It’s been a rough couple of weeks, mood-wise. Again, nothing in particular to blame except for my faulty brain chemistry. This is just another reminder that all of the work I do in therapy, the medicines I take, the personal development I devote myself to, is not always going to be enough to manage this disease. I sometimes get complacent in periods of mood stability where I think, this isn’t so bad. Then, without fail, I am surprised by the fallout, as if this hasn’t happened a hundred times before. As I’m bouncing between mania and depression, it can be really hard to keep my eye on something still, which is the most disorienting side-effect of bipolar disorder.
I’m pretty familiar with these ups and downs, but the preceding events to my most recent upheaval were new to me: I was in a very demanding interpreting situation and emotions were running high — not necessary in the assignment itself, but in me, because I wanted to do well. Ultimately, I think I did: I walked out of the assignment feeling that my team and I had faithfully represented and maintained the message, and that we were as unobtrusive as possible. Typically, I might suffer from a bit of nerves before or during an assignment, but it dissipates once I’ve the assignment is over (unless, of course, I mucked everything up while I was in the hot-seat, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog). On this day, however, I walked out of that assignment as jangly as a skeleton on a string. My whole consciousness pinged like a struck piano wire. The anxiety was so great, I didn’t know what to do with myself, and ultimately, I experienced something very akin to what I’ve read about sub-drop. With no where else to go, the adrenaline in my system caused wide-spread emotional and mental shut-down. I was so wiped-out, it was all I could do to just get into bed and throw a quilt over myself.
Since that day, my mood and my energy level has been rather variable. I know it will get better, but I have to carefully tiptoe around that mental trap: “happiness is on the other side of this despair.” Because it really isn’t. Happiness is a thing you experience intermittently in the best of situations, and if you’re lucky, even in the midst of a depression. Happiness comes and goes just like everything else — it is not a destination, and no one has the right to 100% happiness one-hundred percent of the time.
So rather than try to convince myself that my happiness is waiting for me, if only I can push through and endure these difficult days, I am going to alter my narrative and focus on appreciating these days for what they are: a natural ebb and flow of positivity, unfortunately made more burdensome by my illness, and nothing more. If that means that I need to decompress by listening to Metallica at prohibitively high volumes after demanding assignments in order to burn up excess adrenaline before coming home to collapse into a cocoon of blankets, so be it. I empower you to do the same, and to be gentle with yourself — you are doing the best you can.
Perception is an odd thing. I get the feeling sometimes that even introspection is flawed. The most perceptive of individuals can be misled sometimes, and it has been my introspection (introversion) that has given some people the wrong impression of me from time to time. A few weeks ago I was team interpreting with a colleague I’ve known for sometime. When I misinterpreted something, I gladly accepted her feed, but later she commented that I had given her stink-eye the moment that she had fed me the correct English term to voice. I was stunned and ashamed. Stink-eye! Me?! I frantically sifted back through my memories to that moment — had I felt any ill-will toward my colleague that could have shown on my face? Not at all! I respect her a great deal, and if I am failing to interpret accurately, well, that’s why we work in teams! Feed me, Seymour!
What had I been feeling, then? Embarrassment, surely. It never feels good to be caught in a mistake, and my audience in this case wasn’t limited to just my colleague. My internal-editor, highly developed as it is from years of practiced self-loathing prior to my becoming a professional interpreter, had simultaneously caught the error and I was already chiding myself for having done wrong. Perhaps this is what my colleague didn’t know and therefore misunderstood about my look: I already hate myself more than I could ever hate anyone else, especially you. I was simply unaware that all of that inner monologue was playing across my face.
Living with this disease has shown me that it colors all aspects of life. The way I touch the world around me, the feel of it, and the light as it enters my eyes. The sounds that ensnare and entrap me, or comfort and soothe me. Like many people with mental illness, I have a love-hate relationship with my madness. On the one hand, the quirks of my non-neuronormative mind have made me especially empathetic, introspective, intelligent, and creative. However, these gifts are tempered by bouts of extreme sadness, mood lability, anxiety, obsessive compulsive behavior, and mania. When I’m in a depressive state, I’m extremely low-energy which makes me twice as introverted as I am on a normal day. In a manic state, however, I may be extroverted, aggressive, or combative — and I have no control how I will react to any given situation.
Being bipolar is one thing, but being an introvert? Though it’s a popular buzzword these days, it can be damned inconvenient. Introverts are highly marginalized and stigmatized in our low-context culture which places a higher value on the number of words in a communication than the content of the message expressed. Americans are also by and large individualistic, emphasizing the importance of the individual over the community. Thus, if a person does not put in the requisite facetime and pay the expected homage to the highest ranking individuals in the room, that person is perceived as haughty or rude. This is where it gets tough for your garden-variety introvert. We are much happier to be on the fringes of the gathering, having deep conversations with one or two people who we know very well than engaging in small talk with strangers. Introverts gain more from high-context interactions, but our society wasn’t designed with us in mind. As author Susan Cain explains in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts, “In our society, the ideal self is bold, gregarious, and comfortable in the spotlight. We like to think that we value individuality, but mostly we admire the type of individual who’s comfortable “putting himself out there.” Our schools, workplaces, and religious institutions are designed for extroverts. Introverts are to extroverts what American women were to men in the 1950s — second-class citizens with gigantic amounts of untapped talent.”
But as with all things, it is rarely so simple. Often introversion or extraversion in an individual will vary with context. People are confounded by my introverted tendencies when I am often observed to be quite extroverted in certain situations. “Why can’t you be this much fun all of the time?” they wonder. I’m not a math problem — I’m just a human being trying to make it day by day with this disease, one that often alters my personality in drastic ways. I don’t always know if I’m doing it right, because I am convinced that my ego is flawed and my intuition is telling lies. There are days when I spend a great deal of time looking inward in an attempt to locate that truth. Sometimes, I get lost in there, wandering around the dusty halls of my wayward mind for days. In general, introverts are more likely to look inward than outward — I wonder, do we also tend to struggle with the same twists and turns of mind?
I am a trained apologist, conditioned through years of abuse and bad relationships to accept responsibility for everything in my environment, even above and beyond that which I am capable of having caused to happen. When confronted by a disagreeable individual or someone who has treated me poorly, I am far more likely to take their behavior and internalize it than to stand up for myself and say, “hey, I don’t deserve this” because I have been hard-wired to believe that actually, yes, I do deserve this. I am wrong and bad and wrong-bad and I deserve this. The doubt never subsides, and neither does the chattering in my mind that gives it momentum. Is this the secret kept within the heart of the introvert, the key to our powerlessness?
I don’t mean to conflate introversion and mental illness, but I do believe there is more than a casual link between the two. I, for one, am fighting an endless war with myself, attacked on all sides by inner demons that speak in the voices of those whom I love the most. These are the same poor souls that are sometimes unwittingly attacked when I am despondent and disassociative. I am practiced at the post-tantrum apology, as my husband can attest, but to apologize for being introverted? To apologize for having a low-energy, highly inward-turn day? This is something I can neither control nor would necessarily change, given the opportunity. That some circles of individuals, largely extroverts themselves, misconstrue my silence as rudeness is something I cannot contend with. I feel increasingly less willing to try, since despite my best efforts to combat my natural tendencies the criticism for coming across as “rude”, “selfish”, or “ungrateful” continues regardless. This is true also of others battling for their right to introversion. We seek comfort in ways that are sometimes contradictory to the terms of normalcy and happiness of the masses — but that doesn’t make us freakishly odd. Still, we beat ourselves up, and for whom? For them?
No, for them, we give explanations: “I am not being sick at you.” “I am introverted, but I need to be social for my mental health. I would like it if people didn’t misunderstand my social ineptitude for rudeness.” “I am both social and introverted. I would like to be welcomed into the group on my own terms.” We try our best to acclimatize to the surroundings in which we find ourselves and hide those things that make other people uncomfortable. We do our best. It’s no surprise, really, that psychologists report that introversion is fucking exhausting, just as much as any given mental illness or behavioral disorder. (Not to mention, as I said, the co-occurrence of mental illness and introversion.) But it’s also incredibly powerful. Just as bipolar disorder gives me a unique world view, introverts are seen to be more creative, innovative, and self-reliant. Some of the world’s best public speakers and leaders are introverts, Ghandi, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Rosa Parks among them. In fact, there is some research to suggest a link between a higher I.Q. and a higher level of introversion. From Carl King, filmmaker and introvert: “A world without Introverts would be a world with few scientists, musicians, artists, poets, filmmakers, doctors, mathematicians, writers, and philosophers.” So the world wasn’t made for us — big deal! I’m used to that — I’m also left-handed.
Actor Robin Williams took his own life today. By all accounts an extremely funny, extremely intelligent person, he lost a battle with depression. I’m probably more upset by this than I have any right to be — Mr. Williams being an actor and a public figure whom I enjoyed does not mean that he belongs to me in any sense. It doesn’t seem right to eulogize someone I have never, and now will never, meet, despite his featuring prominently in the entertainment landscape of my childhood. Maybe it’s just that his humor resonated with me, because I see similarities to my own sense of humor… and maybe because his actions today resonate with me, also.
Smart people are also marginalized in our society. Those who suffer with depression and other mental illnesses are likewise stigmatized. We use humor to deflect and cover up our wounds, and then we suffer quietly. Alone. As we spend more time alone, we are observed to be introverted. People who are introverted, on the whole, seem to be less desirable companions and are therefore sought out less by their peers. In the end, you get a bunch of smart, suffering, funny people with no close friends.
And then we kill ourselves because human beings aren’t meant to be islands (Bon Jovi had that right) but what choice does a person have when their territory is being colonized by naysayers and doubters and people who, in general, just want to make you feel bad for being who you are and enjoying what you like.
Seriously. Fuck those people.
This is what being a Stigma Fighter is about. Standing up to the unenlightened masses who would prefer to see a greatly homogenized culture instead of embracing and celebrating our differences, mental illness included. I wonder if Mr. Williams, had he known about our mission, would have joined us. Something tells me he might have done just that.
When I was in high school, I was not massively popular. In fact, being what I affectionately term as “prematurely middle aged”, I was often teased and mocked for my word choice (what writers and other linguaphiles would call “voice”), in addition to my overall manner. With a few notable exceptions, high school was not a happy time.
Reflecting on that now, though, it is difficult to say if the observations of my philistine classmates, cruel as they were meant to be, were entirely inaccurate. After all, I do use “big words” when more average vocabulary would suffice (see the above use of the word “philistine” in place of “childish ass-hats”). I’m not a partier, I’m not especially adventurous, and I’m typically only extroverted when I am in my element. One classmate of mine, whose face and name have faded into obscurity leaving only his words behind, said that my demeanor reminded him of an old lady sitting down for tea. He added to the overall picture of this meaning by pantomiming sipping from a teacup and holding a saucer, both pinkies out, pursing his lips prudishly.
At the time, it bothered me. He had pressed upon a long-standing insecurity of mine: I am not normal. And how I desperately longed to be normal. I wanted so badly to be accepted by my peers and by my family, I often hid or transformed my interests to be more palatable to the people I wished to impress. When it came to my peers, “fitting in” meant abandoning healthy, productive interests in favor of lukewarm baddassery: smoking, skipping school, majoring in Boyfriendology, and finally landing myself on probation. I would drive my life into the ground to prove to these people that I was as young and carefree as they were, if not more so. (Being a latch-key child sure helped, in this instance.)
But I suppose this young man wasn’t all wrong. Now as an adult, I belong to a group of women who gather regularly to sip tea from old china teacups (though few would accuse us of being prudish, as our conversations can quickly devolve from bawdy humor to downright dick jokes). Sometimes we even wear funny Sunday hats while we do it. I have found I’m happiest and most confident when I’m done up to look like I walked out of a 50’s hair salon. I’m embracing and making peace with my inner old lady, complete with a personal collection of antique teacups.
Rather than being normal, I’d like only to be embraced for my differences, as I will seek to embrace others. After all, who am I trying to impress anymore? And what, pray tell, is “normal”? As another brilliant and insecure woman once said, normal is a curse word. It is a social construct that we hold over our heads and those of the creative, off-beat souls who frighten us with their bravery to be different. Despite the time and energy I have spent over my lifetime hiding or obscuring it, I am different. And even though I have wasted wishes on aspirations of sameness — same as my family, same as my peers, same as my heroes — I’m coming to be quite pleased with our differences.