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May is Mental Health Awareness Month and I love reading all of the narratives that are swirling about social media. There are so many different voices, different identities, and different experiences that are amplified and every single one of these perspectives matter. When there are more storytellers, there is less stigma. For someone living with a mental illness, it is heartening to read and watch these accounts of what life is like living, struggling, and succeeding with a mental illness and how this isn’t a linear adventure. These stories are familiar and I see aspects of my own experiences embedded in so many of these journeys, but I still need to tell my own story using my own words.
Hi, I’m Rachel.
I don’t thank my bipolar.
Not a single thing.
Many mental health narratives hash out how illness can make one stronger, how in a way illness is a gift because it can increase one’s capacity for compassion, or how mental illness has provided a profound sense of purpose when it comes to educational and professional goals. How illness makes us better. I think these perspectives are incredibly important, but nuh-uh that ain’t me.
This is me: living with bipolar disorder is the worst! As I’ve learned how to best manage my mental illness and practice self-care, life has gotten much more predictable and a bunch easier, but things are undoubtedly harder living with a partially busted brain. I’m lucky that medication and therapy work really well for me, but even then bipolar disorder blows major chunks. This isn’t about pity mongering; this is about the truth that bipolar disorder sucks serious nards. That’s my anthem—this illness fucking sucks, but I don’t.
If I could take a pill that would cure me, I would snatch it right out of your hand and swallow it dry. Because my bipolar disorder doesn’t make me special, it makes my life complicated. My bipolar disorder doesn’t make me brave. It’s not the source of my strength. It lingers under the surface of my consciousness, wheedling into my brain and poisoning how I feel about myself and how I experience the world. I’m special, brave, strong, and talented without my illness. Bipolar disorder isn’t a trial that I need to tackle in order to show the world I’m tough enough. I don’t need an illness to exaggerate my awesomeness. With an illness that mimics identity, it can be hard to tell where bipolar ends and I begin—the boundaries are never that distinct—but my bipolar disorder isn’t a badge. It’s a label, a diagnosis, a hefty, troublesome detail. My bipolar doesn’t get to take a bow.
As I mentioned, many mental health narratives tip their hat to illness, considering disorder to be a catalyst for strength, which brings us to the question of the hour—has my bipolar disorder made me stronger? Do I wear it at a jaunty angle? Well, yes—because pushing through adversity always makes someone stronger. Surviving and thriving under the weight of adversity encourages and expands upon one’s capacity for resilience. It can make you see life in a new light. But I’d like to think that I would be a compassionate and well-rounded human being even if I didn’t have a mental illness. Mental illness isn’t my identity, it’s not a shiny accessory, it’s something I have that I hate. It’s my kryptonite, it’s not a superpower. I’d give it away in a hot second and I think what would remain would still be a strong, successful woman. I am not thankful for my mental illness because it does me more harm than good. I don’t want to give it any props. No accolades, no applause, no misty-eyed celebratory speeches. I understand that most mental health narratives aren’t celebrating illness, they’re celebrating the self, but I’m always concerned when these stories seem to channel the unhealthy idea that potential is defined by disease—i.e. our perception of our bipolar poster boy Van Gogh and the role his illness played in “inspiring” his genius.
Van Gogh was a masterful artist who was thought to have bipolar disorder. He was also rather whiny and had a taste for lead paint and absinthe. For complete transparency I am very whiny too—however I prefer medical marijuana over licking my lead-tainted walls—and I’d like to think that I’m a talented writer. Not only is writing something I’m good at, but being a writer is an integral component of my identity. But something that is not lost on me is that the bulk of my writing focuses on sharing my life with bipolar disorder. Van Gogh is to brush strokes as I am to key clicking (and yes I realize I’m comparing my talents to Van Gogh but I’m having a great self-esteem day so leave me alone). Writing is an outlet, it keeps me healthy, it gives me power, but if I had to choose between illness and outlet—I wish I had nothing to write about! I’m just kidding, I know I’d still write about other things. For instance, I could finally finish my screenplay “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Weevil” about a young beetle with a passion for investigative reporting and laying larvae in Spanish moss. Anyway, my bipolar disorder doesn’t make me a better writer, I just write about it because it’s a part of my life that I need to process. CliffsNotes—being a writer is part of my identity, having bipolar is not.
But here’s the thing—the reality is that my bipolar is not going away. I’m completely aware that it’s a chronic illness that I’ll always have to live with and manage. It’s a perpetual up and down, side to side, too high or too low. It’s all about pushing past the rough times and dedicating my life to the pursuit of balance. I’ve had to learn how to take care of myself which means understanding my illness, finding the language to talk about it, and figuring out how to achieve my goals despite my shitty brain chemistry. That’s been a significant part of my journey and I’ll always have these challenges. I cope by doing everything in my power to de-glamorize my illness, to take it out of the spotlight, to value myself by focusing on my accomplishments not as someone with bipolar but as the kick-ass bitch that I am. Disorder takes a back seat.
I think many mental health narratives embrace life with an illness because it’s a great way to cope. Your illness isn’t going anywhere. It’s a roommate you can’t evict so you learn to live around it. You just have to make it work and hope that your roomie doesn’t light your house on fire. Acceptance is an essential step towards ownership of illness. And as I read the stories of others living with mental illness during Mental Health Awareness Month, I appreciate their honesty and their passion. We need to raise our voices and share who we are, talk about what we go through. If we all keep talking about mental illness, stigma doesn’t stand a chance.
Here’s my own story using my own words:
Hi, I’m Rachel.
I don’t thank my bipolar.
Not a single thing.
I acknowledge my illness, I understand it, I make my peace, but I don’t give my bipolar any credit. That belongs to me.
With or without it I’m fabulous.
And my mental illness can go fuck itself.
Dr. Rachel Kallem Whitman is an educator, advocate, and writer who has been shacking up with bipolar disorder since 2000. Through intentional storytelling Rachel creates safe spaces where authentic disability narratives are amplified, hope is kindled, and community is cultivated. Rachel credits her success to the support of her loving partner, her unwavering passion to dismantle stigma, a house full of pets, smoked Gouda, and her unshakeable sense of humor. This work has empowered Rachel to look beyond illness and find herself.