I am a woman who fully identified with the label “bipolar” for almost 20 years and, according to psychiatry, rightfully earned it with four involuntary hospitalizations. Early on, I was given no other language besides brain disease and unbalanced chemistry with which to understand the altered states and despair I experienced. When I look back honestly on the very recent past, I see that I used the identity of bipolar like a brace around my hard-to-manage mind, to hold it still, to teach it where it could and could not go—where I could expect it to be at any given moment. Even what I could expect from myself and my life.
There were books about bipolar I could read, lived-experience narratives like Kay Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind and clinical descriptions with observable rules and patterns that felt somehow reassuring, even as they were mostly defined by struggle and suffering. I understood myself as a woman who had extreme mood swings—even if the highs never quite exactly fit the bill of mania. I was a woman who heard voices and saw things sometimes, things that had no meaning other than illness. I was a woman who needed psychiatric drugs to survive in this world as it was. I was a woman who would never heal. “There is no cure,” was something I heard at 21 when I was first diagnosed and many, many times afterward.
And perhaps the word bipolar saved me for a time. It did a few things for me. It got me medical care. It got me the kind of care that our society has to offer for what I experienced. It drew doctors to me, doctors with tools to ease my pain—in a way—even if these tools circumvented the true root of my suffering. And it even drew validation of that suffering, corroboration by people with degrees and authority. Yes, you are in more pain than most. Yes, everything is too hard and isn’t that hard for everyone. Yes, your emotional pain feels wrong and we think it’s wrong, too. Yes, your pain is real—so real.
But for me, this was a twisted and dangerous form of validation that took far more than it gave. The label bipolar validated that I was suffering, yes, but it was a bargain that asked me to surrender my understanding of my suffering as “normal” and replace it with a belief that it was the result of an “illness.” It asked me to see my suffering as unreasonable, a result of a deformity within my body. It took away my ability to see my emotional states as the result of what had been a tough youth and an even tougher young adulthood, a result of my excessive use of marijuana and alcohol and of untreated trauma, by taking away the language I needed to describe it.
Strangely, I never truly fell for the illness model in the way I was meant to. I went one step further: I drew it closer to me and thought “I” truly was broken. My mind, body, and soul—because in the end, these three things are so hard to disentangle within one’s identity. A point many practitioners miss when dispensing these labels. It was the application of this strange, twisted, and dangerous “validation” to the surface of my suffering that let self-hatred, denial, and suppression seep deeper into my every insecurity about “not fitting in” and experiencing the world differently. Leading, ironically, to the endless cycle of pain the diagnosis was meant to lessen.
To me, there seemed nothing truly valuable about being bipolar, either, except perhaps that I had the luck of being an artist, too. There was some romanticism, at least, in that. I was the crazy creative. But this was not something of much real value – as artists themselves are seldom valued or supported in our culture.
Bipolar was a map. It was scaffolding on a building, it was a straight hallway to walk in a maze of a mind. There were numbers that insurance companies understood. There were instructions to follow that, if I didn’t think too much about them, were at least something I could do besides lie in bed, or stare down a bottle of pills trying not to die. It was a kind of hope—something that maybe my friends and family could use to explain me, explain my anger and sadness, explain why I called in the middle of the night and begged to come over and hide, to avoid my psychiatrist, the police and the hospital, on one of the many nights the burden of all this was too much and death seemed an easier thing. I was bipolar. At least that —if only that— made sense.
It helped me. And it helped them, my family and friends. It did. Until underneath it all I started to see that in those straight hallways, behind those walls and braces, with those directions and instructions—I had nothing. No power. No choice. No freedom. I was afraid to let my mind wander into uncertain, ambiguous places such as the spiritual or the more wildly creative, for when it did it was like being in some dark alley, anticipating an attack. My mind was scared of itself, its full potential. I had nothing but illness, wrongness, and brokenness as a framework to understand my mind. And most importantly, I had no path to healing, because I was told bipolar was incurable. I had no way out of the pain. Not even the drugs they promised would help me, or do anything more than make my suffering worse.
I was done for. All the studies said I would die, I would die soon, and I would suffer till then. Either from the presence of the drugs and their effects on my body or from the lack—the lack of feeling, the lack of choice—the presence of which, I learned, would be exactly what helped me heal. All the studies and all the stories said I would die, or decompensate. Disappear somehow, in some uncertain circumstance where everyone I loved would wonder: Was it their fault? Did they not try hard enough? Did I not try hard enough?
I would die bipolar, they said. I would die on psychiatric drugs. And I woke up to this prescribed narrative of my life I had been handed as I looked closer at the rules. What I was told was the way it was and always would be. The reality I was meant to swallow and accept. The pills I was meant to swallow. Everything I was meant to believe about myself. I started to look at my mind, my dreams – my visions, my voices, and my suffering, especially my suffering— without fear or rules or braces, and these parts of myself began to speak to me of a path to healing.
I listened to, and befriended, my mind as it tenderly wandered off the paths laid out for me. Oh, yes, I was afraid. The depth of my sorrows have always been great. The confusion has always been crushing. Before I fell into the sedation of psychiatric drugs, even while I floated in that ocean of chemicals, all the while, the realities of life were still so massive and confusing. Every little bit of it didn’t make sense. No sense at all. And it hurt. It was painful. Every inch my mind wandered. Every door I opened labeled disease. Every door labeled danger.
Every step was fraught with fear. Will I be abducted, drugged, gaslighted, coerced, imprisoned if I take a wrong step? But by this point, I had so many doubts about this framework handed me called bipolar—this map—their certainty, and rules about me. Some part of me knew they were wrong. So I kept stepping out of line. Way out of line. I no longer believed my psychiatrist had the answers to my suffering and began trusting myself that I could manage, I trusted my own body and research around withdrawal and went slower and more cautiously than any psychiatrist would have suggested. I explored and integrated spiritual ideas that were so often off-limits for someone with a history of altered states. I started to face the trauma that therapists either denied, as its roots lay in their industry, or avoided because they feared it would destabilize me. Each time I wondered if I could do it. If I could be OK without these rules, these drugs and doctors.
One message that came with my psychiatric label did offer a kind of comfort throughout my process of emerging from it. All those years ago, when I was hospitalized, put on psychiatric drugs, and labeled bipolar, one bit of wisdom, although essentially misguided, stuck and evolved into something helpful. This biomedical model, which allows people to understand that their suffering is beyond their own control, not their fault, just a result of so-called faulty chemistry, is often such a relief. Because in truth, beyond the framework of biology, it is mostly true for all of us.
In studying Buddhism, I’ve found that despite the fact that I no longer subscribed to the “bipolar” diagnosis, I still accept my lack of control over suffering, just in a different way, within a different framework. In that resistance to it is the problem. All these attempts to eradicate something so essential to human life instead of lending compassion and acceptance lead directly to making it more and more unmanageable.
There is a story in Buddhism called “The Second Arrow,” which essentially says that pain is inevitable, while suffering lies in the resistance to and judgment of it. I believe that the idea of control is an illusion far too often enforced upon us in our society. So, when a framework appears that relieves one of responsibility, whether it be through an erroneous scientific idea or the wisdom of a spiritual one, the initial result is the same: relief. But as with truths embedded in any broken system, the end result of an erroneous scientific idea can be deadly. It is frightening to realize that an industry founded on “healing” suffering lays claim to this more spiritual idea of the essential lack of control in our very human existence.
As I continued my journey, I also found that the fear of these feelings of suffering —my judgments of them, the inner talk of “you shouldn’t feel this way” or “you are weak to be feeling this” —intensified them, making them more and more unmanageable. The message of psychiatry, intended or not, was to be afraid of one’s “illness.” This was particularly true of the voices and strange experiences. My fear of them, reinforced by psychiatry’s aggression against them, became the root of what made them a problem, but as I invited them in as parts of myself, they lessened and became more like teachers. I used my art and writing to give them voice—I finally let my mind free. And with that, regained a self-image of wholeness, worth, and beauty.
I started stepping off all of my psychiatric drugs in September 2019. Starting with Lexapro, then Latuda, then Lithium, Lamictal, and Vraylar. One by one. After coming off Latuda, my suicidality, which had persisted for years, disappeared and I was galvanized. The bargain I had made with the bipolar label had nearly killed me. But I had survived the psychological and physical consequences of a psychiatric label that are so often overlooked.
As I began my taper of the final drug just this past November, and just as importantly, as I had truly shed the brace of the bipolar identity that had become a prison, one of my best, oldest friends told me on the phone that my voice had changed. A voice teacher, she said she could hear life it in again. She said, “I feel like I am talking to another person. I mean it’s you,” she said. “But, now, it’s really you.” And we cried together because it felt like I was finally free.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.