In the first day of the New Year, a rare chill took hold of the desert, shivering cacti sucked into themselves, gunmetal sky swollen with rain. I spent the day horizontal, covered in weighted blankets, my husband, dogs, and cat, crowding like a coven around me. I was recovering from a breakdown that had culminated the night before in screaming everything I’d ever hated as I noosed clothes from their hangers and pounded my fist through the bathroom wall. It was an ugly scene, one that had been building for days as I rapid-cycled from hysterical laughter to inconsolable sobbing and back again. It was not the auspicious beginning I’d envisioned for the New Year, but the thing about bipolar disorder is no matter how carefully you manage it, no one gets out from under it completely.
So there we were, ringing in the tranquilized New Year, watching David Lynch movies in the cave-dark. “This whole world is wild at heart and weird on top,” Laura Dern as the distressed Lula wails. And it was true enough in the moment that it’s become the epigraph of the new year.
My husband and I were diagnosed with bipolar one disorder (that’s the hardcore manic kind) when we were teenagers, right around the time we fell in love. Diagnosed first, Caleb saw his symptoms mirrored in me. He was first to diagnose me.
“Don’t project your shit onto me,” I said, though no one had ever been more right about anything, and we both knew it.
“If I have bipolar disorder,” I said, “we might as well break up now. One crazy person in a partnership is bad enough.”
“I think we’re just uniquely equipped to understand one another,” he said.
But all we were in the moment was eighteen, mentally ill, and itching to break free.
We deserted one another, moving eagerly or perhaps just inevitably into the formative years of bipolarity, riding out its euphoric miracles until we were ruined and forced to begin again.
In our unmedicated years, through which we had little contact, we led very different lives. Despite a few run-ins with the law, a gender transition, and a period of sleeping in his car, Caleb funneled his mania into professional success. And I just fucked up in every way a person can, attempting suicide every few months, landing in the isolation rooms of psychiatric institutions. Both of us enjoyed the perfect drug of early mania, but were determined to stabilize out of hatred for the rest the disorder had to offer. We worked with everything we had to become “normal,” to slide back into society like nothing ever happened. Caleb excelled at this integration, and I learned it was something I would never master.
I am, even for someone with bipolar disorder, a deeply introverted and cripplingly sensitive person prone to feelings of worthlessness and shame. Easily wounded and embarrassed, I apologize profusely for just about everything, and sometimes I don’t know who I am or what I deserve. That said, I’ve clawed my way through the brutal and nearly unsurvivable circumstances bipolar disorder introduced, and it hardened me. In intimacy, my instincts are that of an animal ambushed and ensnared. If I do let someone get close, I only know how to erect secrets where healthy boundaries should be.
When Caleb came back into my life a few years ago, I resisted him with everything I had. I knew I was not deserving of his love and likely incapable of returning it. So convinced was I of my inherent inferiority, I saw myself as a sieve his generosity and beauty would just pour through. And those fears I had as a teenager about two crazy people in love? Had become over the years a hard and fast belief.
Miraculously, Caleb was determined to love me, no matter what it took. That is not a gift often afforded to someone like me. And in many respects, being shown a love like that saved me. It was as though, by being honored for the qualities others sought to reform or exploit, I was healed enough to see the good inside.
We soon discovered that beneath the commonality of our diagnosis, the complicated work of our lives ran parallel, despite or perhaps because of our time apart.
We both know what it’s like to feel wholly defined by a disorder to which you owe all your unique beauty and strength and realize that can be a trap, that learning to separate yourself from your diagnosis is the only way to keep from being ruined.
We refer to our medications as “killers of joy,” but adhere to them religiously.
We embrace with gratitude the trauma that once left us damaged and embittered, reframing it as a primer through which to learn strength, self-awareness, and grace.
We’re learning to harness the beauty of bipolar disorder—the creativity, euphoria, and sexual dynamism—safely, with the hazards stripped back.
What we agree upon most crucially is that, for all the world, we would not wish to be cured of this thing that has rendered us for the better part of twenty years humiliated and destroyed. Bipolar disorder is the fire in which we were forged. And it renders us heirs to the greatest cultural fortune the world has ever known, one of innovation, intensity, beauty, and joy.
What I finally understand is that the stories for and about people like us are not real. They are borne of fear and control. They are ghost stories authored by people who haven’t the courage to place their fingers upon the planchette, never mind open themselves to the apparition.
I think in our culture the concern is twofold: An inability to imagine and thus, empathize with the disorienting and untenable aspects of mental illness and, conversely, a preference to see one’s own life as exemplary, rather than ordinary.
Sane privilege is a thing, and like any other unmerited and unexamined grace, it leaves the sane person with a feeling of superiority, an arrogance that prevents said person from identifying with the crazy person beyond irritated tolerance or pity. It also results in the misunderstanding of bipolar sensitivity, which is not softness, nor a relinquishment of might, but a deeply nuanced and often synesthetic ability to engage with rapt focus every little thing.
Because true psychological disturbance is not something most people want to imagine, intersectionality seems an important tool in the creation and dissemination of empathy, and here’s how it ought to begin:
If you love the novels of David Foster Wallace, the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, the theories of Albert Einstein, or the music of Charles Mingus, understand those things simply could not exist without bipolarity, and celebrate rather than mourn it. If you wish to continue loving the art and innovation produced by our emotional, psychological, and intellectual labor, brought to fruition despite great odds and at great cost, you’ll have to begin behaving as an ally. Otherwise you can go listen to the Pointer Sisters or some such shit, and let us get on with the business of revolution.
To anyone in despair, I want you to know that no matter how severe you’ve got it, your mood disorder can be a love story. With the world, your brain chemistry, your loved ones, yourself.
When Caleb was first diagnosed, his psychiatrist told him that love and tolerance are not the same. That it’d be a hard road, and if he couldn’t find someone who loved him for rather than in spite of his disorder, it’d be damn near impossible.
And damn do I wish someone had said that to me.
So now I’m saying it to you, in case you haven’t heard it. Find someone who loves the crazy parts of you. I know it’s possible because it happened to me, and because I do. I love the crazy parts of you so deeply, and I celebrate the vulnerability and inhuman strength it takes to live as you do.
If there’s anything for which you feel ashamed, let it be that someone with half your bravery called you weak, defective, or doomed, and you believed them. Let it be because you ever doubted your fierce and radical beauty. And don’t let it happen again.
Because the truth is, all the world is wild at heart and weird on top, which means, despite everything you’ve been told, you are the most equipped to understand it, endure it, and thrive.
Piper J. Daniels is a Michigan native, queer intersectional feminist, and professional ghostwriter who holds a BA from Columbia College Chicago and an MFA from the University of Washington. Her debut essay collection, Ladies Lazarus, received the Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize, was longlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, and was named one of Entropy’s favorite nonfiction books of 2018. Her work appears in Hotel Amerika, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She lives in the American Southwest with her incredible partner and their coven of hilarious pets.