed like a cliché.

The valium only worked if I took too much — and then I just slept and slept and missed the way I used to dream, vividly.

Sometimes I’m still angry at the way the lithium takes away the kind of creativity that tears you to shreds, hurts, bleeds. Mostly, I am relieved I can find peace inside my own body. That my writing isn’t always something frightening — that my work no longer emerges from nowhere in big, angry, bursts that leave me grainy eyed and unable to find sleep. Sometimes I see lithium portrayed as a prison — a kind of impermeable barrier between a person and their creative mind. For me, it provides the kind of creativity that doesn’t hurt — something that carries on for months. Sometimes I might skip my medication for a week, let mania creep into my periphery, write from this place. I’m afraid I’ll forget what it feels like. What it feels like scares me, the kind of exhilaration that might come the moment before you fall off a tall building. I’m scared because I’m talking too fast to someone, spending money on things I don’t want, moving, moving, moving. Someone said once that it’s like you’re on cocaine or something. I can’t stop. So I take my medication, or maybe it’s just taking my control back.

Later, I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, but it’s easier to understand it as a way of explaining behavior I learned in childhood. It allows my trauma a place in my present life — recognizes that neglect or violence against the body doesn’t occur in a vacuum, so that now, when I feel like my sense of self dissolves every night while I am sleeping, and when I find my emotions dictate most of my choices, and when I’m so terrified of being alone, I might trace this way of being back, back, back. I might reconfigure old circuits built from trauma.

Often I find myself resorting to diagnosis words — to tell people the words is easier than explaining the thing of them. But I still wish the things I might experience were allowed to happen without being called anything. I wish I was not placed on a narrative of sickness. I have never found the words for what it really felt like — what it really feels like. It doesn’t feel like the way my diagnosis words feel when you say them. It doesn’t feel like I fit into my diagnosis words all the time. Sometimes I am well, and just a person. Mostly, I am just a person. I don’t know if I’m still sick when I am well. I don’t know if other people are OK with me existing as two things at once. Can I be myself when I am OK, and is it OK to still feel sick sometimes? And if I feel sick do I become my sickness? Can I maintain my selfhood, even when I’m sitting inside my cupboard with my arms wrapped around my legs, rocking back and forth. I don’t want to damage the version of me I like most.

I’m sure some people are confused by the way I never shared my experiences until the diagnosis words could explain them. I have kept the thing behind my diagnosis close to me. Sometimes I feel as though the shame lies not so much in the diagnosis words, but in the thing of them. In what they really mean.

They mean; it bleeds and tears and screams and is so full of memories wrapping tendrils around the fragile necks of your dreams that even when you are sleeping, at three in the fucking morning, you cannot breathe.

They mean; I’m sorry I wish you could just inhabit my body for a moment, feel what it feels like, because I don’t have the words for this, because I don’t think it’s my responsibility to make you understand

They mean; I’m just myself. I don’t want to talk about it.

Editor’s note: This piece is based on an individual’s experience and shouldn’t be taken as medical advice. Please consult your doctor before going on or off medication.

Originally published: November 7, 2016
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