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The Sense of Relief I Feel in the Psych Ward Waiting Room as a Break From the Neurotypical World

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There is something romantic about the emergency psych ward waiting room. That characterization feels impolite, as well as a bit hackneyed in its cartoonish bipolarity. One thing I feel about being bipolar, though, is that some of the stereotypes about us aren’t exactly wholly inaccurate, and that’s OK. I have never been one to shy away from sounding like a pre-New Girl Zooey Deschanel character. The moods on the manic spectrum are often described as manufacturing a more colorful, poetic world for the manic person, but I feel it is important to point out that this landscape is no more a mirage than is the gray, prosaic landscape that depression renders with its own, glacial artistry. The world truly is colorful and poetic, at least to the same extent that it is not.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

To me, the romantic thing about the emergency psych ward waiting room is the fact that it is a break from the neurotypical world. Here is an assortment of experts at feigning functionality, who suddenly find themselves in a room devoid of that social expectation. It is a break from pretending, a safe space where you are allowed to recognize that you don’t feel safe, and act accordingly. Whether that means screaming and pounding the door to the receptionist’s office, talking loudly to yourself, or just tapping your foot rapidly and playing a puzzle game on your phone while listening to the same Lowertown song on repeat, depends on your own unique brand of mental illness.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 2 at the age of 18. I am now 24 years old, and I have only recently gained an understanding of one of the fundamental implications of my diagnosis, namely the fact that I have no idea what it feels like to not be bipolar. I used to view my disorder as a layer coating my inner non-bipolar person, and I used to have faith in my introspective ability to separate the two. I used to have a familiar relationship with the neurotypical version of myself, who I saw as alive and well somewhere underneath my bipolar exterior, but now I can’t imagine a more unattainable stranger.

I feel odd when people ask me questions about my disorder and I am expected to give answers that compare my experience to that of neurotypicals. I feel awkward about the gravitas and expertise assigned to my answers, because I think that this flattering imbuement is derived from the assumption that I have twice the knowledge of someone with a typical brain, that I am capable of appreciating my experience in relation to the normalcy of who I would be without my diagnosis. I feel thrust into a position of unavoidable duplicitousness, because the reality is that I have no such appreciation. I could just as well be asking questions about what it’s like to not be bipolar, and my curiosity would be completely genuine.

Such questions have been on my mind a lot lately. What is it like to be able to act on your impulses? To know how you feel without giving yourself a week to see if the sentiment remains or fizzles out? What is it like to live in a world where the illusion of robust personal continuity hasn’t been shattered by meds that carelessly remodel your inner decor? What is it like to be able to shirk healthy routines for a few weeks without worrying that this laziness could present a very real hazard? What is it like to be able to go through life without the need to maintain a constant and precise awareness of your mood at any given moment? What is it like to be able to sleep?

It must be easier, I think to myself, immediately followed by an obligatory reminder about how everyone has their own things to deal with, and who am I to dismiss other people’s struggles as “easier”? The thing is though, that that thought is not meant as a dismissal. I don’t think neurotypical people are less worthwhile, and I don’t think their problems are less important than my own. But I do think their lives are easier. And there is some resentment present in that opinion, though not so much directed toward these people whose lives are easier. I cannot recall any moment from my life where I experienced that particular kind of jealousy, I’m just obnoxiously enlightened that way. I don’t covet the experience of neurotypicals, but I resent the fact that the world I have to live in so often seems tailored to people who are already privileged by nature of the brains they happened to be born with. It seems unfair to me that the world should be consistently accommodating of people who are already fortunate.

But, I remind myself, that is the nature of privilege. And the righteousness of my grievance is somewhat curtailed by the fact that I am immensely privileged in other aspects of life. I have no idea what it is like to not be bipolar, but I also have no idea what it is like to be hungry. That said, privilege in one frontier of survival does not necessarily compensate for disadvantage in another, even if my kind of privilege, i.e. a peaceful and wealthy existence, certainly has irrefutable benefits which bleed over into my experience with mental illness.

For example the private and not inexpensive therapist who my mother pays for, who accompanied me to the emergency psych ward waiting room two weeks ago. I don’t mean to be flippant when I say that there is something romantic about that room, because it is definitely not a pleasant place. It is a destination at the end of many different kinds of journeys that all have one thing in common: danger. You might be there because you have run out of life-saving medicine, or because you feel yourself losing your hard-earned grip on reality, or because, as was the case with me: you recently found yourself self-harming for the first time in years, and your suicidal ideation has altered shape from manageable intrusive thoughts to overwhelming yearning.

I was severely unwell. And yet, despite seriousness of my situation, despite the innate self-obsession that comes with being suicidal, and despite the unpleasantness of the environment, I was able to look around and appreciate this room as a welcoming haven in the middle of an often shockingly inconsiderate neurotypical world. I felt a sense of kinship with the other patients in this room, and I imagined how much more inclusive the world would be if these people had been consulted in the process of its creation. Without invoking the tired metaphor of being in the eye of the storm, I’ll just say that while I was surrounded by the violent weather of my mental illness, I was able to feel profoundly grateful to be in a room where I did not have to pretend to be well.

The world may not be ours, but this room is.

Getty image by Martha Dominguez de Gouveia on Unsplash

Originally published: March 7, 2023
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