The Last Crazy Straw

“It’s strange how we can hold so many different truths in our mind at once,” Kate says as we walk today.

We are talking about breastfeeding, but we could be talking about so many things.

Kate knows about holding disparate truths in her mind and heart, because she had a baby during the pandemic, like I did.

“This has been an extraordinarily shitty year,” I say to her as I update her on how things have been since we last talked in-depth.

Then I pause, like I always do.

“Except, of course, for Bailey. She’s wonderful and I’m so lucky to have her.”

It’s the asterisk at the end of every line I write.

“You don’t have to do that with me,” Kate says. “You don’t have to say it. I know how grateful you are to have her.”

I appreciate that she knows we can hold both truths in our heart as mothers.

Loving Bailey has been unspeakably healing for me this year.

If all it took to heal mental illness was love, I’d have been cured ten times over.

But that’s not how it works.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with my mother about my blog about a month ago.

“So you don’t feel depressed because you think people don’t love you?” she asked.

I was a bit taken aback.

“No. No, of course not. I feel so loved by so many people, it’s overwhelming.”

I tried to express that my bipolar and anxiety are illnesses: they’re not my fault, nor the fault of anyone else in my life. I tried to explain that mental illness isn’t caused by any particular situation, though it can be made better or worse by the situations you’re in.

I went on to explain risk factors vs. protective factors to my mother. How any of us, but particularly those of us with mental illness, have certain things that put us more at risk for negative outcomes in life.

Traumatic experiences. Poverty. Drug use.

On the opposite end, you have protective factors. Or things that make it less likely that your mental illness will result in negative outcomes.

Your experience is shaped by a balance of risk factors and protective factors- like deposits and withdrawals from a bank account.

I explain to my mom that I’m very aware that I am where I am because of the enormous number of protective factors I’ve had in my life. The love of my family and friends, my education, my income, my whiteness, my lack of previous trauma, and my many other privileges allowed me to get to the age of 32 before I even knew that I had bipolar.

In spite of the hardships I’ve described on this blog, I am unspeakably fortunate.

Still, even the best protective factors will never fully eradicate the illness.

I had been starting to forget that as I started to feel better this spring. But the pendulum swung back in the other direction this week.

Nothing terrible happened. I was busier than usual and made a medication change, and it wore me down a bit.

But the key to riding out these bumps in the road is to stay calm and wait. One bad day does not have to turn into a bad week.

It’s one of the tricky aspects of bipolar and one of the symptoms I’ve had my whole life: when things are good, they feel like they will never be bad again. And when things are bad, they feel the opposite.

So I’m training my brain to live in the moment and accept each up and down as temporary. It’s hard work, but I’m getting there.

“Healing is not linear,” the slide reads at the end of the presentation that opens my support group every week.

The picture on the page shows lines of all different colors zigzagging up and down.

This is the same message that was shared with me during my IOP- an intensive outpatient program, which is supposed to be made up of day-long, in-person group sessions held over the course of six weeks or so to help you transition back to normal life after hospitalization in a psych ward.

But in May 2020 it was a three-hour-per-day, three-day-per-week Zoom call.

The instructor was eccentric, and in between sharing stories about her dog, she repeated those same words.

“Healing is not linear,” she said, tracing her fingertip over the loops and bumps of the object in her hand.

It was a crazy straw.

It was a bold choice for a mental health care provider.

It was a sign of my dulled mental state that I did not find it more amusing at the time.

The key benefit of my IOP was that it provided a structure for me during a time when I desperately needed it. The program focused on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which uses purposeful strategies to retrain your thoughts and make them more positive and productive.

You take a bad thought like, “I had a shitty year,” and turn it into a productive one, like, “I am so strong for making it through the most difficult time of my life.”

It’s very similar to the idea of a growth mindset in education. Your thoughts, like your intelligence, are malleable and can be improved with practice.

The first step is recognizing the patterns of bad thoughts.

All-or-nothing thinking. Catastrophizing. Jumping to conclusions.

Then you replace those patterns with healthier ones.

Remembering shades of gray. Examining the evidence. Recognizing double standards in the way you treat others vs. the way you treat yourself.

These are all strategies I find immensely helpful now. But at the time, they seemed like a strange way to cope with what I was feeling.

We were asked to rank our negative emotions each day on a scale of 1-10. Looking back on my notebook from the course, most of my rankings hovered in the 0-3 range: not because I was feeling particularly great, but because I wasn’t feeling much of anything in those days.

My primary thoughts were trying to figure out what had even happened to me.

Recovering from mania is kind of like waking up from a bad night of heavy drinking. Trying to piece back together disjointed memories while dealing with the consequences of decisions you made when you lacked inhibitions.

If “embarrassment” had been on the list of emotions I would have gotten closer to a 10. In particular, I was embarrassed by the many incoherent posts and messages I had sent on social media when I was manic. I was self conscious about the fact that all the people who received a message or saw my posts now thought I was crazy.

I spent the weeks of my IOP obsessively reading and rereading messages I had sent out. Sending apology notes and explanations to people. Cursing myself for not letting my mom and husband take away my phone, like they requested.

I focused my strategies on retraining these thoughts: these messages were inconsequential to most people, and only loomed large for me. I could forgive myself for sending out the messages, because I was sick at the time. The people who received the messages knew me and cared about me and were more worried than judgmental.

Eventually, I learned to reclaim my embarrassment about my mania and turn it into empowerment. If I’d already revealed my crazy to people, I might as well be frank with the world about what crazy really looks like: which is often times not so different from sanity. I hold sanity and insanity in my mind at the same time.

I began to use social media and writing to share about my experiences in a coherent way, while striving to maintain some of the honesty and bravery I had in my mania.

As I write these posts, a crazy straw sits mixed in with my pens and pencils in a mug on my desk.

The instructor of my IOP sent it to me at the end of the six weeks of the program, along with a heartfelt note that made me feel seen in ways I didn’t fully appreciate at the time, and a lame little thoughtful certificate.

When I look at that straw, I hold lots of conflicted feelings in my heart at the same time.

Frustration and redemption.

The urge to laugh and the urge to cry.

Pride in how far I’ve come and exhaustion with how far I have yet to go.

I remember, now, that this was actually a strategy we learned in IOP: dialectics, or the idea of holding two opposite ideas together at the same time.

I realize that it’s the blessing and the curse that those of us with bipolar were born with.

We have been given the burden and responsibility of holding the opposite sides of the world together.

Thanks for reading,


30 miles