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Growing up I always knew there was something different about me. I had a creative mind that was always at work. I was perceptive to people’s moods and often changed mine to match theirs. I could sense people’s depths of emotions even when they expressed something different on the surface.
These qualities served me well in my younger years. My sensitive nature made me a popular friend. My creative mind allowed me to make up plays and choreograph dances for the neighborhood kids to perform. My emotional intelligence helped me write insightful poetry, wonder about life while star-gazing and dreaming about a future where I would change the world in many cool ways.
But then adolescence hit and my differences turned against me. I found myself in an uncomfortable stew of teenage emotions, social awkwardness and not knowing how or where I fit in. The pressure of hormones, school stress and peer expectations turned the heat up even more. My sensitivities in response to other people became suffocating. The confusion of what they displayed and my sense of the angst underneath made my head spin. I began to wonder – Is this all real or am I crazy?
The Party, excerpt from The Other Side of Bipolar
It’s New Year’s Eve. There’s music playing in the background as my parents, Drew and I get the house ready for our neighbors’ arrival. We’ve had a party every New Year’s Eve for as long as I can remember. I love getting dressed up, decorating the house and playing hostess with my parents.
Our neighbors begin arriving in small groups of two or more, each carrying a dish to share. It’s my job to take their gift of food and place it on the long dining room table. I enjoy seeing all the colors and textures of the different food. I sneak a small taste of each before heading out to the entryway again to greet the next round of people.
I skip around and greet everyone with a wide smile. The ticklish feeling of the soda pop bubbles fills my belly just like they did that day in D.C.
The house fills with a buzz as more neighbors arrive. It’s like one by one another instrument gets added to the orchestra. But this orchestra is out of tune with instruments that don’t complement each other. The bubbles that had been happily floating around begin to churn.
All of a sudden, the buzz grows so loud my bubbles burst and fizzle. My ears hurt and everything gets blurry. The voices around me collide with one another and cut like glass on my skin. The bouts of laughter are especially sharp.
While moments ago I had welcomed the attention from neighbors I greeted, now their questions and holiday cheer feel like a pillow being pushed against my face. I gasp for air. What’s happening?
I start looking for quiet and empty space but it is difficult to find in this swirling crowd of people. Everyone I pass smiles and tries to talk to me but my voice goes away and I find it hard to respond to their questions.
What’s wrong with me? Everyone else is having fun. Nobody else seems bothered by this out-of-tune orchestra.
I twist and turn as I make my way through the crowd, trying to keep space between each lump of people and myself. As I pass each group I’m caught up in different currents. I’m not sure how to navigate them.
Everyone appears jovial and in the “holiday spirit”, but as I slide along the wall to pass by a group of three women chattering, I feel my belly and jaw clenching. I’m hit with a rush of anger. Yet all I see are smiles on their faces. What I see is not what I feel. Is what I’m feeling wrong? What’s going on here?
I duck my head down and slip quietly behind the older woman who lost her husband this year. A wave of sadness drenches me and I wonder if it will take me down. Somehow I keep moving forward.
I gasp for breath. I become more and more confused as each person tries to engage with me. Do I respond to their words or the wave of emotion flowing through them and into me? Nobody else seems to be aware of these undercurrents.
Is it real or am I crazy?
Not so far down the road from this party my parents found a suicide letter I had written and I was whisked away to the shrink. A bipolar diagnosis followed along with 6 years of over-medication which brought on a whole host of new issues – nasty side-effects, warnings that I would never live a normal life and therapies that felt more invasive then helpful.
Wrapped in stigma, held hostage by my diagnosis, at war with my body and locked up in self-judgement my dreams for my life began to die out. My sensitivities and creative mind were fuzzed out by the medication fog. My emotional intelligence became the culprit of my ‘crazy’ and so I began to shut it out.
I lived for years this way. Trying to survive. Just getting by day to day.
Lightning struck when I was 20 and moved to Florida. I met a holistic psychiatrist who treated me, not my diagnosis. A door to a different possibility opened during our work together; not only could I get through this but I could strive to create a life that made me happy.
Emboldened with this new perspective, I undertook a long path of self-discovery that allowed me to reclaim the brilliance of that sensitive, creative little girl before the upheaval of adolescence took hold. I was able to release the crushing self-judgment, move beyond limiting beliefs about my potential and ultimately burst out of the diagnosis box.
I discovered that differences are strengths, not weaknesses and that it is all a matter of self and environmental perspective that allows one to use their difference to thrive.
Here are 3 insights that I have that you could use for yourself to create more self-acceptance, ease with being different and how to use your uniqueness to create:
We are aware
By nature we are aware. We have intelligences and sensitives to our environment and the people in it. We pick up on other’s thoughts, emotions, judgments and stress all the time. The problem occurs when we don’t know that we are aware so instead we buy the emotional stew that surrounds us as ours. We internalized the environmental angst and eventually it starts to feel like it is coming from inside of us. It’s not. We are just aware. Having this knowledge base lets one remain open to receive information without getting lost in it or being at the effect of it. Next time you are overwhelmed ask yourself, ‘what am I aware of?’ This will create enough space to see that you are aware and will allow you not to internalize your environment.
Everyone judges themselves
Self-judgment is pervasive. It’s a cornerstone of most people’s inner worlds. No matter how confident and ‘together’ a person looks chances are their internal dialogue is tainted with this. Judgment is the biggest killer of inner peace. It has us warring with ourselves, editing everything we do or say and keeps us shying away from the world. For me the ‘other side’ of mental illness is the one where we move away from self-judgment and into allowance of ourselves and our differences. If you can learn to be kinder to yourself and handle yourself with more care a sense of peace starts to overtake the judgment. What is right about you? How can you flip the ‘negative’ into a ‘positive’ and start to find allowance for who you are and where you are in life?
It’s okay to be different
So often in this world being different is equated to being wrong. It’s not. It’s just different. Beyond that people who see the world differently and use that vision to create bring about great change, art and expression to the world. In my perspective, the way to ‘heal’ from mental illness is not to try to be normal or fit into specific guidelines of sanity but to embrace your differences and start to use them to be more productive and creative in this world. If your difference was a strength that you could use what would that look like? What innovative quality do you possess and what strength can you harness to begin to use it?
Moving past mental illness is possible. With self-awareness, self-accountability and a place to focus your creative energy destructive patterns can be changed and you just may be surprised at the life you can begin to create for yourself. All it takes is the willingness to try…
Lauren Polly is an author and contributor to Painted Brain News. You can visit her website at laurenpolly.com/