Of all the judgement the world has to offer, we are still our own harshest critics.
I was a strange child. Awkward from the beginning- skinny, tomboyish, with front teeth too big for my face. After getting a big wad of pine sap stuck in my hair from climbing trees, my mother gave up and had my hair cut like a boy’s. I never fit in at school; I was defiant, opinionated and asked all the wrong questions. Aside from a few good friends I was always on the outskirts. The token weird kid who was tolerated, but never really accepted.
I ‘came into myself’ in my late teens and early twenties. Finally somewhat content but still self-deprecating to a fault… Quick to discount my worth, to find fault in every pice and portion of me. Six months into my relationship with my husband, I was still hiding under the covers every morning so he wouldn’t catch a glimpse of me without makeup on. If close friends or family members stopped by- even my own mother- I hid in the bathroom and painted my face as quickly as I could.
After that extreme haircut in childhood, I always dreamt of long hair- but it pretty much stayed short. A pixie cut during my punk-rock years, dyed fluorescent colors with Manic Panic and Kool-Aid and spiked with gobs of cheap mousse. A short but stylish ‘do followed, reminiscent of the old but more acceptable for motherhood and a full-time job in hospice nursing care. An expensive cut and dye job every 6 weeks to maintain the look was a small price to pay for actually liking my hair. As our family grew and I ended up staying home with our daughters permanently, the afternoons at the salon became a memory.
After my second child was born, I became very very depressed. I’d cry for hours for absolutely no reason, and often had to drag myself out of bed. I fought with everyone, was impulsive and irrational. A diagnosis of postpartum depression was made, and medication started immediately after the birth of our third daughter just 18 months after our second. Some things improved, but a lot didn’t. ‘It’ll get better as time goes on,’ they said. ‘Just wait it out, and it’ll go away.’
I let my hair grow, more out of apathy than anything. Painstaking hours spent in front of the mirror didn’t help. Every flaw glared out at me, just another item on a long list of shortcomings. More babies came, my PPD continued. Medications changed but nothing else did.
Once we moved to our homestead, I quickly discovered just how futile my cosmetic efforts really were. Ten minutes into summer barn chores and all that work was running down my face in muddy rivulets. My carefully arranged hair came loose, attracted hay and straw like a magnet and was perpetually stuck in my eyes and mouth. I let go a little more, and allowed my face to stay bare on days we hung around the farm. My hair saw less and less attention and more and more time in a messy knot on the top of my head. Convenience won out over vanity, one step at a time- but I still avoided my reflection.
The birth of our 6th child brought a difficult recovery as well as huge varicose veins behind my knees. A c-section incision, widened even further mid-procedure to allow passage of Eivin’s big head, was now another thing to despise about my torso. I hated that I hated it, ashamed of my vanity. I had six beautiful children and yet my stretch marks and slack, ruined skin bothered me so much.
After my mother died, my depression deepened. Sadness and regret haunted me. I was diagnosed with major depression and anxiety, and medicated even more intensely. The vindictive custody lawsuit that my oldest daughter’s dad launched last October invaded my very last safe place and turned our lives completely inside out. Even after we won, retaining sole physical and legal custody (of the child I’d raised with sporadic involvement from him since day 1, for fuck sake) I couldn’t get better. Spending weeks without leaving the property wasn’t unusual; entire days on the couch wrapped in a blanket were frequent. Medications changed again and again. Intensive therapy began. I slowly started climbing out of the black pit and putting both feet flat on the floor again.
It took a paradoxical reaction to make it obvious- there was something else going on here. A new ‘miracle med’ that was supposed to solve all my problems made me extremely suicidal instead. The easy diagnosis was tossed, more testing was done and the real underlying issue became apparent.
I’m bipolar. Bipolar II, to be exact. I experience periods of high-energy followed by crashes into depression, sometimes extreme. Insomnia, impulsivity and inability to eat will turn to reclusiveness, exhaustion and destructive thoughts in a matter of days. Almost a decade on antidepressants threw me so far out of balance that not even the doctors who treated me could see the real problem. It took that one catastrophic medication to bring it out into the light.
I refused to accept it. I was ashamed, and wouldn’t give a name to this new truth. ‘Bipolar’ is synonymous with ‘insane,’ and that only made me feel worse about myself. I was on new medicine and it was working, that was my stock response to anyone close enough to my inner circle to ask. Denial or not, it was working. One pill replaced four, and I felt like an entirely new person.
I know now that I’ve had this issue for my entire life, which likely contributed to a lot of my childhood and teenage struggles. It excuses nothing, but explains so much. The knowledge that my beloved- yet mercurial- mother almost definitely had it too has been both a comfort and a new heartbreak. Had she been properly diagnosed at a much younger age, she could’ve been spared so much pain.
The way our society approaches mental health issues is absolutely abysmal. Those of us who require a slight correction to our brain chemistry are often demonized and disregarded, blanketed in loathing and disgust. And why? Do we not have a valid condition, something that we did not ask for and cannot simply vanquish with a slap in the face and a few positive thoughts? Do we really need to have our worth reduced because we require a daily pill (or two, or three) to feel well?
I let my own issues with self-image wreak even more havoc after my diagnosis. A former friend lost a chicken to a predator and informed me that I’d probably driven 1500 miles each way just to murder it… After all, I was crazy. If people who supposedly cared saw me in such a way, then it must be true, right? I let my self-loathing run rampant and make me hate myself even more. As the new medicine slowly worked its magic I started to realize that maybe I wasn’t the only problem in the situation; that maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t such a terrible person after all.
Finally able to curb the drastic swings, every single aspect of my life improved. I could smile again. I started seeing myself through my illness, and finding some things that were actually pretty cool. Even the whole package- Bipolar and all- really wasn’t so bad after all. I will carry my diagnosis, as well as the dependence on the single pill that has given me my life back, to my grave. I’m okay with that. Anyone bothered is welcome to take a one-way trip out of my life immediately.
I’d love to say that I see hope in the way this country approaches mental illness, but I don’t. Ignorance is its own epidemic, and the tendency to feed one’s ego by wounding someone else is an institution. A recent Facebook exchange where a very firm opponent of ‘fat shaming’ was defending ‘mental illness shaming’ as relevant and necessary was both hilarious and nauseating. The fact that this same individual was once a friend who repeatedly told me that I’m crazy, pathetic and completely hopeless didn’t reduce the sheer level of douchebaggery at all. The reality that there are people who are passing this kind of idiocy on to their children- who will, in fact, become the other adults my brilliant, free-spirited and quite possibly bipolar children will share the world with- makes me all the more determined to build them up into people who can’t be torn down as easily as I used to be. I’d rather they be exactly as they are and possibly be diminished by some for it than to have them be universally acceptable- but ordinary- anyway.
A funny thing happened while I was learning how to accept my inner self… I started to really accept my outer self at the same time. I barely ever wear makeup anymore; that once-daily necessity is now reserved for special occasions, and sometimes not even then. My long, thick, wild hair is allowed to embrace its inner beast and just be. New photos uploaded as social media profile pics are almost entirely makeup-free now. Recently, my stunning teenage daughter overheard two girls at school calling her ugly. She responded by going to school the next day with her hair in a ponytail and no makeup whatsoever. The text I received before class started included a smiling photo captioned with ‘I really don’t care what they think.’ I wanted to fly to her high school on soaring wings, to kiss and hug and thoroughly embarrass the crap out of her. Well done, grasshopper.
Having a huge zit, upplucked eyebrows or hair that looks like an F5 tornado blew through our living room doesn’t stop me from snapping a selfie with the kids or our brand new baby goats anymore. A few recent photos show the last stages of the horrible mouth sores I developed after the blood infection trashed my immune system. I’m proud of my wrecked belly, even if it does look like a giant alien scrotum. My little monsters are worth it, which is a relief- they sure as hell aren’t going back where they came from now.
So hey, I’m Cheryl. I’m bipolar. I’m very passionate, highly emotional and often pretty intense. I go through times where I write compulsively, take really strange photos and lose myself in thought for hours. A week later I might be canceling plans not returning calls or texts very quickly; it’s not personal, it’s how I have to work with my ‘stuff’ instead of against it. It’s really not that big of a deal. I’m happy to answer your questions or provide you with links to better information if you’d like. I’m not ashamed anymore. There are so, so many other people just like me, and they don’t need to be ashamed either. We have faces behind our labels, hearts and souls sharing the same body as our mildly flawed brains. Look a little further and you just might realize that some of what makes us different just might make us amazing, too.
Where no one notices the contrast of white-on-white.
And inbetween the moon and you the angels get a better view
Of the crumbling difference between wrong and right.”
Where? I don’t know.
Maria says she’s dying, the through the door I hear her crying
Why? I don’t know. “
“Round here we always stand up straight
Round here something radiates.”
“Maria came from Nashville with a suitcase in her hand
She said she’d like to meet a boy who looks like Elvis
And she walks along the edge of where the ocean meets the land
Just like she’s walking on a wire in a circus.
She parks her car outside my house and takes her clothes off
Says she’s close to understanding Jesus
She knows she’s more than just a little misunderstood
She has trouble acting normal when she’s nervous.”
“Round here we’re carving out our names
Round here we all look the same
Round here we talk just like lions but we sacrifice like lambs
Round here she’s slipping through my hands.”
“Run… Sleeping children better run like the wind
Out of the lightning dream
Mama’s little baby better get herself in
Out of the lightning.”
“She says ‘it’s only in my head.”
She says ‘Sssh, I know- it’s only in my head.’
The girl on the car in the parking lot says ‘man, you should try to take a shot.
Can’t you see my walls are crumbling?’
She looks up at the building, says she’s thinking of jumping.
She says she’s tired of life.. She must be tired of something.”
“Round here she’s always on my mind
Round here… Hey man, we’ve got lots of time.
Round here we’re never sent to bed early and nobody makes us wait
Round here we stay up very, very, very, very late
I can’t see nothing… Nothing… Around here.”
“Would you catch me if I’m falling would you catch me if I’m falling
Would you catch me cuz I’m falling down again
I said I’m under the gun, around here…
And I can’t see nothing, nothing…
–-Counting Crows, ‘Round Here.’