So You’re Bipolar: Advice for the Newly Diagnosed

Please note: This is a blog entry that talks about my personal experience, and what has worked best for me, one human being. I am not an objective authority, I am not a doctor. I am a person with bipolar disorder who is successfully managing it in the way that works best for me. What works best for you may be different. I am in no way endorsing one specific treatment plan or ideology — I am simply sharing my experiences.

When I was first diagnosed, I had an appetite for all things bipolar. I read countless books, articles, blogs, and whatever else I could get my hands on. I think this is because when I was diagnosed, I felt helpless. It was like standing at the bottom of an immense cliff, looking up and realizing that I had an entire mountain to scale. “Where do I begin?” I wondered. I was relieved to know there was a name for this struggle, but intimidated by the idea that I would have to do something about it.

Six years after my own diagnosis, I want to share some advice that I picked up along the way. Since everyone is different and our needs are different, too, I’ll link to some other resources that I found helpful along the way. In the comments, I encourage my followers to add their own pieces of advice as well, or to ask questions if I haven’t addressed something you have questions about. Let’s create an awesome dialogue together.

Here are 25 things I’d like to share with newly-diagnosed bipolar folks:

1. Bipolar is an illness that can be managed. Bipolar is NOT a death sentence.

When I was first diagnosed, it felt like the world was ending. I thought that I could never get better. I believed I would never live a functioning, “normal” life. Before we go any further, let’s pitch that whole “normal” idea right out the window. Normal is dull. An awesome life, filled with the things that make you feel fulfilled and whole and healthy, should be the goal here. And guess what? That goal is attainable. Let’s make that our goal.

I found a medication combo that worked for me, a therapist that helped me immensely, and I got my life back in order. I’m now a graduate student at my dream school, I moved across the country to the most beautiful place in the country, I’m getting married in May, and I feel the best I have ever felt. Remission is possible! Countless folks with bipolar go on to lead incredible lives and triumph in the face of this difficult illness. It isn’t always easy, but I promise, you are worth it.

2. Sometimes finding a doctor or therapist is like playing musical chairs.

My first psychiatrist was a terrible person. Truly. Anyone with a mental illness will tell you that finding the right team of competent professionals is like playing a game of musical chairs. Sometimes you’ll need to switch psychiatrists (the one who prescribes medications) or therapists (the one who does talk therapy) a few times before you find someone who is a good fit for you. Other times, you’ll find them on the first try. It’s kind of random.

And that is okay! In this profession, it’s very common to shuffle around until you find someone. Don’t be afraid of hurting someone’s feelings. This is a normal part of the process. When you find the right fit, I think you’ll know. You should feel listened to, respected, and that the care you are receiving is being adequately explained to you. Overtime, you should also feel that you are building trust.

While psychiatrist visits tend to be short, you should still feel that the time you spend in their office is productive and that your concerns are being addressed rather than disregarded.

If you don’t feel heard, respected, cared for, and educated, it’s time to switch chairs!

3. You may need a psychiatrist, not a general practitioner or family doctor.

Sometimes, our health concerns are very specific, and require a specialist who is trained to address that particular part of the body. The mind and its health is a complicated discipline. This is why folks with a mental illness should be seeking out a psychiatrist, at least for an accurate diagnosis. You may decide not to pursue medications, but if you are looking for a diagnosis, it doesn’t hurt to seek out someone who has specialized in behavioral health. If you do decide on meds, it is crucial to have a psychiatrist who is well-versed in psychotropic drugs. Your family doctor, while they might be the bee’s knees, does not specialize in this field, and may not be able to offer you what you’re looking for.

If you love your family doctor, ask them to recommend a psychiatrist that they trust. And if you don’t like that psychiatrist, keep switching until you find one that you do trust!

4. Nothing has worked better, for me, than medications and therapy together.

This isn’t the case for everyone, but it was the case for me: medications in conjunction with psychotherapy was the best combination for kicking my bipolar’s ass. There are a lot of studies that show that these two things together are more effective than each method on its own. I have found this to be the case.

A word on therapy. Therapy is awesome. I was in therapy for five years, and it was an amazing experience. I loved having a designated space every week to vent about my problems, to come up with reasonable ways to approach these problems, and to feel validated and understood in that space. If you don’t have “problems,” it’s nice to just debrief every week and process how things are going. Anyone and everyone can benefit from a safe space like that, and because these sessions are self-guided, you aren’t going to be forced to talk about something you aren’t comfortable with, so long as you vocalize your boundaries. Therapy, for me, was invaluable.

If you are concerned about the cost associated with doing both, many therapists offer their services on a sliding scale. Additionally, if you are a university student, many universities offer free counseling services. If you need some guidance on finding the right professional, check out NAMI’s guide (National Alliance on Mental Illness), or seek out your local NAMI chapter.

5. You have nothing to be ashamed of — though friends and family may tell you otherwise.

My family still believes that my bipolar should be a big secret. There is a stigma in this society that tells us that mental illness is something to be ashamed of. Not so. Personally, when someone tells me to shut up about bipolar, I play them this amazing song by Mary Lambert (who is also, coincidentally, bipolar!).

Bipolar? So what!

No one should tell you to be ashamed of bipolar. You deserve respect, support, and compassion — and you should never accept anything less, especially from those who know and love you. Millions of people worldwide grapple with bipolar, and it is a medical condition that should be treated with the same dignity and sympathy as any other condition.

Remember, stigma often comes from a lack of education. It isn’t your obligation to educate them, but you can certainly point them in the right direction. There are also support groups, like those that are hosted by NAMI, that can help families process their feelings and misunderstandings about your illness.

If someone is putting you down or making you feel worse about your illness, consider distancing yourself from this person, or bringing them into a therapy session to address their behavior.

6. You can’t do this alone. You don’t have to.

I tried to go it alone for a while. I didn’t want to be a burden on those that loved me, so I often kept what I was going through to myself. Ultimately what I achieved was silent suffering and nothing else.

Not having a support system of folks who care about you and, instead, opting to fly solo is a terrible — I will repeat this — TERRIBLE idea. You can certainly try to do this alone, but I’m going to tell you from experience… it won’t work. Every single one of us needs to lean on the folks we love now and again. And if they’re quality human beings, they will be there for you.

Attempting to isolate yourself can often be a red flag for depression as well, so be mindful that when bipolar is telling you to cut everyone off, it could be a cause for concern. Sometimes this can be an indication that you are on a downswing, and need more support, not less.

Also from experience, this is important: don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. Don’t rely on one person and one person only. Remember to involve friends, family, AND partners in this journey — “and” being the operative word here. Make it a team approach. If you only invest in one stock, what happens when that stock fails? Similarly, if you rely exclusively on one person for all of your support, if they aren’t able to give that to you or if they aren’t giving you what you need, it could jeopardize your health.

Finally, if you, for some reason or another, are estranged from family or friends, or do not have a working support system right now, it’s never too late to build your support network. There are online communities, as well as support groups, that I’ll talk about later on in this entry (skip ahead to #19 if you can’t wait).

7. You have options. But once you choose an option, give it time and stick to it.

No two bipolar individuals treat their illnesses exactly the same way. For me personally, I take medications (tegretol and latuda), see a therapist, maintain a mostly vegan diet, take regular walks, work with my triggers (see #9), and I also utilize artistic expression (writing and music). I know bipolar folks who use medical marijuana and attend support groups, and that works just fine for them. Others rely on meditation, exercise, maintain a rigid sleep schedule, and take as-needed anxiety meds. None of us truly use the same, identical approach.

What we do have in common, however, is that we stuck with our method long enough to realize what worked and didn’t work.

Once you choose a method, you need to stick with it for a while. Medications, for example, can take weeks or even months before we see the full effect. Sadly, many people get discouraged and stop taking them before they’ve given them a chance. It can also take multiple medications working together to achieve the desired effect, which can take months to figure out as well. With therapy, it can take months before you start to notice the very subtle ways your thinking and habits have changed, and it can be difficult in the beginning as you start to open up. This applies to any kind of approach. Patience is absolutely key.

In regards to medication, some quick reminders: Almost all of them have side effects, most are very benign, and almost all of them will disappear after two weeks. This is part of why waiting is so, so crucial. Crazymeds is a great resource that will help you anticipate how a medication might make you feel.

Whatever method you’re trying, remember that it can take time before you begin to notice or understand how it is changing your body. Of course, if the side effects of a medication are absolutely intolerable, please consult your psychiatrist. But all in all, sometimes you have to ride some big waves before you get to the shore. Hang in there, and give each treatment a chance. Even if it doesn’t end up working, knowing what doesn’t work is just as important as knowing what does. Every step is a step closer to achieving the right fit.

I know waiting is the last thing you want to do, but sometimes treating this illness is just a waiting game. The thing to remember is that it will be worth the wait.

8. Once you find something that works, be committed.

Sometimes when you start to feel better, you’ll contemplate whether or not you need to keep taking your pills, or exercising regularly, or maintaining that diet. This is one of the biggest pitfalls for folks with any mental illness. Once you find a good fit, commit to your routine. The last thing you want to do is jeopardize the progress that you’ve made.

Of course, if you want to try other options after a period of relative stability, for whatever your reasons may be, consult with your team (medical professionals, social workers, friends, AND family, wherever applicable) to plan out how to safely transition to this new routine. And be sure to examine where you are in your life, and whether or not it is a good time to try something else. For example, going off of your medications or reducing the dose during a busy school semester is not always a wise decision. I did this before because a medication that kept me stable also made me very tired, and I wound up going bonkers during exams week. That was a lot of fun, let me tell you.

9. Work on identifying your triggers. Make life choices that acknowledge these triggers.

Everyone will tell you this, but I think it’s the most important advice I can give. What is triggering for you? We all have things that stress us out, and for folks with a mental illness, it is important to keep track of these things. A journal can help with identifying triggers, but I know that therapy is what really helped me start to recognize mine.

For example, I know that taking on a huge course load at university is a big trigger for me. So I choose to work with the trigger. I selected a grad school program that allowed me to take two classes at a time, reducing my workload and helping me reduce my stress.

If you know that a full time job is an unrealistic expectation, consider pursuing part-time work if you are able, and apply for food stamps to help ease the financial burden.

If you know that certain people in your life tend to be triggering, try to keep a healthy distance between you.

If a big sink full of dishes is a trigger, try to ensure that you wash your dishes after every meal so they won’t pile up.

It seems simple, right? But it’s so important. Triggers can make a huge difference, and it’s important to work with them — not against them — to ensure that your circumstances are conducive to a healthy lifestyle.

Are there changes you can make in your life right now that would make you feel better? Try to work with a therapist or even a friend to make a plan on how you can work with your triggers. Family and friends can also help identify triggers you might not have even noticed.

10. You are the expert on your own life and your own body.

It’s important to remember that you and only you can know if a treatment plan is truly right for you. Everyone has ideas of what they think will help, and yes, you’ll be told try to yoga or acupuncture or check your thyroid a million times. But at the end of the day, this is your body. And you get to dictate what happens to it.

11. …but also listen to your friends and family, as well as medical professionals, who might notice red flags before you do.

It’s also important to remember that the people around you might notice red flags before you do. The fish in the bowl doesn’t always see the water, and this is true with bipolar as well. Yes, you are the expert on your life, but everyone has blind spots. For example, I might perceive my good mood as just that — a good mood — while the rapid talking and lofty ideas might indicate to my partner that I’m getting a bit manic. It’s important to listen to the folks in our lives whose perspective as an outsider might clue us in to an episode or issue we can’t readily see as the insider.

This also means that, sadly, in emergency situations we sometimes might have to relinquish a bit of control. We might have to trust our loved ones to make decisions for us — especially in the case of hospitalization — if we are too deep into an episode and can’t properly advocate for ourselves. This doesn’t mean you aren’t in charge. You still are. This just means that you are trusting someone to make decisions that you, in a healthier state of mind, would be choosing for yourself.

I would recommend, when you are in a healthier place (not when you’re depressed or upset, because it can be triggering to read about), educating yourself about hospitalization so you can know your rights, and know what to expect. Hospitalization can be a remarkably good thing for expedient and effective care, and having a plan doesn’t hurt.

12. You are not a victim, and you are not making excuses, when you talk about bipolar as impacting your behavior or experiences.

People like to claim that if you are talking about your illness, you’re simply using it as an excuse or a crutch. I disagree with this. As long as you claim responsibility for your actions, explaining your illness does not make you a victim nor does it excuse your actions. You are simply offering context for the other person to understand your experience better.

13. Sometimes your friends or family will need to do some self-care.

Bipolar is tough — not just on the people that grapple with it, but on the friends and family who try to look out for us. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, and our loved ones will need to step back and take care of themselves. This doesn’t mean you have done anything wrong. This doesn’t mean you are a terrible person. This just means that they are trying to offer you the best of themselves, and when they aren’t able to do that, they need to do some self-care until they can.

This also means that we need to respect the boundaries that our loved ones set, and ensure that we have other people we can turn to, instead of relying exclusively on one person to meet all of our needs. Sometimes we all need a break, and our family and friends are no exception. Don’t hold back when you are struggling, but be sure to remind your supports that they can opt out if they need to. If everyone is practicing healthy and open communication, you shouldn’t need to worry about whether or not your loved ones can handle it, because they will let you know if they can’t.

And remember, you are not a burden, even when someone opts out. People opt out for all kinds of reasons, and those reasons are irrelevant. Try not to personalize someone’s choice to take care of themselves. If you were lost, you would want the easiest and shortest route to your destination, right? When someone opts out, they’re encouraging you to take another direction that would be more helpful in reaching a healthier state of mind.

14. You are not a statistic.

When I was first diagnosed, I read countless statistics about bipolar people, and I felt dejected. Spoiler alert, reading all those statistics was a waste of time. I’m going to tell you what everyone spent years telling me: YOU ARE NOT A STATISTIC. Each individual has a very different experience of their illness, and will take a very different route when treating that illness. No two people will have the same path. Statistics are very broad generalizations, and they do not account for the very nuanced and complex journeys we take.

The fact that you’re reading this article right now, seeking out as much information as you can, puts you ahead of the curve. You are educating yourself so that you can make sound decisions about your health. I also assume you’ve been diagnosed or plan on seeking a diagnosis, and if that’s the case, you’re already light years ahead of many bipolar folks whose illnesses go undiagnosed or untreated. Sometimes it might not feel like it, but it’s true — you can change the outcome. At any moment, you can change the road you’re on. And statistics will never tell you about all the choices you have at any given moment — they’ll only tell you about outcomes that may or may not ever happen to you.

So focus on the here and now. Focus on all of your options. Gather as much knowledge as you can — not just my knowledge, which is limited, but as much information from as many sources as you can. Make no mistake about it — if you’re reading this article, you aren’t stuck. You’ve already made a choice to do something differently by virtue of educating yourself. This diagnosis is not your fate. This diagnosis is just a label to help you understand some of the influences that have impacted your past. This is about context, not about fate. These are circumstances, this is not the outcome.

Remember: YOU CANNOT SEE THE FUTURE. No matter what your past says, you cannot know what the future holds. You aren’t a psychic. I promise.

15. The little things can make a big difference. Seriously.

Yesterday I went to Home Depot and I bought this really lovely potted plant. I have a lot of little things — special soaps, beautiful journals, cozy blankets — that I rely on when I’m having a particularly rough day. I immerse myself in the little things that make me happy, and I can assure you that they make a huge, huge difference. I somewhat regularly buy myself treats and knick-knacks to brighten up my room or to enjoy during those waves we inevitably just have to ride out.

These things do not have to be expensive, and a lot of these things could spring from DIY projects with supplies that are reused. I don’t personally have a Pinterest, but I know quite a few bipolar folks that do, and I’m kind of envious of the cute coffee mugs they designed themselves. I would highly recommend finding small things that make you happy, and surrounding yourself with them. Go browse Etsy for some inspiration if you aren’t sure where to start.

A friend of mine once said, “You are what you wake up to.” I think that’s quite true in my experience. If you needed an excuse to buy a new comforter or a new plant for your bedroom, I am giving you that excuse. Unless you’re on a manic spending spree, in which case I advise some self-control, friend.

16. Having a routine can be immensely helpful.

Anyone who has successfully managed their bipolar will probably tell you this: Establish a routine. Not just a sleep schedule (which is so important, let me tell you), but a consistent schedule all around. One of my triggers is being generally disorganized and doing things at the last minute, and I find that having a schedule can reduce many of the triggers that tend to stress us out. This is also important for folks who decide to take medications, because meds are most effective when taken at the same time each day.

Yes, download a planner or buy one, and try to eat, sleep, and study around the same time every day. If you’re anything like me, you’ll notice that you’re much less stressed when you do. You’ll also be more likely to do what needs to be done (exercise, clean, work) if you’ve already set the time aside for it in advance.

17. Don’t give credit where credit isn’t due.

If you’re new here, you probably didn’t know that I have blogged about this twice — here and here. But it bears repeating. There are a lot of myths surrounding mental illness, and one of the predominant ones is that it somehow gives us super powers. It makes us more creative, or more philosophical, or more profound. Go ahead and pitch that in the trash now. Mental illness does not magically write novels for you, or paint murals, or make you think more deeply. Do not fall into the trap of crediting mental illness with all the awesome things that YOU have done.

(If you want my theory as to why creative folks often have a mental illness, I think it’s more so a result of feeling like an outsider. Either way, mental illness doesn’t GIVE you superpowers, and your ability to be creative won’t disappear if you treat the illness. I can promise you that. Read the entries if you’re interested in hearing more about this discussion.)

18. Your living situation can completely change the face of your illness.

This goes hand-in-hand with knowing your triggers. I’ve known many folks whose biggest trigger was their living situation, whether it’s the place they lived or the folks that they lived with. It’s important to be mindful of this. If you aren’t in a position where you can move across the country like I did, try to create safe spaces outside of your home (clubs that you’ve joined, support groups, therapy, cafes that you can hang out at, the library, anything really) where you can retreat if things are too chaotic at home.

In some situations, you may find yourself in an abusive relationship or household. There are many online resources that you can pursue, and there may be shelters in your area that can assist or house you as well. Organizations like RAINN are reputable and more experienced in this department (if your abuser may be checking your internet history, please don’t click the link, and instead call their 24/7 confidential hotline: 1.800.656.HOPE(4673)).

Home can be the difference between regular episodes and a well-managed illness, so be sure to investigate your options and consider moving — or at the very least, establish other safe spaces — if you believe this is having an impact on your health.

19. Don’t be afraid to seek out support from others who share your experiences.

In addition to your local NAMI chapter, as well as online communities, there exist support groups and communities of folks who share your experiences. You local NAMI chapter can direct you to support groups in your area, as well as your therapist or psychiatrist. You may find connecting with these folks to be very helpful.

There are also tons of great Youtube personalities who discuss mental health on occasion, like Zoella (who discusses anxiety), Marinashutup (who talks about depression), and Ashley Mardell (also speaking about depression), who are opening up awesome conversations about mental illness more generally. I also found a list of bipolar youtubers — though I haven’t investigated this thoroughly enough, you’re welcome to do so.

There are also amazing books, like “An Unquiet Mind” by Kay Redfield Jamison that I can personally endorse, as well as this awesome list of books which I’m sure is filled with all kinds of good reads that can give you some perspective. There are lots of self-help books as well as memoirs that can be very validating and eye-opening, both for you and your loved ones, should they choose to read them.

I will add that if you are a marginalized person (a person of color, an immigrant, or a transperson, for example), I highly recommend seeking out at least one memoir that is written by someone who will have a more similar life experience. I have found that sometimes the most popular memoirs are written by folks with a lot of privilege, and they may not resonate with you.

A word of caution here: Don’t let researching your illness become an obsession. Reading about it for days on end, or watching every possible YouTube video, could turn into an obsession that is more triggering than it is helpful. Sometimes the memoirs or videos will not be uplifting, so try to approach these resources with caution. All things in moderation, my friends.

20. You can be an advocate for yourself and others.

The state of mental health in this country is truly sad. Access to resources, medical care, support, and education is fraught with obstacles, often times to the extent that many people with mental illness go undiagnosed and untreated. You will realize, if you haven’t already, that your personal struggle with bipolar is also a political struggle, as your livelihood — getting disability services, paying for medications, finding a therapist — is often impacted by the policies handed down by legislators who are far-removed from your struggle.

You aren’t obligated to launch a big rally on behalf of mental health, but it’s good to keep in mind that you are in a unique position to advocate for policy changes and for services in your community. NAMI is, again, a great place to start if you’re interested in being an advocate. Every year, I participate in the NAMI Walk, which helps raise awareness and funds for all the important programming and resources that NAMI offers. It’s one day out of my year, and I often meet amazing people who keep me energized and hopeful.

Obviously, if you are having a difficult time with your illness, no one can reasonably expect you to save the world. But if you have the time or the interest, it’s worth looking into.

21. Easier said than done, but don’t give up.

If I had given up every time I said I was going to, I would have missed out on some of the very best moments of my life, and I wouldn’t have met some of the most incredible people that have made me who I am today. Bipolar isn’t easy, but I still wouldn’t change anything that happened. I still believe that this struggle has been worth it.

There were times when I thought I could never get through this, but guess what? I did. And I can’t guarantee that you’ll get everything you want and more, but that’s not a guarantee that ANYONE gets in this life. I can tell you, however, that countless people have gone through something so similar to what you’re going through, and they, too, have made it through and are living healthy, fulfilling lives.

So many people have hit rock bottom, and felt that same despair that you felt, but somehow they found it in themselves to keep going. I can’t tell you that it will get better, but I can assure you that it’s possible. And knowing that the possibility exists, what have you got to lose, but to pursue that possibility with as much commitment and determination as you can muster?

I had no idea I’d be living in California, engaged to the love of my life, pursuing my master’s degree. When I was seventeen, I just knew I didn’t want to be in pain anymore. I almost missed out on all of the amazing things that have happened. If I had given up, I wouldn’t have just died — I would have been giving up all the beautiful things that were waiting for me on the other side.

There’s a good chance that beautiful things are waiting for you, too. Beautiful people, beautiful moments. I don’t want you to miss those moments. And you shouldn’t want to miss them, either.

22. Everyone’s experience of bipolar is distinctly different.

It’s good to keep in mind that bipolar exists on a spectrum, and that everyone’s experience is different. What works for me may not work at all for someone else. A medication that saved my life could be utterly useless for you. Going out and partying could be energizing for me, but terrifying for someone with social anxiety. What mania feels like to me could be completely different for you. Depression could be empty and numb for you, but painful and agonizing for me. The point is, when you’re reading about or listening to the experiences of others, tune in with the understanding that being bipolar is not a universal experience.

Bearing that in mind, any of the advice I’ve given can be taken with a grain of salt. Advice regarding mental illness is a lot of picking and choosing — it’s a choose your own adventure, it’s a mix and match, it’s a buffet. You put together a plan that works for your unique experience, and through trial and error, you arrange your life in a way that works WITH your illness, rather than against it. That’s crucial.

23. Vocalize what you need.

No one can read your mind. It’s important that, if you are able to articulate it, express directly what you need. Use sentences like, “It would be helpful if…” or, “What I need is…” Being direct, and simply saying what you need rather than hoping for it, will teach others how to assist you, and will help you get exactly what you need without having to wait for it. This sounds really simple, but it took me forever to realize this.

24. Your best is good enough. No one can ask for more.

When you’re working toward a healthier state of being, it’s important to know that your best is all anyone can ask for. If today, all you can really do is take your pills and watch Netflix, that’s okay. If you managed to go to therapy and all you can do after is stare at the ceiling in your bedroom, by all means, hang out and stare at the ceiling. There will inevitably be days, as I’m sure you know, where you can’t accomplish as much as you want to, or do the things you’re normally able to do with relative ease. Meet yourself wherever you are. Be kind and be patient with yourself. If today is a “color in a coloring book and eat mozzarella sticks” kind of day, then that’s what you’ll do.

Of course, it’s good to nudge yourself toward healthy behaviors — maybe swap the mozzarella sticks out for carrot sticks, I don’t know — and sometimes doing the thing you don’t want to do (like going to therapy) is sometimes the best thing for you. But there’s a difference between pushing yourself beyond your limits, and recognizing your limits and doing some reasonable compromising. Your limits are there for a reason. Sometimes it’s a good idea to respect those limits, and remind others to respect them, too.

25. Someone out there cares about you.

If it isn’t a partner, family member, or loved one, it’s me, and the entire mental health community. Someone, somewhere, cares a lot about what’s happening to you, and is working hard to ensure that your journey is a little easier and your recovery a little faster. I hope you’ll remember that there are folks, both online and in your community, that are invested in your health and want you to feel fulfilled and whole.

I truly care — I wouldn’t have written this entire article if I didn’t. I speak about my struggles and triumphs with bipolar because I want others to know that while bipolar may not be curable, it can be managed in a way that it is no longer in the driver’s seat of your life. You can take the wheel back and be in charge of your life, a life that you direct and shape so that it becomes the ultimate reflection of who you are and what you want most. I truly believe that this is possible for each and every person, so long as there are people like you and I, working hard to make our stories heard and our lives visible.

Don’t ever forget that there are people, people you don’t even know, that would bend over backwards to help you. They do exist. I exist. I’m a real person, who has faced what you’re facing, that is committed to seeing you make it through. And I’m counting on you to do the same for me. If we work together, this illness will not win.

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A note on labels: Like many people with mental health struggles, I’ve experienced my fair share of misdiagnoses. Since writing this piece, I’ve finally been correctly diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and complex PTSD, which have been life-changing realizations for me. That said, I hope that the resources I created in the past can still be helpful. (Jan 2019)

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What You’re Actually Saying When You Ignore Someone’s Gender Pronouns

It can’t be emphasized enough: Coming out as transgender or any variation thereof is downright terrifying. It is often met with criticism, resistance, and invalidation. When I came out to friends, it felt like the world was crashing down all around me.

And by far, the worst part was the resistance I faced when asking others to stop saying “she.” Beyond coming out, we also ask others to change a very ingrained habit — to use different pronouns when speaking about us. This is where I encountered the most turmoil.

Some folks simply don’t understand what they are saying when they refuse to use someone’s stated gender pronouns.

When someone states their pronouns (he, she, ze, they, etc), they are asking for your respect. And when you choose not to use these pronouns, and instead opt for your own, you are not only invalidating someone’s identity, but you are also saying a plethora of harmful things that you likely never intended.

So what are you really saying when you’ve decided to continue using a pronoun that someone doesn’t identify with? Here are just a few things you could be suggesting when you use the incorrect pronouns:

1. I know you better than you know yourself.

When you make the decision to not respect someone’s pronouns, what you are ultimately saying is that their personal truth is something you are more knowledgeable about than them. You are saying, “How could you possibly know your gender? Only I could know that, and you’re wrong.”

The reality is, someone’s gender identity — how they relate to their bodies, and to the notions of femininity and masculinity — is only for that person to discover and declare. You are not living their life, and therefore, could not possibly know their gender better than they could. When you use the incorrect pronouns, though, you are saying that you are intimately more familiar with who they are than they are. And logically speaking, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Since when are you the expert on other peoples’ lives? If she says she’s a woman, I would think she would know better than you do, just like she knows her favorite food is spaghetti, she’s a Buddhist, and her favorite color is teal.

2. I would rather hurt you repeatedly than change the way I speak about you.

Each time we misgender someone, we are inflicting harm. Would you rather hurt someone? Or simply change the way you are speaking?

3. Your sense of safety is not important to me.

When we misgender someone, we run the risk of threatening their personal sense of safety, as well as their physical safety. When someone feels invalidated or disrespected, they may not feel safe or comfortable in the space.

We might also risk outing them as transgender to other people around us — folks who may not know they are trans, who may become aggressive or even violent if they realize this person is transgender. This could cause harm that we did not intend. A transgender person could lose their housing, their job, or even their friends if their status as transgender is revealed. If someone has asked you to use their pronouns, it could be a matter of safety — whether it’s their sense of safety, or their physical autonomy and security.

The bottom-line: If they ask you to use specific pronouns, use them unless they ask otherwise. Their safety could and often does depend on it.

4. Your identity isn’t real and shouldn’t be acknowledged.

When you ignore someone’s pronouns and opt for your own, what you are saying is that you do not recognize their identity as authentic, and you are refusing to acknowledge it as such. In other words, you heard their truth, but you are not accepting it. Instead, you are ignoring it. You are saying, “You said this is so, but I don’t believe you, so I will reject your truth and replace it with my assumptions.”

“You said you have a dog, but I like cats, so I’m going to pretend you have a cat. Here, have a bag of cat food.”

“You said you have cancer, but that’s too much for me to deal with, so I’m going to pretend you’re healthy. Let’s flush your medications down the toilet in celebration!”

“You said you are filing for divorce, but that makes me sad, so I’m going to keep pretending we’re married. Where do you want to get dinner tonight, honey?”

“You said you live on the third floor, but I hate climbing stairs, so I’m going to throw your housewarming party in the apartment downstairs, which I’ll pretend is yours.”

“You said you’re a man, but that would force me to use different pronouns, so I’m going to pretend you’re a woman.”

What you’re ultimately doing is living in a make-believe land. Someone has told you the truth, their lived experience and their reality, but you have replaced what you heard with your version of what you wish were true. We should treat each other as the experts on our own experience, and respect the identities we claim. To do otherwise is to live in denial. The truth will not change no matter how adamant your refusal to see it may be.

5. I want to teach everyone around me to disrespect you.

When you continue to use the incorrect pronouns, you are teaching everyone around you to use those same (incorrect) pronouns. Your transgender friend now has to correct not only you, but all of the people you’ve taught to use those same pronouns. You are working against them, and forcing them to come out as transgender over and over again. You are making their already very difficult job much, much harder.

6. Offending you is fine if it makes me feel more comfortable.

What you are really saying is that your sense of comfort is more important than offending someone else. You are saying that you are okay with hurting someone repeatedly, as long as you get to remain comfortable and unchallenged. It’s okay to be disrespectful, as long as it keeps things easy for you.

7. I can hear you talking, but I’m not really listening.

Yes, I heard you speak your truth, your lived experience, your journey — but I wasn’t really listening. I’m going to ignore what you’ve said, and continue misgendering you. I will hear what you’re saying, but I won’t truly listen to you, because your experience isn’t important to me.

8. Being who you truly are is an inconvenience to me.

Rather than being proud of you for living your truth, or commending your courage for revealing that truth to me, I’m going to ignore what you’ve said, because your identity is an inconvenience. I should never have to change how I refer to you. I shouldn’t have to change anything. I should be able to be comfortable at all times. Valuing your identity is a burden on me.

Even though transgender people face disproportionate rates of violence, suicide, homelessness, and discrimination, the REAL inconvenience here is me having to change which pronouns I use to refer to you. Because your struggle isn’t difficult enough as it is. It’s MY struggle, the struggle to switch pronouns, that is the real tragedy here.

9. I would prefer it if you stopped being honest with me.

When someone reveals their truth and you ignore and invalidate it, what you’re really saying is that you’d prefer that they weren’t honest with you. You’d prefer that they lied to you, so that you would never be burdened or inconvenienced by their identity or their struggles. What you’re saying is that you’d prefer if they were always dishonest, just to make your life easier. You would rather them live a lie and make things easier for you, instead of embracing their truth and happiness, and moving forward as their authentic, best self. You like dishonesty, it seems, because dishonesty allows you to maintain the illusion of what you would rather this person be.

10. I am not an ally, a friend, or someone you can trust.

Because I have criticized, rejected, and invalidated your identity, and refuse to acknowledge it as real, I’ve proven I am not someone you can talk to, not someone you can feel comfortable around, not someone who will listen and advocate for you. When I choose to misgender you, I have decided my own interests are far more important than your safety, validation, and dignity. And when I made that decision, I probably gave you the impression that I am not someone you can trust.

Yikes. That’s a lot of nastiness, isn’t it?

No, I imagine that this isn’t really what you are trying to say. But the intent is different from the impact. While you may not intend to say any of these things, that doesn’t change how it impacts the person on the receiving end. When you misgender someone, these are some of the take away messages that are received when you invalidate them.

When someone takes the brave step to come out to you, it is absolutely essential that you respect their journey, TRUST their lived experience, listen intently, and celebrate their identity. Rather than replace their reality with your own assumptions, celebrate their choice to move forward and live as their most authentic self.

Someone’s gender identity is never for you to arbitrarily decide — nor a doctor or parent’s decision, either. Only YOU can know, and consequently name your gender identity.

You may not understand their identity — gender is complicated, and the transgender spectrum might be a whole new concept for you. It’s not important that you understand everything perfectly. They’ve had years to arrive at this conclusion, and you’ve likely only had a few minutes, if that. It’s important that you listen, and trust that, with time, you will begin to understand how they came to know themselves.

Transition can be an exciting time. For me, I finally felt free to live as I was destined to be living, in the body I was intended to have. A supportive, caring friend can make all the difference in the world.

It’s as simple as using “he” when he asks you to, “she” when she asks you to, “they” when they ask you to, or even “ze” if ze asks you to. Using someone’s pronouns is just another way of saying, I trust and respect you. 

Using the correct pronouns is a way of validating that we ALL have the right to live our truth, however that truth looks or however that path twists or turns. And that, my friends, is a beautiful thing.

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10 Things That “Hella” Surprised Me About the SF Bay

Having been born and raised in a quiet, Midwestern suburb, I should have known that the Bay would be a whole different animal. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but California is not, in any way, remotely similar to Michigan. For laughs, I figured I’d share some of the ridiculous, more trivial things that surprised me about the Bay.

1. Are they smoking weed? In the park? Out in the open?

A friend of mine said it best when she said, “It’s basically legal here. Or at least, we’re pretending it is.” I giggle like a teenage boy when I see people openly smoking a joint, and my friends here can’t understand why I find this to be so novel. Never in my life have I seen folks so unabashed about their pot use; go to any local park, and the scent of marijuana isn’t hard to find. Maybe if you follow the trail, you’ll make some new friends.

2. You mean I have to walk up this hill?

Let me tell you something about Michigan: It’s flat. It’s really, really flat. So imagine my surprise when I got to the Bay, and discovered that our apartment complex was built on a rather hilly street. Mostly, I was just confused — how is it that, on one end of the building, I have to take two flights of stairs to get to our apartment, but on the other end, I only take one? How is this safe? How are any of these houses standing? Living someplace hilly felt like a big architectural mind fuck.

3. If you’re into it, there’s a whole community waiting for you.

I’m basically certain that if you enjoy pouring vinegar on your elbows while dressed like a tomato during a sexual encounter, you will be able to find an entire community of folks who enjoy the same, complete with their own Tomato Pride flag and secret handshake. There is a vibrant and awesome kink community here, and the visibility of these communities is really exciting to see. If you can think it, there’s a meetup for it.

4. It hasn’t rained. Unless there’s a rain fairy that creates rain showers in my sleep that disappear by the time I wake up.

If you didn’t know, California is encountering a serious drought and consequently, a freshwater crisis. I knew this ahead of time, but it didn’t occur to me just how weird it would be to go without rain. I am beginning to forget what clouds look like. I don’t even remember what an umbrella is for or why I would need one, though I suspect it has something to do with the rain that HASN’T FALLEN IN THREE WEEKS.

5. DIY culture is alive and well.

Folks in the Bay are incredibly resourceful. There are lots of work trades, skill shares, exchanges, and countless co-ops that have found brilliant and economical ways to cope with the high cost of living in the Bay. Though this culture is born out of the changing political and social landscape of the Bay, including gentrification which has caused rent to skyrocket (while wages remain largely stagnant), many communities and organizations have worked together to create more viable and sustainable alternatives.

6. Septum piercings are the new ear piercing.

I have never seen so many septum piercings in my life. I can’t figure out if it’s a queer thing, a hipster thing, a kink thing, or a queer hipster kink thing, but it’s a thing and I’m not going to complain about it. I think I’ve seen more pierced noses than I have pierced ears, and I’m beginning to wonder if my nostril piercing is even relevant in the Bay or if I need to upgrade this to something more edgy.

7. Trader Joe’s is actually not that expensive, comparatively speaking.

After trying a number of grocery stores in the area, somehow Trader Joe’s wound up being cheapest. If you’re from the Bay, this might seem obvious. But if you’re from the Midwest, Trader Joe’s tends to be more of a luxury, right? Now, all of the sudden, it’s the place where I get all of my groceries. It’s kind of like living in a nice hotel? Like I can’t possibly be allowed to have this many nice things. Why do I have so many nice things in my cupboard?

8. Buses can actually almost be on time! And get you someplace! Almost on time!

In the suburb where I lived, there was no bus system. And in the surrounding cities, Detroit included, if you wanted to take a bus, it was pretty much guaranteed that you would not get to your destination anywhere near the time you intended. Mass transit where I came from was notoriously unreliable. In the Bay, however, I have been able to use the bus system to get around without much trouble. Living without a car is a thing you can ACTUALLY DO! Who would’ve thought? Not me.

9. There’s not six degrees of separation in the Bay. There’s definitely like, two.

Especially in the queer and trans* communities, there is a lot of overlap between social circles. Apparently the blogger that your housemate idolizes is the same blogger that you met at a picnic the other day. And the slam poet you went on a date with is the same slam poet that was engaged to the blogger that your housemate idolizes. And that slam poet was published in a book that your friend edited, which also published the work of the guy who bags your groceries — who also hooked up with your housemate. Once you have found your place in a community, chances are, you are unknowingly connected to a whole plethora of weird, awesome, and accomplished people. You’re also probably connected with some unsavory folks, so be safe out there.

10. Palm trees are not native to California.

And you know what? I feel fucking lied to.

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No, Depression is Not a Fucking Superpower

Trigger Warning: Depression, bipolar, suicide.

Struggling with bipolar disorder throughout my life, I’ve heard a lot of misconceptions about bipolar and similarly, about depression. One of the prevailing and problematic narratives I’ve heard is that depression is a gift — that it makes us more creative, more insightful, more deep, and brings us closer to some ultimate truth about the true nature of the universe.

To which I’d like to say, sit the fuck down. Depression is not a fucking superpower.

I will offer a disclaimer and say that the Western model of viewing bipolar/depression as an illness is not an unproblematic view, and that I am speaking purely from my personal experience as someone who comes from a very Western perspective. There is certainly some merit to reconceptualizing how we view neurological diversity, and I am in no way saying that my view of bipolar/depression is the correct or least problematic one. I am simply critiquing the very Western tendency to romanticize mental illness.

Before I was diagnosed with bipolar, countless people in my life tried to offer me a more optimistic view of my depression. They told me that the depression I felt was what allowed me to be so creative, to feel more deeply than other people, and even suggested that my intelligence was linked to my depression. I was told that my depression was just a natural condition of living in our Western society, and that consequently, I simply “saw a truth” that others could not see. And while I’m certain that all of this was well-intentioned, what this did for me was enable me to continue being depressed, without seeking out resources that could improve my coping skills. What this did was justify my suffering, and convinced me that my depression was a gift, rather than an illness.

I started to wear my depression like a badge of honor, convinced that it offered me insight that others simply didn’t understand or have access to. I thought that my suffering made me a better person. I thought that depression made my worldview more accurate — that struggling was the only way to understand fundamental truths about our world. It naturalized my suffering to the point of making depression seem reasonable. Eventually who I was and my illness seemed inseparable, and depression became part of my identity. And even after suicidal thoughts ravaged my brain each and every day, I reasoned that many artists and writers had tried offing themselves before — and that I was simply joining the ranks of some of the great minds in history.

I looked at my healthy, well-adjusted friends and I said that they were the crazy ones. Crazy because they just couldn’t see the truth — as if they were lesser than me because I had this gift of suffering. I distanced myself from them because I insisted that they couldn’t understand. I looked at the pessimistic nihilist in the mirror and mistook that for my true self. To be truly and fully alive is to suffer, I thought. And when my friends tried to offer me some perspective — that maybe the pain was indicative of a sickness, one that I needed help with — I pushed them further away.

Because I wasn’t sick. I just had a gift. A superpower, even.

And every superhero has their kryptonite. To me, medication would surely take away my gifts. Therapists and psychiatrists were the enemy. So I suffered, needlessly, for years, almost always on the brink of death. I thought that I was seeing things clearly — more clearly than everyone else. But the truth is, I couldn’t have been more delusional. Because depression wasn’t giving me insight, or creativity, or strength. Depression was slowly and insidiously sapping the life out of me, and with it, the will to live.

This is a delusion that almost cost me my life. The romanticizing of my illness convinced me that I did not need help, and it normalized dysfunctional and harmful thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; my suffering became synonymous with my sense of self. And because of this, I did not seek help for my depression until after I tried to kill myself. It took almost dying, alone in my bedroom, to make me realize that the extent of my suffering was anything but noble. Depression was not my superpower. Depression was not my truth. And split seconds before my life threatened to end, I saw depression for what it really was — a liar.

Because guess what? All of the “original” truths that depression revealed to me and only me? Those are the very same “truths” so many depressed people share. And for many of us, it’s a distorted world view that costs us our lives.

And when I finally began to receive help for my illness, and a proper diagnosis of bipolar disorder, I felt betrayed. How could I have believed that my unfathomable pain made me a better person? How could I have been told, in the midst of my darkest moments, that depression was revealing to me an objective, indisputable truth? Depression did none of those things. It robbed me of years of happiness, and fractured relationships that would take years to repair. It stole from me my potential, my ambition, my vivacity, my hunger for new experiences — and it replaced this with agony, lethargy, anger, and hopelessness.

So no, depression is not a fucking superpower. Because the complexity, the creativity, the intelligence, the depth, and the compassion that make me who I am are not a side effect of depression — they are an intrinsic part of who I am. And those are gifts that can’t be enjoyed or expressed to their fullest potential until we are able to cope, effectively and fully, with the illness that seeks to rob us of those gifts. Depression does not speak the truth. Depression distorted my reality.

In therapy, it often felt like I was starting from square one — because for so long, the very core of who I thought I was relied upon this idea that pessimism, nihilism, and chaos defined me. But years later, with the help of medication to stabilize my moods, I emerged on the other side of this illness as an insufferable optimist. And rather than reject this optimism as an undeveloped, immature view of the world, I embraced it.

Because I think that the ability to feel hope, in spite of everything I have gone through, is a far greater gift than anything depression can ever give me.

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An Introduction: Ten Things About Sam

It feels a little bit redundant to introduce the blog when I already wrote an About Page, but I also feel weird diving head first into the blog without introducing it…?

So once you’ve read the About Page, which I’m sure you’re going to do since I linked it and all, you can read these ten facts about me. This will introduce you to me and then we can be friends. Or something.

TEN THINGS ABOUT SAM

1. I have only lived in California for a couple weeks. Literally. Two weeks. And it has been the most hectic and weird two weeks I’ve ever had. I actually went salsa dancing in a sex toy shop, which is not even the most unusual thing I’ve done in Oakland.

2. I am an atheist. I am also able to laugh, feel love, possess morals, and, to date, I have not murdered anyone.

3. I’m allergic to red wine. Wine tastings will never be the same. …Well, I’ve never actually been to a wine tasting, but if I went to one, it wouldn’t be the same.

4. I have a tattoo of a fox and THE FOX SAYS NOTHING OKAY STOP ASKING IT’S A TATTOO.

5. I have been engaged for almost two years and I still have no idea when we’re getting married.

6. I once jumped off some stairs while carrying a tray of shrimp and I cut my head open and then I healed my wounds like the cheerleader from Heroes.

7. I went through a phase as a teenager where the only band I listened to was Pearl Jam. It was a sad, angsty time.

8. I once won ten gallons of ice cream in a contest. They delivered it to my door with bowls and spoons and everything. Thanks, Eddy’s!

9. I’m pursuing my master’s degree in Creative Writing. So in three years, I will be a master of writing. Stay tuned.

10. I lived in an ecofeminist collective for a month where we shortened the word brilliant to “brill.” It was a sad, angsty time.

In conclusion, I lead an exciting life.

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