Shelby Finger

@girlprecarious | contributor
Shelby is an almost 30 year old living on an island in Southwest Florida with her partner, a gaggle of toddlers, and an assortment of cats. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2015, and adult ADHD in 2019. She is a dedicated mental health advocate, writer, visual artist, and hobbit enthusiast.
Shelby Finger

Fears About Being a Mother With Bipolar Disorder

Shortly before I found out I was pregnant, I had come to terms with the fact (as indicated by medical professionals) that I might not ever have children. My uterus is tilted in a difficult position, and I have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). When I first got married, we tried for years to conceive to no result. Having established myself as an artist and content creator in my community, I slowly began to not only accept a childless life but look forward to it. I considered the traveling I could do, the opportunities I could take and the freedom I would have by proxy. As all my ancient great Aunts suggested, the moment I stopped thinking about babies, I was granted one. Immediately, all my dreams of a childless life went out the window and I was elated with the prospect of motherhood. Having to come off my medication for my bipolar disorder , my pregnancy was incredibly difficult. Having to stay off my medication for the grand majority of my breastfeeding experience didn’t help. Once my kiddo was a little more independent and I was able to stretch my legs, I hit a particularly difficult and long manic episode as I transitioned back on my medication. I was engaging in harmful behaviors by day, and rocking my little one to sleep by night. I believe, in retrospect, I did as good a job as I could considering the circumstances, but it left a lasting fear that my bipolar disorder would rear its ugly head again, and when that happened, it would be when my son was significantly more cognizant with age of what was going on around him. I’ve decided to address these fears head-on, but it doesn’t make them any less scary just because I’ve put safeguards in place with loved ones to keep me from derailing again. 1. I fear my son will resent me because of the behaviors he has seen me exhibit. Boy, have I raged. When I am strongly embedded in an emotional swing, my behaviors have gotten erratic and potentially troubling. From hyperactivity to suicidal ideation, I’m never certain who I’m going to wake up to in the morning. Even with tight medication management, the potential for disaster is a constant entity I have to acknowledge to keep myself in check. I have sobbed in the car while my son was in the back seat. I have spent our utility money on frivolous things. I have lost my temper and raised my voice with my son simply for acting like a kid. Someday, when my son is old enough, I plan on holding open, honest discussions with him regarding my mental health. I plan on letting him establish his boundaries with me, just like anyone else in my life whom I value. I try to remind myself during these dark periods that I am a good mother with a great deal of thoughtfulness in my approach to parenting, and if I do my job correctly, my son will have a wider understanding of what mental illness can look like without resenting me. I believe self-awareness and self-policing are key. 2. I fear my son will think he’s to blame for my struggl e with mental illness . Some days, I just don’t feel like being a mom. I believe this is a very normal emotion for any woman who valued the lifestyle she had before becoming a mother. I think it’s a difficult (and deeply stigmatized) emotion to express, and this reluctance to be 100% truthful about our experiences as mothers hurts us all in the grand scheme of moving forward. However, I sometimes fear that my disorder exacerbates this emotion. When I’m feeling manic , I don’t have the capability to act on my impulses. This is definitely a positive thing, and I am grateful for my son’s indirect reminder to be cautious when I’m feeling “squirrelly,” but sometimes this just spawns frustration and unhappiness. I fear that when my son is someday old enough to recognize my fluctuation in moods, he’s going to blame himself for my periodic depression . I keep an extra close eye on how I present myself and my mood swings around my son, as even though he’s too young to pay me any mind, I don’t want him to ever blame himself when I’m struggling with my disorder. My response to this fear is to manage my emotions better and consistently “sidebar” with my kiddo to remind him I love him, but sometimes mommy needs some alone time to process. 3. I fear my son will struggle with bipolar disorder as well. I’ve written on this topic before, but prior to ever getting pregnant, my first psychiatrist told me I was better off without children. How bipolar disorder occurs is uniq ue in each case. Sometimes it’s born of trauma , and sometimes it’s an unfortunate hand-me-down through hereditary circumstances. For me, it was described as a side effect to trauma that could have stayed dormant, was I not predisposed to it. My maternal grandfather has bipolar , as well as my maternal aunt. I waffle back and forth on exactly why I am the way I am, but it never remedies the fear I have that I could hand this disorder down to my son simply by being his mother. Having worked in the mental health field for the majority of my life, I am aware of what untreated bipolar disorder can look like. I’m also aware that, oftentimes, it goes untreated because the individual is reluctant to address what they struggle with. Medication resistance or a flat-out denial isn’t uncommon in people with bipolar disorder , and I worry that, if my son does inherit my disorder, he won’t be as keen on self-awareness and recovery as I’ve worked so hard to be. I believe my approach of open honestly regarding my mental health will encourage my son to regard mental health with the same mindset. At least, I hope so. I plan on fostering an environment with all my children (biological and stepchildren alike) in where they can express all of their emotions as clearly and truthfully as possible. Sometimes, that’s all we can do besides hoping for the best. Being a parent is incredibly difficult. By far, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It doesn’t get easier; with each year, a new set of obstacles arises. The way we police neurotypical parents is bad enough. In our society, there isn’t a discussion surrounding parenting with mental illness . Being honest with myself about my fears as a parent with mental illness has, in some ways, made me a good parent. My self-awareness continues to promote a loving relationship with my son while holding me accountable for my own potential actions. If I can impart anything with this article, it’s that I hope you, as a parent with mental illness , know it’s OK to honor and address your fears alongside your ambitions as a parent. Self-awareness is always key to our best possible outcome.

Shelby Finger

Addressing My Own Stigma Against Borderline Personality Disorder

At the peak of the absolute worst manic episode of my life, my doctor gently brought up the possibility I might have been struggling with borderline personality disorder (BPD) as opposed (or in addition) to my diagnosis of bipolar disorder. At the time, I remember recognizing deep down where the signs and symptoms were lining up, but I was quick to shut the conversation down. At the time, I told myself I wasn’t ready to discuss a re-diagnosis because I had only just begun to really understand my bipolar disorder at the time. I was beginning to advocate for myself and speak out more about what I was affected by. I was really beginning to identify with the term bipolar. In retrospect, I do recognize these factors as totally valid for the time being, but it took me up until quite recently to really dissect and come to terms with why I was four-square against the prospect of being diagnosed with a personality disorder. In 2019, I was diagnosed with comorbid adult attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and took the news in stride. If anything, I was relieved the diagnosis granted me access to medication and treatment I might not otherwise have been able to obtain, and it has helped me in my recovery tremendously. So why, I had to ask myself, was I so persistent to ignore the suggestion that perhaps I was struggling with BPD? Truthfully, I only came to contemplate the subject again very recently, when I was visited by a friend who had BPD. This was a friend I met online a few years ago, and we had maintained a close friendship. I had always wondered what the symptoms of her BPD were, as she always seemed to come off fairly “well-rounded.” Over the weekend we spent together, not only did we talk a lot about our mental health, but I was able to experience time shared with someone who had BPD that was entirely enjoyable. I was even able to pinpoint the positive side effects of her diagnosis, like her immense trust in people, and how excited she got over things she was truly passionate about. I found myself reconsidering my diagnosis a lot this past week, and I’ve had to finally admit I was harboring stigma against people with BPD. When I worked as a case manager at an inpatient facility, we (the staff) collectively rolled our eyes anytime we received documentation on an incoming patient if they were labeled as BPD. More often than not, these were young women in their 20s or 30s. As we were a dual diagnosis facility, they typically came in substance abuse-induced mania. These were, by far, the most difficult patients to treat. The only word that oftentimes came to mind when I was struggling to help one of these girls was “brat.” They were demanding, needy, emotional, rude, hard-headed and wildly dramatic. The way my superiors (such as the clinical psychologists and psychiatrists) discussed BPD left a lasting impression I’ve since come to find was incredibly wrong. Up until very recently, I had considered personality disorders to be somewhat controllable in comparison to bipolar disorder, which I regarded as being uncontrollable. I considered bipolar disorder to be a chemical issue that couldn’t be helped from time to time, and BPD to be something that was, to a degree, a choice. Yes, I acknowledged it was typically born out of massive or repetitive trauma, I just felt like these folks had developed their signs and symptoms as a defense mechanism, and decided along the way that acting “outrageous” got them what they wanted. I am speaking very candidly about this, because I feel all mental health advocates stand to learn something about the members of our culture and themselves. I also fully admit I specifically stayed away from the topic of BPD because of my prejudice. Only now do I realize my developed stigma against the disorder was personal, because I can see my own behaviors are just as aligned with BPD as they are with my mood disorder. The line between bipolar disorder and BPD is incredibly thin already. After picking my friend’s brain over the course of our vacation together, I began to acknowledge the specifics of BPD I have struggled with that weren’t already associated with bipolar disorder. Namely, my interpersonal relationships are a struggle far beyond what I believe my bipolar disorder can cause. Hearing terms like “favorite person” (FP) from my friend, and the occurrence of “splitting” shook me to my core. These were the very same factors I was dealing with when my doctor politely suggested perhaps I was misdiagnosed. In the past, I had doctors look at me funny when I explained I live in a constant state of mania. Even at my best in recovery, I’m always at least a little manic. Although I do experience what I consider depression, it’s so mild and quick-moving, it even feels a bit like a micro-manic episode. This constant state of mania (and bad decisions, impulsivity and obsessiveness that it comes with) is more aligned with the everyday struggle associated with BPD. When I expressed my concern to my friend, she suggested perhaps I shouldn’t look at my mental health as a diagnosis of this, or a diagnosis of that. Instead, she suggested I take a good look at each specific symptom of my mental illness (whatever its name might be) that affects my daily life, and treat that. This was, by far, some of the best advice I’d ever received … and it was free! My friend, by the way, was re-diagnosed with BPD in remission upon returning home from our trip. Having spent time with someone who was thriving with a personality disorder greatly impacted the way I feel about the disorder overall, and helped me come to terms with the fact not only had I been softly stereotyping a disorder that made me uncomfortable, but the fact I was specifically hiding from the disorder because I was afraid of a re-diagnosis. I plan on discussing this revelation with my doctor again, and perhaps taking my therapeutic approach in a new direction. In the meantime, I feel this experience has served as a reminder we are so much more complex than a book can address. A potential re-diagnosis would simply grant me the tools I would need specifically to address and remedy my negative behaviors.

Shelby Finger

Coping With Self-Doubt With Depression and Anxiety

If anxiety and depression had a baby, it would be named “self-doubt.” Also, that baby would suck. Anxiety and depression are the most common side effects in any individual diagnosed with a mental illness . Sometimes it’s general anxiety or clinical depression specifically, and sometimes it’s a symptom of a larger problem such as bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder . I have to remind myself daily that even neurotypical people get anxious or experience waves of depression , and to some degree, managing these emotions are a normal part of being human. Regardless of normality, it’s difficult to handle the scope of self-doubt, which is the perfect storm of depression and anxiety . The struggle is literally in the name: how do you manage your unfavorable symptoms like anxiety and depression when you doubt your ability to do so in the first place? Sometimes self-doubt gets us when we’re applying ourselves to an activity or action, whether it’s a brand new endeavor or something we typically know we’re good at. This week, I’m making candles in the hopes I can open an online shop. Tomorrow, I’ll be experimenting with resin to make jewelry. Last month, I started a collective blog regarding mental illness (Girl Precarious), and a couple of weeks ago, I launched a Patreon to help me pay the bills while I try out this whole “writing” thing. I’m aware of the fact I’m constantly “switching channels” on what I want to funnel my energy into. I used to feel a great sense of pride when I’d skip from activity to activity. I felt like it indicated that I was multitalented and ambitious. On my good days, I still feel this way. On my bad days, however, I’m overwhelmed with a deep sense of self-doubt. I worry I’m wasting my time trying to better myself and my situation. I worry I’m annoying my friends and loved ones with all my activities. I worry I’m a burden on my partner because he works day-in and day-out to pay the bills while I mess around with what (when my self-doubt kicks in) looks like hobbies. I worry, when my self-doubt is present, that I’m just a big joke and everyone around me is in on it but me. Being a person with bipolar disorder , my moods fluctuate not only quickly, but in intensity. Where someone might experience a twinge of self-doubt when their projects aren’t reciprocated, or they aren’t progressing at the pace they feel they should be, I feel waves of palpable self-loathing and embarrassment. The most frustrating part of my disorder is not knowing “who” I’m going to be when I wake up each day. By way of my mood journal, I’ve noticed I almost always feel neutral early in the morning, but when my day is affected by some outside factor, it sets the tone for the rest of the day. If I wake up to an encouraging comment on my blog in the morning, I’m likely to zip through my day with a pep in my step. If I wake up to something disparaging or some light ribbing from a friend that I wasn’t prepared for, I’m likely to float through my day with anxiety and the overwhelming sense I’m a joke, a failure, not enough or too much. In an attempt to prepare for my next swing of self-doubt, I try to remain aware that I’m overcome with emotion when I don’t receive the attention and encouragement I anticipate when I do something I’m proud of. I’m initially aware that this is kind of childish, but in an effort to be gentle with myself, I have to assume that this is, to some degree, a normal human reaction. Naturally, we’d all be better off if we didn’t rely so heavily on validation from others, but isn’t it kind of “normal” to want to be liked? Reminding myself I’m not alone in my emotions is always a first step to defeating self-doubt. Sometimes I don’t feel it, but I still try to remind myself to recite the truth: everyone feels this way sometimes. Regarding self-doubt when progress is concerned, it would be great if we could pick up a new activity or pursue a new dream, and be lucky enough to damn near perfect it from the get-go. Unfortunately, this typically isn’t the case. When things don’t turn out the way we were hoping, self-doubt is a natural reaction. I find it helpful to read the stories behind the people I admire most. I typically find comfort in the fact it has taken most of them years to perfect their trade. It might not feel like it, but you’re getting better at doing whatever it is you’re doing every day, every time you give it a shot. Trust that this isn’t just a “feel-good” narrative, but absolutely the way things work: practice makes perfect. Sometimes you have to ignore the self-doubt and blindly trust you’re getting better and better with each attempt. Self-doubt takes many forms. For me, it’s a fairly short (but intense) emotion that happens sporadically. Just like all my symptoms, self-doubt can be triggered by seemingly random outside influences. Sometimes, nothing at all triggers it — it just happens. I have come to terms with the fact that self-doubt is going to rear its ugly head from time to time, with very little rhyme or reason … and sometimes the trigger is totally valid. Ultimately, the only thing that can defeat self-doubt is sitting tight, holding on and letting the storm pass. If all you can muster is a little self-love, that’s fine. Take a day to lick your wounds and feel sorry for yourself. That’s totally OK. If you feel like you can power through it, the best thing you can do is try to prove yourself wrong. Taking things step by step, I encourage you to try to accomplish something no matter how small. Remind yourself that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and always trust that nothing is permanent. If you’re feeling self-doubt today, know it is totally valid, but it will pass. If you have loved ones you can trust, seeking validation is not always a bad thing. Let them know how your feeling, and let them do what friends and family (are supposed to) do: reassure you that you have something magnificent to contribute to this world because, ultimately, you do. We all do. But, if all you can accomplish today is being kind to yourself while you process your emotions (the good and the bad), that’s absolutely OK. You should recognize you’re already taking the first step towards a more promising tomorrow.

Community Voices

Stop Shaming Me For Taking a Controlled Substance

Shortly after giving birth to my son, I was prescribed a mid range dose of seroquel as an anti psychotic to treat the signs and symptoms of my bipolar. I’ve always been pretty consistently medication compliant, so I gave it a good 2 or 3 months before I couldn’t handle it anymore. seroquel made me sleepwalk on a nightly basis, which was particularly troubling considering I co-slept with my infant son. When I told my doctor I didn’t want to take the medication anymore, she was quick to reassign something more suitable. Anytime seroquel came up in conversation with anyone following my personal experience, I was quick to demonize it, which typically was met with agreement from whoever I was discussing it with. seroquel is an easy-to-demonize medication. It wasn’t until I was prescribed a problematic medication myself, and politely belittled by friends and loved ones for taking said medication, that I realized how wrong I was to openly protest against something that just didn’t work for me.

I have to provide a little back story first to make my point, so bare with me. As an elementary school aged child, I was (like many mentally ill people) labeled as “gifted.” I excelled in artistic endeavors and won state mandated testing awards for my creative writing. On the flip side, I couldn’t stay in my seat, I couldn’t keep my hands “quiet,” and I couldn’t pay attention to anything for longer than a couple of minutes. According to my mother, school officials told her that she should consider Ritalin, which was all the rage for kids in the early 1990s. My mother refused, and despite the fact that I can identify where it would have helped me, I don’t blame her for a second. I’m grateful that she granted me the opportunity to navigate the world of psychotropics on my own as an adult. There are a lot of heated opinions out there on how we medicate young children, and I tend to waffle back and forth on how I personally feel. All I know is that I’m grateful that I gained the experience in learning how to mimic the way neurotypical people behaved, and I wasn’t over saturated in an identity (mental illness) that I wasn’t old enough to fully comprehend yet. I think this varies depending on each case specifically, but we’ll talk about that some other time.

Truly, I have very little history with illegal drug use and I have always been very careful to manage my own medications precisely as I was instructed. This is actually pretty rare for someone afflicted with a mood or personality disorder, as more than 60% of people diagnosed with bipolar report struggling with substance abuse. My own deep seeded paranoia about medication kept me on the straight and narrow and outweighed my desire (which was definitely present) to numb or kill the hindering symptoms of my disorder. I openly and frequently discuss a pretty severe stress induced mental breakdown I suffered in early 2019, as I feel my transparency on the subject is crucial to my work as an advocate. At the time, I was struggling with what I could only describe as disassociation. The sensation of literally just not existing while I went about my day-to-day life was the most debilitating thing I’ve ever felt. When symptoms mutate into something new, it’s natural for a self aware mentally ill person to run down their list and attempt to attribute it to one of their existing conditions. Was my trauma coming back to bite me in the ass? After months of trying to navigate this issue on my own, I finally scheduled an appointment with my doctor to address it. It didn’t take her long to determine that I was most likely suffering from the signs and symptoms of Adult ADHD (AADD), which is more commonly referred to as Adult ADHD.

At first, I thought the likelihood of being diagnosed as having both bipolar AND ADHD was unlikely. Being bipolar (and my advocacy for it) had, at this point, become a huge chunk of my identity. I was much more inclined to accept that my ADHD symptoms were linked to my manic episode, than to accept that I was in fact dealing with co-morbidity. After discussing it further with my doctor, evaluating my history and where certain symptoms didn’t quite fit with my existing diagnosis, as well as following up with some research on my own, I came to understand how the two disorders can play off one another and create a perfect storm: I’d completely skip out on a conversation or activity I was in the middle of, and when I came back down to earth, I was instantly infuriated with myself for not “paying closer attention.” This lead to symptoms of rage, self injurious ideations, and an over all self loathing that can’t be conveyed with words. I had been experiencing this my entire life, but after months of it happening on an amplified level, I wasn’t really in a position to argue with my doctor. I just wanted it to stop.

When I was prescribed adderall, I openly admit that I came right out the gate and asked for it, fully recognizing that I was exhibiting “drug seeking behavior.” The truth is, it WAS drug seeking behavior, but I wasn’t trying to get the “superman” high that everyone reported they experienced when taking amphetamines. I just wanted to be able to focus on a conversation. I wanted to complete a task. I wanted the motivation to shower on a daily basis.

As a predominantly manic episode type, there was a part of me that was naturally cautious. I had always stayed away from antidepressants out of fear that they could kick start a manic episode, rather than “level” me out. Naturally, one would think that adderall could cause the same devastating results. My doctor has always had my best interest at heart (which is increasingly rare these days), and was reluctant to give me what I was asking for. By the end of the session (and a crying fit on my end), she reluctantly agreed to give it a shot by prescribing me a low dose of extended release adderall for one month with strict instructions to check in frequently.

Since then, I could fill notebook after notebook with the love letters I’ve compiled for this pill. For the first 3 weeks or so, I couldn’t help but tell EVERYONE that I spoke to that I was taking adderall. Although they probably felt like I was bragging, the truth was that I was so enthralled with my new found quality of life, I just wanted everyone to know that I finally felt better. My mood stabilizer and anti psychotic are obviously effective, but I always regarded them as keeping something nasty at bay. Adderall on the other hand made me feel like I had been cured of what made me feel crazy.

I’ve been taking adderall for a couple of months now, still on a low dose and extended release. I’m meticulous when it comes to my mental illness treatment plan, so naturally I’ve done all the research that I needed to feel comfortable with this prescription. Yes, I know that my tolerance will increase. Yes, I recognize that it can negatively impact a mood disorder if not taken correctly. I know these things. I also know that without it, I’d be hindered in the worst possible way, because hey, guess what– I’ve been there. I did that already. I deserve to feel okay, and this medication makes me feel okay.

When I tell people that I’m prescribed adderall, I’m often reminded that it’s a habit forming medication with severe side effects when it’s abused. Even after I explain to the best of my ability that the medication has an entirely different effect on me than it does on someone that doesn’t need to use it on a long term basis, I’m typically met with what feels like judgement. I’ve come to realize that people either love adderall for the wrong reasons, or they hate adderall for the wrong reasons. The same can be said about most, if not all, controlled substances. As a mentally ill person whose actually prescribed this medication, it’s my right to determine when and where I feel obligated to elaborate on why I need this specific medication, as I don’t owe anyone any explanation when it’s regarding my own well being. I have been told a handful of times (typically by people belonging to an older generation) that I should expect to be judged if I wave my “problems” out there in the open for people to form opinions on, but we don’t shame diabetics into not discussing their diabetes, so why shame someone with a diagnosed disorder for discussing what affects them?

What this experience has taught me is that it isn’t my right to determine what medication is harmful to others, based on what the overall opinion is of that medication. That is precisely what I was guilty of in my protest against seroquel as a form of treatment. It isn’t fair to the people that actually NEED the controversial psychotropics for society to designate the medications effectiveness based entirely on the experiences of those that weren’t a good candidate for the pill in question, or those that outright abused the medication for recreational use.

By freely pressing a narrative that mentally ill people shouldn’t take certain medications that were designed for them, we’re indirectly messing with someone’s recovery. This isn’t like telling someone they shouldn’t take a max dose of NyQuil and drive. By default, we don’t tell people with cancer to not undergo chemotherapy just because it’s bad for them. So when did society decide it was okay to tell a mentally ill person they shouldn’t take a specific medication (or any medication at all) because a neurotypical person decided it was a bad idea? When did we collectively conclude that the well being and literal livelihood of mentally ill people were less important than pushing an all-natural agenda?

We, as the mentally ill, already live in a culture where we can’t trust ourselves sometimes, and we definitely can’t trust every doctor we’re treated by. There has to be a way to discuss malpractice in America without demonizing the medications that literally keep us alive. Being able to openly discuss our relationship with medication would be wildly helpful to our cause, as we’re still stuck in the era of being concerned about what people think about us, over worrying about our right to mental healthfulness. It’s a crucial step in any mentally ill person’s journey through recovery to stop giving a shit what others think about the fact that they’re prescribed medication, but it’s an extra hidden level to overcome the stigma surrounding specific medications that might make or break someone’s ability to function. Is this just a long winded way of saying “mind your own damn business?” Probably. But ultimately, what I would urge people to do, is to openly and pointedly accept what their mentally ill loved ones are trying to tell them, which is to give us some space and let us make these decisions on our own without fear of judgement.

As a final note, I would also suggest to my fellow mentally ill to be mindful of how they discuss their own negative reactions to specific medications, which I failed to do when I had a bad reaction to seroquel. Let’s take this all the way back to kindergarten, and remind ourselves that we’re all uniquely individual snowflakes. It’s a social symptom of mental illness to be especially vulnerable to the opinions of others, more so when we’re navigating a particularly rough patch. Any mentally ill person will agree, at some point in our lives, we’ve wanted nothing more than to feel the way we think “normal” people feel. Its direly important for everyone to keep in mind that when we casually throw out our possibly misinformed opinions on the medical treatment available to the mentally ill, we might potentially be hurting the mentally ill people we love.

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Shelby Finger

How Taking Selfies Every Day Has Improved My Mental Health

I recently got a new phone. I finally jumped ship from Apple and landed on the OnePlus 7T (I’m shamelessly plugging this phone because it’s easily the best phone I’ve ever had and costs roughly $400 less than the newest iPhone and Samsung Galaxy). The deciding factor was the reviews on the 7T’s camera. I don’t know enough about technology to list specific features (that’s not where I’m going with this anyway), so you’ll have to Google that if you’re interested. Anyway, I was so enthralled with my camera upgrade, I decided to snap a couple of photos of myself (I am a Leo after all). Inspired by the different settings on the phone, I felt that a quick front-facing selfie of the upper half of my body wasn’t enough, so I invested in a small portable tripod and snapped some full-body photos (something I’ve actively avoided for years). As one does, I slapped these bad boys up on social media. This, in turn, established an almost daily ritual of taking a new, unique selfie. With what originally started as a small project to help me become more acclimated with my camera, became a daily occurrence in establishing the “tone” my day will take. With what started as a vanity project, I accidentally found an effective tool in self-care and self-awareness. Overall, this experience has helped soothe my anxiety about my self-image and the way I present myself to society. Here are a few reasons why I love this. 1. It’s a daily ritual that helps familiarize you with the concept of routine. Whether your affliction is a severe mood disorder or some fairly mild anxiety, I believe a commitment to routine is the first step in maintaining a healthier grasp on your mental health. Establishing a routine is a crucial step in learning how to self-soothe. Self-soothing is direly important because we can’t count on our loved ones to always be present or able to support us. One of the goals I originally had in taking a daily picture was to increase my Instagram following, so I could better promote my work with Girl Precarious. This meant I had to commit to creating content every day or every other day. The routine of waking up, slapping on some makeup and picking a fun outfit to photograph myself in has become a daily routine I can rely on, no matter what else is going on in my life (or my head). This brings me to my next point … 2. It gets you up and out of bed. I recognize not everyone will have a purpose (or interest) in taking a daily photo, but it has served as an obligation I must complete every day. Even if I don’t feel like getting out of bed (due to laziness or the approach of a genuine depressive episode), I tend to feel a little better after I’ve put some makeup on. After I take some photos and pick the one I like, I feel better about myself overall. Typically, getting this out of the way early in the day leaves me dressed, made up and ready to accomplish whatever else needs my attention. I know that this sounds a little like I’m saying “just get up,” and that is rarely a helpful response to depression. But by establishing a daily goal or obligation, it becomes that much  easier. For me, it’s taking a selfie. For someone else, it might be walking their dog or watering their plants. The point is, establish those obligations when you’re feeling good, and it will help hold you accountable when you aren’t feeling so great. 3. Taking a photo every day is a valuable creative outlet. Since establishing this routine, I’ve had to actively avoid taking virtually the same picture over and over again. This has manifested in making more creative decisions with what I’m wearing. I also can’t take a picture in front of the same hedge or tree everyday, so it’s helped me adventure out into my neighborhood in search of more appealing backgrounds. I’ve learned how to switch up my facial expressions and body language as well, which doesn’t just produce more interesting photos, but has genuinely helped me come to terms with my body type. Through this project, I’ve achieved a newfound appreciation for the shape of my body and face. As someone who has struggled with severely dysmorphic thoughts in the past, this has been a wildly helpful tool in finding and accepting my own beauty. Not only do I get to factor in the setting and tone of the photo, but I’ve invested a couple bucks into some photo editing applications (I recommend Polarr) that bring my photos to another level of visual aesthetic. 4. My confidence has greatly increased since committing to the goal of taking a picture every day. I’ve studied posing techniques for my body type, and actively practiced facial expressions in the mirror. This might sound silly, but when I can snap a photo of myself that I really love, it carries over into the rest of my day. I find I compare myself to others less frequently and feel more comfortable in my own skin, because taking my own pictures has helped me accept my own style and brand of beauty. 5. It generates an opportunity to practice accepting compliments and validation. I optimistically believe we are entering an era where, when all else fails, it feels good to gas your friends up. With the world virtually falling apart around us by way of daily tragedy, global anxiety and political turmoil, it’s nice to just feel good about something. Whether that means you’re exposing yourself for feedback, or you’re providing positive feedback to your friends, it feels nice to just be … nice.

Shelby Finger

My Mental Illness Makes Me a Better Mother, Not Worse

I was diagnosed with bipolar mood disorder type II in 2015, after a mild psychotic meltdown that almost destroyed my (presently dissolved) marriage. At the time, I was under the impression I wasn’t able to carry a child due to my polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), so I wasn’t terribly alarmed when the psychiatrist who diagnosed me mentioned in passing people with mood disorders shouldn’t have children, as mood disorders are sometimes considered hereditary. Since then, I’ve realized how wildly stigmatizing that statement was. In 2016, I found out I was pregnant. This “miracle” happened right at the beginning of the downfall of my marriage, but that’s another spiel for another time. Let’s fast forward through the nine months of emotional agony I endured without my mood stabilizers. Let’s skip over the traumatizing affair my husband had when I was six months pregnant, and bring this narrative into today specifically, because folks … I’ve had it. My child is a little over 2-and-a-half years old. At present, he’s diagnosed as verbally delayed, with indication that he might land somewhere on the autism spectrum. This predominantly manifests in severe temper tantrums, toddler-sized violent outbursts, struggles with communication of any sort and some vocal self-stimulatory behaviors. Naturally, there are some pretty cool things, like my kiddo’s obsession with dinosaurs (he might not be able to express when he’s thirsty, but he damn sure can point out an ankylosaurus). My symptoms as a neurodivergent person include severe agitation, disassociation, hypomania and obsessive thoughts. It took me years to recognize I was struggling on the daily with my inability to process emotions, situations and interactions like a neurotypical person. There was a period of time I felt incredibly lonely in the realization none of the people around me processed things the way I did, but I find an interesting sort of solace in the fact my own child experiences similar conditions. Ultimately, I still strongly believe this a major component to our ability to understand each other on a deeper level. Today, both my kiddo and I woke up with symptoms of an oncoming cold. From the get-go, my kid wasn’t having it. The tantrums have been consistent and intense all morning. I’m currently undergoing a medication adjustment, so I’m not feeling it either. Add a buttload of boogers and two scratchy throats, and you’ve got yourself a perfect storm. Anytime I’ve tried to express my struggles with motherhood in the past, I’ve been met with the same typical response: “Hey, being a mommy is hard on everyone.” Not only is this a harmfully dismissive response, but it’s dead wrong. I literally just can’t handle it (the overwhelming it that is living) sometimes, and I find myself responding to the signs and symptoms of his discomfort with debilitating frustration. We live in a society that haphazardly rejects the fact that motherhood kind of sucks sometimes, and there is very little attempt to understand how it can be particularly difficult, and sometimes shitty, for parents with severe mental illness. Mental illness isn’t fun to talk about, especially in regards to parenting (unless of course it’s being painted in a negative light). By society’s standards, we’re the mothers who are boiling our children alive “because Jesus told us to.” We’re never painted as the emotionally versatile contributors to our children’s overall development as they grow into persons. For most, it’s a foreign concept that one’s mental illness could actually boost their ability to parent effectively. For a couple years before my pregnancy, I was a stepmom to my ex-husband’s oldest daughter. Currently, I’m a pseudo-stepmom to my partner’s two children, both under the age of 6. I have always felt my experience with mental illness and childhood trauma has, in one way or another, made me a super parent. My experiences have given me a leg up on identifying potentially traumatizing occurrences for my collective (past and present) children and I’m overly aware of how important it is to give other people (especially children) the space to process their emotions with encouragement. I believe experiencing life as any marginalized person gives you the building blocks to apply your struggles and triumphs to a better parenting plan. As cliché as it is, I believe my mental illness makes me a better person; a better parent. Parenting as a neurodivergent is difficult enough on my side, but adding a neurodivergent child is especially trying. My child reacting when I’m trying to do the “good mom” thing by comforting my screaming child is frustrating enough without my uncontrollable emotional reaction as a person with mental illness. I’d be lying if I said I’ve never gotten into a borderline screaming match with my toddler. Because of my own internalized fear of my mood swings and how they manifest, this has become my mantra: it is my burden that I can’t control my emotions, but it’s my responsibility to control my actions. This is especially important when it comes to my relationship with the person I love the most. As an advocate, I am obnoxiously self-aware and I discuss my mental illness regularly without discrimination. Hell, I created a website to act as my soap box so I can keep preaching. I have started conversations on the subject of parenting with a mood disorder a handful of times before, and I’ve always chickened out at the last minute. I would say half of the struggle with severe mental illness is the harm stigmatization causes. Even now, I’m cautious in being totally honest with the thoughts and actions that come with being a mother with a mental illness, but I can’t be the only mom who has to comorbidly monitor my own self-injurious ideations and my child’s mental well-being. I can’t be the only person who has to constantly monitor my behaviors so I don’t traumatize my child. There have to be others out there who have to firmly force physical distance from their child because they’re at their wit’s end … and with severe mental illness, our wit’s end can feel terrifying. Even though it’s taken a gaggle of school shootings (thanks, straight white males) to get society talking about mental illness, I optimistically believe the conversation is moving in the right direction. I can’t stress enough how harmful stigma is to any person with a mental illness. It’s my observation that unlike many marginalized populations, people with mental illnesses have not established a designated culture surrounding what affects us. This could change over time, as we begin to own our truth and join forces to influence the way we’re treated. As we begin to create our own culture, it’s pertinent we address what affects us as parents. It’s our God-given right to have children if we choose to do so, and living in a society where it’s acceptable for a psychiatrist to tell a 20-something year old woman that by having children, she’d be committing a disservice to society is genuinely enraging. As the dialogue continues in the right direction, more services ought to become available to parents with mental illnesses and their specific needs. It should be recognized that untreated (and dismissed) mental illness can contribute to a cycle of trauma in our children. Being self-aware is always the first step, and being accepting of one’s self is a close second. If society would stop focusing so heavily on the negative side effects of parenting with mental illness, we could potentially reach a point where our unique strengths are recognized as a positive contribution to our children’s overall well being. It’s globally recognized (but overwhelmingly ignored) by professionals that trauma causes a continued cycle of trauma in victims. This was recently highlighted in Todd Phillips’s “Joker,” starring Joaquin Phoenix. Spoiler alert, but the main character Arthur lives with severe mental illness because (as you later find out) his mother allowed her boyfriend to abuse both herself and Arthur when he was a child. When I watched the scene where this is revealed, I processed it differently than most people I’ve spoken to. Because society needs a “bad” guy, Penny (Arthur’s mother) was designated as the reason Arthur was mentally ill. I’m by no means suggesting Penny was innocent in letting her boyfriend harm her child, but I am aware that Penny’s trauma (which seems to be brushed under the rug by most) is ultimately what contributed to Arthur’s trauma. Without completely derailing the conversation, I will mention I am a victim of childhood sexual abuse. You’ll hear more about that in later writings. It’s applicable to this subject, however, in that I spent the grander majority of my life being angry (as if any word could summarize that feeling) at the person who essentially ruined my life. It took years of unpacking those feelings combined with deep research into why these things happen for me to come to the conclusion most abusers were in fact victims of abuse themselves. There is a whole thing to be said about how we can work toward breaking that cycle, but my point right now is stigma can cause people with mental illness to bottle up their feelings and experiences, which can result in lashing out at others, our children included. Ultimately, with self-realization and acceptance combined with the glimmering hope that someday we’ll actually address our global mental health crisis, I optimistically feel we will move in the right direction. In the meantime, continue to check in on your friends and loved ones with mental illness, especially if they’re not only responsible for their own well-being, but the well-being of their children, too. You can follow my journey on Girl Precarious.

Shelby Finger

A Story of Childhood Sexual Abuse Leading to Familial Estrangement

Earlier this month, I decided to run a series of stories for real people to talk about their experiences with mental health conditions and “invisible” illnesses. Over the course of the last couple of weeks, I’ve been approached with some truly touching stories from friends and strangers alike. It’s been a great honor to give these people a voice by bringing attention to what they live with every day. When I was approached by Jonathan Matamala, who up until very recently was an acquaintance I had collected over the last couple of years (as we’re often prone to do in the age of Facebook), my interest was piqued when he told me he wanted to share his experience with what he referred to as familial estrangement (or familial rejection), and the anxiety it has caused in his life. Admittedly, I wasn’t very familiar with the condition. I took a quick trip down Google avenue and was astounded (and heartbroken) by the stories I found. I knew immediately Jonathan’s story had the potential to make a massive difference in the lives of young people who have experienced similar conditions, and that it would require a more in-depth discussion to fully encompass the tragedy of familial estrangement. For this reason, this story will be presented in two parts, with this being the first. Jonathan and I spent almost two hours video chatting while we dissected his story together. I am deeply honored he has trusted me with the task of bringing his experience to a broader stage. Despite giving it my absolute best attempt, I must impart there are no words to explain the emotions Jonathan’s story left me with. I filled nine pages with scribbled notes from our conversation, and still, in retrospect, feel my choice of words does not entirely serve his story justice. Most importantly,  it is the ambition of both Jonathan and I this story becomes a helpful resource for anyone, anywhere who has experienced familial rejection or estrangement. This is more important now than ever, considering we’re smack dab in the middle of the holiday season. Where most families are being brought closer together, this time of the year can often lead to severe depression, isolation and suicidal ideation for those who are no longer in contact with their family or loved ones. My research has led me to realize there is a vast spectrum of reasons familial estrangement occurs, but no reasoning behind the phenomena is easier to stomach than the last. If this story imparts any singular message, I hope it serves as a reminder to be kind to one another as we bring 2019 to a close. Most importantly, be there for your friends who can no longer return home for the season. When I caught up with Jonathan by way of video chat, I had only prepared a small handful of fairly vague questions to help guide the conversation. It became apparent pretty much immediately that talking to Jonathan was going to be quite effortless, and I felt confident the conversation would naturally list in the right direction. For someone who has suffered a great deal of isolation in his life, Jonathan possesses a natural aura of comfortableness and sincerity. The majority of our discussion occurred while Jonathan was shamelessly laying in bed with his cat Checkers and a flute of mimosa. When he panned his camera out to show me he was wearing his treasured Shania Twain tour t-shirt, I knew Jonathan was my kind of person. Absolutely living his best life in Ybor City, Florida (a historically Cuban and predominantly gay neighborhood adjacent to Tampa), Jonathan lives fairly comfortably with his husband (and partner of 11 years), Mitchell. As we began to move out of the preliminary chatter, it became evident that despite the nature of Jonathan’s story, he had a knack for keeping his sense of humor in tact. “The Golden Girls and Roseanne basically raised me,” Jonathan mused, only half-joking, “I mean, the before Roseanne, not The Connors Roseanne,” he clarifies. I found many parallels between our lives, a shared appreciation for late 80s/early 90s female lead sitcoms being only one of them. Jonathan grew up in Windsor, Connecticut as the youngest in what can only be described as easily the most complicated family dynamic I’ve ever heard. Jonathan’s father, Ralph, was a business owner whom is 22 years older than Jonathan’s mother, Ruth. Both of his parents were frequently absent from the home as they dedicated most of their time to their careers. “I was a latch-key kid,” Jonathan stated with an air of amusement. I wasn’t entirely familiar with the term, so he went on to explain: “It means I came home from school, and typically no one was around. I’d latch the door locked behind me and was pretty much responsible for taking care of myself.” Regarding the relationship between his parents, Jonathan pointedly expressed his father most likely could (and should) be clinically diagnosed with a mood disorder. “He was born in 1935, so he grew up in the era of the ‘urban cowboy.’ Basically, if you were a white male, you could do anything, say anything, be anything you wanted.” As for his mother, Jonathan expressed an air of understanding that isn’t often reserved for the adult child to possess: “My dad was typically doing his own thing — which is really a whole other story of its own. That directly or indirectly really did a number on my mom emotionally.” Jonathan is the youngest of six siblings, manifesting in a very blended manner. By the time Jonathan was old enough to retain memories of his childhood, most of his half-siblings (from his father’s side) had already moved on with their lives. The stark age difference between his parents was a source of resentment for some of his older half-siblings, as Jonathan’s mother was significantly closer to their age than that of Jonathan’s father. Jonathan’s childhood was shared with one full-blooded sibling, his brother Andrew. “Andrew was born in May of 1981, and I came around in September of 1986. When I think of my siblings, I tend to think of him first for a number of reasons. Even though I now have an array of step-siblings and half-siblings, he’s the only full-blooded sibling I have — meaning, we have the same mom and dad.” Jonathan explains, “Some people don’t necessarily like the inclusion of the term ‘half’ or ‘step’ when discussing siblings. I respect that. I even like it. It’s just that I really only grew up with my brother Andrew, so that kind of dictates the way I talk about my childhood. I only saw my half-siblings at major holidays.” “So, Andrew is the only one that was really there for everything?” I asked for clarification. “Basically.” Jonathan confirmed before continuing, “My parents divorced when I was 9, so he was pretty close to 16 at that point. He was on the brink of getting his driver’s license and wasn’t around very much. With that age difference, it isn’t very ‘cool’ to hang out with your kid brother, not that we were ever particularly close in the first place.” Jonathan’s earliest sense of isolation was mostly embedded in his relationship (or lack thereof) with his brother. As an adult, Jonathan has been able to look back on the estrangement between he and his brother with a more mature perspective in mind. What he found and described to me was troubling. Jonathan realizes in retrospect his brother had intentionally isolated him in a family environment that was already pretty sparse in affection. “I remember wondering if I had been the one to do something wrong to cause his behavior,” Jonathan recalls, “It felt very intentionally neglectful. The lack of interaction with my own sibling in my early childhood made it incredibly difficult for me to connect with people, or build meaningful relationships as I grew up. That didn’t really change until I moved to Florida when I was 17.” In retrospect, it occurred to me that even after our parents die, siblings are typically there for the majority of their lives. I took a moment in between documenting Jonathan’s experience to think about my own. I am the second oldest of seven, also from a blended origin. Although I have maintained monthly contact and am fairly close to my step-siblings, I’m particularly close with my older half-sister, Monica, and my younger full-blooded sister, Geri. Parallel to Jonathan’s story, my younger sister Geri is six years my junior, and remains the only full-blooded sibling I have out of the lot. I try to imagine a world where I wasn’t close to any of my siblings at all. I try to imagine a world where not only were Geri and I not close, but established a palpable distance from one another. According to The American Journal of Psychiatry, a healthy relationship with one’s sibling leads to better mental health later in their lives. Not only does remaining close with our siblings provide a statistically proven overall increased quality of life, but provides a support system when we’re dealing with traumatic experiences or financial loss. A stronger foundation with our siblings increases our personal happiness, but also dire social skills later in life. We learn to negotiate, compromise and handle conflict from pesky brothers and sisters. As Jonathan continued to share his childhood experience with me, I began to comprehend and feel what a child in his position must have felt. I had expected to hear a story of some terrible event involving Andrew that led to the distance between them, but was ultimately met with Jonathan’s continuing tale of Andrew doing nothing at all in the place of something truly horrendous, which over time, certainly had its lasting effect on how Jonathan grew up. Andrew’s lack of interest in embracing his role as an older brother did eventually manifest in a massively harmful way. “My brother had a best friend that was a pillar in my early childhood. His name was also Andrew, believe it or not. He was a year older than my brother, so when the sexual abuse started happening, he was pushing 17 and I wasn’t any older than nine.” Jonathan’s story took an abrupt and startling turn, one that I am not personally unfamiliar with. As he continued to describe the sexual abuse imparted on him by a boy almost twice his age, my stomach swelled with anger on behalf of the nine-year-old who Jonathan had to leave behind in Connecticut. “I don’t remember being upset,” Jonathan recalls, “I just remember that someone was finally paying attention to me. I knew instinctively that I couldn’t tell my parents or betray him.” The abuse occurred shortly after Jonathan’s parents divorced, resulting in his mother moving out. Jonathan continued to live with his father and his older brother, which set the perfect scene for a classic case of childhood sexual abuse to occur. As Jonathan provided me the details of what happened, he mentioned that this was the only period in his life he felt he and his brother had begun to form a bond, ultimately finding a mutual angst surrounding the separation of their parents. Jonathan was finally allowed to hang out in his brother’s presence, but this also put him in immediate danger by also placing him within reach of a sexual predator. Jonathan considered the first time the abuse happened, “My dad called my brother out of the house to help him with something. He was gone for about 20 minutes. His friend Andrew immediately slid into action. Now, I realize that he must have been planning it for some time before it actually happened. I’ve always wondered if he recognized I was gay, which maybe made him think I was an easy target.  It started so effortlessly on his part.” Jonathan continues, “It occurred over a period of a year or two. Anytime my brother left the room, something happened.” It wasn’t until Jonathan was 18 years old he had finally brought himself through the first few steps of accepting what happened to him as sexual abuse. When he finally told his family (including his brother Andrew) what had happened, he was met mostly with silence on the matter. From Andrew, Jonathan was met with disdain and a flat-out refusal to believe the claim. Jonathan’s experience is shared statistically — one in 10 children across America have been sexually abused before their 18th birthday. Although that statistic reflects in boys as 1 in 25, it’s been my personal experience as a mental health professional this number is deeply skewed by a standing stigma against men specifically coming out about their own case of being sexually abused. Keep in mind, these statistics only reflect contact abuse. Childhood sexual abuse is a deeply uncomfortable subject of discussion. It’s not uncommon for family members and loved ones to either brush off claims of sexual abuse or deny it happened entirely. This is because the act is so horrendous (and we live in a society that is built on brushing human acts of evil under the rug), people have a difficult time comprehending how and where it happens. On a personal front, I reflected on how my own experience with childhood sexual abuse shaped my life in so many ways. A deep distrust for men, a riddling of mental health problems and residual effects of trauma have all played a part in the negotiation of who I turned out to be. Not unlike myself, Jonathan discusses his experience in a calm, direct manner. In discussing his experience, my rage on his behalf grew steadily. Jonathan, however, told his story as effortlessly as one would discuss their preferred candy bar. After 32 years of grappling with the truth of his experience, it’s evident Jonathan was left with the burden of handling his trauma on his own, where his family failed. “To this day, they’re still good friends.” Jonathan told me, his eyebrows ticking up ever so slightly, accompanied with the hint of a smirk and a slow nod. “I’ve often wondered if my brother considers what happened as forgivable because I’m gay. Like, that makes it better somehow, or maybe he thinks I actually enjoyed it. What fucking nine-year-old would enjoy that? To this day, my story hasn’t changed. 15 years later, and I haven’t faltered once.” Jonathan explains that eventually he was able to convince his mother to let him move in with her, which ultimately ended the abuse. Whatever positive repertoire had begun to develop between Jonathan and Andrew faded away with the distance placed between them, and would continue to grow stagnant into Jonathan’s teen years. Jonathan’s story will continue with a follow-up story detailing how Jonathan brought himself through the trials of childhood isolation and into the recovery he thrives in today.

Shelby Finger

When Bipolar Disorder Makes You Feel Like You've Lost Yourself

Today, I don’t feel like writing. Really, I don’t feel like doing much of anything. I keep trying to tell myself that it’s OK to feel this way, but I haven’t quite started believing it yet. I’m riddled with anxiety this morning, and it feels like I’ve lost something direly important. It’s only just dawned on me that what I’m missing is someone, and that someone is me. As much as I try to avoid the narrative that being bipolar is like being two people at once, this is very much the case on days like this. For the past few weeks, I’d been on cloud nine. I’ve been productive and happy, which in turn made me a delight to be around. When others are able to enjoy my company, I’m more likely to enjoy my own company as well. Seeking validation from others that my experience is real is always going to be a side effect of my disorder that I struggle with the most. When that validation is given, it helps me thrive in what must be the right direction. Now that I’ve inevitably slid back into a depressive episode, looking back on my recent accomplishments as a writer and a content creator doesn’t feel good like it should. It feels like a lucky side effect to what could only be described as yet another manic episode. Having to face the reality that every period of my life is chalked up to a phase or swing is heartbreaking and exhausting. When I’m moving along swimmingly, it’s typically due to a chemical upswing, of which the degree fluctuates. When things are feeling low (like today), it’s because the ship has capsized and I’m drowning. Typically the realization that my mental illness plays a part in everything I do wouldn’t bother me as long as I was making some sort of positive impact on the world and myself, but when it feels like I can’t maintain that level of success when things inevitably take a turn for the worse, I’m convinced I’m just lying to myself — and by extension, lying to everyone else. Self doubt is a massive side effect of being a severely mentally ill person who has a seemingly low need for support. Not only do I have to doubt my capability to react to the world around me like a “normal” person, but I doubt I have a valid excuse when I tumble out of a stretch of time where I did act like a functioning adult by society’s standards. When I’m on a high, I’m surrounded by people putting their best foot forward, because that’s the way society likes (all of) us to behave. “Normal” people have problems, but they don’t air them out on display for the world to see. Naturally, when I’m feeling great and problem-free, I think I’m relating to the people in my life. My mania convinces me that everyone feels that way virtually all the time. When I swing low, I swing really low. My previous notion that everyone felt as happy as I did when I was on a high leaves me feeling incredibly isolated and left behind when my troubling thoughts return. This is one of the ways that having a mental illness really impedes on my ability to relate to others on a regular basis. This is ultimately where that stereotype of a bipolar person being split down the middle comes into play. Waking up in the morning as someone entirely different than the person you fell asleep as has devastating psychological effects. Less than 24 hours ago, I was the person I want to be, whether it was genuine stability or influenced by a slight mania. Waking up as an anxious, depressed mess of a person in “her” wake makes me feel like I’ve been abandoned by someone I’ve grown to love very dearly. The frustration of feeling like “I” have let “myself” down, as if they exist in two separate entities, never begins to feel “normal.” It always feels like a lover has left in the middle of the night without an explanation. I’ve always tried to explain my mental illness to others by saying it felt like someone (or something) came into your room in the middle of the night, opened the back of your skull while you were sleeping, and took out a crucial cog that makes you tick. No amount of feel good narrative or self care can fix that feeling. As a person that thrives on reaching towards recovery, I’m left feeling defeated because all I can do is sit tight, try to be kind to myself, and wait for that cog to regrow. A healthy mindset would manifest as understanding I didn’t go anywhere; I’m still here, buried underneath the reigning “I” that is my current “me.” Both sides of the coin are a part of who I am, and no amount of feeling sorry for myself is going to change that reality. I might be mourning the sudden disappearance of my better self — I might even be angry that she left the person I am right now in her wake — but this is the nature of the beast. This is a reality that can’t be changed. The only thing I can do today is be gentle on myself and work towards making my better self proud once this storm has passed.

Shelby Finger

When Bipolar Disorder Makes You Feel Like You've Lost Yourself

Today, I don’t feel like writing. Really, I don’t feel like doing much of anything. I keep trying to tell myself that it’s OK to feel this way, but I haven’t quite started believing it yet. I’m riddled with anxiety this morning, and it feels like I’ve lost something direly important. It’s only just dawned on me that what I’m missing is someone, and that someone is me. As much as I try to avoid the narrative that being bipolar is like being two people at once, this is very much the case on days like this. For the past few weeks, I’d been on cloud nine. I’ve been productive and happy, which in turn made me a delight to be around. When others are able to enjoy my company, I’m more likely to enjoy my own company as well. Seeking validation from others that my experience is real is always going to be a side effect of my disorder that I struggle with the most. When that validation is given, it helps me thrive in what must be the right direction. Now that I’ve inevitably slid back into a depressive episode, looking back on my recent accomplishments as a writer and a content creator doesn’t feel good like it should. It feels like a lucky side effect to what could only be described as yet another manic episode. Having to face the reality that every period of my life is chalked up to a phase or swing is heartbreaking and exhausting. When I’m moving along swimmingly, it’s typically due to a chemical upswing, of which the degree fluctuates. When things are feeling low (like today), it’s because the ship has capsized and I’m drowning. Typically the realization that my mental illness plays a part in everything I do wouldn’t bother me as long as I was making some sort of positive impact on the world and myself, but when it feels like I can’t maintain that level of success when things inevitably take a turn for the worse, I’m convinced I’m just lying to myself — and by extension, lying to everyone else. Self doubt is a massive side effect of being a severely mentally ill person who has a seemingly low need for support. Not only do I have to doubt my capability to react to the world around me like a “normal” person, but I doubt I have a valid excuse when I tumble out of a stretch of time where I did act like a functioning adult by society’s standards. When I’m on a high, I’m surrounded by people putting their best foot forward, because that’s the way society likes (all of) us to behave. “Normal” people have problems, but they don’t air them out on display for the world to see. Naturally, when I’m feeling great and problem-free, I think I’m relating to the people in my life. My mania convinces me that everyone feels that way virtually all the time. When I swing low, I swing really low. My previous notion that everyone felt as happy as I did when I was on a high leaves me feeling incredibly isolated and left behind when my troubling thoughts return. This is one of the ways that having a mental illness really impedes on my ability to relate to others on a regular basis. This is ultimately where that stereotype of a bipolar person being split down the middle comes into play. Waking up in the morning as someone entirely different than the person you fell asleep as has devastating psychological effects. Less than 24 hours ago, I was the person I want to be, whether it was genuine stability or influenced by a slight mania. Waking up as an anxious, depressed mess of a person in “her” wake makes me feel like I’ve been abandoned by someone I’ve grown to love very dearly. The frustration of feeling like “I” have let “myself” down, as if they exist in two separate entities, never begins to feel “normal.” It always feels like a lover has left in the middle of the night without an explanation. I’ve always tried to explain my mental illness to others by saying it felt like someone (or something) came into your room in the middle of the night, opened the back of your skull while you were sleeping, and took out a crucial cog that makes you tick. No amount of feel good narrative or self care can fix that feeling. As a person that thrives on reaching towards recovery, I’m left feeling defeated because all I can do is sit tight, try to be kind to myself, and wait for that cog to regrow. A healthy mindset would manifest as understanding I didn’t go anywhere; I’m still here, buried underneath the reigning “I” that is my current “me.” Both sides of the coin are a part of who I am, and no amount of feeling sorry for myself is going to change that reality. I might be mourning the sudden disappearance of my better self — I might even be angry that she left the person I am right now in her wake — but this is the nature of the beast. This is a reality that can’t be changed. The only thing I can do today is be gentle on myself and work towards making my better self proud once this storm has passed.

Shelby Finger

Using the Right Terminology to Address Mental Illness

When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I tumbled through an array of emotions in a matter of a micro minute. Surprisingly, my initial reaction was a sense of relief. I wasn’t expecting to find an odd sense of solace in someone telling me I had a severely debilitating disorder but I did. It wasn’t just the notion that I would have access to more specific resources for what I was struggling with by finally having a piece of paper that stated I was bipolar. It was also, in part, just the romance of knowing I had a word I could identify with. Terminology has always counted to me, especially in regard to how we describe ourselves. I’m very much on par with the silly games we play as adults trying to find a sense of camaraderie. “I am such a Leo!” “ Why yes, I’m a Gryffindor.” “Hmm, my patronus is a hippopotamus.” “I’m a Miami Dolphins fan all the way.” “I’m a black coffee and black cats kinda gal.” It’s my observation that most people are like this, even when they consider themselves too cool to participate in the identity games. There is something to be said about it potentially being the overdevelopment of a natural behavior all humans have. We want to fit in. We want to find our “people.” Being given an official diagnosis felt like I was being handed a new way to describe myself and my behavior. Overwhelmingly, I felt a deep sense of comfort in the fact that there was a word for what all this felt like. Being granted that badge (of which is neither a positive or a negative attribute to who I am), felt like I was being admitted into a society of people who felt just like me. I am admittedly a bit of a loud mouth and maybe a smidge self-absorbed sometimes (like most bloggers) — so I took to my diagnosis and shouted it from the rooftops as soon as the anxiety surrounding it subsided. I immediately declared I wouldn’t be a victim of stigma but realized it isn’t my choice how the world views me. It can be, however, my choice how people address me. Imagine for a moment that you had just been told you have a physical illness. Imagine living in a society where discussing your illness was decidedly considered against the rules. There are support groups for your illness, rallies in support of the disorder and resources available for those affected by it. However, by exposing yourself to these resources and support systems, you have to accept that everyone around you is going to know you have the illness and everyone is going to assume you embody all the traits of someone who has it. But they’re going to focus on the negative ones (I guess you’d also have to pretend there are negative traits associated with having the illness, but you get my point). We live in a society where openly admitting to being bipolar (or having any severe mental illness or disorder) is considered taboo. I’ve always found it totally asinine that I have to live with the constant ebbs and flows of what it means to be bipolar, but rather than express my discomfort freely in pursuit of support, I have to tiptoe around how I address it because it’s apparently my responsibility to not make others feel uncomfortable by owning and expressing my truth. As a side note, I imagine this is about the time some of you might be rolling your eyes and assuming I’m self-obsessing. I imagine some of you might be thinking something along the lines of , “Alright Shelby, we get it. You’re f*cking special. Stop talking about it already.” That. That right there is a contributor to the stigma surrounding mental illness. You would never tell someone to stop talking about their lives with a serious physical illness. You would likely sit in support and understanding and encourage them to discuss the hardships they were suffering from (as you should). People who suffer from a severe mental illness or disability but seemingly require low support (we’ll talk about what that means later), are often not granted that comfort. From my experience, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and adults on the autism spectrum are often populations who are expected to talk about their struggles minimally for the sake of society’s contentment. So I’ve compiled a short list of quick tips for the loved ones of people with mental illness and “invisible” disability. If you’re genuinely interested in supporting us, using the right terminology is a great place to start. 1. “Oh, she’s ‘crazy’.” Just like women taking back the word “slut,” we’re taking back the word “crazy.” I’ve noticed an increasing amount of mentally ill people in their 40s and younger casually referring to their state as “crazy.” More often than not, it’s at either extreme: Self-deprecating humor or when experiencing crisis. My suggestion to neurotypical people is to just not use the word when you can help it. I will say, I have yet to run into someone with a mental illness who took offense to someone using “crazy” as a descriptor for an event, situation or environment. “Man, that party was totally ‘crazy.’” = OK. “Man, that girl is so ‘crazy’.” = Really not OK. This is one of those things surrounding those with mental illness designating their own culture and making the rules. Right now, it’s my understanding that referring to one’s self as “crazy” is a personal choice and should only be used by someone with a mental illness. It’s incredibly harmful to call someone with a mental illness “crazy.” Additionally, when we refer to ourselves (especially during crisis) as feeling “crazy,” it can be triggering (I don’t care, I’m not abandoning that term because it’s a joke now). To be told “you’re not crazy, you’re just…,” this one is tricky. You’re not wrong but sometimes it’s best to just listen and let your loved one with mental illness express themselves organically. 2. “I’m like totally bipolar about it sometimes.” This one bothered me immensely, even before I was officially diagnosed. I’m not going to hold anyone’s hand through this one. Using our condition as a descriptor for your fluctuating preference in coffee flavor or your abusive behavior towards your boyfriend, is super not cool. It’s not possible to be bipolar about specific things. You either are (and it affects everything in your life) or you’re not. Using phrases like this ultimately just makes you look like an insensitive asshole. 3. “Yeah, he’s super high-functioning.” OK, I’ll hold your hand this time because this is a fairly recent development in terminology preference. I have referred to myself in the past as a high-functioning person with mental illness because I’m capable of doing a lot of “normal” things like cook, drive, maintain a job and (usually) keep up with my personal hygiene. It’s an easy way to say, “When you first meet her, you can’t tell she’s bipolar.” Although the mood disorder community hasn’t taken such a strong stance against “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” as descriptors, it’s been largely voiced by the autistic community that this is incredibly offensive. In short, one’s level of capability to do “normal” things is a very broad spectrum and can’t be summed up in two categories. It isn’t your place to essentially grade how good someone is at fitting in and perpetuate the idea that the side effects of some people’s disorders are easier to handle and accept than others. An alternative to what you’re trying to say is, “This person requires a higher support level in A, B and C” or “This person requires a lower support level to A, B and C.” 4. “She’s different.” This one doesn’t bother me as much as the other ones I’ve listed, but it still feels weird that you can’t just say, “She has bipolar disorder.” As awareness for mood disorders (and all mental health) grows, it isn’t unfair for us to assume people will become more cognizant of what our disorders typically look like. If you don’t know what bipolar means, just ask. If you do know what my disorder looks like, you could technically say, “She suffers from severe mood swings, delusions, suicidal ideations, etc.” Or you could just say, “Yeah, she’s bipolar.” If you have questions regarding terms like “disabled,” “special needs” or “handicapped,” you should ask the specific person you’re trying to address. In my experience, the general vibe on these types of descriptors varies from person to person and it’s going to show that you care by just straight up asking them how these words make them feel. I will say there is a pretty large movement to start addressing people with invisible disorders as “neurodivergent” and someone that does not suffer from these conditions or disorders as “neurotypical.” This is ultimately a building block to the shift in society and founding of our own culture as those with mental illness and who are impaired. Neurodivergency as a term addresses the similarities in behavior and symptoms across the board: Mood disorders, personality disorders, behavioral disorders, autism — the list goes on. Personally, my relationship with the way people choose to describe me when I’m not around is less important than the way I’m supported in describing myself. Don’t get me wrong, I fully believe it is everyone’s responsibility to help end the stigma and your choice of words absolutely helps (or hinders) in dismantling it. However, it doesn’t take much effort on your part to just let us navigate our diagnosis and identity as naturally as we can. The most helpful thing you can do is follow suit. While writing this, it occurred to me that my ex-husband never once addressed me as bipolar, unless it was meant to take me down a notch. He never said anything along the lines of, “I recognize you have a disorder and this might be difficult for you.” By the time I was diagnosed, our relationship was already failing and our genuine communication was limited. I realize in retrospect how much it would have meant to me if he had just used a few simple words to validate my experience. Everyone, neurodivergent or otherwise, seeks validation. It isn’t fair that we, as people with invisible illnesses, are expected to accommodate those around us by not discussing what massively affects us. That is essentially asking us to continue to perpetuate the stigma that ultimately causes us a great deal of harm. No, I’m not different. I mean, I am. Just don’t use “different” as a descriptor while you dance around saying what you really mean. I’ve worked hard to accept and understand the truth of my condition and I don’t think it’s asking too much for you to do the same. Just say bipolar.