This piece is part of our Mental Health Month blog series, where we highlight and explore eight different mental health struggles. Here’s Rachel’s experience with and perspective on bipolar disorder.
I graduated from the University of Virginia in 2007 with a BA in psychology, an inflated sense of self-esteem, and a small collection of semi-regrettable tattoos. While I loved the quaint college town of Charlottesville, VA, with diploma in hand I headed north, seeking employment, slinking into the belly of the D.C. Area. This was a significant point in my life, not only was I transitioning from “student” to “adult-hopeful with a career,” but I was also reflecting on my goals, values, and overall a sense of identity. I was on a mission to find a job that reflected who I was and aligned with my priorities. And a position I could be proud of. I was determined to successfully tackle this social milestone.
Ok, before you read on, let me preface—I am a devout liberal, a relentless pacifist, and a hopeless humanitarian at heart. But, I am also bipolar, which means that consistency has never really been my thing. When I was looking for work that summer, I had two guideposts that ushered me along—my brand new diploma and the same old mania I’d been living with since I was 15. I soon learned that my mania, with its unyielding stamina and bottomless pit of “brilliant” ideas, excelled at sending out a shit ton of cover letters and resumes at breakneck speed to a very wide, undiscriminating continuum of potential employers. Which is how I landed and accepted an internship with the Department of Defense…
What can I say? I guess I’ll try anything once. Final words of an army of dumb-dumbs.
Great, so we’ve established that mania is a talented catalyst when it comes to making bizarre, impulsive decisions (re: think semi-regrettable tattoos), but I also want to talk about how mania does a terrific job when it comes to stealing your memories. The nature of mania is that it revs up your brain to the point that it’s so completely consumed with constant pulsing, vibrating, and rattling that it forgets to record what’s going on in the world outside your chemically imbalanced jittery mind. Mania’s ferocious energy can lead to reckless behavior, it can sabotage your relationships, it can jeopardize your safety, it can convince you to sleep with a republican econ. major your sophomore year (like I said, I’ll try anything once, but that is a story for another time), and it can ruthlessly wipe your mind clean. Just like how it blanched my brain for the four-month period I was a paid intern doing something or other for a government office. In these situations, finding artifacts* from your manic rainbow-outs** can help you connect at least some of the dots. I’ve been solving riddles for years, it’s a big part of surviving bipolar disorder.
Quick pause for the words of the day:
*Artifacts—Clues you find after a manic episode that offer at least a glimpse of what happened when you were under the influence of your rampant manic bender. Since I was a teenager I’ve relied on excavating for artifacts in order to piece together various clues to map out lost time. These artifacts manifest in a vast array of forms but I am always eternally grateful whenever I can unearth them because their presence helps me feel less estranged from reality. In some cases, the artifact is a mammoth credit card bill. Or a dented car door. A truly trashed apartment. Semi-regrettable tattoos. An impulsive adoption of a little black kitten (her name is Juniper Montrieve and she’s 7 years old now). A reputation on campus that you’re a slut. However, in most scenarios, artifacts are the stories you collect from other people. For me, artifacts confirm that I did in fact exist in a period where, in my mind, there is nothing but the leftover ash of old fireworks. Artifacts remind you that even though you’re crazy, you’re still a human on planet Earth.
**Rainbow-outs—If you drink to excess there is a very likely chance you’ll blackout, brownout, greyout—you get the idea—which means you’ll inevitably come to with a smattering of mystery bruises, a cracked iPhone screen, a list of misplaced personal items, a hangover, and a very blurred, highly suspect recollection of the night before. Similarly, your brain on mania can produce gaps in linear and temporal timelines, which can span a few days, weeks, months, and for some people even years. The longest I’ve gone without logging any memories is about four months. This memory loss is the result of your unmedicated, addled brain marinating in magnetic neuro-chemical manic glitchiness for far too long. This pathological state of being transforms everything you encounter into being too vibrant, too saturated, too kinetic, and too exaggerated. Your senses—your whole system—is inundated with overwhelming color and unbridled energy; the majesty of unchecked mania causes you to gloriously and dramatically rainbow-out. But while alcoholics are saddled with next day headaches, bipolars crash into a depression. To sum it all up, alcoholics blackout when they drink too much, bipolars rainbow-out when our brains are irreversibly steeped in mania. While both may seem fun at first, they are dangerous in the long run. Cautionary tale: Must I remind you, a lapse in sanity and suddenly I was working for the Department of Defense!!
Anyway, where was I?
Thanks to my raging, kaleidoscope caving-in mania, I don’t remember much from my four months spent interning at the Department of Defense, and I figured I never would. It would be yet another time period sacrificed to mania, an outcome I have learned to accept. But the other day my husband stumbled upon a treasure when he was digging around in our old hard drives. Eureka! An artifact from August 2007! A “research paper” I wrote entitled “Clan of Xymox; Harbingers of World Change and Instillers of International Tranquility,” which, upon reading, I suddenly remembered submitting—very proudly in fact—to my boss at the DOD. Your American tax dollars at work (sorry!). At the time was I obsessed with the Clan of Xymox, a Dutch rock band formed in 1981? Highly unlikely. I am fairly certain I never listened to any of their songs that summer, and I know for a fact I haven’t since. Did the Department of Defense ever do business with the Clan of Xymox? I’m gonna give that a hard “no.” Looking back, sane-me isn’t sure why authoring this paper and giving it to my boss was a good idea, but I know manic-me knew it was an absolutely brilliant idea. Probably the best idea I’d ever had. And as I scrolled through the paper I unexpectedly retrieved two other surviving details from that summer, both about my boss. 1) He was a republican and 2) He was an aspiring comedian, the latter of which probably made my Xymox stunt seem more quirky than crazy. Finally some clues, or at least mementos.
And this is why artifacts can be a source of revelation for people living with bipolar. While my diploma states that I graduated from UVA and my work history shows that I interned at the DOD, there was obviously more to my life than that. For every rainbow-out episode I’ve experienced, I’ve managed to piece together a loose narrative based on stories from friends, stubs from airplane tickets, the number of condom wrappers wedged under my mattress, often abysmal school or work-related attendance records, and freshly inked tattoos. Even though in these scenarios I’m sick, it is still me. For better or for worse, illness is a part of me that I recognize. A part of my identity that has shaped my values and goals, that has nurtured my creativity. Finding my manic-fueled unofficial capstone project for the Department of Defense, “Clan of Xymox; Harbingers of World Change and Instillers of International Tranquility,” provided evidence that the human part of me was there that summer; that I was underneath the shadow of my rainbow.
So, without further ado, below are some excerpts from my masterpiece. Peek into my rainbow and have a chuckle. Aw, what the hell, go look up the Clan of Xymox and let them serenade you as you read. I can’t vouch for how good or bad they are, I still haven’t listened to them yet.
In 1989 the album “Twist of Shadows” was released and 300,000 copies were sold. The release of this tectonic plate shiftingly good album caused positive aftershocks that rippled through the world. Though no causal proof exists, it is commonly believed that the release of this album triggered the fall of the Berlin Wall, the birth of the Game Boy, motivated the San Francisco 49ers to win Super Bowl XXIII, and served as the catalyst behind the on-air fight between guests on Geraldo Rivera’s talk show that resulted in the host’s nose being broken. Although the only obvious similarity between these events and the release of “Twist of Shadows” is that they all occurred in 1989, it is clear that these “coincidental” events were the product of “Twist of Shadows’” taking the world by storm.
Xymox created timeless music that was appreciated not only through the mediums of song and dance, but also video games. In 1996, Xymox provided the soundtrack for the game “Total Mayhem” and in 1997 they blessed the game-makers of “Revenant” with permission to use their vocals and instrumentals. Despite never having been officially involved with video games before this, do take into consideration that the advent of the Game Boy occurred in the same year as the release of “Twist of Shadows” and thus, most likely the band spawned the evolution of video games and gaming technology as we know it. Inspiring the creation of the Game Boy and then later furthering the progress of gaming by providing musical soundtracks, Xymox was a dynamic force in our technological world.
Not only was Xymox responsible for the evolution of modern gaming technology as we know it, but Xymox was also influential in rekindling the friendship between two feuding nations. Since WWII, Germany and the United States had been enveloped in tension and a mutual misunderstanding. Despite the German language having many cognates and thus being remarkably similar to English, Germany and the United States of America failed to find common ground and repair their damaged relationship. This was until Xymox was changed to the “Clan of Xymox” once again and signed with the German and US record label, Tess Records. This marks the birth of the repaired German-US relationship, which is why now each nation complacently tolerates the other from across the sea and share a musical language, the lyrics of the Clan of Xymox.
In conclusion, be they the Clan of Xymox or just plain old Xymox, the musical brilliance is still the same. Cited as the “main producers of modern-day peace anthems for our troubled world” by me, the Clan of Xymox reaches out to the emo-punk roustabout within us all while preaching world peace. Marked by a tumultuous history of Game Boys, Super Bowl victories, Berlin Wall falls, lady astronauts, broken Geraldo Rivera noses, and racial equality, musical mastery is the legacy of the Clan of Xymox. But, theirs is a story not yet complete. The sun has not yet set on these messiahs of sound, for the future is bright, bright with XYMOX!
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. Read more of her writings here.