1962-D by Clyfford Still
Written by David Rendall
I first went public around my Bipolar II diagnosis in the late summer, when my friend and Zen teacher Michael Stone died of an accidental overdose. He had a diagnosis of Bipolar I. I learned of this a year and a half ago, when I reached out to him around my own diagnosis. We wrote one another. I was scared, he listened and offered empathy and support. When he died, he was in a manic swing, between medications, trying to self-medicate on street drugs.
When Michael visits me in memory, I don’t think about his deep misfortunes, I think about the deep tenderness and affection he always spoke with. His voice seemed to trill between layers of his heart. That was who he was to me. I don’t believe Bipolar or any illness is something someone can be. Like how can you be cancer? Yet, I also don’t feel it is accurate to say someone has Bipolar, because Bipolar and many other ‘mental illnesses’ are relevant to the cultures that diagnose them. If we say someone has Bipolar, then why wouldn’t we also say so-and-so has Bipolar according to a post-1850s Western perspective?
Today, Bipolar I & II are categories in the DSM-V (the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders) used to diagnose a set of symptoms for the purpose of directing treatment. The diagnosis is very useful for this purpose and treatments can sometimes help with managing symptoms. Yet this label is also a potent lens; like a microscope, or a laser, meant to be clinical, and precise. What happens when you migrate this lens over onto someone’s image, and identity within the culture? Who do you become in the cultural imagination when viewed as bipolar? I’m curious about this. Why do so many of us hide these parts of our lives?
I feel it’s that a bipolar identity associates you with being unstable. At times there can be unusual shifts in your mood, energy levels, and ability to function. Unstable is undesirable in a culture that deeply values productivity and perfectionism. After all, what happens when you are challenged with a very low mood? Is there room for your non-productivity? Is there room for not being perfect? For needing support? What is the stigma of having mental health challenges? I believe the stigma is inherent in the cultural values. You are shamed by the very fact that everyone else is striving to be productive and perfect and seeming to succeed.
I don’t believe we can have a conversation about someone’s own particular disorder, without having a larger conversation around health and identity. When someone experiences changes in their health, how does their identity change within the culture? Are they encouraged to disclose their new body or mind to the public, or does it become a disadvantage they hide? We all have identities we choose and identities we do not choose. What do we create in response to the stories we live in?
When I cycle through my own intense mental and emotional states, I fight hard to self-regulate, to function, to express myself and to hold onto relationships and responsibilities. It takes an incredible amount of resolve, and resilience. I wouldn’t be here without the people in my life who try and who’ve tried to really get and love me. My own empathy deepens. And I feel the strength to express myself. I write. I paint. I sculpt. I make films. I learn to place my identity inside what I do and who I love.
Michael’s identity was in his commitment to Yoga and Buddhist practices, his beautiful writings, teachings, those he loved and served through his voice, though his heart. He created something in response to the story he was living in.
When Michael passed away, I never made the decision to speak publicly around my mental health. It’s just that my sense of grief suddenly outweighed my sense of shame. And I knew then that this was an issue that touched everyone. We need to talk to one another. Our current paradigms of mental health are deeply stigmatizing and pervasive. We are often hurting and hiding more people than we are healing.
As a culture we need to make a choice. Will we choose grief and deeper understanding, or perpetuate the silence and shame? In changing our understanding around mental health, we help give others the chance to define who they are beyond stigma.