May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and while I didn't write this specifically for MHAM, I thought it would be a good time to share. (I wrote it because I was struggling a lot with my own mental health and decided to write about it just to get it out, but the timing is apropos.)
Sarah and I are working on the first draft of the fifth, and final, book of our current series project. One of our protagonists has bipolar disorder, because I've always wanted to read about characters who have bipolar disorder having adventures that are not just about their mental illness, but I rarely have the chance. I have bipolar disorder; I was diagnosed in 2007, right before I started law school. I have been in treatment with numerous psychiatrists and on multiple medications (when I can afford it, and I am thankful I have been able to do so consistently for the past few years, in large part because I have great insurance from my job), but no treatment is perfect. In book four, there's a period of time in which our protagonist is off her medication, and it was harder than I expected to write the fallout of that. I very clearly remember what it is like when I have had a similar experience, I remember the way the mania can hit so hard, without real warning, even though I've been dealing with this long enough normally I can see the signs coming, but as clear as I remember that (because it still happens sometimes, even on the medications, because they do not cure me, they only give me some balance), it was difficult finding the right words.
One of the things I struggle most with is losing my words. Manic phase, depressive phase, mixed phase, it doesn't matter; one of the consistent symptoms of my bipolar is loss of words. I talk too fast, I don't talk at all, whatever, but my thoughts are always there. The words aren't. Hard words, complicated word, beautiful descriptions; sometimes they come easy, sometimes there are empty holes in them. Easy words go, too. Words I've said a hundred times before, words I used literally a sentence ago, they're gone. I stumble over them. I get frustrated. I get angry.
While it does happen both when speaking and writing, it is worse when I'm speaking. When I'm writing, I can take time, pace, tug on my hair, grasp at nothing until the word comes back to me. When I'm speaking, I can try to find an alternate way to say it, but I keep coming back to what I see as a failure for myself. (Not for anyone else, but when I do it, it feels like failure.) I get stuck, I struggle, even though it doesn't really matter, I can get my point across, but I want that word, that single word suddenly means everything, and without it I will never be understood.
I try to be very open when I am losing my words, because I try to be open about my experiences with bipolar, but it can be hard. It does feel like failure when I lose words, like I can't communicate, and will never be able to clearly communicate, and I am losing my thoughts because I am losing my words. It is frustrating, and infuriating, and terrifying.
This is no small part of the reason I chose to go into transactional law instead of litigation. (I am a tech lawyer, which I love, but I could have been a tech lawyer who did litigation.) While there is a lot of spoken communication in transactional law (conferences, negotiations, meetings, brainstorming, and on and on), it never felt like the same kind of terrible pressure that being in a courtroom would bring. I rely on the written word in my practice far more than the spoken, and my writing is something I cherish.
(This is not why I don't talk much to people I don't know well. Even before this particular manifestation of my mental illness, I much preferred to listen to other people talk. I love hearing about people's lives and adventures and thoughts. I love listening to people talk, their word choices, their pacing. I love conversations that meander and twist and swing back around, conversations with hairpin turns. People give me such a nice gift when they tell me their stories.)
Writing our protagonist's experience off her meds in book four was difficult, but not because it felt personal, though it did. It is intended to feel personal. I want to normalize my experience with bipolar, give other people who have it a chance to see themselves in awesome characters having amazing adventures, but I also want to push back against the idea that there is only one way to experience bipolar (or any mental illness, but my experiences mostly focus on bipolar, and that is what I want to address). Tam, our character, experiences a lot of assumptions made by people, even people who love her, who are trying to be nice, about what it means for her to be "crazy," and that is an intentional choice Sarah and I made, but that is not why writing it was uncomfortable.
Writing it was uncomfortable because it felt so much like losing my words where I normally feel safe. I do lose words when I write fiction, one here, another there, but not usually huge swaths of text. Even when I do, the words come back, and Sarah is a fantastic person to bounce things off of when I'm struggling. But this time, this time, it felt like I had no words at all, all of these ideas, all of these things to say, and no way to say them. One of the worst parts about bipolar for me is how little I trust my brain, my perception, sometimes, and losing whole scenes that I wanted to write, whole stories I wanted to tell, that was a horrible manifestation of that fear.
It was also uncomfortable because in many ways, Tam fits some of the stereotypes about people who have bipolar disorder. So do I. That doesn't make the stereotypes true for everyone, or right, or not absolutely damaging to people, and I worry that I'm doing harm when I'm trying to do good. I want to tell Tam's story, and I want to tell Tam's story in this way. She is not violent because she has bipolar disorder. She is not dangerous because she has bipolar disorder. She is not a liar because she has bipolar disorder. But she is violent and dangerous and mean, and as I'm losing words, trying to describe an experience that is horrible and terrible and exhilarating all at the same time, I worry I am going to fail, to hurt people, to make things worse.
Writing bipolar disorder is hard. Writing with bipolar disorder is hard. Of course it is. Living bipolar disorder, living with bipolar disorder, that's hard too. I could go on and on about my experience with it, the things people say, the assumptions they make, but this isn't about that. This is writing about and writing with, and the struggle to find words when they disappear, and the struggle to use the words in a way that does more good than harm.
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