Bipolar disorder is a significant part of my life. I’m outspoken about my experiences and I try to work in both disabled and non-disabled spaces to challenge and dismantle ableism and sanism. In my community my bipolar disorder can be interpreted somewhat as an advantage for the perspective it provides. I personally haaaate living with my mental illnesses and would evict them from my brain in a hot second. That real estate could go to something way more important… Like learning how to play the concertina (we all have at least one weird goal).
But sometimes I think people don’t truly understand what it’s like being mentally ill because many of us who live with mental illnesses are really good at passing. I make bipolar look manageable. I make it look comfortable. Non-threatening and quirky. There’s no mess. My performance is convincing and satisfying to neuro-typical people. When my bipolar is subdued it’s easy to deliver this neat and tidy version of it that people want to hire and hang out with. But bipolar disorder is chaos. By its very nature bipolar is a mess. Bipolar disorder does an excellent job hijacking who you are. You really have to fight to pull yourself back from complete brain collapse.
Right now I’m in a depressive episode and everything is exhausting. I like to stay purposeful- it’s where a lot of my hope comes from — so when I can, I keep busy. When I have the energy I’m writing. When I have the stamina I’m joining projects. When I’m emotionally recharged I try to provide peer support. And I look good doing it! Like I said, I can play sane. But after events and conversations, projects and writing assignments, I burn out. As soon as everything is wrapped up all I can do is crumple. And that’s not a terrible expectation. It’s an honest one. It actually sets me free: It’s ok to break.
Splayed out on the couch, snoozing on my husband, and petting two adorable pups who don’t ask anything from me (minus the pats) helps me center myself and remind me who I am. I’m not “bipolar” but I do live with this illness. I can pass and perform but I still get sick and I always hope that people will be patient when I need breaks, when I inevitably crumple. What does mental illness look like? There is no way of knowing because mental illnesses are complicated and incredibly common. Mental illnesses are the largest minority group in the world and they don’t give a shit who you are — mental illness does not discriminate. I encourage people to listen, be present, and practice compassion because who knows what someone might be going through.
I don’t always have a plan and my bipolar definitely doesn’t, but I’m determined to live a genuine existence while I serenade you with the concertina.
Dr. Rachel Kallem Whitman is an educator, advocate, and writer who has been shacking up with bipolar disorder since 2000. Rachel is an adjunct professor who teaches courses on unpacking ableism (disability oppression) and her speeches, interviews, and writings on the topic have garnered acclaim locally in her hometown of Pittsburgh, PA, across the United States, and internationally. Her debut book, “Instability in Six Colors,” paints a vivid picture of what it is like living with chronic mental illness, trauma, and a complicated relationship with sanity, safety, and suicide. Rachel’s mission and passion is to create a safe community to empower individuals to look beyond their illness to find themselves. You can buy this bipolar narrative through One Idea Press, a woman-owned independent press based out of Pittsburgh, PA, as a paper copy or ebook. For more of her work please be sure to check out Rachel’s website seebrightness.com and visit her Medium page.