Who is Sam Dylan Finch?

(GUEST POST) This piece is brought to you by the lovely guest author and writing/publishing/feminist extraordinaire, Alaina Leary, who interviewed me for this piece. If you’ve ever wondered who the heck I am or where I came from, these (super thoughtful!) questions are a great introduction. I cried a lot while answering. Which will surprise absolutely no one.

Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 9.06.01 PMAs a disabled and transgender writer, Sam Dylan Finch is passionate about amplifying the voices of marginalized people, as well as drawing from his lived experience to educate and empower.

Currently, Sam is an editor at RESIST and Social Justice U, and the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, a blog exploring the intersections of queerness, feminism, and mental illness. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Huffington Post, Everyday Feminism, The Establishment, Rewire, and many more.

I’ve been following Sam’s work since around 2015, and have watched him talk about mental illness, trauma, recovery, transitioning, gender identity, and feminism on multiple public platforms. I’ve been fortunate to work with Sam in a few professional capacities and have had the pleasure of getting to him know on a personal level, which is an absolute joy, because he radiates the same love and light in his everyday life that he does in his work.

I had a chance to ask Sam some questions about writing, activism, and being radically vulnerable in his work.

AL: How did you get your start in writing and activist work?

SDF: I’ve always been writing, but I actually have been blogging since I was 13 years old! Back in the day, we had Freewebs and shitty graphics and used the font “terminal” a little too much.

I’ve loved blogging for all these years. As a mentally ill and queer youth, being “seen” was extremely powerful, and was critical in my survival. It was the ultimate way to take up space in a society that didn’t otherwise offer me that visibility or validation.

As for my activism, it really began when I was participating in a walk to raise awareness about mental health with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). I think I was 18 years old at that point?

I was so excited to be visible as a mentally ill person for the first time. But I quickly noticed that the stigma persisted, even there. People signed into the walk with fake names. When cameras flashed, they ducked out of the way or hid behind posters. When the news crews came, many people scattered or ran away.

It was my first real political action of any kind. These were my people, my community. And even in that space, people were afraid. Terrified. Afraid of losing their jobs, afraid of being recognized by family and friends and colleagues, afraid of being seen. And I thought, “This isn’t right. This isn’t the kind of world that I want for mentally ill people.”

Not everyone can be visible. But whatever the personal cost, I promised myself that day that I would be. I haven’t looked back.

AL: A lot of your work has followed your journey—transitioning, being diagnosed with mental illnesses, dealing with your recovery. What has it been like to share yourself so vulnerably and honestly in your writing?

SDF: Recently someone messaged me and told me that, because I’d written so openly about my psychiatric hospitalizations, they had found the courage to admit themselves and get help.

So whenever the trolls try to tell me that no one cares about what I have to say, I remember how it felt to get that message – to know that this person was safe that night and that I played a part in that. Even if this one person was the only one that cared about my words, their survival is worth it to me. Their life is worth that much.

Being so honest in your writing can be scary. It opens you up to criticism and hostility that can wound the most tender parts of you. But it’s also an incredible process, because I get to remind folks that they aren’t alone in their struggles, and in return they remind me that I’m not alone, either. We build community. We build connection. We build strength. We build safety.

Society wants marginalized people to believe that sharing their stories is playing a card, playing the victim, or telling lies. But I believe that being visible as mentally ill and transgender has helped illuminate some important truths. And I hope that it’s made folks in my community feel held and affirmed along the way. I honestly can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.

AL: What has your journey with intersectional feminism been like? Tell me a little about how you came to find feminism and embrace it.

imageSDF: I found feminism in college. Cue all the groaning about those damn “liberal arts” schools. I double-majored in Anthropology and Women’s & Gender Studies, and that radicalized me. When I realized that my personal struggles were deeply political ones, I started to connect the dots. A lot of folks resent “identity politics” (boohoo for them), but understanding that our lived experiences are shaped by a larger system was mind-blowing and important to me.

My studies taught me the ways in which identity, power, and privilege affect us personally, systematically, culturally. I never looked at anything the same way after that – I never looked at myself the same way again.

In particular – and it’s really important for me to mention her – I wouldn’t be the writer or activist that I am today without Dr. Suzanne Bergeron, who taught my first gender studies course in undergrad and was there every step of the way as I navigated university. As mentally ill and queer, academia was not always a safe place for me, and having a fierce mentor like her is why I was able to succeed despite so many obstacles.

Institutions like universities are not always built with marginalized folks in mind. In fact, when I was a student, we didn’t even have an LGBTQIA+ center on our campus. That’s why mentors are so critically important for the survival of marginalized folks in spaces like universities. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to drop out, or how many times I showed up for Dr. B’s office hours and had to be talked down. She was so patient.

And that’s what feminism has come to mean for me. It’s not just a philosophical worldview that remains abstract, but a daily practice and a commitment we make to one another. It’s a commitment that we make so that we can resist these systems together and allow marginalized folks to come into their own and truly thrive, especially when these systems aren’t by and for us.

I learned that from her. And I’ve tried to be that person now, like, showing up for folks in my life but also through the public work that I do. I’m trying to carve out space where people like me can show up as themselves, like my mentors did for me.

AL: Has anyone ever reached out to you to tell you how your work has impacted them? What does that feel like?

SDF: Every day. I cry about it. It’s especially intense when it comes from a queer and/or mentally ill youth, because that’s such a difficult and powerless place to be. You know, I was there.

And back in my day… I know, I sound old when I say that, but the world has changed a lot in the last decade. I was never able to find people like me with stories like mine. I genuinely believed that I would never see 18, because I’d never seen an adult like me surviving.

When I started writing publicly in these spaces, the most important thing to me was making sure that young folks who weren’t sure if they could make it would see what might be possible for them. That they could reclaim their power. That they could get older. That there was a future with them in it, maybe even a bright future at that. That you could grow up – like me, severely mentally ill and transgender and traumatized – but still be soft, be brilliant, be alive.

I want that for everyone. That when you reach the end of your rope, you can see other possibilities. You can see them, because you’ve seen someone living them. Someone like you, someone who knows how you feel. I didn’t see those possibilities once upon a time, because I couldn’t find them, and I almost ended my life because of that. So I’m trying to create a world where those possibilities are known, never out of reach, never hard to find.

So when someone tells me that I’ve done that, there’s no way to describe how it feels. There just aren’t words… I’ll never have words to explain what that means to me.

AL: How do you come up with topics for your blog posts and writing you pitch? Where do you draw that inspiration, especially for deeply personal writing?

SDF: My writing just comes from my very messy life! When I started my blog, I wasn’t sure if I’d have a lot to say or how long I could keep it up. But that was a few years ago now, and I haven’t run out of ideas yet.

Being mentally ill, gay, non-binary, and transgender – considering where we are situated historically and culturally, you know, the “transgender tipping point” and the new administration and all that – means that there’s an important place for marginalized communities in the narrative we’re writing about this moment.

And with online media at the center of it all, marginalized folks like me have more power than ever to write that story instead of allowing others to write it for them. That’s the inspiration: making history through our words, to ensure that our lives and our struggles aren’t erased.

AL: What’s the hardest piece you’ve ever written?

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 9.51.16 PMSDF: Anything that I’ve written about suicide, to be honest, is the most difficult for me. It’s the most difficult because I know suicidal folks are going to find it, read it, and weigh their options. That feels like an enormous and important responsibility, and I take it very seriously.

Suicide as a topic makes me deeply emotional. I mean, I look at everything I’ve been able to do – and I imagine the other scenario where I never lived to see 18, and everything that might be different otherwise. “Sam Dylan Finch” as a person would’ve never existed. That’s not even a name I had claimed until, I don’t know, four years ago.

My whole body of work, and all the good that it did… you know, there’s an alternative timeline where none of that happened. I can’t even wrap my mind around what that timeline looks like, how many people are affected.

Honestly, I didn’t know I had any potential. Most of my life, I haven’t even had very great self-esteem, because depression can rob you of that. And how many people out there are like me, not even aware of what they’re capable of? So I imagine the collective potential of ALL survivors – everything we could do together, the ways we could shape the world – and the weight of that feels so heavy.

I’ll be honest: I don’t want to lose anyone else to suicide. I understand better than anyone why people end their own lives, but that doesn’t make it any easier to let folks go. Because that’s not just an individual loss, but a collective loss for us all. We’ll never know what you had to offer. We’ll never know what you could’ve done, the life you could’ve led. And whether it was just for you or for all of us, you deserve to know what you were capable of in this life. That matters to me. Survivors matter to me.

When I write about suicide, it’s the hardest thing of all, because I just want to reach through the screen and say, “We need you. You need you.” It’s gut-wrenching. It’s life and death, for real. It will never get easier to write those words, but I also know they’re the most important words that I write.

AL: What do you like about being on the editorial side of the writer/editor relationship, in your past work at Everyday Feminism and your current role at Resist? Is it more satisfying to you to be an editor or a writer?

SDF: I’m always asking myself, “What needs to be said?” And of course, “Do I need to be the one to say it?” If not (as is often the case, because I have my own privileges), I’m doing everything I can to support the folks who are saying it.

That’s why I pursued editing in addition to being a writer – my voice isn’t the only voice that matters, and I want to do everything I can to get diverse voices out into the world. I learn so much through the process. I don’t think I could ever just write or just edit. I see both as critically important work to be doing.

AL: What are some of the things you’d like to accomplish in the next ten years? How do you want to make your mark?

SDF: This interview is making me super emotional. So many feelings.

Because I’m imagining that like, I’ll be 35 in ten years. That sounds young to a lot of people, but when you aren’t used to imagining yourself getting older, it feels immense. I never thought about getting there. And more queer, trans, and mentally ill kiddos are coming up in the world, and they’re going to need folks to show them that they can make it, too. Now more than ever.

This might sound a little dramatic, but in those moments when I can’t live for myself, I live for them. Every time my heart beats, it’s like a signal – it’s like morse code or something – just making sure they know they aren’t the only ones out there.

That’s how I want to make my mark. I want to survive, for all of us. In ten years, twenty years, fifty years. With every beat, telling them: “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.”

We need you. You need you. If you ever need support, please consider the following crisis resources:

The National Suicide Prevention Helpline: 1-800-273-8255
The Trevor Lifeline for LGBTQIA+ youth: 1-866-488-7386
Trans Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860

Or check out Sam’s favorite mental health apps at this resource list.

Alaina Leary is an intersectional feminist activist, editor, and publishing professional based in Boston, MA. She is currently a social media assistant for We Need Diverse Books, and is completing her MA in Publishing at Emerson College. Her career focus is on how to increase inclusive, authentic, intersectional representation in the publishing industry. She also edits for several online magazines, including Her Campus, Luna Luna Magazine, Germ Magazine, and Doll Hospital Journal. When she isn’t busy reading, you can find her at the beach or curled up with her girlfriend and their two adopted literary cats. Read her articles here.

 

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Wellbutrin Is My True Love, Top Surgery Is On The Horizon, & Other Life Updates

Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 5.50.00 PMIt’s been a while since I posted a more “old school” blog post about how things are going! My life has changed so drastically in the last month that it finally feels necessary to share.

So let’s chat!

The photo on the left is a photo of me, one year and three months on testosterone. I was on such a low dose in the beginning that I haven’t made as much progress as I’d like. But so far, I’ve really enjoyed the changes – minus the ridiculous acne and hair loss, which are a little annoying to say the least.

Once upon a time, I wrote about being denied top surgery due to my mental health status. I finally feel safe enough to announce that I’m breezing through the clinical interviews and don’t anticipate being denied again. It’s hard to say when the actual surgery would happen, but I feel hopeful that it’s going to be sooner rather than later.

Speaking of mental health status, things could not be more different than they were before. If my last blog was any indication, you can probably guess that I’m doing really well. But I want to flesh out exactly what’s changed – and what this means for my writing moving forward.

Two months ago, I was hospitalized again.

I was struggling with a depressive episode that I genuinely believed I wouldn’t recover from. I can’t tell you how despondent I was, especially since my previous hospitalization was under a year ago. It was difficult to accept that after everything I went through the first time, I still had not recovered.

This hospitalization was a wakeup call – what I was doing wasn’t working. I had to step away from my editorial role at Everyday Feminism, which was a painful decision for me (and still is). I put my writing on hold, cancelled my speaking gigs, passed up a book deal, and made the decision to commit to my recovery full-time, even if it meant sacrificing my dream job and a lot of the opportunities I worked so hard for.

After the hospitalization, I entered an intensive recovery program, and am now in the process of transitioning into a DBT program. I built a clinical team of therapists and a totally bomb psychiatrist that helped me reassess my diagnoses and treatments.

All of my original diagnoses – bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and OCPD – were completely scrapped and replaced with new labels and new treatments. 

I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (which explains the misdiagnosis of bipolar, and it’s something I hope to write about soon), a mood disorder of some sort (I’m going to hazard a guess and say it’s just depression), ADHD (which, when finally treated, completely changed my life), and obsessive traits of some kind (potentially OCD, the jury is still out on that one).

We’re also exploring C-PTSD and my therapy has shifted to become more trauma-informed – a trauma history I’ve actually written very little about, because it’s been hard for me to come to terms with it. Incorporating a trauma lens has helped to create a clearer picture of what I’m up against.

It’s a lot, I know. But it also feels a lot more true than what I started with.

I’ve tried to distance myself from being overly-invested in these labels, and refer to the ones that are most useful when I need them. As is often the case with psychiatry, the labels we acquire at the beginning of our journey are not always the ones that stick around – and clinicians can disagree amongst themselves, which has happened to me quite a bit.

But the language actually matters very much from a treatment perspective – the medications I’m being prescribed are radically different from the ones I used to be on for bipolar disorder.

When they stopped treating me for what I don’t have, and started treating me for what I do have, the transformation was like night and day.

We’re no longer sedating the hell out of me. For the first time, I’m being given meds that are also activating – which means my issues with things like depression and ADHD are finally being addressed with amazing results.

For the first time in my life, being cheerful and calm is my default. I’m relentlessly optimistic. I can focus on my work and get things done without the constant hyperactivity and distraction. Obsessions don’t consume 95% of my thoughts.

Agoraphobia no longer confines me to my apartment (I leave every day, sometimes multiple times a day – whereas before I might leave once every two weeks if I was lucky). I’m not suicidal or despairing. I bounce back from stressful situations with ease.

People in my life have remarked on how I seem exactly like myself, and yet totally different in every way.

I even keep a gratitude journal now and I meditate every day – it feels a little gross, to be honest.

I don’t think I realized, when mental illness had a complete hold over my life, how hard I was working to just survive. I didn’t realize how low my quality of life really was. I wasn’t fully conscious of how weighed down I was.

The biggest shock to my system came when we added Wellbutrin to my medication regimen. Suddenly, I could get out of bed. I could go outside. I could get my work done. And I could actually feel excitement, joy, and enthusiasm.

Wellbutrin made me feel fully and totally alive for the first time. I didn’t move through the world with a death wish, passively hoping some freak accident would end it all. I now carried with me a boundless hope and a deep appreciation for myself and my life.

Death used to cross my mind every day. Now, if it ever appears, it’s always an oddity and a visitor, not a permanent fixture.

Before the new diagnoses and medications, I considered myself a shadowy figure trying to nurture a tiny flame. I felt that the gloom and doom was who I was, and that little light within me was my survival instinct, always on the brink of being extinguished.

And then suddenly, I woke up and my world was inverted, flipped inside-out. I was a bright and impossible light. And carefully nestled within me, I was protecting what little darkness was left – holding it carefully, like a small keepsake, to remind me that the darkness will always be a part of me.

Never in my entire life have I felt this way before. I didn’t even know it was possible.

And knowing now that it is, I’m more determined than ever to do this work. I’m committed to mental health advocacy and writing, sharing my story with more urgency than ever, with the hope that my light might make the path a little clearer and the possibilities a little brighter.

And maybe together, we can build a world for mentally ill people that is so bright, we can always find our way back from the darkness.

So now, I rebuild my life into something better, something more sustainable. Hopefully a new job will present itself, the timing being right this time (need to hire a writer or editor? I know a kid, wink wink).

In the meantime, I’ve been writing some of my best work and publishing in new places (I’ll post on Facebook and Twitter as these articles go live!).

I’m making new connections, taking risks, going on adventures, writing my heart out, and most importantly, holding myself in compassion as I discover what it means to be truly living.

I don’t know what’s next. But for the first time, I’m so excited to find out – and whatever it is, good or bad, I know I can handle it. I always knew that I was strong, but this time around, I can actually feel it.

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I Take “Crazy Pills” and I Am Not Ashamed

fuckyouitakemeds-lesscolor

Illustration by Jessica Krcmarik

[The illustration features a place mat with an array of breakfast foods and coffee. A pair of arms rests on the mat. One hand is holding a spoon; the other hand is clutching onto a pill bottle.]

I remember the first “crazy pill” that I ever took. I was on vacation in Tennessee, sitting on the edge of one of those generic motel beds with a hideous blanket covered with — what was it? Seashells?

Pill bottle in hand, my mother looked at me with apprehension and said what many folks would say to me for years to come:

“Are you sure about this?”

I nodded, looked her in the eye and without hesitation, I said, “Absolutely.”

In the years that I have been taking psychotropic medications, never for a moment have I regretted my decision. Have I been afraid of what happens in the long term? Sure. Have I contemplated the impact of “big pharma” and my piece in that frightening puzzle? Definitely.

But for me, trying to survive each day trapped within an agonizing depression was not an option. Attempting to end my life again was not an option. Continuing down the path that I was on? Not an option.

When I looked back at my life, I realized I had spent more time struggling than I had spent truly living. And I knew that if something didn’t change, bipolar disorder was going to kill me.

Everyone and their brother has an opinion on my decision to take medication for bipolar and anxiety. But have you tried meditation? What about acupuncture? Have you changed your diet? What about fish oil?

Initially, I entertained them. I explained that I had tried everything that I could, and that medications had been my last resort.

That is, until I realized that I was under no obligation to justify my decision, especially to those who did not understand my struggle.

People who did not know what dissociation was, or what it feels like to be in the midst of a paranoid delusion; people who had never felt anxiety that stripped them of their ability to function in our society; people who had never felt emotional pain that seemed to throb from inside the marrow of their bones.

Complete strangers would badger me, presuming to know what was best for me without actually knowing the relentless, devastating pain that mental illness had put me through. Strangers who thought that they knew better than me, the person who had lived through this for years, what my body needed to heal.

Sometimes, it was well-intentioned. But most of the time, it was coming from a judgmental place.

They may as well have been saying, “I know nothing about mental illness, but I’m going to tell you about this random treatment I read about on the internet because clearly you don’t know what you’re doing.”

And it made me so, so angry.

No, medications were not a “cop out,” they weren’t the “easy way out,” they weren’t a “quick fix” that magically made me happy and high and light. They weren’t easy, they weren’t quick, and they definitely weren’t fun.

Taking medication for my illnesses was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made, and it took incredible courage to make that choice. It was a process that took years — years of side effects, years of false hope, years of judgment, years of doubt — to finally get it right.

But eventually, with the right doctor and with a lot of patience, we did get it right. After four years of being the equivalent of a human guinea pig, my body responded at last and I could begin to do the important work of healing. Combined with therapy, my transition, and self-care, I was able to begin again — this time, completely present and alive, no longer struggling just to keep my head above water.

And you know what? I’m not sorry. I’m not sorry for exercising my bodily autonomy. I’m not sorry for making the choice to take care of myself. I’m not sorry for taking control of my life.

Most of all, I’m not sorry for having the strength to choose life over death. Each day that I swallow these pills, I am reminded of the tenacity it took to keep myself alive, in spite of every fiery and relentless urge to end it all. I did what I needed to do to keep myself alive, and I’ll never apologize for the fact that I’m still here.

To be clear: Meds aren’t right for everyone, and they aren’t accessible for everyone, either. We need to do better not just for folks who take meds, but for those who do not or cannot. We need to protect a person’s right to dictate and choose what’s best for their body, and advocate to make those resources available to them — no matter what they end up deciding.

Ultimately, this is not about medicating every single person with a mental illness. It’s about giving us the power to decide how to heal, be it with medication or otherwise, and defending our right to make that choice without pressure, without shame, and without obstacles that prevent us from exercising those choices.

I am not ashamed of these pills. I am only ashamed to be part of a society that still believes it can dictate what’s right for my body, and what’s right for my community.

 

Editor’s Note: The use of the phrase “crazy pills” is not being endorsed as acceptable for mainstream use, but rather, reclaimed in a way that the author finds personally empowering.

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8 Things That I Learned In Therapy

whatilearned

Illustration by Jessica Krcmarik.

Therapy didn’t result in a singular epiphany that changed everything for me. There wasn’t a light bulb moment when I realized that everything stemmed from some childhood event, or that my “issues” began when a bully threw my Popsicle into the sand box. When I began therapy at the age of 17, though, that’s what I imagined it would be.

During my years of therapy, it was subtle realizations through guided dialogue — not one big AHA! moment — that challenged a lot of my unhealthy thoughts and behaviors, and ultimately, changed my life.

What I thought would be a couple months of counseling turned out to be five years — five years that taught me so much, lessons I’ll never forget.

Therapy was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. And although the impact is still being realized every single day, I’ve compiled a list of just a few of the many ways it has been a positive force in my life.

1. My inner critic isn’t so rough and tough after all.

At first, I didn’t even realize that I had an inner critic, but it became obvious through our conversations that I was incredibly unkind to myself, and had a lot of judgmental thoughts. I was, by far, my own worst critic. Nothing I did seemed quite good enough, and I always had a way of picking apart everything that I did and said. I was putting myself down, and not always in obvious ways. Therapy shed a lot of light on that critic.

The important thing about dealing with a tough inner critic is not silencing it, but rather, getting a dialogue happening, and challenging what’s being said. My therapist would often identify when I was being critical of myself in ways that weren’t fair, and offered a counter-narrative to all of the negative thinking. Overtime, I could anticipate these responses, and the dialogue began to happen in my head.

It was like magic.

I could “catch myself in the act,” and identify when I was being unfair in my self-reflection. And without realizing it, I started to shift the dialogue. I was such a– well, maybe that’s not fair. I was just doing the best that I could…

Eventually, the inner critic, who had manifested as unconquerable and unkind, began to shrink. I began to evaluate myself in a more balanced way. It made a huge difference in my self-esteem and in the choices I made for myself.

2. Coping with mental illness is a learned skill — not an innate one.

I assumed for a long time that, if I didn’t know how to deal with my bipolar now, I would never be able to. What therapy taught me is that coping skills can be learned, and that we aren’t born into this world with every possible resource and skill that we need.

It’s okay if, even after ten years, twenty, even decades of struggling with an illness, you feel stuck. Personal experience, though it is helpful to have, is not the only way that we gain these coping skills. Sometimes these skills are taught, whether we do the learning in therapy, in a support group, reading articles online, or elsewhere.

Living with a disorder doesn’t make you an all-knowing expert, and I wrongly assumed that struggling with the disorder meant that I should inherently know what to do.

Similarly, just because you can drive a car, it doesn’t mean you know how to get to Vancouver. Sometimes you need a map. Sometimes you need directions. Sometimes you need a GPS.

I didn’t know everything there was to know about my disorder, and thank goodness for that.

3. I have triggers, and awareness of those triggers can make a difference.

When I first came into therapy, I was convinced that my moods were random, with no clear cause or catalyst.

Truthfully, I think I was afraid to admit that there were things in my life that were stressing me out; I thought that if there were triggers, or outside factors that influenced my moods, I would be told there was nothing wrong after all and I was just overreacting to life circumstances.

It was my therapist that explained that triggers are an important way of managing the impact of mental illness. If we can identify what exacerbates our moods, we can begin to arrange our lives in a way that limits our exposure to those triggers, and anticipates them whenever possible.

They don’t invalidate the existence of bipolar. Bipolar is often defined by a dysfunctional response to stress, rather than a functional response. Having stress doesn’t undermine bipolar’s existence. I can have triggers and causes for my moods, and still have bipolar.

An example that I mentioned in a previous article: Taking on a huge course load at university has always been a major trigger for me. So I decided, when looking at graduate schools, that I would apply to programs that allowed me to go part-time, or to reduce the amount of classes I took each semester. This made a huge difference for me, and it’s a skill that I learned in therapy.

Once I understood that triggers did not negate the existence of my illness, I could finally identify different factors in my life that would aggravate my depression or mania, and work to mitigate the impact or, in some cases, eliminate the stressor altogether.

4. Safe spaces can make a serious impact on our mental health.

I didn’t know that having a therapist to talk to could make me feel better. I figured that I had friends, really great friends, and that a complete stranger wouldn’t be able to comfort me the way that my loved ones could.

I was wrong about that.

Having someone who doesn’t judge, who offers really solid perspective, and who isn’t emotionally entangled in your life makes therapy a really safe space for many folks. You don’t have to worry about being a burden on your therapist and you don’t have to worry about your “baggage.” You can just put everything on the table, dive into the scary stuff, and leave after an hour knowing that you can resume your normal life, and that what happens in that space will stay in that space.

You can be brutally honest, and the impact doesn’t extend beyond that room.

That being said, it takes a really good therapist to maintain the safety of that space. I lucked out and managed to find a fantastic therapist on the second try. If you feel unsafe, I would encourage you to seek out another therapist — it’s not uncommon to switch a few times before you find the right fit.

5. The worst case scenario doesn’t usually happen, and if it does, it’s not game over.

I had this tendency to catastrophize everything. I assumed the worst possible scenario was going to happen, and that the stakes were much higher than they actually were. Having a therapist to bring me back down to planet earth was one of the best parts of the experience.

My therapist also had a great way of pushing back when I talked about how doomed I was. I remember when I was failing my Spanish class back in undergrad. “And I’ll completely fail if I don’t pass this exam!” I told her, desperate and despondent. She shrugged, looked at me and said something I’ll never forget.

“So what?”

I was speechless. So what? I looked at her and, as if she hadn’t comprehended what I said, I repeated, “I’ll fail!”

“So?”

I began to realize that even the most terrible things I was imagining were not, in actuality, all that terrible. I eventually retook that Spanish class that I did, indeed, fail, and although it was inconvenient, it wasn’t the end of the world. I needed perspective, and therapy offered me that. I began to learn how to tell the difference between what would have a lasting impact on my life, versus what was just a shitty, temporary situation.

And having this kind of perspective made coping with stress a lot easier. Overtime, it wasn’t my therapist saying “so what” — it was me.

6. “Should” is a deceiving word and “should” be banned.

I had a bad habit of using the word “should” where it didn’t belong. I should be doing well in school, I should be graduating on time, I should be a better partner, I should be working more hours, I should be feeling better by now, I should know what I’m doing with my life, etc etc.

I used the word “should” to judge myself and judge where I was in my life, and therapy really brought that into focus for me.

Often times, I made these judgments based on cultural and societal attitudes that dictated how I “should” and “shouldn’t” be living my life. I realized that, in my use of that word, I was relinquishing my happiness and my self-determination. I was succumbing to really dated notions about how young adults, and people in general, should conduct their lives.

I was trying to follow a script that society wrote for me, instead of doing what actually made me happy and healthy. I was prioritizing the judgments and attitudes of others over my own desires.

When I realized the way I was using this word in reference to myself was problematic, I was determined to be more cognizant of the ways in which I measured my success and my happiness. I could graduate on time, but wouldn’t taking more classes jeopardize my mental health? I could be a better partner,  maybe, but isn’t it true that I’m doing the best I can? I could get straight A’s, but why is that important in the first place?

The word “should” also has this tendency of placing things in an “all or nothing” sort of framework. I was either doing it right, or doing it wrong. Life is much more complicated than that.

When I heard myself “should” and “shouldn’t”-ing myself, I learned to push against that, and think critically about where those judgments were coming from.

7. It’s not “attention seeking.” It’s trying not to disappear.

When I came into therapy, I, like many folks, was nearing rock bottom. I wasn’t looking to “recover” because it never crossed my mind that that was possible in the first place. At that time, I believed that I would die in the next three years.

I just wanted someone to listen to me, and validate that what I was going through wasn’t make-believe. I wanted someone to acknowledge that my pain was real.

And of course, that validation happened, and it was powerful. Someone finally saw me. I didn’t feel invisible anymore.

I’ve been accused, as many folks with mental illnesses have been, of “playing the victim,” “complaining too much,” or “trying to get attention.” But these illnesses seek to make us shells of ourselves, threaten to eat us alive. Every day we nearly disappear beneath the stigma, the shame, and the agony. And we question our sense of reality, wondering if we still exist beneath all of the pain.

And if I did something to make my pain visible? To be known? To be seen? It was an attempt at saving my own life, before I disappeared, before no one could reach me or help me.

I don’t believe it’s “seeking attention” so much as it is trying not to disappear. And I believe that it’s a show of strength and not weakness. And through therapy, I came to realize that what others labelled “attention seeking” were genuine displays of courage.

Once my pain was visible, and someone took the time to acknowledge that I was suffering, it was only then that I began to heal. Trying not to disappear is a survival instinct. And that’s what folks with mental illnesses are trying to do — survive.

8. I am not my illness.

Bipolar was the only thing I knew for such a long time, so much so that aspects of the disorder appeared to me like aspects of my personality, intrinsic characteristics that I would always have.

I assumed, for instance, that I was just a negative, cynical person, rather than understanding I was depressed. I thought my rapid thoughts and grandiose ideas were just my whacky creative self, instead of indications of mania. I thought the constant worry I felt was “just stress,” instead of it being very serious generalized anxiety.

And while someone can be negative and cynical without it being a disorder, or filled with worry and grandiose thoughts, the big difference is that these aspects of my experience led to an enormous amount of dysfunction in my life. I also realized, after going through therapy and getting treatment, that these “quirks” had disappeared.

I emerged on the other side of therapy and treatment as an optimistic, generally upbeat, sincere person — rather than the sarcastic, bitter, depressed, occasionally “wild” and reckless person I was prior.

I got to know myself for the very first time, without the illness as a mask or a barrier that didn’t allow me to see myself clearly. I was able to realize who I was apart from this illness — and that the illness didn’t define me, but rather, I defined myself. It was empowering to realize that I was someone separate from my struggles.

It was like encountering an old friend — a familiar and beautiful reunion. I was shocked as I began to learn new things about myself, and realized that who I was prior to treatment was not at all the same as who I was after treatment.

I truly believe, having gone through this experience of self-exploration and discovery, that this is who I was supposed to be all along. That’s the power of therapy, I think. We don’t just learn about the illness — we learn about what endures when you take that pain away.

And of everything I learned in therapy, I am most in awe of the fact that what endures beyond the pain is someone who is so much more vibrant, and so much stronger than I ever thought possible.

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I Am Transgender, and I Am “Trans Enough.”

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No matter what I look like, I’m still trans.

I know, I know, it’s Friday! Whoa, Sam, what is this about? Yes, I don’t usually blog on Fridays, as you may know. But something came up, and I wanted to address it.

After yesterday’s entry discussing my experiences as a transgender university student, I received a number of tweets, emails, and comments that called into question whether I was “truly” transgender. This was certainly not the first time, but it was the most intense by far.

A number of people felt it was acceptable to interrogate the legitimacy of my identity as a trans person, and implied that I am only transgender if I present a certain way, take hormones, and get certain surgeries. As if there’s only one way to be transgender, and I failed to pass their test.

No matter what the intention behind these comments were, the impact is that a transgender person, who has struggled for years with their identity and their body, was attacked on a public platform for not conforming to gender stereotypes about masculinity and what it means to be trans.

And I think that really, really sucks.

Perhaps what was most upsetting about these comments is that they primarily came from transgender people who should know better than to impose their idea of what gender is onto another person.

Being transgender simply means that you do not identify with the gender you were assigned at birth. In other words, what makes someone transgender is their sense of self. There is no rule book that says you must transition medically to be considered trans. There is no law that says your body must look a specific way or conform to a certain stereotype to be a valid, trans body.

Hormone levels do not make someone transgender. Haircuts do not make someone transgender. Surgeries do not make someone transgender.

“Transgender” is a label of self-identification, and there is no right or wrong way to be trans.

Secondly, this needs to be said: What someone chooses to do with their body and their genitals is not your business, just as you wouldn’t ask a stranger on the street to describe their junk to you in detail. And transgender people are more than their bodies, and their struggles run so much deeper than just the bodies they inhabit.

I have chosen not to share (yet) how I intend to transition, because I do not think it is relevant to the work that I do here, nor is it anyone’s business. Whether or not I opt for certain medical interventions is my personal journey. I may share these things in the future, but that will happen on my own terms, when I decide that it’s right to do so.

That information is not relevant, for example, when I’m talking about the way transgender students are treated on college campuses.

And whatever I do with my body and how it changes overtime does not make me more or less transgender than I was yesterday.

So who is exactly is transgender, then? And where on that spectrum do I fall?

Well, for one thing, who is and isn’t transgender isn’t for you to decide.

“Transgender” has become an umbrella term that describes quite a large spectrum of identities. The common thread is that these folks do not identify with the gender that they were assigned at birth, but ultimately it means something different to each and every person.

In fact, I’d say there are as many genders as there are people.

Some folks identify as binary trans men or trans women, which means that they were assigned female at birth but identify as men, or were assigned male at birth but identify as women.

Others identify as transmasculine (like myself) or transfeminine, meaning they do not necessarily identify as men or women, but rather, if you placed us on a spectrum, we tend towards masculinity or femininity.

Some folks are genderqueer (also a term that I use), meaning they do not identify as men or women, but rather, possess elements of masculinity and femininity, or simply do not identify with the construction of gender at all (also known as agender).

There are also gender fluid people, bigender, neutrois, and a whole bucket of awesome labels that folks use to describe their sense of self. These, too, can fall under the umbrella of transgender.

As you can see, there is immense diversity within the transgender community, and wherever we fall on that spectrum, we are not “more trans” or “less trans” than the person next to us.

No matter what labels we choose, there is no telling how someone will self-actualize this identity — in other words, even if I did identify as a man, it doesn’t necessarily mean I will start taking testosterone, now or ever.

We need to stop assuming that all transgender people transition in the same exact way, and moreover, stop assuming that we are entitled to that knowledge just because someone is trans.

I am a transmasculine queer. Or to use less jargon, I tend towards a masculine presentation, and do not identify as a woman or man. What this looks like for me, and how I plan on altering my body, is personal. I am under no obligation to share, and it isn’t appropriate to ask.

Curious minds have asked how I knew I was transgender. This answer is different for each and every person, and our answers do not decide whether or not we are “enough.” We are all enough.

The story is long, but I will keep my answer brief:

Realizing I was transgender, for me, came step by step. It was many realizations that happened over the course of years.

I knew I was transgender when I realized that being feminine felt like a performance instead of who I was, a role that I was failing at and should never have been cast for.

I knew I was transgender when I wore a chest binder for the first time, and felt more at home than I ever had, like something about that silhouette made more sense in my head.

I knew I was transgender when every “ma’am” felt like a knife in my side that I couldn’t pull out.

I knew I was transgender when I was doing shots of vodka in the dead of a Michigan winter, trying to numb the agonizing realization that I couldn’t stand the sight of my body.

I knew I was transgender when my partner found me on the floor, drunkenly throwing punches at my reflection in the mirror, and told me, “You can’t live like this anymore.”

I don’t tell you this because I feel like I need to prove something. I tell you this because I want you to know that when you call me an imposter, this is the kind of pain that you resurrect.

When I finally declared my trans identity, it was the most alive I had ever felt. It was like coming home. It was like filling my shoes for the first time. It was right. When I found the words to express the dysphoria, the pain, the confusion – I finally had just a little peace of mind. It helped me move forward, and to begin to live my life without shame.

And since I came out, I have never looked back.

This is not everyone’s story. This is just mine. There is no “trans narrative” or singular story that encompasses every experience of being trans. “Transgender” is a word, and it’s the people that claim this word, not a dictionary or an academic, that give it meaning.

There have been moments, throughout my life, that have affirmed this identity for me – and whether or not I or anyone else shares those moments with you does not determine whether or not we are trans.

In the end, my identity, my story, and my body belong to me.

I am transgender because I know who I am. It is up to you to respect that.

No one gets to decide, based on their antiquated ideas of what gender is and isn’t, what I am and what I am not.

And for transgender folks especially, who have suffered endlessly due to gendered assumptions being shoved down their throats: To impose that violence on me is unthinkable, outrageous, offensive… and worse yet, hypocritical.

To expect others to validate your identity, but to refuse to do that for your transgender siblings, is a betrayal and a shame that you bring onto your community and onto yourself. You need to dig deep and reflect on the ways you are upholding the oppression of other people in your community – and you need to change.

If we are going to create a society where everyone is free to explore their identity, and live their most authentic lives, it starts with validating others when they self-identify. Instead of pushing your idea of what gender should and should not be, you must trust that others are the experts on their own lives.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with asking how exactly I identify, what my pronouns are, and what my journey has been like. I am grateful to all the readers who take such an active interest in the triumphs and struggles of transgender people. Asking questions, in itself, is not inherently bad, and many of the questions I’ve received have been sensitive and wonderful, and I appreciate that.

But to suggest that transgender people must all go about transitioning the same way, or else we are imposters – that is a dangerous myth that oppresses so many transgender people every day.

The idea that transgender people must all “present” a certain way is simply taking one oppressive idea of gender and replacing it with an equally oppressive and sexist one.

No matter what my body looks like or what form it takes, I am still transgender. No matter how I move through this world and what choices I make, I am still transgender. And no matter how many times you call this into question, my identity is not for you to decide.

I am transgender. And I am “trans enough.”

If you want more information on how to be a great ally to trans people, please check out GLAAD’s guide for allies by clicking here!

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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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Four Major Myths About Mental Illness: A Guide For Artists

As a writer, I’ve encountered a lot of myths about what it means to have a mental illness and be an artist. They are gross and icky myths, ultimately because they hurt people rather than helping them. I want to tackle four of the most prevalent myths regarding mental illness and creativity, with the hopes of creating a useful, productive, informative dialogue. I’d also encourage you to read another blog entry of mine discussing this topic at length.

I speak as someone with bipolar disorder, who has been in remission for quite some time. I speak as someone who is currently taking a variety of medications with great success. I also speak as a writer, who has been doing creative work while their illness was both in and out of remission — and I can assure you, undoubtedly, that the creative juices didn’t stop flowing the second I put that pill in my mouth. I promise.

Of course, a disclaimer is necessary. This is my personal experience. I am not here to speak on behalf of anyone else, and I certainly don’t know the intricacies of your illness, nor your creative process. But as always, I will encourage everyone that has access to the resources to pursue whatever treatment they feel will help them. Because it is my belief that a healthy body and mind are absolutely vital for doing our best creative work.

1. Mental illness makes you more creative.

Crediting all of your work to an abstract illness is a shitty thing to do to yourself. You’re robbing yourself of credit. Because actually, you are the one that created it. Depression didn’t jump out of your body and paint that piece, nor did it slide out of your ear and type that novel.

Creativity is complicated, to be sure, but claiming that it is the result of an illness — an accident, really — rather than the product of your perspective, life experiences, attentiveness and presence in each moment, and just damn hard work is giving credit where credit isn’t due.

I used to think the same thing, that my creativity was a direct result of being mentally ill. But when my bipolar was in remission, guess what? I became more creative. I had better concentration and memory, more energy to commit to writing, a deeper presence in each moment (which allowed me to absorb more material from my everyday life). I had the self-esteem to finish pieces, a quieter mind for focus, and a lighter heart to enjoy the process rather than forcing myself through the motions. I think it made me more open, and more able to engage with every part of my mind, because my mind was no longer a scary place.

I found that my old writing reflected a pessimism that did not produce useful or creative content. The ultimate conclusion of my depressed writing was “I suck” or “everything sucks” or “I suck and everything sucks.” That didn’t leave me open or available for fresh ideas or new perspectives — rather, I was stuck in my own perspective, a tired and sad one, that didn’t offer me anything I could really use. When I was manic, my writing often lacked structure and it was always left unfinished.

Ultimately, being healthy gave me more focus, the ability to explore diverse perspectives, and more discipline. All of this is needed for great art, especially for writing. If anything, my mental illness was holding me back. It may be holding you back, too.

2. Every medication on Earth will steal every ounce of creativity and turn you into a zombie.

The wrong medication will sap you of energy, and creativity requires a sustained level of energy. The wrong medication will make you feel empty and unmotivated, flat and unfocused. In other words, some medications can mess with your mojo.

But guess what else can make you feel empty and unmotivated, flat and unfocused? Depression. And on top of that, it can make you feel hopeless and suicidal. You don’t need me to tell you that depression can kill you. And you won’t be creating a whole lot of art if you’re dead or too dysfunctional to get out of bed.

Finding the right medication takes a great deal of time and patience, but assuming that every single drug will have the same result is underestimating the power and sophistication of modern medicine. The truth is, everyone reacts differently to different meds, so it takes trial and error to get you to a good place. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should give up.

If anything, that means you should document these experiences through art. Consider this journey toward healing an artistic endeavor in itself. Create visual or written representations of the journey. If everything has the potential for creative material, use your experiences as a psychiatric guinea pig to create art.

And when you’re finally healthy, the portrait you create will be beautiful and human. You will feel that you’ve finally filled your shoes.

I know it can take a long time, but from where I’m standing, it’s worth it. I’m not here to undermine how difficult this part of the process is. But I am here to validate that every bit of the struggle, at least for me, was worth it.

The right medication shouldn’t make you feel uncreative and zombie-like — it should make you feel healthy, nothing more and nothing less. If you’re able to wait it out, being healthy can lead to the most productive and creative time of your life. The key is patience and a competent psychiatrist to lead the way.

3. Mental illness makes great material, so being unhealthy is worth it.

Mental illness can impede your creativity by sapping your focus, draining your energy, drowning you in hopelessness and a lack of self-esteem. A great deal of art involves discipline — regularly engaging with your craft — which mental illness can also interfere with. As I mentioned before, it can also kill you, which is not so great for your artistic endeavors.

Yet I’ve still heard folks say that, at the end of the day, mental illness is great material for art.

Assuming you are even functional enough to get that material down on paper, or whatever your medium might be, creating art that is based exclusively on the pain that you feel will be wildly inconclusive. In writing at least, we certainly need something bad to happen to our main character, we need to have something at stake. You, too, have something at stake.

But we also always have a climax, a realization, where something is changed. And if your illness remains unchanged, or you simply drown in it indefinitely, that is not great material. That is drowning in a bathtub. That is static on the radio.

You know what has been, by far, the best material I’ve come up with? Reflections on my life as a survivor. Surviving something — having overcome something, or at the very least, endeavoring to overcome something — has far and away been the best writing I’ve done. I went through intense changes and meditation, and I came through on the other side of something.

If you’re sitting inside your illness because you think it’s feeding you inspiration, consider how changing your life might inspire you, too.

Surviving this illness and being healthy opened up a channel for me. I was ready to receive so much more. I could examine my life in radically different ways. That, my friend, is great material.

Yes, mental illness is material, but recovery is material. Survival is material. Transformation is material. All of that is stellar material. Yes, express what you are going through — but never remain stagnant. As an artist, you owe it to yourself to get to a healthy place, so you can do your best work. An athlete can’t do their best running with bronchitis, though it might be interesting to see them try. And I’d venture to say that you can’t do your best artwork with a stagnant mental illness, either.

4. You must suffer for your art.

I believed this. For a long time, I didn’t seek help for bipolar because I thought that suffering was synonymous with art and creativity. All of the great artists, I reasoned, suffered for their art. But I can tell you from personal experience, this is simply untrue. Brilliant art is born out of all life experiences. As artists, we have a moral obligation to express our truth, whatever that truth may be. I want you to ask yourself this: Is mental illness really my truth?

As an artist, I think I have an obligation to seek out my truth. And there came a point when I realized that my illness was not who I was, and it was not my truth. The voice in my head ravaged me for too long, and the depression tore me open and gnawed on every bit of goodness I possessed. How could something so vicious be my truth? So I sought out treatment. I looked for an alternative. And I realized along the way that my suffering was not my ultimate, objective truth. It certainly masqueraded as such, and for a very long time.

And yes, suffering to some extent is a universal human truth. But it is not the only truth. And when we only experience suffering, and are incapable of experiencing the full spectrum of this human experience, we deprive ourselves of so many of the other beautiful, captivating, splendid truths that we are capable of feeling — if only we gave ourselves the chance.

We owe ourselves that chance. We owe ourselves the chance to reach that place of ultimate receptiveness, where our bodies and our minds are able to experience, see, and feel all that life has to offer. Mental illness leaves no room for that. It gives us a monochromatic existence, where we can only receive what it deems painful enough, chaotic enough. It filters every moment and allows us to see only what it wants us to see.

If we get to a healthier place, we are suddenly open and available for everything. Not just happy moments, but terrible ones. Because believe me, I still experience sadness — but rather than dissociate from my pain, I feel it with everything I have, see it for everything it is. And I’m no stranger to joy now, to shock, to delight, to heartbreak. I feel all these things with completeness and I feel it readily. I feel everything directly and distinctly, because there is nothing in my way of feeling these things.

And I believe that the ability to feel with every part of ourselves, and to experience life without the smog, the shackles, and the gag that mental illness places around us, brings us that much closer to our personal truth.

And as artists, it’s our job to passionately pursue that truth.

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