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Let’s Talk About The Transgender Community, Body Positivity, and Fatphobia.

Y’all, I did this super scary thing where I talked, unscripted, for half an hour about the intersections of fatphobia and transness, along with sharing SO many feelings that I have about body positivity.

I did this with the amazing Elizabeth Cooper, founder of the Queer Body Love Speaker Series! You can learn more about it by clicking this link right here.

Their introduction to my interview is super generous and makes me feel important! Check it out:
Sam Dylan Finch

More people have recommended Sam Dylan Finch as a speaker for this series than anyone else. He’s the most famous advocate for trans inclusivity within the body positive movement, and in this candid interview he shares about his own experience as a non-binary trans person who has both learned from and has critiques of the body positive movement. This topic of navigating a fatphobic, transphobic society is SO important and has something to contribute to us all.

Interview highlights:

  • Why “every body is a bikini body” body positive beach photoshoots are exclusive (and how to reframe such projects to be trans inclusive)
  • 2 impactful lessons Sam has learned from body positivity
  • Why Sam literally sits in front of a mirror staring at his body (this is a unique exercise I haven’t heard of before)
  • How to deprogram internalized voices of oppression
  • The difference between dysphoria and dysmorphia 
  • What it means for Sam to be a non-binary trans person & how this relates to his relationship to his body

I’m not sure if I’d call myself famous (read: I would not call myself famous), BUT OKAY ELIZABETH. I am flattered!

If you sign up on the website – which just involves sharing your email address – you’ll gain access not only to my interview, but to dozens of other interviews from queer folks and queer-competent clinicians, talking about the many complexities of queer body image!

And before you tell me, “Sam! You’re only saying this because they paid you,” umm, EXCUSE ME. I did this for free!

I did this because I genuinely believe these are some of the most important conversions to be having right now, in a society which tells transgender people in particular that they are inherently broken, and as fatphobia and gendered ideals fuel disordered eating in our community.

And if you’re not interested in watching my face make weird expressions while I talk about this, or if it’s simply not an accessible format for you, there’s also a transcript available so you can simply read what I (and all the other speakers!) had to say.

It’s rare that I put myself on video without a script to talk about these things, but this was a unique occasion in which I wanted to connect directly with folks who, like me, are trying to navigate body positivity – which is a profoundly cis-centric movement – while also being transgender or non-binary.

So really, go sign up! I promise it’s not a scam (well, if it is, we can be victims together, okay, because I totally signed up too). It’s just a bunch of queer people who want to talk about our bodies in a way that we seldom have the space to do.

And be sure to spread the word! I can think of countless queer and trans people who need access to these conversations. Let’s bring everyone to the table. Let’s support and uplift one another in our journeys toward self-acceptance.

See you there!

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Not Otherwise Specified: The Pain Of Hearing ‘I Don’t Know’

For the last six years, I’ve held on tight to my bipolar diagnosis – it kept me afloat in the midst of very turbulent seas. It was a framework that helped me understand my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; it was a word that helped me find a community of people who were similarly struggling.

I remember listening to Mary Lambert’s song “Secrets” for the first time, with its opening line, “I’ve got bipolar disorder / my shit’s not in order,” and feeling the immediate connection and kinship that only comes from two people with the same endless, chaotic battle.

I felt like that song was for me.

I felt seen in that moment. I felt seen in every moment when someone I knew or someone with visibility came out and said that magic word: Bipolar, bipolar, bipolar, making me feel more and more real every time they stepped out of the shadows.

“Bipolar,” as a label, made me feel safe – like there was sense in the senseless, an anchor in an uncertain storm.

And that’s why, after a painfully long and involved evaluation, it was difficult to hear a psychiatrist say to me, “I don’t know if you have bipolar disorder.”

Mood Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, they told me, otherwise known as the grey area between depression and bipolar. Because they couldn’t just let me have depression, either – they left it ambiguous, leaving me straddling two words and two communities and two answers, pulling the ground out from underneath me.

In so many ways, this label was hollow. It was a question more than it was a statement. I couldn’t turn to the world and say, “This is what I’m going through” or “this is how much it hurts.” There’s no measure of severity, or list of symptoms, or a simple story to tell the world, tell my parents, tell my partner what’s happening to me.

Not Otherwise Specified is an empty place that tries to hold the entirety of your struggle, tries to say everything there is to say, without really holding or saying anything at all.

As if to say, “Your mind is out of bounds and we are out of words.”

My suffering has colored outside the lines like a child with no sense of where it all starts and stops.

I have no sense of where it all starts and stops.

In addition to my Mood Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, they have other things to specify: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which I should’ve suspected but never knew, and Borderline Personality Disorder, which they suspect is the root of my misdiagnosis.

It all feels true enough, but it also feels too new.

This, in addition to my agoraphobia, in addition to my alcohol use disorder, which both come with their own pain, a pain that I sometimes feel all over my body instead of just in my mind.

What happened to me?

There are so many names for my trauma, and so many names still missing, some more precise than others.

Just like that, I was OCD, I was borderline – two things I’d both always been and never been before – and bipolar, the very center of it all, slipped from my grasp and became an unknown, as if it were never here.

And maybe it wasn’t.

People say that we invest too much in labels, that we aren’t our diagnoses. I can’t say for sure that they’re right or wrong.

But I suspect they don’t know the loneliness of suffering something nameless. I suspect they don’t know the confusion of lacking the words to convey your pain. And I suspect they don’t know the relief when the words lead you to someone else who knows that pain, too.

When I lost “bipolar,” I lost more than just a label – I lost the story that helped me make sense of it all, the words to describe my pain, and the connection to other people who understood both.

Not Otherwise Specified is not a story, not an answer, not a connection. It’s a placeholder, a seat saved for something or someone that hasn’t yet arrived.

And what am I supposed to do with that?

tooill

When You’re Too Mentally Ill To Transition

Nearly seven months ago, I made the decision to start testosterone as a part of my gender transition.

I remember feeling so overjoyed that this part of my journey was beginning. The torment of being in a body that caused me so much distress, and being misgendered left and right adding salt to my wounds, made HRT not just a desire of mine but a real necessity.

If you’d asked me where I’d be by now, my self of seven months ago would talk about how high my dose would be, all the changes that would be happening, my desired date for top surgery (would it be September? December?), and how I’d be so much closer to the body I needed to have – closer than I’d ever been.

But none of that is true. In fact, I’m almost exactly where I started.

I’m still here because my testosterone dosage is only half of a typical starting dose – extraordinarily low and nearly ineffective, because there’s not a single doctor willing to increase it.

I’m still here because I was denied the recommendation needed to move forward with top surgery.

I’m transgender and I’m trying to transition. But the door keeps getting slammed in my face again, and again, and again.

There’s not a lot of conversation happening around the specific challenges that transgender people with mental illness are facing. I first wrote about this when I discussed my experiences in a psychiatric hospital, where I was almost denied my hormones altogether.

As someone with bipolar and a whole assortment of other diagnoses, I continually come up against obstacles in my transition that I would not otherwise face if I were neurotypical. 

I’ve been told before to stop taking hormones. I still remain on a dosage that barely alters my body – because there are concerns about how the hormonal changes will affect my sanity, despite having no evidence that it will and knowing we could lower the dosage if it did.

Most recently, I was told that I couldn’t move forward with top surgery because I was in a mild depressive episode, and that we would have to wait a few months to revisit the possibility of surgery. Seeing as the waiting period for surgery can be anywhere from six months to 2 years, it’s unclear to me why we couldn’t address my depression while I was on the waiting list for surgery.

Transition can already feel like it takes centuries just to get an inch closer to where we need to be.

So imagine, then, that you are a transgender person with mental illness, who not only has to deal with the typical challenges of gender transition, but you must also navigate the exhausting barriers that therapists, psychiatrists, and doctors place in front of you.

Imagine having no idea when you’ll be permitted to access the care that you desperately need – that you’ll remain imprisoned in a dysphoria-induced hell until you pull it together and become acceptably sane for your doctors.

It’s true that transgender people with mental illness have needs that are unique and important, due to the biochemical nature of both medical transition and mental illness. And it’s true that making life-altering changes during times of turmoil can sometimes do more harm than good.

But it’s also true that countless mentally ill transgender people have been denied hormones or surgery to their own detriment, causing real and even lasting damage.

It’s true that the woeful lack of research around mentally ill transgender people means that many medical professionals simply don’t know how to support this vulnerable population.

And it’s absolutely true that being unable to transition can worsen a transgender person’s mental health – and clinicians who do not take this into account, treating medical transition as optional rather than urgent and necessary, are contributing to the very mental health crisis they wish to avoid.

As I sit here with the inability to go further in my medical transition – stuck in a desperate situation that continues to eat me alive every day – it is obvious to me that mentally ill transgender people are being failed at every level.

If our only “solution” is to not transition, we need new and better solutions.

Assuming my bipolar stabilizes further, there will most likely be a time – I don’t know, hopefully this year? – when I can move forward, after more than half a year of being held back.

And while I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to resume my transition, I remain paranoid and fearful that it can be taken away from me at any time.

If this is what it looks like to be a mentally ill transgender person in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m terrified to know what it looks like elsewhere in the country, where care is even less accessible and trans-competent clinicians are few and far between.

We deserve better than this. If a medical intervention is what a person needs to be well, why would we ever treat it like it’s optional? How are our gender transitions any different?

depressed

5 Reminders For Anyone Who’s Depressed

I’m a little over two weeks into a depressive episode. According to my therapist, anyway. I’ve been a human slug, inching my way around my apartment, dramatically sighing and eating microwave meals and watching the dishes stack up in the sink.

You know the deal.

This, just two months after being hospitalized (can I just catch a break?). You’d think that all the intensive therapies, support groups, medication changes, and workbooks would have prevented this. But alas, here I am – sometimes depression manages to get a foot in the door despite your best efforts.

Sometimes when I’m entering into a depressive episode, I like to write down reminders that I want to hold onto as I go through it. They can be affirmations, reality checks, or words of wisdom.

Anything, really, to keep some perspective when I’m dealing with my episode. I try to write down the words I think I’ll need to hear as I struggle – because too often, we lose sight of the important stuff.

This time, I figured, why not share my list? And even better – encourage people to write their own.

Here are five of my own reminders to get us started.

1. Sometimes what’s best for us is the thing we resist the most.

I wrote about this recently in another article – how mental illness can encourage us to do the exact opposite of what we need to be doing. For example, my depression often urges me to stay in my apartment, even though going out into the world and socializing would actually boost my mood.

When you lack energy and motivation, and you don’t find the things you used to love as pleasurable as you once did, it can be damn near impossible to find a reason to do anything but curl up in bed.

Our instincts, clouded by the depression, often leave us opting for behaviors that are worsening our mood.

Some days, I am simply unable to move or participate in things. And that’s totally okay! It’s most important to be compassionate with ourselves and take care of ourselves.

But I’ve found that sometimes, telling myself to ignore my depressive instincts and do some self-care – even if it sounds unappealing, exhausting, or boring – really does help me.

You get to decide, ultimately, what’s feasible for you and what’s not. But it’s good to remind yourself that depression does not always have your best interest in mind.

2. Surviving depression involves being skeptical of 95% of your thoughts.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received was something like, “Not everything you think is true.” This is especially relevant advice when dealing with depression.

Too often we forget that depression doesn’t just impact how we feel, but it affects how we think.

Things like low self-esteem, pessimism, suicidal thoughts, catastrophizing, rumination, and harsh self-criticism are just a small slice of the impact that depression has on our thinking.

Which is to say, it’s important to approach our negative thinking with a certain amount of skepticism.

Some healthy questions worth asking yourself: (1) Have I always felt this way?, (2) How do I know, logically, that this is true?, (3) What advice would I give to a friend who struggled with this?, and (4) Could depression be impacting my feelings about this?

When I’m grappling with low self-esteem, for example, and I go down the shame spiral of feeling like I’m not worth anything to anyone, I can go through these questions.

No, I haven’t always felt this way. And logically, none of my friends have told me I’m not worth anything to them – quite the opposite. If my friend were struggling with this, I would encourage them to reach out to their friends and express how they’re feeling. And yes, it’s possible that depression is impacting this because I guess it’s neither permanent nor logical.

Sometimes the questions help, but sometimes I’m too depressed to think outside of my situation. Regardless, it’s one useful tool amongst many in my toolbox that I can call on any time, and it’s helped me to push back on a lot of the negative self-talk that is so typical of depression.

3. Asking for help is sometimes the most difficult but necessary thing we can do.

My recent breakdown required that I call on my friends and ask for their help despite desperately wanting to leave everyone out of it. And while in hindsight there’s a lot I would do differently, I can’t say for certain that I would be alive today if I hadn’t reached out.

Asking for help is really hard. I will never invalidate the very real fears that come with reaching out.

We’re afraid of the possible rejection we’ll face from others. We’re afraid of being burdens on the people we love. We’re afraid that we’ll push people away. We’re afraid of being ostracized by our communities. We’re afraid of being further stigmatized.

And sometimes, we’re just ashamed to say that we’re hurting. We don’t want others to see us when we’re vulnerable. We don’t want others to see us at our lowest. I can assure you that I know how that feels.

Reaching out when you’re struggling with a mental illness is complicated, and everyone’s situation is complex and different. I can’t tell you what the right road to recovery looks like for you.

But at the end of the day, I’d like to remind you of this: Your survival is critically important, your life holds value, and you deserve compassionate care that will help you through this struggle.

Often times, sadly, that care is only within reach when we ask for it. And often times, that care is not just optional – it’s necessary if we are going to survive.

As I navigate recovery, I’m grateful every single day that there were people in my life there to help me. I would’ve died a long time ago if they hadn’t been.

I don’t know your situation, but I will say that I hope you are able to find the support that you need – even if it’s scary to ask, your life and your happiness are worth it.

4. None of this is your fault. None of it.

Damn, this one is too real.

Sometimes when I’m depressed, I get caught in this loop of self-blame that seems never-ending. If I had done this differently, if I just pushed harder, if I had better coping skills, if I went to more groups, if I did this, or that, or this, or that… apparently depression would disappear by sheer effort alone.

That’s not how it works. Depression isn’t a matter of willpower. Deep down, I think most, if not all of us understand that.

…but this is kind of incredible, right? Because part of my profession is knowing stuff about mental health, so you’d think I’d get the message by now. But depression shows up, and suddenly everything I know about mental health goes out the window and I’m punishing myself for something beyond my control.

I would never go up to someone with mental illness and say, “You need to try harder.” But apparently I’ll tell myself that twenty times a day?

(See, this is what I mean about being skeptical of your thoughts.)

So here’s the reminder for that inevitable moment that I fall back into that unending loop: It’s. Not. Your. Fault.

If it were a matter of willpower, the depression would be gone by now. If you could do something more, you would’ve already been doing it. No one chooses their depression.

But if you’re looking to make life changes to address your depression, I do have some advice. Make changes in the name of self-care – not in the name of self-blame. Because yes, you deserve a lot of care right now and no, you don’t deserve the blame.

5. It is impossible to know what the future will look like.

When I’m deep in a depressive episode, I find myself saying – with complete and total conviction – that nothing will ever get better, that my future is empty, that I will always struggle, that there’s nothing worth living for.

(Pro-tip: Words like “nothing,” “never,” “always” – or any words that exist in an “all or nothing” framework – are really big red flags. Folks dealing with depression often think in absolutes, which can feed into the hopelessness that we’re already feeling.)

As someone who both struggles with mental illness AND regularly supports people who do, I see it time and time again.

We’re deeply depressed, and then we’ve convinced ourselves we already know what the future looks like – despite the reality that none of us could possibly know.

Remember that skepticism I talked about? We’ve got to utilize it here above all else. Because our feelings about the future can drive our depression.

It’s so important to remember that you can’t know what the last page of a book says if you’re only in the middle of the book.

It makes perfect sense that, when we’re depressed, we see the future as being hopeless. But it’s impossible in any given moment to predict the outcome of our lives, no matter how despondent and awful our present moment might be.

The future is always unknowable. I’ve learned this the hard way many times, when I made rash decisions to harm myself under the assumption that nothing would get better, and later regretted it as I discovered that the future was not as predictable as I thought.

To be clear, I’m not asking any depressed person to remain hopeful about a future that they can’t see. Hope is a feeling that depression often robs us of.

But I am asking depressed folks to consider not making decisions based on a future they’ve assumed will happen, and instead, try to deal with the present, one day at a time.

It is possible that things will not get better. None of us can know for sure. But it’s also possible that they will. And I sincerely believe that every one of us deserves the opportunity to find out – and the tools to make that future as bright as possible.

On the days when I am crumbling under the weight of depression, and the future seems utterly hopeless, I try to remind myself of the many times I counted myself out, only to discover that there was something in the future that was waiting for me – something I never saw coming.

This may sound cheesy, but I had people to meet, and places to travel to, and articles to write, and communities to be a part of. I couldn’t have imagined these things in my life, but now I can’t imagine my life without it.

If there’s only one reminder that you take from this list, it’s this: There is a life for you beyond depression. 

And I’d like to believe that there’s one for every one of us.

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An Open Letter To Amanda Lauren From Someone ‘Beyond Help’

Having nearly died by suicide six years ago, I can imagine what people would have said about me. They would’ve talked about my deep depressions, my unpredictable rage, how lost I was.

Maybe, like you, they would’ve said that I was better off dead. Maybe, like you, they would have callously remarked that some people with mental illness can’t be helped.

Here’s a letter for you, Amanda, from someone “beyond help.”

You were right to judge yourself for exploiting Leah’s story, because it’s exactly what you did. You took the life of a mentally ill person and diminished it, deciding to use her struggles for your own personal gain.

Mentally ill people do not exist as entertainment for you. They do not exist as a sensational story to tell. They are not a product for your consumption. We are not property, we are not objects, we are not paychecks for you.

But ethics were never a consideration for you, Amanda.

Let’s look at the facts: You celebrated the death of a mentally ill person. In doing so, you told people everywhere, “Some people with mental illness are better off dead.”

And you believed it, too, it was the crux of your entire essay. You, a self-declared expert on mental health recovery, have decided that some people with mental illness would be doing themselves and the world a favor if they died.

I want to ask you something. What did you think you were offering the world in writing this? What good do you think you were doing? I can’t see the good, but I can see the immense damage and pain that you’ve caused my community and myself.

I can think of a mentally ill teenager that would read your essay and say, “Maybe I can’t make it after all. Maybe I’m not supposed to.”

I can think of a society that already stigmatizes mental illness saying, “See? Sometimes they’re just crazy and there’s nothing to be done.”

I can see relatives of mentally ill people saying, “Just give up already. There’s nothing we can do.”

I can see a police officer pulling the trigger, deciding in a split second, “He’s crazy, that makes him too dangerous.”

Mentally ill people die because of attitudes like yours.

They die because they stop believing in their ability to recover in a society that tells them they can’t. They die because the stigma around their illness – stigma that was rampant in your essay – prevents them from seeking out help or accessing treatment. They die because their support systems abandon them. They die because law enforcement ends their lives.

We are the victims of violence and trauma because we encounter people every day who see us as less than human – people like you, who believe that being crazy is an invitation for tragic mistreatment and even death.

Six years ago, they might have said that I was beyond help. They sure liked to emphasize how severe my disorders were, how dysfunctional I was. Like your “friend” Leah, they might have said that death spared me from a life of institutions and burdening my loved ones.

(Maybe an asshole ex-friend would’ve made a buck at xoJane talking about my life with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. A kid can dream, right?)

But let me explain something to you, Amanda.

I wasn’t beyond help.

And it took six medications, and it took a psychiatric hospitalization, and it took a hell of a lot of support from the people around me (who, no doubt, felt the burden of my illness at times), but I am slowly but surely climbing out of the depths of severe psychosis and depression.

People counted me out for years, thinking that I could never reassemble my life after mental illness had torn it apart. But those people were wrong.

And you were wrong.

You don’t get to decide, Amanda, which of us are “beyond help.” You also don’t get to decide which of us deserve to live. You don’t get to decide who has a chance and who doesn’t.

Leah could’ve had a chance – and while you toss confetti on her grave, I can’t help but think about all the people that would’ve done the same to me prior to my recovery.

It’s easy to take a glance at someone’s suffering and count them out. It is difficult – and it’s called empathy, you should try it sometime – to see that person as a whole human being that is irrevocably worthy of care, validation, and support.

Leah was deserving of that and more, not death – whether or not you believe it, regardless of what your essay says.

There are so many people like Leah in this world, grappling with severe mental illness, who are told that they will not or should not survive. They’re counted out before they’re ever given a chance to live. They’re reduced to their illness and denied their humanity by people like you.

But every mentally ill person, including Leah, deserves the chance to live their life and pursue recovery on their own terms.

And every mentally ill person has the right – the goddamn right – to be treated with dignity.

I know that there’d be a lot of confetti on my grave if I had died six years ago. But I’m glad that I made it through. And I’ll tell you why, Amanda.

I’m glad because I am still here to fight for mentally ill people. People who are considered too much, too sick, too crazy. People who are written off before they’re ever given a chance. People like Leah, and people like me.

Because we don’t deserve to die. We deserve to live, and not only that, but live to tell our stories the way they should be told.

Not by people who want to exploit our struggles, but by us, celebrating the people we’ve become because of them.

Leah doesn’t get that chance. But there are people out there who still can.

And I hope they take your essay with a grain of fucking salt.

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Being Non-Binary and a Trans Guy Isn’t a Contradiction

When we think about non-binary folks, we often think about agender, neutrois, or “gender neutral” people who do not identify with the categories of man or woman in any conceivable way.

Those folks are real, and absolutely deserve visibility and validation.

But I also think this is a very limited understanding of what it means to be non-binary. If we only think about non-binary identities on these terms, we fail to encompass the diversity of this community and the radical ways of doing (or not doing) gender.

Non-binary is defined as someone who does not identify exclusively as masculine or feminine (thus apart from a cisnormative binary). This can actually include quite a number of people and (a)genders.

But we forget sometimes that non-binary can encompass more than just someone who disowns the binary altogether – it can include someone who reclaims it for their own ends, expression, or performance.

For me, I am a very femme and genderqueer trans guy, who occupies masculinity and femininity and androgyny in a pretty equal and eclectic measure.

My non-binary identity is important to me – but so is my identity as a trans guy. They are totally inseparable.

My experience of my gender is fluid and moving, non-linear, queer. So while I do identify as a trans guy, my masculinity and my body are experienced through a very queer and non-binary lens.

In other words, I can be a trans guy and be non-binary simultaneously.

I do not exist in an exclusively masculine, binary space. I can embrace all the queer, femme, glittery, tender, and alien parts of my gender while simultaneously honoring the masculine identity that they are wrapped up in.

And I would argue that if we held more space for folks identifying as men or women to queer their gender and expression, we might find that non-binary community exists in more places and in more ways than we’d ever thought possible.

I don’t believe that being non-binary is about rejecting the binary out of hand for every single person. For some of us, it’s taking back the binary from oppressive and rigid social norms and breaking down those expectations.

I think that there is a way to take what is meaningful, resonant, or beautiful about what we’ve uncovered within the binary and take back what’s rightfully ours, making it our own.

For me, there are elements of being a “trans guy” that speak to my experiences – but it’s not quite enough to hold all the other queer, femme, and fluid aspects that make me who I am.

Non-binary, for many of us, is a placeholder because nothing else could contain us.

And at the end of the day, who’s to say that there aren’t men and women that are so queer, so infinite that they need that space held for them, too?

We should talk about the power dynamics and privileges embedded in how aligned someone is with the binary, sure. But that’s a very different conversation from the ones I’m being asked to have.

I have found a certain amount of skepticism of my non-binary identity since I started claiming “trans guy” as an identity as well. Many folks felt these categories were at odds, and that I shouldn’t call myself a non-binary writer or seek to represent the community if it wasn’t my experience.

But I believe that non-binary is a spectrum of experiences that can be held by people of many (a)genders, and that we can make room for all of those experiences without stepping all over each other or denying someone a label that really resonates with them.

If non-binary is to mean “not exclusively masculine or feminine,” we should be open to the possibility that anyone of any gender – especially in a binary system in which few, if any truly fit – might find themselves looking for language that gives them permission to be who they are.

And really, we should always be cautious and self-critical if our skepticism of someone’s truth is turning into identity policing. Denying someone the right to identify as non-binary is simply upholding the binary and imposing it onto someone else.

As non-binary, isn’t the imposition of that binary the last thing we want to be participating in?

I don’t believe that non-binary men or non-binary women are contradictions at all. If anything, it’s an indication that people are catching on.

The binary, on absolute terms, serves very few – and at least for me, being non-binary is about making room for every part of myself. I’m not surprised that others feel that way, too.

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6 Things Mental Health Recovery Has Taught Me

When I say that I’m in recovery, I mean it. It’s basically my part-time job.

My recent psychiatric hospitalization flipped my entire world upside-down. When I saw the aftermath of my breakdown, I knew it was time to confront my bipolar disorder and make a real commitment to my wellness.

So I went all in, taking advantage of every resource available to me (which I recognize is not the same for everyone).

Three days of the week, I am in intensive outpatient, which consists of mindfulness exercises, meetings with psychiatrists and social workers, group therapy, and skill-building.

Additional hours are spent in support groups around mental illness and sobriety, workshops on triggers and crisis management, reading every book on bipolar disorder that has ever existed, journaling to reflect on what I’ve been learning, and meeting with other folks in crisis to do some co-supporting and processing.

I couldn’t guarantee that I would never have another episode. But I could do everything in my power to make sure that I was ready for whatever this disorder threw at me.

Recovery has taught me more than I could possibly compile in a single list. But I did want to share just a handful of the things I’ve been reflecting upon lately as I start to emerge from the other side of this crisis.

Here are six things I’ve learned as I navigated my recovery:

 

1. Ignoring your illness doesn’t make it go away.

I can’t restate this enough. I spent the last two years evading the reality of my illness, which ultimately meant that I missed all the red flags as a major episode approached.

You can pretend that your mental illness doesn’t exist, and you can put it on the back burner if you’d like. But you can’t outrun it – it will always catch back up to you.

 

2. You are not helpless in the face of mental illness.

This can seem completely counter to everything our illnesses are telling us, especially if we’re feeling particularly hopeless.

But it is absolutely untrue that there’s nothing we can do to manage our illnesses. There are countless forms of therapy (both in human form and in the form of very accessible workbooks), coping strategies, self-care, and mindfulness practices that can help.

We can track our moods and sleep patterns, we can find communities of support, we can become aware of and minimize our triggers.

This is not to say that we control our illnesses. But we can certainly mitigate the kind of control that our illnesses have over us, and become aware of the warning signs that we need to prevent acute episodes as they approach.

 

3. Plant your feet firmly on the ground, in the here and now.

You can run on the hamster wheel of the past, overanalyzing what you could and should have done. You can ruminate on the future, and how seemingly impossible and overwhelming it really is.

Or, as they often tell us in recovery, you can take it one day at a time.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was in a support group, when I was rambling about how much remorse I felt about the way I had handled my breakdown, and everything I should have done differently.

Suddenly, someone interrupted and said to me, “Sam, is this helpful?”

I paused, taken aback. It wasn’t helpful at all.

And I highly recommend, when you find yourself ruminating on the past or panicking about the future, that you ask yourself who it serves. If it’s not helpful, opt for some good ol’ self-care instead.

 

4. Grief is an absolutely valid (and expected!) part of recovery.

I remember telling a social worker that I was worried that I was getting depressed again. I was having frequent spells of sadness and rumination, and I thought it might be an indication that things were taking a turn.

She asked if it was possible that I was experiencing grief instead, gently suggesting that instead of trying to push my sadness away, I should let it be.

“You’re used to fighting sadness,” she said to me. “With bipolar disorder, sadness always meant an impending crisis. But you seem perfectly stable to me. Maybe it’s time to get acquainted with sadness, with grief, instead of pushing it away.”

Grief is an expected part of recovery, especially if you’re coming off of a crisis. There’s so much to grieve – the loss of trust in yourself or your reality, a deep sense of vulnerability or even mortality, the shattering of your own security or feelings of normalcy, and any trauma that was endured.

When you’re mentally ill, you may be conditioned to fear sadness and grief – but it’s okay to sit with those feelings instead of resisting them, knowing they are simply a part of the recovery process, and that they are, in fact, transient.

 

5. Returning to your “normal life” is overrated. Build something better instead.

For the first two weeks of recovery, all I wanted was my “old life” back. I wanted to go back to work, I wanted to finish outpatient and go on my big East Coast trip, I wanted everyone to act as if it hadn’t happened.

I was reading a book on bipolar disorder – it had an entire chapter on lifestyle changes – when I realized two things.

The first was that my “normal life” would never be the same, and that it wasn’t something I could return to.

But the second more important realization was that it wasn’t something I wanted to return to.

My recovery was now an opportunity to build a life that was better than the one I had before – with more mindfulness, more resilience, better coping strategies, a real commitment to sobriety, and better boundaries.

Instead of seeing recovery as the road back to “normal life,” I saw it as a chance to create something better for myself.

I think that has been an incredibly important realization for me.

 

6. You have never been in a better position to change your life.

When did I get so disgustingly optimistic? (Y’all, they put me on some really great medications…)

I know, I know. But listen, it’s true – there has never existed another moment in your life where you’ve had the same awareness, knowledge, and lived experience that you do now.

So really, in this moment, there has never been a better time for you to make a commitment to your own wellness and recovery.

Dive in. Read everything you can get your hands on. Watch as many videos on self-care and coping strategies as you possibly can. Get yourself a good shrink if you’re able to. Give yourself 90 days of sobriety. Seek out a support group, online or offline, and pour your heart out.

Check out your local community college and see what classes they offer; get in touch with your local NAMI chapter and see what resources are available to you. Study yourself, study your illness, delve into your history with complete conviction – study like it’s the last class before graduation and you need to ace the exam.

Recovery is not about going back to the way things were. Recovery is about shaping your life to resemble the way you want things to be.

And there’s never been a better moment to do that than the one we’re in, right now.

ashamed

Sometimes I’m Ashamed Of My Mental Illness

Someone asked me recently what the most difficult part of my psychiatric hospitalization was. While the uncomfortable bed, tedious group therapies, and general lack of freedom were all stressful, it was life after hospitalization that was the toughest.

More specifically, the urge to hide from the people in my life, to self-isolate.

They saw me when I was losing my mind. I let them see me in my most vulnerable state, when my grip on reality was tenuous at best.

And all I could feel about that was shame.

When I say that I’m ashamed of my mental illness, it surprises people. I write about my struggles for a living. My history with mental illness is plastered all over the internet, easily uncovered with a single Google search of my name.

I have unapologetically owned my trauma around mental illness and, further, used that trauma to affirm and validate others who share those struggles.

So why would I be ashamed?

Well, that’s easy enough. The same reasons as everybody else.

Because underneath my “social justice warrior” armor, there’s just a scared little kid. One who spent years trying to hide his illness from everyone, fearful that he couldn’t be both mentally ill and lovable. Scared that if people saw how deep his struggles ran, they might leave.

I could tell the world that I was crazy, to an extent; it was empowering because I presented myself as the protagonist of my own story.

But what happens when everyone sees that you’re really broken, broken in ways they never imagined?

What happens when they look into your eyes and realize, fully, that you are the kind of crazy they’ve been warned about?

Because truthfully, my kind of crazy doesn’t inspire. At its core, it terrifies.

Every day I am biting my tongue until it bleeds, because I haven’t been able to admit that I’m scared.

I’m scared that this breakdown has rendered me less valuable, less likable, less worthy.

Every day I am pretending that my recovery is pleasant and easy and simple — I swallow what hurts when they ask if I’m okay — because maybe if I prove that I can be normal again, they’ll forget that I was ever psychotic, that I was ever paranoid, that I was ever delusional.

Maybe they’ll forget that I’m mentally ill.

Maybe they’ll forget what I looked like in a hospital gown, an IV stuck in my arm, trapped in a room on suicide watch.

I was so small then.

In that moment, waiting to be transferred to the psych ward, no one cared about my articles or my speaking gigs or the ways that I changed the world. In that moment, none of it mattered.

In that moment, I was revealed as the one thing I really was — crazy. And I had nothing to hide behind.

I find myself wondering, on the other side of this, if my breakdown will eclipse everything that I am.

Because none of us — not even a mental health blogger like me — is exempt from the feeling that our illnesses make us less than, make us unworthy.

The hardest part of being hospitalized wasn’t being in a hospital. The hardest part was letting the people in my life see that I am not, in fact, a success story, someone who overcame his struggles.

I am still fractured, still fragmented, still grieving, still human. 

And now, I’m exposed.

stillwanted

I Had Everything I Wanted – And I Still Wanted To Die

I’ve spent an hour, give or take, furiously pacing the floor of my apartment. They call this “psychomotor agitation,” though I don’t know it yet.

I feel like I can’t stand to be in my skin another second, like I’m completely wired and simultaneously the most depressed I’ve ever been. They call this a “mixed episode,” though I haven’t realized that yet.

My apartment is my sanctuary. I remember when I moved into the place – the joy I felt to be downtown, to be in the heart of things. It was full of 1920s charm. It felt surreal to be in a place so nice. I put a lot of thought into how I decorated the place, down to the candles and the twinkle lights and the succulents.

It was my safe place – was, up until that moment, when suddenly the train was coming off the rails.

I abruptly stop pacing. I know what I need to do.

I grab a pad of paper and a pen, and begin to write.

I’m sorry…

/

“But nothing was actually wrong,” I say quietly. “I wouldn’t have changed anything about my life – just how I felt.”

I’m in group therapy for the second time that day. We all sit in a circle, wearing pajamas and hospital gowns.

Bipolar disorder doesn’t give a shit about my ‘perfect’ life,” I continue. “I had everything I wanted and I still wanted to die.”

My body trembles ever so slightly.

“It can be hard to accept that these illnesses are not always within our control,” the group facilitator says. “We can feel very vulnerable when we realize this.”

Vulnerable. Vulnerable doesn’t even begin to describe the fears that have overtaken me since my breakdown.

Was it really possible that, no matter how I arranged my life – no matter what the circumstances were and how meticulously I controlled them – I could lose my mind anyway?

I could have a career that I loved, a community of friends and partners that brought me joy, and yes, the charming little apartment, but as soon as the chemicals in my brain turned on me, all of these things were irrelevant at best.

“I thought building my perfect life could keep my illness away, could keep me safe,” I tell the group. I look down at my hospital band around my wrist, a painful reminder.

I was sorely mistaken.

/

I’ve gotten too drunk. Again.

This is a new habit of mine. I’ve taken to drinking in the middle of the day, drinking alone, which everyone tells me is a bad sign.

They all tell me to sober up, and I don’t listen. I don’t listen because it’s better to be drunk than to be restless, the kind of restlessness that feels like thousands of insects crawling underneath your skin.

I glance at my phone.

“We found your note, Sam,” a message reads.

The panic begins to settle in. No one was supposed to find it until after I jumped in front of the train.

“Just tell us where you are,” another message reads. “Please.”

“Almost everyone who has jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived said they regretted it immediately,” someone else says.

I already know what that regret feels like.

Seven years ago, the closest I’ve ever come to death, I felt that regret after the seizure and before I blacked out.

And in that moment, the memory of that regret scares me.

/

The answer is horrifyingly simple: Lithium.

The answer is not an apartment, or a relationship, or my job – the answer is lithium, and three days into my hospitalization, the chaos in my mind begins to subside.

“How are you feeling?” the psychiatrist asks me.

“I’m getting better.”

“That’s good news,” he says. “What about the voices? Are you hearing any?”

“No,” I reply. “My head is a lot clearer now.”

I should be overjoyed that the tides are turning. But I am in shock – was this really all that it took? Was it really just brain chemicals?

I don’t know whether to be glad that the answer was so simple or fearful that it was beyond my control.

Or both.

/

In outpatient, I sit in a support group and listen to people talking about what led to their crisis.

“I lost my job.”
“I had a terrible accident and the recovery was difficult.”
“I lost my brother and mother within six months.”
“I was in a coma.”

It’s my turn.

“I was in denial about my mental illness.”

Denial, like when you ignore all the warning signs because you don’t believe you’re sick. Denial, like when you think that if you control every element of your life, it won’t affect you. Denial, like when you’re convinced that if you take your pills every day, you’re cured.

Or when you believe that if you have everything, you won’t break down.

But the truth is, you can have everything and still want to die.

Because mental illness doesn’t care about the life you’ve built. It’s only interested in what it can take away.

askforhelp

Maybe It’s Time We Stop Punishing Ourselves And Start Asking For Help

I had a family member who, in his old age, used to pull the emergency cord in his apartment – a cord designed for seniors should they fall or become very ill – almost every week.
 
Over and over, he would pull the cord and be taken by ambulance to the hospital, where the doctors would assure him and our family that there was nothing wrong.
 
I was a child back then, and I remember asking my parents why he kept pulling the cord if nothing was the matter.
 
“He’s lonely,” they told me.
 
When I was that young, I couldn’t understand why he didn’t just tell people that he felt lonely.
 
But as an adult in the grips of mental illness, ten years later, I understand why he kept pulling the cord.
 
I understand that sometimes the hardest thing in the world is to admit that you need help or support.
 
And I’m certain that if there were a way to instantly combat the loneliness I’ve felt – no need to utter a single word or plea for help – I would have pulled that cord hundreds of times these last few weeks alone.
 
I wish we lived in a world where seeking out emotional support could be taught in healthy ways, encouraged and affirmed as a necessary part of emotional resiliency, and not looked at as a sign of weakness.
 
That’s not the world we live in.
 
We live in a world where the thought of being a burden is scarier to us than the immensity of our own pain.

A world in which we choose to silence ourselves and suffer alone because we think it’s noble to do so.
 
My family member pulled the cord more times than I could count for a year until he passed. The nurses knew, the doctors knew, our family knew – and everyone played along.
 
That’s the world we live in. Everyone plays along.
 
We write vague and anguished Facebook statuses. We run away hoping others will follow. We type “I want to die” into Google search bars because we’re too afraid to tell our friends. We push people away because we don’t know what else to do. We fake smiles hoping that someone will see through them.
 
We’re all pulling cords in our own way because it’s harder to just be honest and say, “Please, I can’t be alone right now.”
 
We’re all pulling cords because we don’t know how to say that we’re hurting.
 
And I guess what I’m saying is that, if you’re reading this – maybe, just maybe – we can all start to push back against this fear. This fear that tells us to keep quiet, the one that tells us our pain is too much or too heavy.

Maybe it’s not.

Maybe we can start saying what we really mean.

And I will, too.

Tonight, I am lonely.