The following blog post was first published with the Mad in America.
It’s still not easy for me to say, “I’m bipolar.” I have always felt torn between the reality of the pain I feel and the invisibility of the beauty I know. Despite hosting a podcast and writing a vulnerable book about my challenges with bipolar disorder, I still feel a tinge of terror when I tell people about this aspect of my identity. After wrestling with various terminology over many years, I have come to view the reappropriation of the label bipolar—separate from pathology—as a necessary activity. Here’s why:
When I decided to write my book, I was in a creative upheaval, wholeheartedly feeling that if I don’t tell my story of bipolar and spirituality, then I was allowing the confusion between psyche and spirit to infiltrate more people like me. By speaking out against the conventional notions of mental illness, a life might be spared. I might still know the lives of those I have lost through addiction and dis-ease. My own children might not have to internalize the insidious violence of inauthentic living. I myself might look back, through the lens of my elderly body, and see how my own life is marked with greater compassion and joy for having stood up and spoken out.
But here’s the cosmic joke: I was never alone. The world doesn’t need a savior. We need each other. The world needs connection, warmth, and truth. There have already been iconic figures and cultural movements challenging the conventional psychiatric paradigm. The problem was, I didn’t know how to find them. All I knew was that I was bipolar, had been diagnosed and branded as mentally defective, and that there weren’t resources for someone like me, who was experiencing a mixture of brilliant darkness and brutal luminosity. When I typed “b-i-p-o-l-a-r” into my search engine, I didn’t find Mad in America. I didn’t find you. The way I use bipolar, as a distinction from dichotomies of health and illness, is a language forged in the fire of isolation. How I longed for you. How I long still.
I spent years vacillating between the legitimacy of psychopathology and spiritual emergency, but eventually I realized that the dichotomy between madness and insight was a false one. The extent to which anyone is permitted to step out of consensus reality has always been constrained by social mandates. These social forces go unnoticed, almost entirely unconscious, until a person has an awakening or epiphany to some sense of unconditioned reality. Madness is one such method of glimpsing the unconditioned state, a psychic feature built into the human experience.
Though the mad experience can be horrific and painful, there is nonetheless an opportunity to cross impasses that were previously invisible to us. I see bipolar bodies as more susceptible to madness, and the trials of such experiences are largely exacerbated and perpetuated by a society that suppresses interconnection, creativity, and love.
One practical problem that faces bipolar folks is the pace of society. There is hardly any time to rest and recuperate. The sensitive person achieves a manic high necessary to keep up, only to then be cast down by the refusal of the body toward homeostasis. A break from consensus reality is pain upon pain, as we find ourselves breaking free from a reality worth escaping, only to return to a reality we no longer recognize as real. How cunning and elusive, these symptoms of delusion.
Having experienced this violence firsthand, I want the world to be a safer place for extreme states, states of madness, altered states of consciousness, mental health crises, and mental illness of all kinds. This is what is most important to me. If I can help it, the language used to get us there will serve as a tool toward deeper understanding and higher complexity. This is why I’m “proud,” and “mad,” and “bipolar.” I want to help create a society that holds extreme states as a reflection of madness in the world, as well as a call to heal something in all of us. I want creativity to be celebrated, as an expression of human evolution and adaptation, and as a charge to the humanity in each of us.
I also happen to be raising two little white boys right now. I don’t just want a better world for me, although I sure would appreciate more humane responses to mental health challenges. I want a world in which my sons can thrive, without internalizing the numerous intersecting crises facing humanity. I feel intensely that they will inherit every bit of healing I leave for them—every bit of healing I refuse to embody myself. I’m driven every day by the contemplation, “What sort of world will my children inherit?” And I tuck them in bed every night considering how I may contribute toward a more inhabitable planet.
My personal convictions are not just part of a naive holy mission to save humanity, but rather a pragmatic call to lean into the uncomfortable, psychic movement that marks human evolution and social change. Much of humanity is so invested in keeping up with the machinery, that we hardly have space to stop and reflect on the fundamental assumptions that conceived such systems. We don’t notice connections between white supremacy and mental illness, how invested we are in the sick individual separate from their inheritance. We don’t realize the link between anxiety and internalized capitalism. We are blind to the ways in which we’ve turned humans into brands, our vulnerabilities into perfectionistic impossibilities. We are utterly clueless to the intricate, comprehensive ecology of a single organism and the ways in which this very life is threatened by the degradation of our planet.
I don’t just want more humane mental health care. I want to dismantle and transform all the isms and phobias that prevent people from living and loving. If we cannot view those of us in the society who are sensitive—those of us who are neurodivergent, bipolar, mad, etc.—as playing a critical role in our collective introspection, then we are rendered less capable of seeing just how divergent from our nature we have strayed. Further, if I am not bipolar, with a loud and proud message of empowerment and inclusion, then the only resources for bipolar folks are from systems and institutions invested in our supposed sickness, separate from and in service to the propagation of collective illness. And we wonder why the sensitive ones are suicidal. We see no value in their gentleness, no virtue in their heart, no profit in their life.
We live in a time of “roll over minutes,” from centuries of intergenerational trauma. This trauma is not just because we’ve suffered the realities of human existence. We are most in pain because we’ve harmed each other and ourselves. We’ve perpetuated suffering, rather than transforming our pain. This is a human issue, of which mental health is only one part. Psychiatric illnesses, separate from systems, are the byproduct of human arrogance and ignorance. I see psychiatry as a necessary component to the problems we face, but the field must be transformed by empowered consumers, just as we now need science to undo the catastrophic blunders technology has brought about.
Part of our challenge with social justice and mental health is that so many bipolar folks need to remain closeted to survive. When I was having manic episodes, I didn’t know anyone else who had ever had a single experience like mine. When I say, “I’m bipolar,” I’m acknowledging that there is something different about me neurologically that makes me more sensitive to emotional, sensory, and energetic shifts. I wholeheartedly feel that I can be bipolar, as a distinction from psychiatric disorder or illness. The discomfort of painful symptoms exists in the relationship between my neurodivergent body and a society which marginalizes difference. My disability exists primarily between bodies, in the crowded spaces of ignorance and intolerance.
We claim to be free, but we are slaves to a paycheck. We are burdened by diminishing sick leave and paid time off. We are plagued by the illness of consumerism, which feeds us malnourished messages of our incompleteness. We are heavy with a lifetime of debt, drunk with the promise of one day striking it rich. We are a sick society, and we soothe each other with signs of progress toward a unified materialism for all. This is no way to live, and those of us incapable of living this way are carrying a vital message for all humankind.
My personal sentiment is that mental health, and our approach to treatment, is of paramount importance in shaping the attitudes of everyday citizens. There might not be any more of a critical issue at hand. Everywhere I turn, I see examples of using psychiatric criteria to delegitimize thought and undermine our humanity, all the while encouraging blind allegiance to the personification of supply and demand. Our unconscious momentum welcomes opportunities to purge inventory in the form of human bodies. We are too busy numbing ourselves to feel this reality, too busy whitening the teeth of corporate jaws.
In the worst cases, we are essentially pathologizing empathy. We tell our children who want to cure world hunger, or save the planet, or protest the predatory institutions of unregulated capitalism, that they are having an episode and need medication. “Here, here,” they’re told. “Don’t protest, take this.” “Don’t challenge authority, go see your psychiatrist.” These are huge problems. Humanity weighs in the balance.
Now of course, not all people suffering with the pain of psychiatric criteria are emerging saints. I know that. And yet, when we are diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, we are nonetheless sold a false narrative, if for no other reason than its incompleteness. We are told that we have a brain issue, or a mood disorder, or faulty chemicals. We aren’t told that madness and creativity are inextricably linked, or that the primary mode of evolution is human adaptability, which makes great use of imagination and exploration and encounters with unconscious dimensions. We aren’t told that the human spirit is naturally corrective, always compensating toward greater harmony and wholeness, or that sometimes this is excruciatingly painful.
Know that I’m bipolar for good reason, reappropriating a painful word, so those in pain can find me—so you can find me. This is how I reappropriate a term used to strip me of my humanity, a term used to sell me counterfeit versions of reality. I refuse to let go of a label that helps me find my people, no matter how painful it is to retain. And when the children of the future need help, in the form of medication or anything else, I’ll be able to tell them it’s not a personal failing. I’ll remind them that they are diverse expressions of life’s great bounty, no less than the embodiment of the cosmos, made in the image and likeness of such infinite mystery.
Lastly, I’m bipolar because the folks that love us need hope too. I pray the parents, the spouses, the clinicians, the nurses, religious officials, law enforcement agencies, government representatives, and the psychiatrists find me. By being bipolar, the powerful people might also hear this message. I believe in them too. I believe in all of us. We are all stuck in the fantasy of individual illness, and if we can’t comprehend our interconnection, we are all doomed. In order to create change for ourselves, we have to step into our power, both as individuals and as kin. May we choose the great power of love, remembering our nature and reminding others of all that we have forgotten.
Chris Cole hosts the Waking Up Bipolar podcast and is the author of The Body of Chris: A Memoir of Obsession, Addiction, and Madness. Inspired by his journey of spiritual unfolding and mental health challenges, Chris practices from a heart-centered transpersonal orientation, combined with years of service to those navigating the intimate terrain of transformative crisis. Learn more at colecoaching.com.