Metta Bhavana Meditation As A Silent Weapon Against Bipolar

Metta Bhavana Meditation As A Silent Weapon Against Bipolar By Michael Pytell

Living with bipolar and anxiety disorder you realize that your mental health consumes you. You constantly feel guilt and your self confidence fluctuates from soaring to crushing. At a certain point in my life I felt extremely selfish - I was constantly focused on my moods, and wrapped up with my overall stability that everything else slipped in the cracks beneath me. When I say everything, I mean everything. Bipolar was defining me and controlling this selfish behavior 24/7. There was a point in time where unnecessary stress was brought upon my personal life because of it including my marriage, college, and my job. 

I used meditation before as a source of relief from anxiety and bipolar, but I didn't really know what I was doing. All I knew was that I wanted to build off of it in a way to where I can put all of those selfish feelings behind me and focus on providing more love in my relationships. Upon a quick search I stumbled upon lovingkindness meditation: something called Metta Bhavana. After several months of practicing this form of meditation the results were clear. This form of meditation allows me to express feelings for all beings rather than just myself. I was able to clear my head and provide the loving feelings that my wife deserves. The word "metta" simply means love and "bhavana" means cultivation. There are five stages to metta bhavana and in each stage love is cultivated for a specific person and then finally for all beings you are aware of. Every person meditates differently, so I will spell out how I go about it. This can be performed in a traditional seated position, or lying down. 

Stage 1: This is the beginning to building up your metta. In stage one you focus on yourself only. Put on some relaxing music and breathe slowly and deeply. Once you feel relaxed, begin becoming aware of yourself and allow feelings of peace overcome you. Think positively and let these positive feelings expand into confidence. Take your time and ease into transitioning this strength and self confidence into love. At this point you begin stimulating metta for yourself. I like to picture myself dripping in gold while rays of light shine from every pore in my body. You really want to get that image in your head for deeper stimulation. Finally begin repeating the phrase in your head "may I be well, may I be happy". Do this for however long you please before moving onto the next (I do roughly 5-7 minutes per stage)

Stage 2: In the second stage you want to shift your focus from yourself to others. From here on out you will leave yourself behind and focus giving metta to everyone else. In stage two you want to think of a good friend. Picture this good friend and recall all of their good qualities and what makes them a good friend to you. Shift your metta to them and picture that light shining from your body going to their heart. Imagine them dripping in gold with so much love and positivity being spread to their core. Let these feelings grow on you and feel the connection between you and this good friend.

Stage 3: This spot is held for a neutral person. This is someone that you do not have strong feelings for, but someone that you also don't particularly dislike. I like to think of someone that I recently met- someone that I don't know much about. I picture this person and reflect on their humanity. They are included in my metta and I send tremendous love their way. The deep connection between yourself and someone that you don't even know is crucial here as it expands your emotions for others. 

Stage 4: Stage four gets interesting because here you want to think of someone that you actually dislike. This will be someone that you have bad feelings for; an enemy. The most important thing here is you cannot get caught up in any negative feelings towards them. Instead simply send your metta in their direction and reflect on their humanity. 

Stage 5: In the concluding stage, think about all four people together: yourself,  the good friend, the neutral person, and the enemy. Capture that metta and expand it further. I like to start small because here is where you need to begin reflecting on all beings we share the Earth with. You start with yourself and the three other people, and think about your next door neighbor. With each and every person as you expand out further and further, picture a ripple from a droplet of water. Those ripples are the feelings of metta you are throwing off to all you are aware of. After you picture your neighbor, think about your neighborhood. Expand further to your town, state, country, and finally worldwide. Feel yourself bursting with metta for all of those around you as you imagine the Earth dripping with gold and light shining out of its surface. Whenever you are ready, ease out of the meditative state and apply what you have learned to your daily life.

Finding Real Medicine

Art by Sara Molano

I was diagnosed Bipolar II in 2009. I was in medication and was giving up to 8 pills a day. My symptoms where not getting better, I honestly feel they got worse. After 3 years of daily and heavy medications like: Litium, Lexapro, Zyprexa, Wellbutrin, lamictal., Seroqual, etc, etc,etc..I tried them all. I quit all medications. (I dont know you will like to share to share this as I know for some people medication helps) But it wasn’t the case for me at all. I start feeling better with natural medicines as I visited the jungle and the shamans in Colombia, yoga, meditation, reiki, dancing to the rhythm of the drums in drum circles, doing crafts, going to sweat lodges and Painting.. This is my real medicine. :)
— Sara Molano

Sara Molano began painting when, at the young age of six, her mother found her doodling on the walls of the house and quickly entered her into art classes. This was in Medellin, Colombia, where Molano was born on December 15, 1975. At 15, Molano moved to Chile's capital, Santiago, and entered the art school Abadia.

She found herself in her first exposition at the Palacio de la Alhambra (Fine Arts) where her work as a young new artist was praised. Her choices then were landscapes using oil, but upon her arrival in Miami Florida three years ago, Molano discovered acrylics and has been using this medium since.

With the use of acrylics, Molano also began to test herself with new techniques. She chose to paint with no relief or shadow, in a flat and static manner lending itself to her new more mature views. Her poster-like portraits of half faces are a representation of Le' humanite, or Molano's own views of the "half being." These half beings are those who are only minimally satisfied; they know themselves only on the surface and do not dare question. These half faces are dedicated to those whose obsession with the ephemeral aspects of their lives, like physical appearance and material gain, mock the reality that this all turns to dust in the end.

These beings, willing to succumb to knives and machines to alter their flesh, harbor frustrations with society, rules and politics and lack sensitivity to life and genuine spirit. Their half faces show clearness, color and feature, but more important are their other halves, which they hide.

Parallel to these paintings of dichotomy exist those of The Queens. The Queens are paintings of grand women some of the cancer survivals, with whom Molano has had the privilege of speaking and admiring. These are women who are free and independent and whose wisdom holds them at a state of perpetual nurturing, exposing their breasts. 

While complex and perhaps even a bit polemic, Molano's style and choices are ever changing and promise to show another side of her which will likely surprise us all.

Read more about Sara on Facebook.

Music to Heal from a Young Friend's Suicide

This album is dedicated to my best friend Traver. He passed away unexpectedly on the morning of August 31st, 2013. He was 19 years old.This album is for anyone who has ever lost someone to suicide, or has thought about suicide as an option for themselves. This music is proof that you are not alone. This album was incredibly healing for me to put together and I hope it is just as healing for you to listen to. These songs are gifts of love and appreciation for him. -Zo Bernardeau

I was friends with Traver in High School. He was a really sweet kid with a big heart and an amazing sense of humor. I rode the bus with him and we would always have really funny conversations. He had one of the cutest smiles I've ever seen, and he seemed so honest and blunt about so many things that it's still hard to imagine now that he was shouldering so much pain. He was two years younger than I was so I would offer to give him rides to school, and we would have really funny conversations about my various dating mishaps. After I graduated I saw him on the street in my hometown, and I thought about saying hi but I figured I'd run into him again some other time. That was the last time I saw him, and even though I wasn't one of the people closest to him, I still regret not stopping to talk to him on the street that day. Even though I only knew him for a short time and didn't really know about his personal struggles, his death impacted me profoundly because of what a sweet, generous and friendly person he was. Everyone who knew him even briefly still misses him because of his kind and funny spirit. Even though many people have thoughts of suicide at some point in their lives, I think that most people don't realize how much they impact and teach the people around them, even those who knew them for a short time. I found this musical album by Zo Bernardeau extremely healing and beautiful, and it felt like Traver's spirit was right there next to me while I was listening. It's a very moving reminder that despite the immense pain that comes from losing a friend or family member, especially so young, that a person's spirit will always continue on in peoples' memories. If young people considering suicide would listen to this, it might help them see how much they really do matter to the people around them, and how much pain it would cause their friends and family to live without them. If you're missing someone you've lost or wondering how to help cope from loss, listening to this album may help with the long, winding journey of healing. Be warned though, the songs are very emotional so make sure to listen somewhere that you would feel comfortable with the possibility of crying. 

-Isabel Cohen, ToBeReal/WhatYouFeel Blog Coordinator

If you're a young LGBTQIA+ identified person experiencing depression or suicidal ideation, call the Trevor Project Helpline at 866-488-7386, or go through TrevorChat or TrevorText for a text based help service. 

Heal The World

Hailed as "the most exciting performer to come out of Philadelphia since Patti LaBelle" by, International Pop Artist TONY ENOS achieved commercial success with the iTunes and digital release of his 2009 debut album "Did It Rite", and his 2012 breakout sophomore album "The Heat." In addition to a successful national tour with his 2nd album, ENOS has also had successful philanthropic efforts, tackling disparities such as HIV/AIDS, LGBTQ Youth Rights, and Domestic Violence. Now recording his 3rd studio album, the award winning singer/song writer is the one to watch. Visit him online at

Music About Adderall and Bipolar Disorder

Doug Campese and Jacob Goldbas are Carbon Dioxide. As a pop music acoustic duo, they perform regularly in Washington, DC, and the DMV metropolitan areas. Carbon Dioxide played over 40 shows in 2014, and they were the house band for Sawah Hookah Diner in the Adams Morgan neighborhood in that year. Doug and Jacob have written over 200 hundred songs together, and in 2014 the band employed two esteemed musicians, Jalen Ngonda and Graham Baurele (also known as Long Tail). Doug and Jacob perform regularly at Bloombars Art Center in Columbia Heights, and volunteer for 7DrumLessons in the U Street Corridor. Carbon Dioxide is available for weddings, bar mitzvahs, house parties, and commercial advertising songwriting.

Check out Carbon Dioxide on Facebook.

Representations of Anxiety and Depression

Art by Meg Benton

 Fear In America

Fear In America

“Fear In America” is about the anxiety I feel when I watch the news and in general the fear that I felt growing up in America. These anxieties first came into my awareness during September 11th. I was in middle school and I remember the impact of the cycling news reels. What really has struck me as an adult is the culture of terror that is perpetuated by the media. I struggle with anxiety. Exploring the root of some of my anxieties through art helps me to come to terms with my view of the world and it also has the potential to open up conversations about these topics with friends, family and peers.
— M. Benton

Check out more of Megan's art below.

I make art because it helps me give balance to a world I often view as chaotic.  I present visual expression to come to terms with my experience of being overwhelmed by things like; war, poverty, famine, global warming, societal problems, and the radius of fear that Americans experience and the American media propels. I am inspired to make art because I feel that I am creating visual solutions to the universal problems I see.  My art signifies awareness of the world and its connection to my personal journey.  It is a way of spreading information on an intuitive level.  Often times I use portraits to express the presence of worldly problems.  I use human expression and my own journey to convey how people either accept or do not accept these problems.  My ceramic pieces are also an expression of problem solving.  However, unlike my other work, I express solutions in an abstract sense.  Working with clay is a holistic experience for me.  Making art is important to me because it allows me to come to terms with things that would otherwise overwhelm me.  I endeavor to make a positive change with my artwork.

Megan's Website

Reverse Abstraction: Giving Form and Contour to Mental States

Art and a narrative by Michael Johnson

photo 1 (2).JPG

I remember when I was much younger I loved reading about mythical creatures. I was addicted to reading cryptozoological books, and I filled my sketchbooks cover to cover with depictions of those strange creatures. Yet for all the outlandish and fantastic beasts I read about, my favorite always was the lowly jackalope. Wyverns, sphynxes, the Loch Ness Monster; those were all well and good but I knew that they were just stories and myths, and I knew I would never have a chance of ever actually seeing one in real life. The jackalope, on the other hand had some promise. It seemed just real enough to maybe exist, and the idea of one day stumbling upon one filled me with the same giddy boyish hope one gets when planning out their future career as a firefighting astronaut who also plays professional football on the side. Eventually, as I got older, I of course went through the phase where one has to come to terms with the fact that most of their boyhood dreams would unfortunately remain as such. I learned that fires do not typically occur in space, I learned that astronaut training is prohibitively rigorous and does not leave much time for football practice in the off season. I learned that I wasn't really good at football anyway. And while this childhood disillusionment is perfectly natural, mine seemed to continue unendingly to new lows. I learned that people lie more often than they tell the truth, I learned that pain was a much more common force than pleasure. I learned that my parents hated each other, and that love could have just as well been a creature in one of my books. I learned that the most I could hope for in life was a vague discontentment, although more often then not my life felt like a painful and pointless burden I had to carry around with me forever and ever until I finally got to die. Then one day I learned something which had an unexpected effect on how I viewed everything. I learned that jackalopes were in fact real animals. The one fairy tale creature that I always had a hunch might actually be real turned out to be so. I was right after all. Yes, there are instances where rabbits grow horns or antler-like protrusions from their skulls, and it is because they are afflicted with cottontail papilloma virus, a type of cancer which causes uncontrollable keratinous growths. These growths eventually get so large that they interfere with the rabbits ability to eat, and the rabbit eventually dies a slow, pathetic, malformed death.

All of those saccharine promises that were made to me about life turned out to be thinly veiled cancers. Every conceivable thing about this world that I thought was positive ended up being a disease that results in an agonizing death. Life itself, from the second you come out of the womb, is just a long, drawn out process of dying. And as I grew older and older my life really did feel like a cancerous growth on my skull that was ever increasing in size, and I knew that one day the weight of it would crush my cranium and kill me. Around this time I also discovered I appreciated movies with sad endings. It was in middle school when I first made these connections, and these dismal beliefs have had an unfortunate permanence ever since.

If you can think of your life as a lens of perception, then depression is a film of soot on that lens that distorts and misshapes everything you come into contact with. Everything you see, hear, feel, or think is rendered ugly and pitiful. I have had to look out through these tarnished lenses for quite some time, and one of the few reprieves I have is through painting. The world may be unlovely and inhospitable, but when I'm in front of my canvas then at least for a little while, at least in a small amount of space, I can create something beautiful. It is in this way that I have played the world at it's own game. My subject matter is ugly, just like the rest this existence. My figures are disproportionate; they have odd protrusions erupting from their bodies. My animals are emaciated and sickly. Nearly everything I paint has empty, blind eyes. And just the same I give them saturated, vibrant colors, and I try and make them glow with a chromatic radiance that is in every sense not of this world. I do this because I really want the ugly things to be beautiful too.

Through painting I have, in my mind, closed the gap between the ugly and the beautiful, or between the happy and the sad. I've come to see that they are just two ends of a continuum that eventually wraps around itself and meets again, and the troughs of your deepest lows are a direct reflection of the crests of the soaring highs that are soon to follow. No rain, no rainbows is what I'm saying, essentially. I can see now that life is like one giant sad ending. A sad ending that has been written so elegantly that you are moved to tears at the sheer beauty. And I really like movies with sad endings

Check out more of Michael's work below and visit his site here.

Michael Johnson's artwork finds its home somewhere between the unnerving and the alluring, the decaying and the blossoming, the mythic and the biographical. His works can be seen as self-portraits, collectively making up the mindscapes of his consciousness. The process he uses is that of reverse abstraction: he seeks to flesh out those myriad mental states that accompany the human condition and give them form and contour. Anxieties are given hooves and snouts, sleepless nights are turned into sprawling landscapes, tendons and sinew are surgically connected to thoughts and memories until finally an aesthetic figure is born. In this way Michael is like Courbet, constantly pursuing that “Real Allegory” which can be used to outline his psyche. But to say that he is directly inspired by any artist would be a slight misstep. To Michael everything in life is his muse, whether it come in the form of his 10 month old son's scribbles or Mondrian's 10th composition. He subscribes to no set style nor movement, only holding onto his inspirations long enough for them to pass through his lens of perception before being projected onto his canvases and released.

Totally Ill, Yo. A Narrative About Bipolar and ECT

A Narrative By Aly Jones


well, you wouldn't be ashamed of having cancer, would you?

 By Ian Dietz   Check him out on  Instagram

By Ian Dietz

Check him out on Instagram

it only feels right to begin this by telling you i can’t think of a way to begin this, so here we are. i guess the real start is acknowledging that i kind of disappeared for a year, and i have been/still kind of am ashamed of what happened, hence the title. however, it's important to me that my friends and family (you’re one of those!) know where i’ve been because, while i really appreciate people asking what i’ve been up to, i get tongue tied in person and generally make the whole thing a lot weirder than it has to be. i also want to share because there have been some lasting impacts that are helpful to know when we’re hanging out.

it started in fall 2013 with debilitating panic attacks almost everyday. these led to me missing a great deal of work, which led to increasing depression, which cycled until i admitted to myself i was slipping and needed more help than therapy would provide. i wanted a day treatment program so i could still live at home, and healthnet guided me to a partial hospitalization program (PHP) at the alta bates herrick campus in berkeley. i remember scheduling my intake appointment before i had even talked to rhys about the depth of what was going on. obviously he knew there was a problem, but i don’t think he knew what could be done about it any more than i did. on tuesday, november 19, 2013 i began an official leave of absence from my job and started what i usually refer to as “program”.

my days at herrick were interesting. the group ranged anywhere from seven to fifteen, depending on how many people were losing their minds on the outside, i guess. their program has one group of patients and a variety of professionals who cycle through to provide treatment. there’s cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT); dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT); education about coping skills, harm reduction, and addiction/co- dependency; a daily process group for patients to share and support each other; and
a variety of recreational therapies, such as drama, art, occupational, and music. patients also get a psychiatrist that sees them at least once a week, and a case manager who does the same. crazy camp ran monday through friday, 9am – 3pm, and included a $7.50 voucher for lunch in the cafeteria, which was actually pretty good. my psychiatrist and case manager were nice enough guys who seemed to like me, get my humor, and genuinely wanted to see me get better. unfortunately, despite all that the program was teaching me- self-care, kind self-talk, relaxation exercises and new coping techniques- my depression was worsening and no one seemed to be able to help me.

in february, i started to worry i had been misdiagnosed, and that what was going on inside was not chronic depression or generalized anxiety. finally, i broke down sobbing one day after program, telling my doctor and my caseworker i was afraid i had bipolar II disorder. they said they had been moving toward the same conclusion and agreed that was the case. this seemingly dramatic change in diagnosis sent me over the edge, and i was hospitalized for 72 hours.

unfortunately, the new approach did not result in more fruitful efforts where my

treatment was concerned, and things continued to spiral. i was hospitalized again in may after presenting myself for help, and for the third and final time in june or july (can’t quite remember, which we’ll get to shortly), after i was put on an involuntary hold due to concerns i was going to hurt myself. i am not going to get deeply into what hospitalizations are like, or what my exact thoughts and plans were, but i had a clear plan of action and spent a tremendous amount of time between february and november of 2014 begging my family to give me permission to die. the psychiatric ward at herrick saved my life, so it is great. it is boring, but it is safe, quiet, comfortable, and the staff openly care about you getting better.

in may, after trying more drugs than i can name, and refusing a fair number of others due to common side effects, my doctor was left with very few options. i had been in a six-week program for over seven months. i had seen dozens of patients come and go, only to be left behind. i was there so long that i saw a woman start, leave and come back for a “tune up” six months later. no other person had been in program for even a third of the time i was there, and i was feeling irretrievably broken. my doctor had me meet with the medical director for the unit several times over the course of a month and a half, and that didn’t get me anywhere, either. finally, people started talking about ECT, aka electroconvulsive therapy, aka “shock therapy”- all fun, really, so take your pick.

perhaps you are as intimidated by the name as i was, because i replied with a pretty firm no. however, i didn’t want to appear stubborn and as though i just didn’t WANT to get better (which came up at one point), so i started researching other options. there is a new technology called TMS, or transcranial magnetic stimulation, which is an easily administered treatment involving magnetic pulses and the brain. you do have to go five days a week, an hour a day, for 4-6 weeks, but it's also noninvasive and can help you want to live, so it evens out. unfortunately, i was not a good candidate due to the severity of my symptoms, and even the TMS doc recommended ECT. shortly after that consult was my final hospitalization, and it was then that i relented and agreed to begin treatment.

the main things to know about ECT are how it happens and the side effects. luckily we’ve come a long way since nurse ratched, and now they put you to sleep, which is usually the part most people are freaked out about. i certainly appreciated being knocked out, but it thoroughly sucked getting stabbed for an IV three times a week. the way ECT works is by causing you to have a seizure, which, for reasons science honestly does not understand, alters your brain chemistry in a way that can impact mood and suicidal thinking. it’s a pretty mysterious process, made even more so by the fact that it can be used to treat both mania (extreme highs) AND depression. although it is an outpatient procedure, because you’re under anesthesia, you cannot take yourself to and from the hospital. you also cannot take a taxi because you have to have someone present to care for you for at least four hours post-discharge. because it is a seizure, you legally cannot drive for 48 hours after treatment. because you have a treatment three days a week, you are always within 48 hours of having had a seizure and are not able to drive at all. because you cannot drive at all and you

need intensive care at home three days a week, your mom moves in with you and your husband, putting her life on complete hold. at least that’s what happened here. on august 10, 2014, my mom moved into my house, and on august 11, i started getting zapped.

one of the most significant side effects of ECT is memory loss, both short and long- term, in varying degrees. for me, it’s been frustratingly extensive, but i’ll never, ever forget the date i started ECT. robin williams killed himself the same day i started a treatment people were desperately hoping would resolve my will to end my own life, and all i could think is “you lucky son of a bitch”. obviously we’re never able to see ourselves from the outside, but people in my circle have described me as completely lifeless during this phase of my depression. i know i felt hollow and my voice was often completely monotone, but i also did very little talking. there wasn’t much left to say. i was done. i guess in some senses it’s good that i can’t remember just about anything from this time period.

the bummer, however, is that i can’t remember just about anything from this time period, or even earlier. most of 2014 is a messy blur with flashes of memory, usually out of context and with foggy details. i don’t remember doing comedy at all, even though fun times with friends was in sketchfest and we apparently did really well. it means i don’t remember my 30th birthday, where my family took me out to dinner at chez panisse and we apparently got a tour of the kitchen. it means i don’t remember to going to an a’s game and sitting in a luxury box with rhys and his hockey guys, where i apparently had a really good time. a luxury box at an a’s game! chez panisse! a literal dream come true- sketchfest!! and as far as i know, these things never happened. it seems to be almost daily that a new activity i participated in but don’t remember comes up. at this point the joke in my family is “if you say so!”. the memory thing is why i find it crucial for you, friends and family, to please know that when i can’t remember something we did or talked about together, or if i need help being reintroduced to someone, it’s not personal. please don’t be surprised if i need directions to get somewhere i’ve been before, even i have been there many times. i also find i am repeating things back a lot right now in order to process and hopefully retain them, and i know that’s annoying, so i ask you to please bear with me.

for all of the pomp and circumstance leading up to ECT, and all of the insane crap that comes with it (you’ve never had such a ridiculous headache in your life), it also proved ineffective for me (i am in the <3% of patients for whom that is the case). i underwent the maximum number of treatments allowed, finishing on october 23. two weeks before that, i started searching for programs again, willing to go wherever and do whatever it was going to take, including residential. if my family was going to insist that i stick around, i needed to find a way to do it honestly. mercifully, it did not take too long and i didn’t have to leave home.

my wonderful therapist referred me to a program in oakland called la cheim (oy, i know). mom and i checked it out the day before my last ECT treatment, and six days later i was in. the core content at la cheim was similar to herrick- CBT, DBT, coping skills, art therapy (which now included writing!), and process groups- but that was pretty much the only similarity. the most significant difference is that at la cheim, pretty much every group ended up functioning as a process group; we were continually encouraged to share concerns, questions, or examples from our daily lives, regardless of how much content the group leader had intended to get through. we drove the content, which means we progressed much more quickly and deeply. at herrick, the packet was sacred. funny how it all comes back to good teaching vs. bad teaching. because of all of the incredible work i was doing daily at la cheim, i had a game changing breakthrough in therapy on november 12. what does a breakthrough look like? during process group that morning, i had been sobbing in frustration and hopelessness over being a broken person. in therapy that afternoon i hit gold, came home and processed my revelation over the phone with my mom. on november 13, i woke up before the alarm, showered, did my hair and make up, and felt like i was genuinely seeing, hearing, and breathing again for the first time in over a year.

the last 16 months have been so surreal dali’s jealous, but i am sincerely pleased to report that i’ve only been climbing since november 13. it’s a slow, treacherous ascent, but i know i can make it because i have such a ridiculous support network (personal shout outs to rhys, my mom, and kelly for being my ride or dies through absolute shit). i’m no longer teaching, and don’t believe i’ll ever return, but you know what they say about nevers. i’m crawling back into comedy thanks to my fun times friends, and talk about a muscle that’s out of shape... we’ll see if i ever remember how to write a joke again, but for now at least, you can catch me at the milk bar, 1840 haight street, san francisco at 8pm the 3rd and 4th mondays of every month. i’ll be the one laughing the loudest.

sick, bro

yesterday, my mom and i were on the phone talking about how i am doing, and she made a reference to me being "mentally ill." before i could even process what i was saying, i snapped at her. the phrase knocked the wind out of me, and as my chest constricted, my brain was taunting me:

"you're not mentally ill."
"well, yes, you are."
"noooo, you're NOT."
"but you have a MENTAL ILLNESS!" "oh my god... i'm mentally ill... fuck."

i owe my mom an apology, because she's right. i am mentally ill. when you break it down to the actual meaning of the words, it is an entirely neutral phrase that applies to me because i have a chemical imbalance that requires daily medication and will for the rest of my life. that is not a bad thing or a good thing; it is just a thing. the meanings of words, however, are much more than oxford says, and the magic of connotation is where i got tangled up.

it's really fun to think of yourself as an open-minded, free-love, no-judgments person until something pops up to expose you to a prejudice you didn't even know you had. bingo, baby. and you have to admit it's pretty funny that the condition i have, which impacts my sense of self-worth, is what i'm prejudiced against. it's like a betty crocker box mix for self-loathing. mentally ill isn't safe. mentally ill isn't okay. mentally ill isn't in control. mentally ill is clandestine. mentally ill is scary. mentally ill is homeless.
mentally ill is unsafe to those around you. mentally ill may as well be a death sentence. and i put all of that onto my mom because of the biological reaction i have to those words.

the real thing of it is i'm not upset with myself for having that prejudice because i am not alone in it. it isn't something i was born thinking; it is the product of 30 years of accumulated evidence on how the society i live in treats those words. it is the same reason i broke down when i was diagnosed as bipolar- the information stored in my database tells me that those things are bad. they cause people to kill strangers, coworkers, friends, and even family. they mean you are constantly cycling in-and-out of control and require intensive medical attention to remain anywhere near stable. they mean you are worthless because therapy is only for people who are weak. they mean you'll never have a "normal" life. i learned this stuff from my environment. i learned it from discussions with family, friends, and acquaintances. i learned it from the media, especially via coverage of situations involving mentally ill perpetrators. i learned it from literature and film. i learned it from social norms of what is and isn't

taboo. last night it settled on me that if i learned this prejudice, it means a significant percentage of the population probably learned what i did, too.

my therapist is not so keen on me posting about my illness here because she's worried when i apply for jobs people will search for me, see what i've written and be less apt to hire me. i bet anyone who would make that choice based on my illness wouldn't say they're prejudiced, because they have a fair point: would you hire someone who may need a modified schedule, working conditions, or other accommodations if you knew ahead of time those issues existed? you might if they had a physical health condition, because it's easier for people with physical limitations to have others literally witness their discrimination, and that would look real bad. if you're like i was, the fact that you'd skip someone mentally ill but not someone physically ill (even if we knew their illness was a limitation) should be a red flag. i shouldn't feel afraid of possibly needing accommodations when i go back to work, but i am because before i landed here, there's a decent chance i may not have hired me. oops!

i'm not really one for just casually advertising the fact that i have a mental illness in workplace or anonymous social situations, so i'm not going to go 180 on y'all and wear a BIPOLAR AND PROUD pin everywhere (totes did just order one from etsy, though). i'm just happy that i got the chance to bring this to light in myself so i can work on making it vamoose. turns out that just like the equality i've pushed and worked so hard to get for others, it's not about being able to shout about yourself from the rooftops; it's about being able to go to sleep at night without worrying how you'll ever succeed in a society that sees you as defective. mental illness doesn't have to be all up in your face; i'm just saying that if people can speak publicly and unabashedly about an illness that impacts digestive functioning (big ups to crohn's allies), it'd be cool for me to not feel scared people might find out sometimes i have good days and sometimes i have bad days. cuz i'm, like, totally ill, yo. 

A Narrative About Bipolar Disorder

Narrative by Heather Cook

Spring 1988. High school. Lunchtime. I remember what I was wearing that day -- a long white skirt dotted with red roses with crooked stems and a matching red sweater. While the outfit was a bit “mature,” my mom had kindly rushed out to buy me new clothes on her lunch hour the day prior. Beggars can’t be choosers.

So, why the rush, you ask? Over the course of three months, I had blossomed from a size eight into a 12, jumping over 10 as nimbly as Jack did the candlestick. The only thing frail about me at that point was my self-esteem.

Of course, it sounds like I was pregnant, but under no circumstances would I have traded a diploma for a diaper bag. (Though a stint on Teen Mom, had it existed, would have eliminated a need for college loans.) Rather, I had “issues.” At the age of 14, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. Three years after came the bigger gun: bipolar disorder. I had just turned 17.

 Whether it was a decision or an oversight, neither my parents nor psychiatrist sat me down to discuss the disease, and how it might affect my future. My own research, though persistent, was pointless. My book case stored a massive set of useless, faux-leather door-to-door salesman encyclopedias. The information superhighway didn’t exist back in the 1980s and the school library featured books about Paul Bunyan and Native American crafts.

Desperate for information, I remained hyper-vigilant, sitting quietly at the top of the stairs to listen to my parents’ conversations. Nothing much there. I lied about staying after school one day and took a bus to the library in a larger city. I found some information, but it was mostly scientific. There were no personal accounts of living with a mental illness, which I craved. Uninformed, I often had senseless nightmares, including one about polar bears fighting to the death, their snapping jaws sending ribbons of saliva flying everywhere.

What I was learning by the surrounding silence was to keep quiet. Rather than reach out for support from other family members, my parents circled the wagons. I don’t blame them; they, too, were bereft of reliable information. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was their closest frame of reference. So, I carried around a bookbag full of secrets, textbooks and of course, a massive can of Aqua Net. It was the 80s, after all – which brings me to my next point.

I was diagnosed at an uncommonly young age, particularly for the 80s. A psychiatrist (his name was Dr. Aspel – I’m sure you can guess my version) put me on Lithium, which was uncommon for children, and soon thereafter, Prozac, which had just been approved for adults in 1987, but was nowhere close for adolescents and kids.  My parents blindly filled the prescriptions and put them on the sink. They never had to remind me to take them, even after I discovered, trial by fire, that Lithium would make me into the Pillsbury Doughgirl and push me down flights of stairs.

Given everything, though, the lack of reliable information had its perks. That my parents weren’t told that bipolar disorder is incurable and responsible for many bleak outcomes was the one time that ignorance was a blessing. I believe we all would have responded to the diagnosis quite differently. We may have expected failure and surrendered to the disease.




Whether we were experts or clueless didn’t change the day to day hell of being a high school student with a secret brain disorder. As a freshly-minted wackadoodle who spent two hours every morning creating a hair helmet worthy of Bon Jovi groupie-status (80s hair band groupie? Who me? ::lookingsidetoside::)I was also balancing my parents’ crapola marriage and Lifetime Movie Network separation, incessant bouts of chronic bronchitis and pneumonia that necessitated frequent hospitalizations and ceaseless antibiotics and steroids (which also contributed to the pudge), all while being a straight A student in private school hell bent on a good college. As the meds set in, I found it almost impossible to study. They were like little backstabbing friends; they promised if I stuck with them that I’d become popular and beautiful, but fed me cookies while I slept to get me fat.

Most of my human friends were living normal 80’s lives -- aerobicizing to the driving beat of “We Built This City on Rock and Roll” every Wednesday afternoon in the gym while I was getting my blood drawn to check for Lithium toxicity. Now that’s sacrifice.

On the day of the ugly flowered skirt, I was satisfying my Lithium-induced sugar cravings by mixing cake into chocolate pudding for a stunning cafeteria dessert. It was fresh cake Friday, and all of my friends stuck around for cake, so for once, I was part of the norm. By this time, I had been on Lithium for a few months, but the Prozac was new. Headaches zipped in and out with a weird sting that I now attribute to the strange elixir of psych meds and teenage hormones. I was a hot mess on stairs because I was so damn dizzy.  I had started tripping over my feet, my book bag, people, everything.

 ”Walk much?” I heard that all of the time. Small comments and changes were making me paranoid and self-conscious. I was as delicate as Barry Manilow’s cheekbones. Other kids began to terrify me. I cried every morning on the way to school while my dad conducted business on his cell phone (which was the size of a brick). Kids who liked me before started to taunt me. I was truly the walking wounded, and high school assholes can sniff out weakness faster than Simon Cowell can put together a shitty boy band.

All of the pudding of the world couldn’t erase the fact that I had to get up in my granny-gear and cross both the cafeteria and the student center to make it to class. Most kids can relate to the fear of walking through the cafeteria, but the student center where the popular kids (jocks and their gfs) hung out was a particular treat. The jocks, mostly fifth year seniors, were usually sprawled out on the sofas with their long arms draped around the shoulders (headed toward the boob area) of their tee-hee’ing cheerleader girlfriends. A perfect set up for bullying.

            I gripped my books and looked ahead, determined to get the hell out of that room. I remember feeling particularly vulnerable and transparent that day.  Turns out that I was. Even my lacquered 80s hairdo couldn’t deflect a nasty example of teenage cruelty.

“Hey Heather!” The voice was loud and mocking. It was Derek, a “basketball player” who stood at 5’2 (the 2 attributable to his spiked hair) who had tried, unsuccessfully, to make out with me at a school dance six months prior.

 "Heather Cook!” he yelled.  “Tear off your skirt and show us all that FAT!”

The room went silent, then several students broke out laughing. The jocks hit the floor in one idiotic herd, holding their stomachs and howling in laughter. Their size 2 girlfriends twittered, even the one who had lip scabs from leaving the wax on too long on her secret mustache, a mistake which she tried to cover the day before by hiding behind her Trapper Keeper.  I froze, humiliated.

As unsteady as a carny’s girlfriend who got to ride the Flying Bobs free for an entire week, I took to the stairs. After hitting (literally) the lockers, I grabbed all the wrong books and stumbled into AP History, the class with the 22 year old teacher who told us the slaves sang because they were happy they had jobs. I slid into my seat. And just like that, I rebounded. I took notes as if everything was normal. I felt better, even on the way to happy. Then, I’d remember what happened and think horrible thoughts. God, I was so scared.

Clearly, having bipolar disorder was taking its toll on my dignity, and the mood swings were increasingly difficult to control. I never made a slow descent from feeling OK into melancholy. A deeply depressive mood wasn’t, and still isn’t, progressive. It’s a fast fall from a skyscraper. I don’t have time to watch the windows go by and think oh shit, I don’t think this is going to turn out so great. It’s a BAM. A deafening thud. I have no idea when it will come. As fast as the freefall hits, it disappears. Within a couple of hours, I will talk without pause and feel pretty darn good. I can write again. Then, the elevator may stop at an OK in between. That’s the dream for a person with bipolar disorder: stability. It is so hard won. Losing that, whether it is for a moment, a few days, or two months, is devastating. I feel like it will never, ever come again.

Living with it is exhausting, scary and disruptive. Under these conditions, staying on any kind of task for work or school is a nightmare. Being broadsided by a depressive crash, the feelings themselves, and how ferociously they take hold, sucks, sure. But, it’s the corresponding behavior that ramps up the danger. If a person with bipolar disorder is unstable and untreated, he or she cannot make good decisions or choices. Also, with any type of mental disorder, there is high risk of addiction as people try to self-medicate. Overall, the risks of mental illness are exponential. At worst, the compulsive behavior and disorientation stemming from the disease lead to fatality, whether by suicide or accident.

That day in the student center was pivotal. First, my mother forced me to wear girdles every day until the end of the school year. More seriously, for years I, and my family, had tried to subtly hide my affliction – like sticking a wad of chewed-up bubblegum to the underside of a table at a restaurant. Someone, at some point, would discover the gum, maybe, but probably not. Its presence would likely be unknown for years. That has worked sometimes; other times the gum has fallen onto the floor, attached itself to someone’s shoe, and then spread in one germy mess throughout the restaurant like a long strip of toilet paper.

 That day, the gum had fallen asunder. As I sat in AP History listening to my up and coming Fox News correspondent-teacher rant about the astronomical loss of a million U.S. soldiers during the Korean War (huh?), the story was running through the school. For the rest of the day, kids walked past me snorting and oinking.

Of course I wanted to jump into the trash chute and plummet to the basement in one stinky, dusty ball of humiliation. Of course I thought constantly about suicide and made my plans. Since early childhood I had tried many forms of self-harm, which ticked my parents off, so it was like shame upon shame. That particular dynamic did not bode well for my future, and is still therapy material. Although I have always worked hard to stabilize, and even as a kid stayed med-compliant, we keep one ear to the ground listening for the distant beat of bipolar hooves. At one point, my mother’s hope for me was that I’d never run naked around parking lots, jumping from car to car like a spider monkey.  Not exactly med school, but none of us knew what to expect.  Information about mental illness was limited to pamphlets in doctors’ offices – maybe, but they’d be concealed behind the front desk with the STD info. The state psychiatric facility was called the “looney bin” and rumored to be haunted with the spirits of crazies from decades past.

 Mental illness was truly not discussed, certainly not in my town.  We lived in a bedroom community of white houses, coniferous trees and crocus-lined streets. Summers were marked by the flicker of citronella candles and the distant croak of frogs.  Weekends saw dads in boat shoes listening to Gordon Lightfoot and washing their cars in the driveway. I can still smell the buckets of warm, soapy water, and see the gleaming hoods of Cadillacs. All looked perfect, spit-shined, but what goes on behind closed doors is always anyone’s guess.

So what has kept me waddling through life? Something in me – just the smallest speck of will – has urged me to keep going. At first, I had no clue if I would get worse (which I absolutely did, for quite a while), or if I would be permanently institutionalized one day, an option that was actually discussed in my mid-20s. At the age of 25, I was booked for a six-week course of Electro-Convulsive Therapy, otherwise known as “shock therapy.” I backed out the day before the first treatment. No matter how much I struggled, no matter how many inpatient visits and medication changes I endured, I never let my illness drag me so fiercely by the nose that it took charge.

Am I ashamed of having BPD? No, but it has taken 30 years to get to this place. I have learned to accept that I have a disease that requires lifelong management. If I don’t accept that, I can’t stay well.  Do I fear the reaction of others? A bit, but what a foolish reason to stay silent when so many are suffering. It’s an internal conflict – do I stay stuck up beneath the table, all hard, discolored and clandestine, or do I fall softly onto a Gucci loafer?

Clearly, suffering is at a premium. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has released these facts: An American dies by suicide every 12.95 minutes.  Ninety-percent of those who die by suicide had a diagnosable psychiatric condition at the time of their death. Given such stats, I’d like to allow public access to the endless adventures of my bipolar life, its endless adventures and widely-applicable lessons about self-love, relationships, and persistence. I’m willing to bet my cat’s second litterbox that numerous people are looking for the stories I’m happy to tell.