An Open Letter To My Teenage Self (Before You Try To End Your Life)

Dear Teenage Sam,

I want to tell you where I was this morning.

I woke up with the California sunshine peaking through the blinds, falling on my face, colliding with my eyes. You wouldn’t believe how beautiful it is, waking up like that. It’s my favorite way to wake up, and we get to wake up this way every day now.

While I was drinking my coffee, I was curled up on the couch crying. You and I don’t do much crying these days, because you fell in love, moved across the country, and found an antidepressant that helped you to understand what happiness actually feels like.

(We used to cry a lot. You never understood why – but I promise, you will one day.)

I have a brilliant friend who says that recovering from depression is kind of similar to wearing high heels for a long time – that moment when your feet touch the ground, and you remember what walking is supposed to feel like.

When you wiggle your toes, stretch your feet, and remember what solid ground is like underneath you.

This morning I was crying because I finally understood what that really meant.

Put another way:

Yesterday, I lit a lighter by myself for the first time.

We were always afraid of fire, you know, afraid of something catching fire or getting burned. 25 years old, and I’d never made a fire until last night.

(And I think this can account for, at least in part, why you’ve never taken up smoking cigarettes.)

When I held it in my hand, I knew at last what it was like to hold fire. What it was like to glow brightly without getting burned.

And I learned that it wasn’t fire that we were so afraid of – it was the belief that we could never be trusted with something like that. That, given the chance, we would always destroy something good. That we could come so close, and draw so near, but we could never control the fire.

(And I think this can account for, at least in part, why bonfires and fireplaces always frightened you a little.)

But last night, I held the light between my fingers. I watched the flame flickering and dancing in the dark, and I finally understood that I could trust myself again.

Sam, do you understand what I mean?

I mean that, one morning, you will wake up and know what it’s like to move through the world without aching feet, the ground reliable and solid and soft underneath you. And you’ll know joy not just as the absence of pain, but the PRESENCE of something.

Something ecstatic and whole and hopeful that you didn’t know you could feel.

I mean that, one night, you will know what it feels like to be bright and unstoppable and in motion, without fearing what might happen if you get carried away – if you love too hard, if you feel too much, if you trust yourself too deeply. You will love, you will feel, and you will trust with beautiful abandon.

You will know what it’s like to be in awe of yourself, startled but not afraid.

I promise, there will come a morning – tears sliding down like beautiful gems scattered across your cheeks – and you will say underneath your breath, “This is the way I was supposed to feel.”

This moment will be made possible only because you survived.

I can’t stop you from trying. I know that. I know this because I spent many years looking for you behind closed doors, flashbacks deceiving me, trying to spare you before you stopped breathing.

I know this because I remember how desperate you were to end your pain. There wasn’t a single force in the universe that could’ve intervened.

(When you’re older, you’ll become acquainted with emergency rooms, and meet the doctors that will ultimately diagnose and save you.)

I forgave you a long time ago – for this, and all the trauma to follow – from the moment you woke up, as the room spun and closed in all around you and I knew you needed someone to care for you.

You need to be brave. And you were brave, Sam, you have always been brave.

This is a remarkable thing you’ll learn about yourself soon – that you might always struggle with the impulse to hurt yourself, but you will never lose the instinct to care for yourself, stitching up your own wounds.

Surviving is what you do. You will survive this, too.

I know this now, having courageously and stubbornly picked myself up so many times, a lesson I learned from watching you.

***

If you or someone you know are thinking about suicide, you can always call:

How Many Mental Disorders Is Too Many?

How many is too many? This is what I asked myself when a psychiatrist – who I was seeing temporarily while my usual was on paternity leave – looked up from a stack of books and a database on his computer and said to me, “This is really complicated.”

When I asked him what he meant, he seemed a little worried when he said, “Your diagnoses and your medications are very… complex.”

I knew that. Every clinician that opened up my file knew that. Every pharmacist that ever filled my prescriptions. Every friend that finally realized how much energy goes into being a mostly-assembled Sam Dylan Finch.

With my bipolar diagnosis reinstated after a hypomanic episode triggered by Zoloft, it could now rejoin my growing list of neuroses: borderline personality disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, agoraphobia, substance use disorder, and generalized anxiety and/or ADHD depending on which clinician you ask.

This doesn’t even capture the psychotic and dissociative features of a few of the illnesses I deal with.

Some people would call these “co-occurring diagnoses” on a good day but I would actually just call these a straight up clusterfuck.

People like to tell me that “it’s all just labels” and that the words are ultimately unimportant. But they weren’t there ten years ago,  when I was a teenager that fantasized about ending my life, tormented by obsessive thoughts and deep depression. Back then, the only thing I wanted was to understand what was wrong.

My psychiatric diagnoses have given me that understanding, and affirmed that it wasn’t just in my head, that it wasn’t made up, that I wasn’t alone.

People can tell me that my diagnoses are just words at the end of the day, but those words are important to me, and that’s what makes them important. And the impact of these disorders is something that I have to live with every minute of every day – so why wouldn’t it be critical to name something that’s so pervasive in my life?

(Honestly, when people tell me it’s just words, I laugh. If you woke up to the sound of a chainsaw every morning with no explanation, would you ignore it altogether in favor of just saying, “Well, it’s just noise”?)

But I would be lying if I said my psychiatric diagnoses always make me feel empowered. The truth is that while I am glad to have a name for a once invisible battle, I’m also afraid.

I’m very afraid. I’m afraid because, like many clinicians have told me, this is complicated. Complicated to understand. Complicated to treat. Complicated to manage. I’m afraid that maybe there’s such a thing as “too mentally ill” or “too many mental disorders,” and that there will never be a “normal” for me – that I’ll always be swimming upstream.

I’m afraid of being hospitalized again. I’m afraid of being hospitalized again and again, because statistically this is likely. I’m afraid of attempting suicide again. I’m afraid of attempting again and again, because this, too, is possible and maybe even likely.

People often tell me that I’m not a statistic. I know this is true. But we can’t also pretend that statistics have no bearing on what my future might look like. I can’t ignore the fact that I am vulnerable. And I go to bed every night knowing this – knowing that I have a lot of good reasons to feel unsafe, even on my best day.

The more diagnoses I’m given, the more overwhelmed I feel.

I am mistrustful and fearful of my own mind – how it seems to always be working against me, how even my best efforts are sometimes not enough to stay in control. I never seem to know what’s real and what’s part of an illness.

I don’t know where each illness stops and I begin. I’ve spent a lot of the last two months confused, feeling claustrophobic in my own head, like I need to get out of here because there’s no room for me, like the wind is constantly being knocked out of me.

In conversations about mental health, we often talk about people who have one or two disorders. And I’m usually somewhere on the sidelines, wishing people like me were more visible – people who have so many diagnoses, they sometimes lose track of themselves, sometimes lose themselves to the fear of what they’ve become and could become.

I am an optimistic and determined person on the whole, and I still lose myself to that fear from time to time. When my psychiatrist quietly acknowledged the complexity of my trauma, I wondered if it’s possible to be so mentally ill that you become impossible to care for, impossible to help, impossible to love.

I spend a lot of time worrying that I can’t be loved.

In a society that tells us we’re broken if we have one mental illness, what happens when you have six?

Can you ever really be honest about who you are and what you’re going through without seeming too crazy? Too hopeless? Too much? This is the perpetual question for me, as someone who is both a person offline (go figure) but also an activist and writer online, who wants to create the space for people to be authentically themselves, but has to navigate the same stigma, too.

I think with all of the fear that I’m experiencing lately, I’ve finally gotten to a point where I’m tired of being isolated like this. I want to create a space for all of us to own how terrifying it is to be told we’re “complicated.”

Being complicated sucks. Being complicated hurts.

I remember that when I was initially diagnosed with just depression as a teenager, I was told by clinicians that my depression was very treatable, always emphasizing a positive prognosis and long term goals.

At this point in my life, when I meet clinicians, we only ever talk about today – we never talk about the future in any capacity. I think because neither of us knows what to say.

And that’s what my psychiatric journey has looked like: a lot of subtle ways in which it was communicated to me, with each new doctor and each new name, that being “complex” means difficulty – difficulty treating, much less supporting or affirming.

But I’m tired of apologizing to clinicians, to friends, and even to readers for being messy. For having more issues than National Geographic. For giving “certifiably insane” a whole new spokesperson. And I know so many mentally ill people with countless diagnoses who are equally exhausted, trying to package things in a more presentable way so people will accept them.

Sometimes people have three, four, five, six, seven, eight, you-name-it diagnoses and if we aren’t making room for those people to show up authentically, we are failing the mental health community as a whole.

This work isn’t about making spaces for some of us. It’s about making room for all of us.

Having co-occurring diagnoses is a scary place to be. Sometimes it’s a hopeless place to be, especially when your clinicians seem a little defeated themselves and the people in your life don’t know how to help you.

Sometimes (often) people don’t even believe me. Sometimes they see it as a chance to write me off as beyond repair. Sometimes my mental illnesses go from being a concern to being a joke. Sometimes I’m dehumanized and pathologized to the point where I’m seen exclusively as a case study. In my life, I’m consistently reminded of how people have no idea how to treat other people with co-occurring diagnoses, especially as they increase in number.

If we can’t create support for folks like me, where else are they going to go? When else can they be themselves?

Psychiatric labels can be important to us, scary to us, even empowering to us – for me, it’s been all three. But one thing they’ll never be is the sole determiner of our worth. We are whole people with value, no matter how few or how many diagnoses we have.

That’s the truth. And it’s a truth we need to make sure everyone – especially mentally ill folks – know.

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?