Highs, Lows, and Self-Trust

Today, while sipping coffee and once again failing to resist the temptation of a morning cigarette, I felt an unexpected and almost unfamiliar rush of joy. It was really, really nice. Because I’ve been in a pretty dark place for quite awhile. It’s been so deep and overwhelming for so long it’s hard for me even to know when it began, how bad it’s gotten, and what life is like when I’m not in the pits like this.

I do actually value the dark places my psyche takes me to – they are a part of me, and I love who I am (most of the time) – but it can become frightening and exhausting to go so long you begin to forget what other emotions feel like.

What’s worse, being a mad person with a history of bad interactions with psychiatry, I feel that I have been trained to distrust my own emotions. Am I depressed because of my brain chemistry? Or am I depressed because of some very real problem that exists in my relationships with others, or the world at large? Am I anxious because I am wired to be anxious? Well, sure, but is it also possibly that I am processing some deep trauma from my past? Yeah, definitely also that. So these are past feelings? Or present feelings? How do I process this and move on with my life? (Yes, I am reading books and seeking therapy, thanks for asking.)

This kind of self-doubt is par for the course when I’m in my dark place. When the soul hurts, you question yourself as readily as you question the motives of pandering politicians. You wonder (or I wonder, at least) if your life has value, if you have deluded yourself into thinking you are worthy of love, when in fact you are a broken and pathetic invalid.

But it is SO MUCH WORSE to feel this same self-doubt when I am not in a dark place. As soon as I felt the rush of joy and self-love this morning, completely unbidden and unexpected, my first thought was: Huh, I wonder if this is what they call a manic episode.

This is a common refrain in my mind ever since I was told that I may be bipolar and/or borderline. Every emotion, every experience, gets analyzed as if it may not be mine, but something belonging to the disorder. Is it me who feels happy? Or is it the bipolar that is causing me to feel manic? Is it me who feels sad, lonely, and abandoned? Or is the borderline telling me I feel this way, lying to me about myself and my experiences? It’s like psychiatry has convinced me there is another person living inside me, sabotaging my every effort to just exist as myself.

I’ve joined some support groups on social media for borderline people and I can tell that this type of thinking is helpful for some people. It creates a distance between the subject and the experience that allows some people to better understand themselves and moderate their behaviour or emotions. But it isn’t helpful for me. I hate when I am communicating my mental state to someone and they dismiss my experiences by saying That’s just the depression/anxiety talking. It used to be that I could only entertain this kind of thinking when I felt sad or afraid, but now as I learn about bipolar and borderline, even my experiences of anger, of happiness, of grief – almost any state of mental distress (or even elation) that I can name – it can all theoretically be attributed to my “defective” or “unbalanced” brain.

This isn’t how I experience myself. This isn’t how I understand my emotions. Emotions are adaptive. They have purpose, and while they can become harmfully maladaptive over time, I think in my own case and many others this is more often the result of chronic maltreatment and traumatic experiences, rather than some atypical brain structure or chemical imbalance. So I reject these models and substitute my own…

I’ve been depressed for a long time because the world is depressing and I’ve lost a lot of things that were important to me. Relationships, mostly. I haven’t many friends left at this stage in my life and I find it exceptionally difficult to make new ones. I left graduate school because I wasn’t being accommodated there and I felt unable to do meaningful work. While that was a great move for my mental health in some ways, it also left me feeling rejected, isolated, and abandoned by an institution that I thought I would call my intellectual home.

I’ve been anxious too because, well, coronavirus and climate change and wealth inequality and living in poverty and needless suffering and corrupt politics and failed relationships and taking care of the house and the kid and the parents and the partner and the cats and the plants and the list goes on and on and on – life is just scary sometimes. Plus I moved from my lifelong hometown to a rural place where everything is new and unfamiliar. Beautiful, peaceful (for the most part), and lovely, but still unfamiliar.

It’s perfectly natural when going through major life transitions to experience these things. To get lost in the tumult of a life that is forever in flux and full of uncertainties. So no, it’s not the depression talking, it’s me talking. The dark places in life often have something to teach us, and I’m grateful for this part of myself that is able to experience unpleasant mental states and extract from them what wisdom they have to offer. For me, I’ve had to learn to slow down, to accept failures as learning opportunities, to trust myself and my emotions as guides towards a healthier life, and begin to unlearn the traumas and internalized forms of oppression that limit my ability to treat myself and others with compassion.

And the process pays off, eventually. All of this feeling the feels and allowing myself to be in that dark place has value. Because today, this morning, for at least a moment, I was just happy. Call it mania, call it the caffeine rush, call it birdsong and sunshine, whatever you want to call it. I was overtaken by a wave of joy, a joy that wouldn’t be nearly so beautiful or meaningful if I hadn’t arrived at it through the trial of the darkness.

The dark place will come back. It always finds me again. But isn’t that just life? Don’t we all endure the turbulence of highs and lows no matter where we sit on the continuum of madness and neurotypicality? Knowing this, and refusing to attribute my own experiences to some internalized disease, has given me the freedom to grow through adversity, and strive for a good life amidst an undeniably depressing, frightening, and maddening world.

Today I don’t want to wonder if I’m manic, or ask the universe with foreboding how long will this sunshine last before you plunge me into the dark again? I just want to be grateful that for a moment I felt some unadulterated joy, and continue working on seeing myself as a human being and not a disorder.

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