I forgive myself. or, how bipolar made me a better human being -- my messy beautiful
I went to a new therapist this morning. Another new one. I have two now, so I am a bit of a therapist hog, but I figure that there are worse things to be. And when the whole world agrees to start going to therapy, I will give one up. But not new therapist. Keeping her.
Anyway, new therapist is a brilliant, brilliant human. Totally pegged me. This is hard to do, I think, because throughout college, I became very good at telling therapists what they wanted to hear when I decided that I could dig through things on my own and did not actually need their help. (Do not tell this to my parents, who paid a lot of money to these people who listened to me be not-all-the-way-honest).
Except today, I decided that all my crap needed to be spread out on the table again, full-disclosure-style, all vulnerable and as-is. Because not-all-the-way-honest is the same thing as being my own worst enemy.
New therapist asked me why I came in, and I told her:“Well, about a year ago I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and started new medications and a treatment plan, was told that I wasn’t going to be an effective counselor and should choose a new degree program because of that, stayed anyway, fought my way back up from rock bottom, moved to a new city, started blogging and speaking about my mental health, but I graduate in less than a month, and want to make sure that I’m taking care of myself. I guess is all.”
“…that’s all in the last year?”
“And you’re still sitting upright?”
New therapist brought up a good point, there. That’s a lot of stuff. For one person. And especially for one person in one year. It would be a lot even if it wasn’t crammed all into the same year, really.
“Think about it,” she continued. “You’ve had to figure out all this new internal stuff, and then you’ve had to do that in the context of all these outside things and pressures and voices and roadblocks. That’s a lot. That’s a lot to overcome and champion.”
And I hadn’t really considered that. In that moment, on that couch, in that office, the thought in my mind was, “Yeah, I don’t really feel like a champion right now. There is definitely something keeping me from feeling all-the-way like a champion. If I have to be honest.”
And y’all know me. I came home, and I sat, and I looked in the mirror, and I pulled out my journal, and I whipped out the video from the talk I gave up at JMU in February, and I watched it. There’s the brave part of me, the champion part, the part that will get up and talk about bipolary life in front of hundreds of people, no notes, no sweat, telling a room full of people about how bad it felt at rock bottom and how much better things are now, and how much we need to end mental health stigma. (Because we freaking do. And can.)
It is a lot easier to get up and talk about bipolar disorder when you are wearing a sequined blouse and silk elephant scarf, Starbucks in hand, hair lookin’ good. It’s much harder when it’s you in the trenches, dealing with your own hard, raw emotions.
Because then there’s the other part of me. That only sees the ways that I could be doing better, and the things I haven’t championed. The part that won’t take a compliment all-the-way to heart. The part that hasn’t forgiven myself for getting that bipolar diagnosis. That’s a thing. I’ve been sitting on it for a while, unsure of how to bring it to light, but it’s a thing. I’ve been withholding forgiveness from myself.
There’s this part in Silver Linings Playbook where Jennifer Lawrence’s character is yelling at Bradley Cooper’s character in the street, because he’d just brought up all this awful, ugly stuff about her past. And she says this:
"There will always be a part of me that is dirty and sloppy, but I like that, just like all the other parts of myself. Can you say the same about yourself? Can you forgive? Are you capable of that?”
Forgiveness sounds so easy, but it’s actually sort of the worst. And I have to do it anyway.
I think it’s the only way, really.
There is still a part of me that hasn’t forgiven myself for “getting sick,” as if depression and bipolar were things I could have opted out of, as if they could have been avoided if I’d done something differently. It’s hard for me to let go of that idea, that it’s my fault. There is still a part of me that feels compelled to preface all of this with an apology. An apology for being messy, for not having it figured out yet, for still struggling. There is still a part that feels guilty, like too much and not enough all at the same time, like I’m not okay, and might not ever be all the way.
And then there’s the part of me that believes in grace.
There is a part of me that hangs onto grace like it’s all I’ve got. Because it is.
And if I can’t give it to myself, what does that say about me?
It says that I don’t think I’m worth it.
And I don’t want to be a role model for that.
Grace. Forgiveness. They’re two things that I find it so easy to dispense to other people, but am so reluctant to give to myself. But I love grace. Am in love with it, probably. The best description of grace that I’ve ever heard in my life is as follows:
“Do you know what grace does? Grace sneaks into that old barn that’s filled to the roof with guilt and shame and self-loathing and hate and despair. Grace sneaks into that old barn and smiles and then it lights a match and sets the whole place on fire until it burns to the ground.”
Don’t you have chills? Don’t you just love that? I will never not love that.
Don’t you absolutely want to set your barn full of shame and self-loathing and all of that junk on fire?
I struggle, daily. In big ways and in small ways. It comes and goes in waves. Sometimes it’s fine, and sometimes I’ll have a few days like that in a row, and then sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s really, really not. Sometimes it feels like an awful lot like my life is about to spin out of control again, which is my deepest fear.
It’s going to take a lot of work. So I feel I can’t just be like, “Hey you guys, I forgive myself, and it was a decision that I made, so Happy Thursday!”
But then, why not? Why can’t it be a decision that I make every morning when I wake up, and then again in ten minutes when I mess up and need to decide that again? Why can’t that be a thing we all do? Wake up. Brush your teeth. Forgive yourself. Give yourself permission to be where you are today. “I forgive myself” is the same thing as “I accept myself,” and “I am okay with me.” It feels like a step that I skipped. I skipped right over “okay” and ran so hard toward “stable” because I felt like that was where I was supposed to be.
And this came from the same voice that told me that my particular mess was going to impair me past the point of being any good as a counselor. The one that told me that “bipolar” negated all of my good qualities. And I almost listened to it. I almost let it derail me, and keep me quiet. Praise the actual Lord that I didn’t.
I feel like all that’s coming out of my mouth lately is, “It’s fine, everything’s fine, I’ve got a handle on everything. I’m stable. I’m so stable. Look at how stable I am. Look at me. Me just bein’ sooooo stable.” Like I have to prove that I have the right to feel like I’m going to be okay. Like stable is the end-goal.
But stable isn’t the destination I’m after. In fact, the definition of stable is “unlikely to change or fail” and that’s actually the last thing I want. But it sounds so safe and good, doesn’t it? Very seductive. Well-played, Merriam-Webster.
There is very much a part of me that yearns for stability, and it is the same part of me that is afraid of dating (like what do you say on a first date? “Yes, I’m afraid of fish and also I have a mood disorder. What’s weird about your life?”…I mean, I might try that) and of mood swings coming back and losing control of my life again, and of what-if-I-pass-this-on-to-my-kids and what-if-this-gets-awful-again and things that get worse from there. It’s the same part of me that wants to know all the answers, right now, thank you very much.
And then when that part of me gets suffocating to listen to, I remember something that my sweet friend Pari said, which is that the part of me that tries to hold everything together and make my crap look all shiny and pretty isn’t the part that ever really helped anyone. It’s the part that’s been willing to keep all the crap out on the table that has, though. The part that’s messy. And then I step outside for some fresh air, and I look back at my life and see that the seasons which heralded the biggest changes and most excruciating failures are directly responsible for the biggest delights and happy tears and the community of struggle-out-loud-ers I’ve found.
I am (still) not my mental illness.
It doesn’t define me, but it affects me.
And I forgive myself for that.
I accept that it’s part of me.
And it’s one of my very favorite parts, I have decided, because it’s the part that’s breaking silence and changing the world in little pieces and setting people free from feeling like they have to stay in hiding and keep secrets about their messes. So, yes. I think it’s the most beautiful part of me.
And it’s time I stopped treating it like this little sister that I’m embarrassed of and will only acknowledge when she’s being good. Like a thing I can compartmentalize. That’s not true. It colors everything I see and do and think and breathe and create. For a while, I felt like that was a thing I wasn’t allowed to say. Because what if not keeping it in its box except for when it’s behaving means that I’m unstable? That’s dangerous. “There are people aren’t gonna like that,” I worried.
Well, I like a little danger. Someone told me recently that I need to do more things for fun.
This sounds like fun.
Yes, the bipolar part of me is the messiest part of me.
And the most beautiful part of me.
Because it’s the part that has taught me how to be softer, kinder, more open, more gracious, slow to anger, fast-as-lightning to forgive and forgive and forgive again.
It’s the part that is prompting me to be those things with myself.
To be the kind of human being that I wish I'd had sifting through how hard life can be sometimes (slash most of the time).
And it’s the part that wants to burn down the dang shame barn I keep rebuilding.
It’s time I started forgiving that part of me and loving that part of me as much as I love and forgive all the other parts of me, and all the parts of other people.
It’s time. It really is time.
It really is beyond time.
If you're new to the blog and would like to read more about my messy, beautiful story with depression and bipolar disorder, check out the first post I wrote about it back in September: I am NOT my mental illness.
I am thriiillllled (thrilled, thrilled, thrilled!!!) that this essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!
And here's the giveaway!
This sweet book was the catalyst that gave me permission to speak up and show up and be open and vulnerable and embrace my messy, messy life. So I'm giving away a copy, and it is my prayer is that it'll give the one of you who wins the same permission and same freedom, and then that the rest of you will go buy it on Amazon (here!) and still get that permission and freedom. You really should. It really is time.
All you have to do is enter your email address below! The giveaway will close Thursday, April
17th, and I'll contact the winner for shipping info! Hooray!