Bipolar disorder first entered my world when my sister went away to college. I was about ten years old at the time, a reclusive, wounded loner, always looking for a way out. Her roommate that year was a lesbian. Months after moving in, she tried to kill herself. The girl went crazy, they said. She was bipolar, they said. All I knew was that she sounded evil, horrifying, demonic. Nobody could’ve guessed that I too would grow up to be that lesbian, most of all because I hadn’t told the world I was a girl yet. My gender simmered below the surface of my body, the same way my illness manifested in hyperactivity and suicidal ideation as a child, until the demons in me finally demanded to break free.
In my early teens, the mood swings bursted hard and fast. It wasn’t sustainable, but I was smart and resourceful and creative and independent, so I scraped by. My late teens arrived, and well-into my early twenties, the polarity of my emotions began to swing more dangerously. In the years that lead up to my coming out as trans, I floated through life as a brooding, scowling mess of a person, punctuated by bursts of energy, clarity, creativity, and dangerously felt love.
What exactly is bipolar disorder? As with many other kinds of mental illness, the full scope of how bipolar disorder operates is not entirely understood. Much of what is known is based on subjective research. Despite that, bipolar disorder has been found to have more of a biologically traceable basis than many other mental illnesses, in that it has been proven to be an affective condition that is genetically inherited.
Bipolar Disorder (or manic-depression, as it used to be called) is a neurobiological mood disorder which centers around an extremely labile and unstable mood, consisting of varying episodes of depressions and manias, or more bluntly, extreme highs and lows. A lesser known feature is experiencing mixed episodes, in which characteristics of both depression and mania occur at the same time. A core feature of bipolar disorder is that it is a problem with emotional regulation and information processing. It is also a stress related disorder, meaning that stress can exacerbate symptoms.
The DSM-V has rather rigid criteria for diagnosing bipolar disorder, ones that I dislike quite a bit. The DSM is no stranger to controversy, having had an adversarial relationship with the trans community for years. Having spent time in bipolar support groups, I can say that many people in the bipolar community agree with my opinions on the DSM. The psychologists I cite also agree with me.
The book I recommend for people to better understand bipolar disorder is Break The Bipolar Cycle. In that book, psychologists Elizabeth Brondolo and Xavier Amador list the symptoms of bipolar disorder that are newer discoveries: “Longer-term problems with mood quality, difficulties with mood regulation and stability, problems with information processing, [and] problems with sleep quality and with circadian rhythms” (10) They stress that contrary to popular belief, Bipolar disorder is more of a hard-wired cyclical predisposition towards disoriented information processing, manifesting in fluctuating moods, sleep cycles, and confusing interpersonal reactions.
The mornings, they come in scalding colors. Some days are muted blues and purples, somber and terrifying in their existential ennui. The mornings are pointless, the universe, irredeemably conspiring against me. Other days are careening reds, victorious greens. I slash out four thousand words in a sitting, I complete every chore that can be conceived, I hit up people on tinder for kinky sex with an unearned arrogance. Through midnight until the early hours of the morning, I scour the internet to illegally download entire discographies of distant side projects of obscure punk bands instead of fulfilling important obligations. Daily life is populated with grandiose ideas of all the projects I’m about to start that will make me rich and likeable. Divine, delusional power flows in fingertips that cannot finish anything. When I am in love, the world breeds pink flowers of fire around the periphery of my vision, obscuring my own identity and care in the process.
Every night, I stay up until at least 2, 3, sometimes 4 am. I think this is normal, that everyone does this. I sleep all day, I lose all motivation, I fail all my classes, I take a leave of absence, I drop out of college. I drink and drink and drink oblivion, until I feel pretty much nothing of me is left. My soul and and personality seep out like a spilled bottle.
These mood swings, they are intensely felt, by others as well as myself. Afterwards, every time, shame pours over me, whether it’s in regards to the passion or the sadness. The shame builds up so much that I learn to cope by hiding emotions like porno mags under my bed. Self-hatred becomes my own religion, a learned trauma-response to cope with such deeply felt shame. It collides with shame and trauma from growing up in a homophobic, isolating household where my needs were not met.
To carry out the machinery of this self-hatred, I teach myself maladaptive coping skills: binge drinking, erratic eating, reckless spending, emotional self-sabotage. Because I take no pleasure in the act of being an existing body, I place no value on my looks or hygiene. A favorite self-harming strategy of mine is inaction—staring at the ceiling all day, frozen, all while feeling an intense inwardly-directed self-hatred. Later in life, I add cutting to my repertoire as well.
In her memoir, I’m Telling The Truth, But I’m Lying, Nigerian-American writer Bassey Ikpi describes her experience with bipolar disorder, saying that, “Even when the best things occur, when the sun is angled just enough to offer light or there is beauty somewhere shining in the distance, the voice says—this will not last. You do not deserve this peace […] Remember how you break everything you touch. Sometimes it’s a fog. A quiet.” (186)
One patient in the study “Observation of Trends in Manic-Depressive Psychosis” by O. Spurgeon English recounted that living with bipolar disorder “is like opening all my pores on a cold day and subjecting myself to catastrophe.”
I too have felt like a catastrophe of a person, a catastrophe of a star, a catastrophe of emotions.
I was sunbathing during a lunch break in an open field, and a month later I found myself in the psych ward.
It was Spring, 2017. When the sun hit me, I felt something shift. Everything was vibrant and bright. My life became a divine, and I was living out a perfectly scripted story in which I was the heroine. It was a spring to my depression, and it catapulted me into a mixed episode. Boundless energy, coupled with undying despair. I grew a strange confidence in my self-loathing, a short-fused, anxious temper. My movements were snappy and impatient. I felt indestructible, even though I knew that most parts of my life were hanging by a thread—I was broke, in debt, an alcoholic, had no plans, no future. The confidence of mania did not cause me to fix my problems, it caused me to have a liquid gold anger coursing through my veins. Other times, I would completely break down crying for hours straight, succumbing to panic attacks and calling suicide hotlines.
Then one day I came into work and was told I was being fired. I had nothing left to my name but my motivation. That night I tried to kill myself by overdosing on my hormones. I became the sunlight in the psych ward, burning and burning. Seven days later, I got out of the hospital with a new name for my afflictions: bipolar disorder. The only problem was that I didn’t believe it was accurate.
Instead of accepting the diagnosis, I moved to New York City, stopped taking medications, and ditched all three of my therapists and psychiatrists. Amazingly, things went dormant. Somehow I got on my feet, found an apartment, and once again retreated to my old habits of compartmentalizing and denial. I was an unknowing kettle-pot of slashing self-hatred and negativity.
I’ve always had a grudge against autumn. When I was young, I had few friends, but in the summers I got to spend every day with friends I had met from another elementary school. When the autumn came, going back to school meant leaving those friends behind, and once again I was on my own. As the years went by, the cold laid a thick sheet of dark plastic over my life. It felt like the whole world existed in a perpetual state of night. In college, my winter depressions were legendary. Every winter break, I would stay in bed for a full two weeks.
I am not alone in these experiences. The most popular times for suicide are clustered around the spring and fall equinoxes. Manic-Depressive Illness indicates that “two peaks are evident in seasonal incidence of affective episodes: spring and autumn. This pattern tends to parallel the seasonal pattern for suicide which shows a large peak in the spring and a smaller one in October.”
In addition, Break the Bipolar Cycle states that changes in the amount of daylight “can trigger changes in our internal clock. These changes can affect the daily cycles of our neurohormones and affect the way we feel.”
I am not a psychologist. However, I am a trained writer, and if there’s one thing writers know, it’s the human heart in conflict. Seasonal cycles have fought against me for so long, I know the shapes of their colors well.
The sunlight came for me, once more, when I was bathing in a kiddie pool on a rooftop in Brooklyn. The dread finally cracked. It lead me down a spiral of outward self-hatred I had never experienced. My body shut down, I failed the people in my life, I made anxious and reckless choices that caused harm, confusion, and heartbreak. It was a mixed-manic state that Bassey Ikpi describes as: “You don’t know how to live like this but you don’t know how to stop and the need to convince your body to give up is visceral—it crawls through your being and your brain wants to stop it but your brain can’t because your brain is tired”
Autumn washed over me; my body vibrated with an ear-splitting nothingness. I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t stop crying. The passing of seconds felt like hours. It was hard to tell if I wanted to isolate forever, or if I never wanted to be alone again. I became a celestial wreck. As my star burned out and collapsed in on itself, my body grew the self-inflicted scars along my arms to show it.
The second time I was in the hospital, they didn’t let me outside for seven days. No sunlight on my face, no open wind. Just stale air. I would ask for our scheduled outside time, but they would tell me it was “too cold,” even when it was warm. It’s one of the many abuses Gracie Square Hospital heaped on me when I stayed there. Particularly, I remember the time I had to shave naked in front of a nurse who started asking me “how long it takes for the hormones to work.” I was denied those same hormones for almost four days, leading to splitting headaches. They gave me medications I told them didn’t work for me, that made me twitchy and anxious (anyone who has been in a psychiatric hospital knows that taking your prescribed meds is the quickest way to freedom). The phone was broken for a whole weekend, so I couldn’t call for anyone on the outside and ask them to bring me things. No matter how many pillows and blankets I asked for, I still felt like I was sleeping on a pile of rocks out in the snow.
My window overlooked 76th Street. I saw people walking their dogs, commuting to work, skateboarding, heading to clubs. Rich people, living in excess. In that dim, depressing psych ward room, I made a promise to myself: I would learn to appreciate nature more when I was released. True to my word, the day I got out, I went to my favorite park in my neighborhood. I watched the dogs play, I laid in the grass, I burned once more with the sun.
There was still so much to do. It was the first of many promises I made, and the first of many promises I would go on to keep.
It seems like everything is on fire lately.
The forest fires in California and Australia, the Grenfell building tragedy due to capitalist incompetence, the Kyoto Animation arson attack in Japan. Then, there’s the metaphorical burnings: the seizure of the Standing Rock Sioux’s sacred water ground, the ICE concentration camps on the border, civilian bombings across the middle east, racist predatory policing in the New York City subways every day. The climate crisis grows ever more pressing as we enter one of the warmest winters I’ve ever felt. Politically, the world is on the brink of yet another war, and the poor, marginalized, and those abroad will be the ones to suffer.
Our socioeconomic conditions can greatly effect our mental health. Jamison and Goodrick’s studies show that while wealth, race, and class do not effect one’s chances of inheriting bipolar disorder, wealth and privilege can decrease intensity and instances of onset. Lack of access to life-saving care only intensifies symptoms. The wealthy can afford hospitalizations, expensive round-the-clock out of pocket therapy, detoxes and retreats, and are less prone to financial and housing stresses which can trigger bipolar episodes.
Writer and former somatic social worker Kai Cheng Thom stated in a recent article that through repeated trauma, “we become physically less capable of imagining a world where being with others is not synonymous with being unsafe.” Self-imposed isolation becomes the only warmth we know. These tragedies affect our bodies. Not only do they harm and decimate our communities, but the seeds of that hurt germinate inside of us. Many of us queers, we’ve been through trauma. Our bodies have tasted the effects of witnessing harm. The harm we witness reacts with the trauma inside of us. Being bombarded with the round-the-clock ramifications of capitalist imperialism is itself a kind of societal control. If we already feel defeated, like struggles against injustice are pointless, how can we muster the energy to fight back? It causes our bodies and minds to give up on themselves.
Psychologists Brondolo and Amador say that bipolar disorder “undermines your ability to regulate the physical responses you have when experiencing emotions.” In a bipolar person, moods transmute into widespread tumultuous states of being. Dysregulation of the brain forces a dysregulation of actions and expressions.
Environments feed panic and trauma and stress, and illness manifests in worse and worse ways.
Our environments affect us, but they do not have to condemn us.
The act of resisting is whats heals us.
Mine is the mind that exists on the blade’s edge of a cycle.
In the course of seeking treatment, I have realized I possessed a lack of faith. Most people turn to the Christian God, but I have a poisonous childhood history with Catholicism.
What else was I left to do but surrender to the cosmos?
Lately, I have been turning to astrology, the holy dyke cycle (with a sprinkle of gothic Satan thrown in). I am a person whose moods are ruled by intensely manifested circular patterns (I’m a sag sun, libra moon, aquarius rising/venus, for those curious). It’s a bit of a tired trope among those of us afflicted with bipolar disorder who take lithium, that we are ingesting stardust to save our lives. As the stars move, I know what powers they wield. I feel their energy, every night as I walk home and kiss the night sky goodbye. In doing so, I send prayers that I will not be a predestined disaster, that my future is my own.
I was reading about my star chart recently, and I came across the phrase “optimist.” I have been labeled a pessimist my whole life. To see someone apply the word of relentless positivity to me, it was healing, like laying old demons to rest.
I must admit, after finding quality mental health care, for the first time in my life, I am an optimist about our future. I have hope that I won’t die young. In caring for my self, in accepting that I had to save my own life and accepting help from professionals, in asking for friends to join me on suicide watch, I have made peace with the sun. As pieces of my body cease to wilt off of themselves, I have gained a confidence that I can become engaged with the world, a process trauma specialist Judith Herman calls “interpersonal reconnection.” I have hope that our mobilizations will defeat the corporate destruction of our planet. I can see it in the stars, in the streets, and in my body.
Bipolar person here. Thank you for this article. So much love to those who experience this condition. It’s 10 years since I was diagnosed.
This was extraordinary. Thank you.
This was beautifully written and has probably helped me understand bipolar disorder more than most of what I’ve read. Thank you for sharing!
So glad I stumbled across this beautiful post. Thank you for sharing. I have bipolar disorder, too, and I felt this description in my bones: “…my body vibrated with an ear-splitting nothingness.” Damn. So striking, so good. Thank you.