Memories and Dreams of an Ex-“Bipolar” Life

Earlier tonight, I was reminiscing about a “treatment team” meeting I was in during the spring of 2010, when I was spending my days in an “intensive outpatient program” at a nearby psychiatric institution. Coursing through my veins were lithium, Lamictal, Abilify, Effexor, and Ativan, and ingrained in my mind was the long-held belief that I was “Bipolar” (I met the DSM criteria, after all!). In this particular meeting, the head psychiatrist of the program looked me square in the eye, the rest of my seven-member “team” watching me intently from their semicircle behind him, and said, “So, Laura, you went to Harvard? I bet you thought you were going to do something with your life.”

I remember focusing my eyes on my hands after hearing this, my fingers the only things in the room I felt able to look at, and feeling the sear of hot shame on my face as I acknowledged to myself how right he was, how he knew me better than I knew myself, and what a waste of a life I’d always have because of my “serious and persistent mental illness”. He had the timeline a bit off, as I’d already forgotten my childhood dreams and aspirations by the time I reached Harvard: college was dark, meaningless, pharmaceutically numbed, and filled almost daily with racing thoughts of suicide and hopelessness. Indeed, in looking back today, I see that the moment a psychiatrist declared me broken and unacceptable at age fourteen— the moment she declared me “Bipolar”— hope in my future began to fall away like an unraveling ball of yarn, no center left by the time I dropped my bags in a daze in my freshman dorm room.

This nearly four-year old memory is one I hold dear to my heart, for it reminds me of how much I once internalized the story of failure, hopelessness, dependency, and unacceptability that Psychiatry taught me about myself. A story I believed for nearly half my life. A story that I see today became a self-fulfilling prophecy for as long as I believed it, and one that started to change the moment I began to challenge it.

These days, I’ll occasionally dream about this particular psychiatrist, and in each dream, he’s backing away from me as I stand calmly and firmly before him. He is scared and confused by what I have to say, by all that I’m up to these days with work, friendships, love, life, and connection. In these dreams, I am always kind and peaceful with him, though my eyes stare into his as unwaveringly as his once did into mine, and I can always sense fear in them. Makes sense, for my story challenges everything he represents- all of our stories of psychiatric liberation do.

I believe that in my awakened life, a chance meeting with this psychiatrist awaits me, perhaps walking along the aisles of a supermarket, or picking up a coffee on a Sunday morning. I picture myself meeting his eyes and watching as he scans me up and down like he always did, as though I were a subhuman specimen, my line of sight steadfast. I picture those eyes giving away that he is confusedly searching for the control he once had over me, a control he can no longer grasp or even feel. I know I’ll only have peace to share with him when our paths cross, for today I harbor no ill will towards him—this is for my own sake, not his, for some time ago I discovered that to be mired in resentment for all that happened to me under Psychiatry’s grasp is to be its emotional slave.

Today, no one owns me but myself. A version may still exist in record form, stacks of that ‘me’ gathering dust, haunting the forgotten file cabinets of dark basements beneath mahogany walls and Kirkbride architecture, but that ‘me’ is nothing more than a psychiatrist’s fantasy. The stacks upon stacks upon stacks of admission notes and discharge summaries and treatment updates and clinical write-ups from my fourteen years as a mental patient represent nothing but a failed attempt at labeling and altering and controlling a human life that didn’t meet Psychiatric Code (in other words, a life that was determined by the DSM to deviate from “normal”). They represent nothing but a fruitless attempt at confining through clinical definition that which will always transcend language and institutional power: the human spirit.

As I think back to that last spring under Psychiatry’s spell, I am grateful to that psychiatrist for asking me that question, and for going on to tell me that I’d need to set “realistic expectations” about my future as a person with “treatment-resistant Bipolar disorder”. Although it would take me a few more months to realize it, he mirrored all the limitations and surrenders and lost dreams and disconnections I’d accepted for myself as the result of embracing a “mentally ill” identity—a supposed life sentence that I would eventually come to realize did not have to be my fate. I am grateful to this psychiatrist because it feels all the more fulfilling and meaningful in my beautiful, painful, confusing, overwhelming, connected, joyous, authentic human life today to be reminded of what it feels like to be trapped in that inverse plane of psychiatrized existence.

Life glistens much more brightly after it’s been exceedingly dark.