Despite that nasty voice in our heads that’s always saying “You can’t,” we are eternally worthy and useful. We can, and do!
“You’re lazy. You’re useless. You’re better off giving up,” I said to no one ever. Except, of course, if you count me. I could never imagine saying any of this to another person, not even my worst enemy. Nonetheless, I’ve managed to say all of it to myself, many times.
Just yesterday, in fact, the very same outspoken mental health advocate who is typing these words told herself she couldn’t. Yup, that’s the same woman who has been proudly writing this column for years, the one who has finally quit whispering when she says, “I have bipolar disorder,” and the one who wrote an entire memoir about it.
But none of this occurred to me in my home office yesterday. Staring at a blank screen, cursor ruthlessly blinking into the brutal white emptiness, I quickly dismissed everything I’ve ever accomplished, instinctively cursing myself, chanting these same frustratingly familiar words inside my head: “You’re lazy. You’re useless. You’re better off giving up.”
And before reason could even factor in to the equation, before the grammarian within could begin to suggest the subjunctive, before years of cognitive behavioral therapy could think to protest, I agreed with myself. Then, for about the gazillionth time in my writing career, I slammed my laptop shut and swore to never return.
So I took a mental health day, an act I used to misconstrue as a luxury but now recognize as a necessity, as being patient and merciful with myself has historically proven to be the most rapid and responsible way to overcome setbacks.
As a result, here I am, less than 24 hours later, back in front of my laptop, and miraculously, the cursor is no longer cursing me. Instead, it’s dancing with me, as it always does if I return to it enough. Not because I’m some great writer, but because I keep trying to write. Even after I tell myself I can’t anymore, even after I swear to never return, I always come back to the written word. It’s my thing: the way I make sense of our seemingly senseless world, the way I connect with others, the way I cope, the way I pray.
Still, for all the writing, coping, and praying I’ve done, I have yet to shut up the nasty voice inside my head telling me I can’t. That voice—insisting I’m not good enough to do the one thing I’m best at—isn’t a product of my bipolar disorder; it’s a product of my humanity. Nevertheless, my bipolar has led to a whole new level of self-doubt—not so much because of the condition itself, but rather, because of the way our society treats those of us who happen to have it. After all, it’s the reason I—the loudest girl in every class I’ve ever taken—had to train myself to stop whispering and hold my head high when I tell people I have bipolar disorder.
In short, despite the fact that some of the greatest minds in history have shared our diagnosis, we still live in a world that chronically fails to fully value those of us with minds that work differently. So much so that it’s literally harder for many of us to breathe in this world, as people with serious psychiatric conditions tend to live significantly shorter lives, statistically, than those without.
So what can we do in the face of such grim data? For starters, we can recognize that simply by daring to survive, we are revolutionaries. Thus, no matter where we are in our recovery, we are eternally worthy, useful, and better off alive.
While I know this to be true, I often forget it. Hence, yesterday. But over time, I’ve learned to remind myself of my worth by giving myself credit for the most seemingly small successes: waking up, brushing my teeth, showering, feeding myself, answering the phone, taking my meds, taking a walk, and yes, taking a breath.
It’s how I returned to an empty page today; it’s how I filled it, and it’s how I’ve filled every page I’ve ever written. Most importantly though, it’s how I’ve managed to live a fulfilling life both despite and because of my bipolar disorder. Not by beating myself up for my countless messy setbacks and straight-up failures, but by building myself up from my tiniest successes.
Printed as “Flight of Ideas: When your inner critic won’t shut up!”, Winter 2019