Writing this blog post is the hardest writing assignment I’ve ever given myself. Harder than writing a novel. Harder than writing about my battle with anorexia. Harder than writing my query letter or even my hated novel synopsis. It’s hard because I’m afraid of what the reaction will be.
Here it is: I’m bipolar.
In my off-line life, I’ve shared this with friends. Most have been supportive, though sometimes baffled. (You? Bipolar? I thought you were just depressed!) A handful have dropped me. Some have dismissed it. A cherished few have bent over backwards to help me, pray for me, and encourage me on hard days.
My pregnancies were particularly hard. I was afraid of what might happen after I gave birth. (Postpartum depression? Psychosis? Would I end up like Vincent Van Gogh and Virginia Woolf?) Fear gave me insomnia, insomnia gave me time to think at 3 a.m., and 3 a.m. thoughts tend to be wild and creative. So I took the worst case scenario and placed it in the lives of fictional people. Hence the birth of The Cruelest Month.
I’ve wanted to share this online. But I’ve hesitated because I don’t know the repercussions of this revelation for my publishing endeavors. Until now, I’ve kept silent. Silence is safer. Familiar. Stifling.
It shouldn’t be a big deal to write this online. It should be acceptable for someone to say I have a mental illness. It should be acceptable to hear I’m going to counseling. It shouldn’t hurt my chances at getting a book contract any more than any other chronic illness would. In a perfect world, prejudice and stigmas against others wouldn’t exist. Then again, in a perfect world, mental illness wouldn’t exist, either.
But realistically, it does exist. Theoretically, it might make publication harder. That stinks.
Here’s the reason I wrote this novel and I’m not supposed to talk about it?
I query someone. They google me and read I’m bipolar. What’s their reaction?
As soon as I say I’m bipolar, many (not all) people have a stereotype pop into their minds. Their ideas may be formed from any number of sources: a celebrity who has landed in the psych ward; the accused killer who pleads not guilty by reason of insanity; an acquaintance they’ve known and avoided because of their strange behavior. Maybe they’ve been hurt by someone with a serious mental illness.
Would you sign a business contract with a previously unknown person if you thought her behavior might be erratic? Would you be concerned that she might not be able to complete her work because her mood swings became uncontrollable? If you don’t know me, then you have no idea how I will handle the stress of publication. No matter how caring and open-minded, any sensible person might hesitate. I understand this. But here’s what you need to understand.
I’m more than my illness.
296.89. That’s the identification number for my illness. I write it on insurance forms and read it on the receipts from the psychiatrist’s office. But I’m not that number any more than Jean Valjean is only 24601 or a concentration camp survivor is the number branded on his arm or any U.S. citizen is her social security number.
My identity isn’t only as a bipolar person. I’m a Christian. Writer. Wife. Mama. Former ESL teacher. The woman who chose to write a master’s thesis on Moby-Dick and has Van Gogh prints in virtually every room of her house. The woman who gets lost in her hometown, doesn’t like coffee, and gets even more lost on Twitter.
And I’m more than the sum of these parts, just as our bodies are more than a bunch of organs and nerve endings and veins, and our lives are more than a series of events. Each of us has an area where our lives are broken: divorce, cancer, debt, loneliness. These things are a part of our lives, but they are not us.
If the statistics are right, then there are many people, possibly some reading this now, who have a mental illness. That’s a lot of people who need to know they aren’t alone. They need to know they are more than a number on a page. Many need hope.
Hope is hard to find in our world. It’s easy to succumb to despair. Many people have successfully fought despair and triumphed; others have been defeated.
For every man who comes through a bout of depression, there’s a Van Gogh standing in the field, watching crows circle.
For every woman helped by her medications, there is a Virginia Woolf, loading her coat pockets with rocks, wading into a rushing river.
And for every celebrity crashing in hospital, there are dozens, hundreds, who suffer silently as the rest of us walk around oblivious to their pain.
It’s for those hurting people—whatever the source of the hurt—that I write.
If my work is to bring hope to anyone, then I must first acknowledge my own struggle to find hope in the midst of mental anguish. Telling the truth about my problems is painful. But I can’t stay silent any longer.