I was diagnosed formally with bipolar disorder in winter of 2015. I remember, vividly, standing outside the psychiatrist’s office in crystalline winter sunlight, snow melting into the yellowed grass. One of my best friends was coming to pick me up, but not for another twenty minutes, because I hadn’t been sure how long this would take, nor how long I would need to compose myself afterward. What I would feel. Turned out: not a huge deal. A little relieving, even. Because I’d been living with my brain my whole life, a little over twenty-one years at that point. I’d been living, more specifically, with a bipolar brain.
This is to say: though it was the first time I had reached a point where it seemed like medication was the right option for me, it was not the first time it had occurred to me that I might be mentally ill. I did not rush to a psychiatrist after my first manic episode because I was probably ten and it was probably treated like me just being ten. But in high school and early college it definitely occurred to me to google my symptoms, to track my moods. I was pretty sure even before I had confirmation. Now, two and a half years since being diagnosed, I know the difference between an emotional reaction and a mood swing. I know what makes my body work in my favor. Do I always follow all my own mental health rules? God no. But I know what to do to kick my ass into gear if I stop taking good care of myself.
I realize this is a strange way to reflect on the process of making a series of poems about grieving, the most obvious peculiarity being that it has nothing to do with either poems or grief.
But here’s why I told you all that: I thought I had a handle on mental illness, on what mental illness looks and feels like for me. Wrong. What I learned about taking care of myself with bipolar did not help me learn to take care of myself with PTSD.
As I understand it, some of the constant alertness I associate with PTSD is similar to generalized anxiety disorder. Think jumping to the worst conclusion every time. Think that twitchy electricity you get in your fingers when you’re dreading something, but imagine you don’t know what that something is. The thing I personally associate with PTSD to distinguish it from anxiety is flashbacks. A sight or song or phrase will elicit a physical memory or the sound of a long-ago conversation, I’ll feel momentarily somewhere else, I’ll feel strange all day then dream through an entire vivid sequence from the past that night. It’s all a lot deeper than that, but you get the gist.
The point is I wrote the first draft for each of these poems right as I was beginning to display real symptoms of PTSD, coincidentally at the same moment in winter 2015, though I didn’t know that that’s what it was at the time. I was just unbelievably jumpy. I was just having panic attacks in the middle of crowded rooms. It sucked, but I was kind of just continued existing and sometimes I felt like the world was for sure definitely going to end because of these oddly specific catalysts. When I say I wrote the first draft for each of these poems then, I mean sometimes I just wrote “Fuck.” in the margin of a notebook. Sometimes I’d write almost an entire song and then delete all the recordings and throw away the lyrics. I wrote it in letters that I never sent, letters that I turned into poems and essays and bonfire fuel. Twice I’ve written short stories. One time I wrote a short play. Another time I choreographed and performed a dance. I have been writing and rewriting and rewriting these poems as I have wandered through grieving a relationship which resulted in my being diagnosed with PTSD, and I still haven’t gotten them quite right. It’s a little ridiculous.
What’s ridiculous, really, is how long it took me to notice that this is just my way of coping, that trying and trying and trying to write these poems is grieving, it is processing trauma. I know that to live with bipolar disorder, I need to take hot baths. I need to spend a lot of time alone, preferably making art or listening to music. I need to stay on top of household chores, I need not to drink very much or very often. I was good at handling my mental illness because I was familiar with it, because I was taking the time to listen to the need being expressed by the symptom without taking the symptom as truth and I was able to teach myself ways to meet those needs. I am writing poem after poem; I am not having panic attacks anymore. I am far, far fiercer than I have ever been but I am far, far more awake. I have articulated “Fuck.” I have finally written poems that take the shape of poems, poems that I feel far enough from to someday soon return to with an editorial eye. I am learning to cope, finding ways to live with my new brain. I know the difference between a song which makes me cry and a song which makes my throat close and my brain static.
Actually, there is another ridiculous thing.
The other ridiculous thing is that it took me this long to call it grief. As though grief cannot live alongside trauma. As though it is impossible to miss a person who hurt you. Humor me a bad metaphor: imagine it’s a car. You love this car, it’s old and kind of a beater but you bought it with your own money and you’re proud of it. You have good times in this car with your friends and your lovers and you cry in this car after bad days at work and when you think about having to someday sell it, you feel preemptively nostalgic. But it starts to break down. Little things, at first, the check-engine light coming on sporadically, you ignore it. Then you’re driving home from the mountains when something goes wrong with the transmission. You’re alone in the dark on that road hoping for the tow truck for four hours. There’s the time you almost crash because there’s a problem with the brakes. It really freaks you out, you don’t drive the next day. Imagine you finally crash this car. Something goes wrong on the highway and you flip over and the windshield shatters and you watch yourself floating helpless through the air in slow motion. It almost killed you. But it is still attached to all those beautiful moments in your memory. Six months after the crash, it is not crazy if you miss that car.
That’s the trap of the thing, the spiral I kept falling into. How can I be in this much pain and be able to point definitively to its source and also sometimes think fondly of my abuser? It makes it seem less real. It casts the trauma in an odd light. It’s like: how can I sometimes enjoy being manic because it helps me get work done or clean more efficiently? Well, that’s easy. Because it’s my bipolar. It’s my brain. My issue. I am allowed to reap the benefits as well as suffer the detriments. That goes with the territory of bipolar disorder. I know that, because it’s familiar territory.
But I’m exploring this one. I wrote, have written, am writing these poems about grieving. About grief. About being sad that a person I loved is no longer in my life. Because it finally occurred to me to call it that. It finally occurred to me that I can be grappling with a panic disorder and mourning at the same time. I am vast and strong enough to entertain multiple emotions at once regardless of the discomfort of and stigma against doing so. I am as complex a human being as I keep insisting I am to cishet white boys. And the ringer? I am allowed. I am allowed to be both hurt and sad.
Acceptance, in my mind, is where I mostly am. With both my grief and my trauma. It is not the same as being “over” it. I’d say I’m pretty well still buried. But I know that these big bad things, they happened. It was painful. It was also sad. And I am learning how to live with this brain that has been changed, that has been left, and to remember that my bipolar, traumatized brain is still mine. It has many, many more spectacular and spectacularly traumatizing experiences ahead of it.
And that’s a whole lot better than just writing “Fuck.” in the margins.