A Stigmatic Society and a Little Girl’s Laughter

“I have a problem with stigma.”

I see this statement shared continuously over every feed of every social media platform that I use. It makes me ecstatic. I have spent countless hours in therapy agonizing over the ways in which to move beyond Bipolar and operate as a normal, functional human being. But here’s the thing, guys. I kinda don’t fucking want to. I have felt an immense pressure to appear as this beam of light, and an enormous responsibility to give that light to the darkness of stigma, to hold myself up so that the damage it causes is too well-lit for anybody to continue to put it on the back burner.

My main difficulty with the negative connotation surrounding mental illness used to be for reasons such as a combination of high expectations and little empathy. I had to reassure myself constantly that people just didn’t understand, that they couldn’t see the way that I suffered. Don’t get me wrong, these things still bother me, but there are other things that go undetected. Important things. People don’t see the way that I thrive.

They do not see me as I lay on my back, chin up to kiss the stars while combinations are twisted against thousands of safes, releasing my thoughts to tumble over one another. They do not see me swell in gratitude as words appear and I welcome them as if they were diamonds spilling from thin air into my open mouth until I glimmer from the inside. They do not see the kind of release it brings as I send them back to twirl in infinity. What ails me… it heals me, too.

I am never more creative, never more alive than during or directly following an episode. The closest comparison I can make is this: Sometimes, as I sit back and observe my 3 and 5-year-old nieces at play, I swear that they are one blazing billboard, a sign that my illness is also genius. For one thing, they feel. A lot. Loudly and unabashedly. They let me know over and over with their exaggerated moans of both delight and frustration. They do not approach any situation with modesty, and I’ve never heard either of them say “I’m not very good at that.” In fact, they are pretty damn certain that they know everything.

Most of the time, I’m pretty sure that they do, too. Once, after I gave one of them shit for running ahead, she replied “YOU are not the boss of me. You’re not even ANYBODY’S boss!” There were 2 things that occurred in this situation: 1) The thing that I actually did, which was force her to hold my hand and walk alongside me, because toward traffic is not a cool direction in which to gallop. 2) The thing that I desperately WANTED to do, which was to pull her close to me and tell her that no, nobody was her boss. To ask her to always to own this idea and to never believe in such a thing as a ceiling, glass or otherwise.

They also keep that shit so real. They ask whatever questions pop into their thoughts, and if the answer doesn’t give them satisfaction, they invent their own. They particularly like to do it in situations that make me, as an adult, uncomfortable. Somewhere along the way, we are all taught that a very small portion of our wildest visions apply to real life. We begin to learn that we may not grow up to be an astronaut and a ventriloquist and also a ballerina. We begin to understand that the place in which we imagine unicorns that eat broccoli and people who use their hearts instead of their fists is commonly referred to as “La la land.” This place houses everything that we see that is “never going to happen” because it’s “not real.” Maybe it is learned from our parents, or teachers, or that assbag 6th grader who guards the swings and yells truths that we did not ask to hear.

Being told to mellow out, to calm down, to get a grip is being told to unlearn everything that we are conditioned to do by nature. Whether this is necessary is another matter entirely, but it certainly isn’t easy. When I watch either one be told “no,” my heart breaks and bursts at once. Not because I don’t believe in discipline, but because the way their faces curl up in confusion mirrors a feeling that I am so very familiar with. Before Bipolar, before depression, before psychosis and before mania, I had forgotten what it was like to experience this series of discrepancies between what I felt and what was acceptable. To hear such beautiful symphonies and to feel such despair upon realizing that nobody else could hear them. To try my best to assimilate, wondering why the real world couldn’t be more like me.

Please understand that while I associate the confusion of mental illness with the confusion of growing up, it is not meant to say that it is childish or that it can be snapped or grown out of. There are plenty of reasons that I could list as to why it is much, much more complex than that, but that would take me days, and frankly, it’s not why I’m here. What I AM here to tell you is this:

Stigma says that we are an inconvenience, that our symptoms are a burden, a drain. Stigma says that we should be rewired and rewritten to be read in a way that is more fitting for society to accept. Reality says that we are precious, wholesome and magnificent, that our symptoms are the cracks of creativity. Reality says that we shall reclaim our identity and recover. We won’t grow out of it, but we will grow through it.

What I am here to tell you is that dirt is misunderstood. So often we gaze at the flowers and the foliage, paying no mind to the dark, fertile environment from which they sprouted. It is not only your transformation, your end result that should be loved and appreciated.

The next time stigma runs its slimy fingers over your hopeful face in an attempt to draw your eyes closed, this is what I hope your quivering voice will say:

“You speak so boldly of that which you do not know. You stretch my spine so that I may look more like a wooden soldier than a human being. You seek to blind me of the problem, blur my purpose, dress my voice in shackles and my face in a neutral expression. But when you speak, I do not recoil. I do not close my eyes to your lullaby of ridicule. When I stand up straight, it will NEVER be because you pulled me there. It will be because I have wept away the blur and I see more clearly than ever why my voice is so fucking valuable. I will pick every lock until it is your turn to tire and live in silence.”

I hope that as you haul lumber, shuffle papers at your desk or lay sleepless in bed, you will know that whatever you are at this moment is as brilliant as it is tangled. I hope that whenever stigma looms, pouting in your dusty corners, you will honour your inner 3-year-old as you mutter “YOU are not the boss of me.”

What To Expect

I keep getting the same question when I run into acquaintances:

“When are you going to start making babies?”

My reaction is always the same. A quick “ha!” and a change of subject. Look, I get it. It’s a question that’s been asked for ages and it’s not intended to make me feel inadequate, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. I don’t want to come across as if these words have never fallen from my own lips, because they certainly have, but I’ve learned a thing or two about myself and the world since then.

It’s difficult for me to explain why, but the short answer is that I’m not ready. I would gladly let it go and ignore that it was ever said, except for the fact that I am almost always met with a response such as:

Nobody is ever REALLY ready to have a child!”

I agree. It’s hard to prepare yourself to push a human out of a hole in your vagina, and it’s even harder to prepare yourself to be sleepless for the next however many years in which that human decides that it is afraid of the dark or their bladder is too small to carry you through an 8 hour slumber. There is no real study guide for the first conversation about mortality, or for the first time your child points at someone with a huge nose and asks them about their beak. That shit is not lost on me. But while you’re busy describing the trials and tribulations that come with motherhood, I’m busy with all of the thoughts that I do not feel prepared to share with you.

I want to tell you that I’m not worried about any of that. I want to tell you that this isn’t the first time I’ve mulled it over. I want to tell you that it’s not about “me time,” or having 7 more years before that dreaded biological clock that you speak of starts to tick. It’s not about body image or focusing on my career (though, if you ask me, these are all valid reasons to remain child free.)

I want to ask you if you’ve ever been so distracted by a noise that you’ve walked away, forgetting your newborn and leaving them to roll off of a changing table. I want to ask you if you’ve ever been so sleep deprived that you’ve walked out of your house ass naked, babbling about paint. I want to ask if you’ve ever had such an out-of-body tantrum that you glanced at your child in the aftermath and noticed their terrified expression as they backed away from you slowly. I wonder if you’ve ever cried because your toddler asked “Mommy, who do you keep talking to? Is it a ghost?”

I wonder, but say nothing, because this is not on your radar. I say nothing because I don’t want you to feel like the one who is unprepared. I say nothing because I don’t want to see your smile of encouragement stretch into a straight line. I don’t want to see your eyebrows lift in shock. I don’t want to hear your voice shake when you say:

“Well, you’ll adapt. A lot of good moms face these challenges.”

Indeed, they do, and more power to them. I applaud the brave mother who puts aside her own monsters to chase the monsters that really matter out from behind a little girl’s dresser. I am so proud of the women who lose count of the cracks in the sidewalks and the number of red things in the room to answer the question “What is 5 more than 9?” But I am not those people.

I am me, and I’m still learning that this is okay. I’m still learning to walk atop this rough new territory. I’m still telling myself that if I get out of bed today, and if that’s all I can muster, it’s alright. I’m still adjusting to small victories like hitting every green light in town or concentrating hard enough to read 3 pages of The Wind in the Willows. I know you care, and I know that you think these things are just fine, too. So when you argue about my ability to procreate, I am sent into a tailspin. Instead of being enough, my thoughts get darker, angrier. They turn into thoughts of being more, and so begins the burning frustration when I don’t know how to achieve that.

I love children. I love their minds, and watching them put together the puzzle of everyday life. I love witnessing their transition and the growth in their perspective as time passes. I love to colour and play Twister and to see how many marshmallows I can fit into my mouth. I love to sing and skip and count and ask questions.

But this is not enough.

I need to know that I am in a position to provide the safety, discipline and time that is necessary in rearing a child. I need to know that they will not run to their father 5 days a week and say “Mom’s in the basement screaming at the walls.” Most of all, I need to become comfortable enough in managing my illness so that if I have a child who struggles like me, I won’t be shamed into running from them. I need to know how to reason with myself before I can offer that kind of support to a tiny, needy being.

If that day never comes, I need you to understand that I’m okay with it. I’m okay with it because I have everything that I need to be content. I have 2 dogs, and though they are not comparable to two toddlers, I still get the chance to nurture, love, and train them. And just because I do not actively plan on having children of my own does not mean that I cannot care for the children of others, because I do. I love my nieces and nephews. I love pushing them on swings and giving them shit when they’re talking back to their mamas. I love seeing the kids in my morning exercise classes running wild and attempting to hug the other women while they do push-ups.

I will take your advice. I will be open to whatever comes next. Now, take some of mine, and stop asking that fucking question, okay?