[[Note: trigger warnings for mental illness, bipolar disorder, medication, and some spoilers for Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette.]]

These days, I call it burning, but for most of my life, I called it flying.

It’s that feeling when you’re wrapped up in a writing project so hard you look up, and half a day has gone by. You haven’t moved, you haven’t drunk or eaten or talked to anyone. You work and work until your knuckles hurt, and there are words flowing out of you, and you can’t stop until it’s all done. Then you look up, realize what time it is, and fall over because the words are done for the day and you’ve been doing it. You’ve been flying.

That’s what writing when you’re me feels like.

Well, a lot of the time. Some days it’s just normal. I get up, I do my morning routine (take my meds, get some grub, boop the cat, check my email, mess around on Facebook) and then it’s off to the word mines. And on those days, they are indeed the word mines. I check an outline, I write notes, I putter around, I get the words going however I can, tugging that little mining cart up the hill towards those far-off paragraphs and… y’know, this analogy has gotten away from me. I digress.

Those are the hard days at the job because that’s what it is – writing, like making any art, is a job. It’s craft and talent and passion rolled up into one ball. It’s doing a thing you worked hard to learn to do the best you can. You’re capturing those weird little ideas rolling around in your head and making them into words, then lines, then paragraphs, and somehow they’re all supposed to reach out to someone who reads them and make their brains go POOF, I LIKE THIS. No pressure or anything, writer, just take the ephemeral and translate it onto a page.  You make it happen as best as you can.

Then, there are the other days. The days when BLEH becomes BANG. The days when something just clicks and comes roaring down the pipe inside my brain and it’s all I can do to get to my computer because it’s ready to go and that’s it. Get out of the way.

fantasy-2934774_1920I call it burning these days because that’s what it feels like: like there’s an idea inside me burning its way out. But when I was younger, I called it flying. What I really meant was controlled falling. Like there was a tornado going on and I would leap off something and ride right through the middle of it, all the way up, chasing words. Because that’s what it felt like for me, rolling on through the manic energy that comes with being bi-polar.

There’s a lot of folks who equate the manic energy of being bi-polar with the creative spark that drives artists to brilliance. They point to so many great artists in history who lived with mental illness and say, “there it is, that energy, that’s what made them great!”

Except for so many artists, mental illness didn’t make them great. It made them ill. And if they weren’t careful, it made them gone.


MV5BY2I3MThmYTctZTU4YS00YWNmLTg4YzktNDY0ZGE5MmQ3Y2Q3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTMxODk2OTU@._V1_Hannah Gadsby’s blockbuster comedy special “Nanette” was billed as exactly that: a comedy. She was meant to get up on stage, make some jokes, and entertain us all on Netflix. Instead, Gadsby delivered what I can only call a commencement speech for comedians, a bait and switch that took the audience from laughter to silence and ultimately to a standing ovation. Gadsby, a queer comedian with a career going back over ten years, started her performance with a fairly standard routine, drawing in the laughs. Then she started explaining how jokes worked, about how they increased tension and then broke it into laughter.

Then, she stopped breaking the tension. And just rose it higher and higher by telling the truth.

She spoke to her audience about a lot of things. Her family, and what it was like coming out to them. About violence, about triggering subjects. She broke from the funny parts of her routine a little over halfway through and talked about quitting comedy because she was tired of making people like herself, a lesbian still fighting with some deep shame issues, into a punchline. I watched in spell-bound silence as Hannah Gadsby deconstructed comedy to its most basic building blocks and rebuilt them into a soapbox, a grand forum where she read the audience a monologue of pain and vulnerability, her farewell to wisecracks and the opening of perhaps a new chapter of honest, open speaking in her life. She was out to speak her truth, and by the end, I was in awe.

It was somewhere in the middle where she told people to fuck off when telling artists to “feel” for their art that I felt the ground open up beneath me a little and I cried.

 

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Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh

She talked about Vincent Van Gogh, the artist who suffered during his life from mental illness, self-medicated, was treated by doctors and struggled to succeed despite his obvious impossible talent due to his sickness. She talked about her knowledge of his life, thanks to her art history degree, and how he only sold one painting his entire life – not because he wasn’t recognized by his community as a genius, but because he struggled to even be part of a community due to his illness.

 

And I thought of the flying and the hard days at the word mines. I thought about the days when I heard the tornado in my head and couldn’t make the words get to my fingers. I thought about the frustration, the depression, the difficulties talking to people about what it sounded like inside my skull some days when I could barely pay attention because of the rush of words and ideas.

Hannah Gadsby told people artists don’t have to suffer for their art, and I’ll forever thank her for having the guts to stand up and say that to the world. Because I used to believe it was true.


anxiety-1337383When I was sixteen, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 2.

I came from a family that didn’t really get what being bipolar meant. My parents tried to get it, but when I’d do something irresponsible, it was always because I was ‘bad.’ I tried to explain how it was impossible to keep my whirlwind mind straight sometimes. How it was a battle against depression to get up in the morning and go to class. When I flunked in school, I tried to explain why, when I overcharged my credit card on a manic binge, when I cried for days and couldn’t stop. But those were the bad days. And the good days – those were the days I could take on the world, where no one could stop me, where I was manic off my head. I was out of control.

I went to a therapist when my school suggested it to my parents. The therapist took one look at my behavior and referred me to a psychiatrist, a loud and overbearing man who listened to me talk a mile a minute for fifteen minutes, heard my symptoms, and pulled out a giant prescription pad. I started taking the drugs he gave me but received no explanation about what being bipolar really meant. He never explained what behaviors were unusual, or what could be attributed to the illness, or any coping skills or resources to better understand my situation. He gave me pills and saw me every two weeks. I knew almost nothing about what was going on with me but was even enough to realize I needed more information.

So? I went online.

Because my family didn’t know much about bipolar disorder and my doctor wasn’t telling, I learned a lot from the internet. Those were the wild and wooly early days of the internet, when it was the 90’s and everyone was in AOL chat rooms and the world was a wacky, wacky place. It was on the internet I found a community of roleplayers that eventually led me to the career I have today. It was also where I got a LOT of bad advice about mental illness.

I read a lot of stories about people being overmedicated or given the wrong medication. I heard stories about people being committed by their families if they didn’t hide what was wrong with them. But I especially came across the same story over and over from people who had been medicated. “If you go on the drugs,” they said, “the creative drive goes away. You’ll lose that spark inside you. If you want to be an artist, stay away from medication. It’ll kill your art.”

I didn’t believe it. I was taught doctors were to be trusted. And besides, I knew I needed help. So I took the drugs the doctor gave me and fell into the worst confluence of events you could imagine. Because the medication the doctor gave me DID kill my creativity. It also made me sleep too much, have no emotions whatsoever, destroyed my memory, and made me gain tons of weight. And every time I brought this up to my doctor, his answer was to add another pill to balance out the others or up my dose.

mental-health-1420801_1920I didn’t realize it until later, but I had a bad doctor. What I did know was at the height of this medicine dance, I’d spend my days sleeping, or staring at a television, and feeling nothing at all. I couldn’t even cry. But maybe worst of all, I struggled to create. I couldn’t find that spark inside me like I used to, that flying feeling that gave me inspiration. In the moments when I could feel something, it was the overwhelming terror of going back into that stupor once again.

This went on from the time I was seventeen, when I was so messed up I dropped out of high school, until I was nearly 19. In between, I struggled to get my GED so I could at least get into college and proceeded to flunk there too due to the medication’s impossible weight on my mind. I went through so many ridiculous emotional issues I can’t describe, but all of it was through a curtain of medication so thick I can barely pull up memories from that time.

The times my emotions would push through was during what I discovered later were hypomanic phases, mood swings so strong they butted through the haze and made me wildly unstable. All the while I struggled to get my life in order, and every time I did, it was under a fog of badly managed medication, or through the adrenaline of mania so strong I could barely function. I didn’t understand I was badly medicated, of course. All I knew was everything was falling to pieces, all the time, and I couldn’t feel a solid, real emotion long enough to care.

So in 2002, in one of those moments of emotional lucidity, I made a decision to stop taking my meds. I suddenly thought: the internet is right, this is a horrible, horrible mistake. I trusted my experience and my terror and I stopped taking my meds.

And well, to quote one of my heroines from the time, Buffy:

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What followed were ten years of the roughest, rockiest, unbelievably manic, altogether difficult experiences of my life. I had bouts of going back on medication, but would always stop for one reason or another. I’d make excuses but each time it was the same thing: I convinced myself I didn’t feel right on the medication. That I couldn’t feel that creative spark I so relied on as part of my life. I was afraid of going back to that medically-induced haze I’d been in before. I hid from it and kept riding the tornado, every day. And like any tornado, my instability left chaos and destruction in its wake.

I can’t say I regret those ten years. They taught me a lot. I regret a lot of the horrible decisions I made, the people I hurt, the situations I got into where I got ripped up myself. I have memories I’ll never forget, instances of realizing too late I’d gotten into something because of my mania that led ultimately to disaster.

But I remember the creative highs. The way I could just fly like the wind and produce 12,000 words in a night. How I could map out entire novels, series of books, all the things in the world I thought I could create. I wrote papers, read whole book series, stayed up for days on end, played role-playing games from morning until night, and never, ever saw anything wrong with where I was in life. Because I was living that artists life and I thought, hey, this is me. This is who I am.

I know now the truth: that was the illness talking. The living high on life, throwing caution to the wind, tornado voice? Is the manic voice. And unless tempered with medication and coping mechanisms can lead to disaster.

From 2002 until 2012 I remained largely unmedicated. And those ten years are, in hindsight, an unspoken cautionary tale of someone not flying, but falling without recognizing the drop in altitude. A tale of someone on a corkscrew through rough weather, catching fire all the way down.


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I went to grad school in 2012 and thank god for so many reasons that I did. It’s not even my education I laud when I think of those years, but a single day in November 2012. I’d only been in classes for two months and already I was starting to lose it from the stress. The day I broke down with a massive anxiety attack after a critique from a teacher, hiccuping with tears and hyperventilating in a bathroom, I walked across the street to the health clinic and got an appointment with a mental health counselor. There, a very nice man named Bob talked to me about my experiences, about what I knew about bipolar disorder.

Bob told me some truth about where I was at and what I needed. He said he was surprised I’d gotten as far as I did going the way I was. He listened to my fears about going on meds and what had happened in the past. Then he calmly explained how he was going to give me medication and we’d work together to find what worked.

The first day I took medication, I woke up in the morning and the tornado was quieter. Not quiet, but less a twisting funnel of noise and more of a loud echo. I called up someone who was then a friend (who had experience with the medication I’d started taking) and broke down crying. I asked him: is this what normal felt like? I had no idea it would get even better.

Six years later, I’ve never been off my medication a single day. And I’ve graduated from grad school, survived a brain surgery and being diagnosed with two serious chronic illnesses, ending up using a wheelchair, running my own business, becoming a writer, and too many personal ups and downs to count. Each of them I tackled with a surety in myself I never could have before, because I was no longer screaming through a tornado all the time. More importantly, I’ve spent those years creating games and writing work I’ve made with deliberateness and careful consideration. When I create, it was no longer controlled falling, but dedicated flight on a controlled course. Well, most of the time.

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I won’t say everything became perfect after I started medication because I won’t let blogging make a liar out of me. Being bipolar is a constant system of checks and balances. These days, I fight against needing my medication adjusted a lot, against depression and anxiety, mania and hypomania. I still end up flying some days, sometimes for days at a time, because as time goes on the body changes and you have to adjust to new needs, new doses, new medication.

Coping mechanisms change, life situations go ways you never expected, mania and depression rear their ugly head. But the day I went on medication was one of the greatest days of my life, because it was the day my creative spark stopped becoming an excuse to keep putting up with an illness that was killing me.

I did some research online (now responsibly!) about artists who were known to have fought with mental illness. Google it some time and it’ll be a stark look into some suffering for art you might not know about. People know about Van Gogh, but what about Beethoven and David Foster Wallace, Georgia O’Keefe and Sylvia Plath, Goya and Cobain, Robin Williams and Amy Winehouse. I did research and discovered artists like Mariah Carrey, Demi Lovato, Catherine Zeta Jones, Vivien Leigh, Russell Brand, Linda Hamilton, and of course Carrie Fischer all have/had bipolar disorder. Their stories, their struggles, are well known.

I read books about people theorizing about the connection between mental illness and creativity and shake my head. I don’t need to know the connection, because if there is one, it doesn’t matter to me. I take my medicine and work my craft at the same time because I don’t need to suffer as an artist. I don’t need the mania to take flight and reach inspiration. I can do that on my own.

 

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So speaketh the General, the Princess, Carrie Fischer

 

Mental illness and the struggle against it is one I’ll tackle for the rest of my life. But to quote Hannah Gadsby: “There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.” The day I started on my journey to getting better by taking medication, by denying the world my suffering and instead gave myself permission to live healthier while making art, was the day I started rebuilding myself into the strongest version of me. Every day, one more brick, with every word I write, I build myself higher.

And so I offer a special thanks to Hannah Gadsby, and her brave “Nanette,” for reminding me of how important that choice was to my life. For reminding me I owe nobody my suffering to make what is precious to me, and that a creator doesn’t need to push aside their own mental health to be hailed as an artist. Thank you, Hannah, for your strength. May you find your inspiration wherever you walk.

Let’s talk about depression. Shall we call these depression updates?

In the grand scheme of the universe, being someone who is bi-polar comes with a lot of funny side effects. If you’re unmedicated, there’s a lot of bouncing around when manic and symptoms that come with it, and the depressive slide that comes with the other end of the spectrum. When you are medicated, however, there are side effects. And the trade off one has becomes a part of your life.

We are approaching eighteen months of me being on medication for my bi-polar disorder. For the most part, things were extremely wonderful on the medication. I had a hump to get over initially that was difficult – going from the frenetic energy, the highs and lows, that you have to manage without medication was strange. But then I ran into the biggest issue: the dampening of the creative drive.

There’s many people who have talked for years about how those with bi-polar disorder struggles with the loss of creativity. I read a great blog post that was exactly as I was feeling, and I’ve read a few books that were about the fact that many of our historically strongest creative folks are thought to have been bi-polar and struggled with this same issue. Fact is, the creative drive that lights me up has dulled since I had to take a pill every day. And the longer I’ve taken the pill, my life has slowed down, that’s for certain. But being creative, finding the right words, has become a struggle. A slog.

The advice I’ve gotten? Write every day. Work your craft. Develop new muscles. Keep going.

And I am. Oh I am. But now, what used to be easy seems to be getting further and further away.

I read a comic book years ago, an old Marvel What If?! comic that was called “What if the Phoenix Had Not Died?” Anyone who knows me knows that Jean Grey is my favorite X-Men character, and the Phoenix and Dark Phoenix Sagas were my favorite stories in the Marvel universe. So when I saw that What If?! had answered one of my favorite questions about Jean, I read it through. And this two-part story broke my dang heart. Why? Because Jean lost her powers instead of dying – at least for a little while. And as Jean learned to deal with not being a mutant anymore there was one page of her life with Scott where she sat on a rainy night, smoking, and dealing with her depression over the whole thing.

There was a single box of text that I read which stuck with me for many years:

JeanGrey

 

As politically incorrect as her reference to being deaf, dumb and blind is, the description of losing her telepathy stuck with me when I later went on medication for my bi-polar disorder. The very first day that I put medication into my system, I started having a serious problem reaching for the creative spirit that once drove me. There were days that it felt, instead of touching that creative spark, I was chasing it down a dark hall through molasses. I’ve still been doing my work, of course. But in the meantime what was once a happy experience instead drives me to near exhaustion. Work that was once a joy has become drudgery. And worse, where once I could find the words easily to describe what I wanted to say, now it’s just… gone.

So take this as a description of what it sounds like inside my head these days. It’s a battle to find the focus and the creative inspiration. I wake up, I write, and I do my work – but a lot of it is much harder than it used to be. And it is easier to burn out. It nearly paralyses my arms and feeds into the saddest, angriest, most frustrated parts of my brain, the little voice that tells me you should just stop.

I don’t. Of course not. And I don’t bother trying to use this as an explanation, because I don’t want it to sound like an excuse. I can’t hear another pep talk of ‘you just have to try harder’ or ‘relearn what you knew before’. I’m doing that. Oh I am. But I’m also trying to remember every day the joy that words used to give me, and some days I feel the music again and I can do the dance.

These days: I’m just forcing myself to do it. I’m going to write more. And you’re going to see a bunch of updates really quickly, articles and takes on media and updates on things I’m doing. Let’s see if this shakes loose the dam and gets the information flowing again. I’m not burnt out, though this might sound similar. No, I’m just chasing the fireflies.

Warning: This post contains talk about suicide, self-harm, depression and a boatload of other issues. Viewer discretion is advised. 

Here comes some straight talk on some personal, hard topics. Bear with me, if you can. If not, I’ll see you next post.

This is a time of year I’m not so comfortable with. It was National Suicide Prevention Week last week and everyone is reaching out and talking about, well, suicide prevention. There are phone numbers offered and thoughts and prayers and online offers to listen to each other talk about issues. There are ears offered and hands outstretched. And I for the life of me can barely listen to the conversation. Why, you might ask? Because honestly, it’s a wee bit triggery to me. But today, inspired by many brave posts online that have gone before me, I’m going to give it a shot.

Hi, my name’s Shoshana. I’m bi-polar. Suicide thoughts and me have been pals since I was twelve.

If that sounds a little bit flip, it’s because that’s how I talk about these things. That’s how I keep them at arms length enough for me to talk about it without getting really, really maudlin. I’ve been suicidal since the age of twelve. It comes and goes. It comes in the hard days and goes most of the time. And ninety-nine percent of the time, the thoughts hardly get a second look. They skim through my surface thoughts like a fin through water, reminding me still here and then disappearing. That’s the nature of depression and managing the symptoms.

I’ve gone into doctor’s checkups at the university and they ask the ubiquitous question: “Have you had suicidal thoughts or made any plans?” I can always answer no to the second part. Plans would mean that they’re more than a blip on the mental radar. Plans would be bad, and that’s when Contingency Plan Mode goes into effect. Call up friend, make contact, reach out, talk to someone. I have steps to follow to make sure that that fin doesn’t become the whopper shark roaring up outta the water like Jaws. Steps are what keeps me healthy. But when the doc asks me that question, my only answer can be “I’m bipolar, suicidal thoughts are part of my normal.

I won’t die because of suicide, but I live with it every day.

I know how awful that sounds to people. And I don’t think its going to be like that all the time, or forever. I’m in treatment and its changing every day. As a friend said lately, I’m getting healthier by the day. But can I say that the fight’s over? No way. That’s not a fight that’ll ever end for me, I believe. Being bipolar isn’t something you cure. You accept this as a part of life and come to terms. You learn that every day, you wake up, and you go on with things.

And you teach yourself that no matter what, no matter what, that voice doesn’t win.

That doesn’t mean the conversation about these things is easier. People talking about it, you know, makes me focus on those thoughts more and giving them more mental space is not always a good thing. However, I know that talking about the issue of suicide and suicide prevention is vital, not only to providing help for others but in removing the stigma that many still put on mental illness and treatment. I’m still coming to terms with talking about my own suicidal thoughts, but not for the reasons that you think. It usually hard because it makes OTHER people uncomfortable. Folks don’t like to think about this, or start to get all shocked and shaken and worried. They don’t get how it can work for a person to exist in this state on a regular basis. I just try to explain that its been with me for almost as long as I can remember, but that doesn’t make folks more comfortable. Ah, well. You can’t live for other people’s comfort.

Why am I sharing this? Just to say this: for those reading this that have had these experiences, you are not alone. There are people in this world who have that place in their heart that has gone to this place and come back again. There is no stigma or at least there shouldn’t be. You stand shoulder to shoulder with more people than you can imagine who have walked this dark road some nights and found the way back out to the morning. Some nights you can do that alone. But should you feel the need to seek out help, do so. Go and talk to the people who can help you. Make the plans you need for Contingencies should you find yourself having the thoughts that lead down a dark path. Seek out ANY and all help you need. Because just cuz a fin’s in the water doesn’t mean it gets to take a bite. You can head that off at the pass.

You’ve got it in you. C’mon. I’ll do what I need to do, if you do it too. We can do it together.

If you need help, here’s a place to reach out:

National Suicide Prevention Hotline

1-800-273-8255