057: My Boundaries

Content warning:  This post contains information about mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder, which may be triggering to some survivors

"My Boundaries," Clare Cady

It’s been 4 years since I was diagnosed bipolar II and started medication. When I sat down to write this piece I actually had to look that up, because while I got my diagnosis in 2012, I have been bipolar as long as I can remember...and probably longer than that. The farther I get away from my diagnosis the less significant it seems. The naming of the thing did offer me language to describe the patterns of my life, and allowed me to address the parts that were unhealthy. It did not breathe it into existence, but simply pointed it out so that I was conscious that I was living with it.

For me, living with bipolar disorder is like having a charismatic roommate who makes me feel incredible about myself, invincible even, while simultaneously trying to ruin my shit. She is the one who tells me that I can do ANYTHING. I can start a national organization, climb a 14,000 foot mountain, publish scholarly works, and learn how to make an incredible dish of short ribs...and she’s RIGHT! I can listen to her advice and touch the sky because she obliterates my inhibitions, my perceived limits, my boundaries. 

My boundaries. 

We need boundaries in order to manage our lives, and it is here where she starts to push me out of that creative and productive zone into spaces where I can lose touch with health, wellness, and sanity. Her voice is excited and earnest. She is the most convincing person I know. She tells me I don’t need to sleep, and I can stay up all night building furniture out of repurposed materials, or driving from Utah to New York in under 2 days, and I ignore my health and safety to do so. She tells me my relationships, my jobs, my living situations, are not good enough for me and I should move on, and later I regret leaving. She tells me I can spend money I don’t have, and I rack up debt. She tells me all of these things and more...and I used to listen to her. I listened and believed and I never once thought about who it was that was telling me all these things. I never once considered that she was a liar. 

After all, how could she be? She’s me. 

And those are the good times. When not encouraging me to attempt (and often complete) superhuman tasks or take (to benefit or detriment) massive risks, she is telling me that I am the worst person on the planet...and reminding me that any success I have had is accidental - not mine to claim. Her ability to gaslight me is so incredibly powerful, an artist of deception and denial. It’s almost impossible not to listen to her, because while so much of what she says is so incredibly irrational, she touches on truth JUST often enough that she can establish herself as credible. She does this both when she is building me up, and when she is tearing me down.

Even a liar can stumble onto the truth sometimes. 

It is in those truths that I find myself. 

I have regularly stated in my writings, on Twitter, and on my video blog that medication does not remove my symptoms, but it makes me aware of them while dulling their impact such that they are manageable. Just like my bipolar-liar internal roommate, this is a double-edged sword. The problem is that while I now know she is there, I also know I can’t get rid of her. On my bad days I find this akin to living in an abusive relationship I can never walk away from. It can be the most unempowering experience to consider that I have to live with this liar under my roof for the rest of my life. 

However, understanding what is going on helps me to take control of my situation - to untangle the knotted web of lies and to stand up and say NO. I can claim my successes and forgive myself my failures. I can find health. I can harness the energy I get from mania and channel it into making the world a better place - and in my depression I can realistically assess my impact. I can be a vibrant person, a loyal friend, an honest speaker, and an adventurous learner. I can separate out what is truth and what is lies with clear eyes, and find peace with this person such that she is no longer separate from me, but a part of my whole upon whom I can place my own, reasonable boundaries.

And I can keep my truth, and my power, for myself. 

About the art: 

Clare’s story is so beautifully written and gave me some insight into her experience, but more importantly it helped me to hear her voice and see this truth that she speaks of so eloquently. Clare told me that the official color for bipolar awareness is emerald green, so I wanted that color to be a symbol in the painting.

Clare also shared that she loves art with words in it, and so to tie in symbolism through color, words, and meaning from Clare’s story, I painted this eye with a quote around the iris. This quote resonated with what I heard in Clare’s story, about finding herself, and seeing her truth. The quote from Leo Tolstoy is, “truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.”

- Becca Meyers


045: To Know Myself Again

Content Warning: This post contains information about mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder, which may be triggering to some survivors.

“To Know Myself Again,” MacKenzie Dumas

Finding out that I am bipolar was not surprising.  The negative aspects that come with being bipolar have not surprised me.  But, the positive things that have surfaced since becoming more vocal and open about being bipolar have surprised me.

I have struggled for a while with my mood, but I found out just over a month ago that I am, in fact, bipolar. I will briefly write about the negative things, just to let people know that it is something that people, most of the time invisibly, deal with when they have bipolar disorder.  But, the main purpose of me writing about living with bipolar disorder is to bring light to my situation and hopefully, remind bring a little light to others in the same boat as me.

Both ends of the mood spectrum when it comes to being bipolar are scary.  They are scary because I do not know I am there mentally until I leave those places.  When I dip into the depressive state, I find it more than difficult to pull myself out of bed—

I don’t call my parents.  I don’t eat.  I don’t do the things I typically enjoy doing.  I sleep and can’t convince myself to pull myself up and live.  I do find the time to talk down to myself, and for a person who is hard on herself even without being in the depressive state, this can be astonishingly harmful to myself. 

When I go into the hyper stages, my mind is going a million miles per hour.  I can’t concentrate.  I have driven places, forgotten I drove there, walked back to my dorm, and forgotten my car overnight.  I can’t sit still.  I can’t sit in class without having to leave to go do something.  I crave to run.  I want to run 1,000 miles.   I want to run at 1 o’clock in the morning.  I do not know where I want to run to, but I can’t stay here.

I want to be there, and there, and there.
I want to do that, and do that, and then do that. 

I will sleep for 2 or 3 hours a night and not miss it the next day. I get angry at myself for not having the ability to do multiple things at once and not be able to be in multiple places at once. I forget to eat, because I am too busy trying to accomplish a month’s worth of tasks in a day. I will do that for a week straight and when that hyper time is over, I am mentally and physically exhausted.  

But, I can either focus on those parts of bipolar disorder, or, I can choose to see the great things that have happened.  

The first time I was actually told that I am bipolar, it scared me for about a second. But then, I realized that it explained so much and that there was so much I could do to cope with it and help others deal with mental illness.  I decided to make this a vehicle.  I can drive it anywhere I want.  I can either decide to leave the car in park and not use it for anything.  I can put the car in neutral and let it cost wherever it wants to, dragging me along with it. OR, I can put the damn car in drive and I can travel and go places and bring others along for the ride.  And if anyone decides that they don’t want to go with me, then they can leave, and that’s fine, but I am driving and I have places I need to be. 

So stay or get out—but I. Am. Going. 

I have a blog that I started as a medium to write about my transition into being an adult and start life away from where I grew up.  I decided to use the blog as a way to document my experience with bipolar disorder.  My first post has been my favorite.  

Back when I was in a really depressive state, I decided to get the phases of the moon tattooed down my spine.  For me, it represents that even when I do not feel like all of me is there – when I feel like parts of me are missing, big or small—I am always whole.  I am constantly transitioning.


This tattoo is monumental.  I am cratered with imperfections, but I am whole and I am strong and I am beautiful. 

For my first post, I connected my mood transitions with the phases of the moon.  The moon has been a very important element in connecting my mood with something visible and real. But think about it, the moon is allowed to constantly change, in fact, so is the weather, so why is there such a stigma about my moods doing the same exact thing?

"Phases of the Moon," MacKenzie Dumas

New moon.  This is the beginning. 
I feel like I have not found myself but I have not lost myself, yet. 
I have not lost myself again.
There is so much possibility and probability and potential. 
But everything feels ambiguous.  
And just as the crescent begins to show, so do I. 
A new revolution. 
There is so much to believe in. 
I begin to feel familiar to my own self. 
My skin feels like it is of me. 
I remember, just for a moment what I am made of and how to once again
Catch My Breath. 
Half Moon and the glass feels half full. 
I recall in a way that I could not in the previous moments of being
The semblance of a working soul
Everything can only get better, bigger, stronger. Real. 
I am almost there and so is the gibbous moon. 
Only a crescent-sized piece of me is missing
And maybe I can live without it. 
If only I could stay here, and live with the compromise of myself
I could
I can
Live without the missing piece but I don’t know what it is and my mind is racing
And I can do almost anything  
And then the unmistakable feeling emerges
I am whole
Bright and visible and illuminated
Cratered by imperfections
But they are beautiful and
My soul is beautiful
Nothing is lost
When I look at my reflection, I am within
I am familiar with those who surround me
My thoughts are my own
With ease
I can change the tides of the ocean
And with the victorious awareness of liberation
Comes the inevitable and calamitous
Because everyone knows that even when the moon is full
Half of it is in darkness and waiting its turn
And we try not to be selfish.
Once again, I become a gibbous. 
One again, a piece of me is missing. 
Still, a piece I feel I can live without
If only I can stay here. 
Functional and thriving. 
But just as quickly, 
I am at half once again. 
Half Moon, half empty. 
Still proportionately the same as before,
But diminishing
Half is okay. 
We can do half. 
And a little light is lost. 
And then a little more. 
And soon a crescent sized piece of myself is left. 
And I think
I just need to keep this little bit. I just need to know that some of me is still here. 
Because if this leaves, what if I never come back. 
And pretty soon I am in my own darkness
All that is left are the stars and a glimpse of our galaxy
And I am lost somewhere in there
Just hoping that I get another chance
To know myself again.

I created the post, and then decided to share it to my Facebook and to Twitter.  It was very terrifying for me because almost no one in my life knew what I was dealing with.  But, I really want to use my experience to help others cope with their own experiences, and hopefully foster an environment for others to understand what people are going through.

Posting that poem has been such a positive experience.  I had people messaging me, people who I’ve never met or known, to tell me that they were so happy I posted it.  People were able to connect with it and sigh a breath of relief because someone else on earth knew what they were going through.  

I have told friends and family and for the most part, people have been extremely supportive of me.  I have found that becoming vocal about it has changed my relationships with people, and they have changed for the better.

Here I was, afraid that people would stigmatize my mood disorder (only 1 person did) and I was the one underestimating people for how they would react to me telling them.

If you surround yourself with positive people, your experience will be more positive.  My message is that, you can either surround yourself with people who only go outside to see the moon when it is whole, or, you can surround yourself with people who appreciate the moon during every phase.  Remember to love yourself, no matter what phase you are in.  Learning to love yourself when you are whole is hard, learning to love yourself when pieces are missing or hidden, is even harder.  It’s a beautiful life and I just want everyone else to make the best of theirs. 


About the art:

I was inspired by Mackenzie's poem about phases of the moon to create this piece.  The colors are inspired by the cool, calming colors of the ocean.  I started to paint the phases of the moon, but the quote I chose to use from her poem is about the full moon phase.  With this idea, I painted full moons in different colors and shades.

It's funny that the quote is about imperfections, because this painting is actually upside down.

I painted the moons with the idea that the light source (or yellows) would be at the bottom right of the piece.  After adding the quote which I fell in love with, I noticed that I had painted it upside down.  I loved how it turned out and I think it fits better with the moon orientation this way instead of the way I had originally planned.

Sometimes the picture in our mind isn't what the final product ends up becoming, but I am very grateful for that because it created a more beautiful painting than I had thought it would become. This relates to the events that shape our lives along the way.  It may not have turned out how we thought, but it's even more amazing than we'd imagined.

I hope Mackenzie loves this painting as much as I do and it inspires her to be true to herself, because she is amazing.

- Emily Lopez

043: Difference is a Strength

Content warning:  This post contains information about mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder, which may be triggering to some survivors

"Difference is a Strength," Anonymous

Note: All survivors who reach out to The Art of Survival are given the option to remain anonymous in sharing their story. Any specific details about the survivor are shared at their discretion, and not the creators of the page.

I don't really know where my story begins. I guess I would have to say I started to see changes in myself in high school. I would get these incredible shifts in mood and behavior, that were usually followed by long periods of depression. I never knew what that meant. I continuously felt so abnormal and felt that I had to be isolated, because the only words that people around me could use to describe me was "bipolar bitch.” 

I was finally diagnosed with bipolar-depression and that’s when I thought my life was never meant to be a happy one. I had all these people around me who continuously called me a "bitch" or a "cunt,” because "I couldn't handle my PMSing" even thought having bipolar-depression was nothing like that. The comments about my disorder made everything worse. I felt like I had no support and no one who understood me.

My own family told me to "just be happy." With the continuous comments I got to a point where the depression took over and I stopped being able to feel. I began to resent myself for not being able to be "normal.” I convinced myself that for everyday I wasn't "normal" I deserved to be punished, so I began self harming and was struggling with suicide ideation. 

I spent two years in a program being told to "find my safety skills", but no one ever offered to help. There came a point where they felt like it was just easier to put me inpatient. This is probably the most terrifying moment in my life. I was stuck in a place where we couldn't go outside because "we couldn't be trusted,” and medication changes were regular. I honestly couldn't even keep track of how many different combinations I tried.

By the first month, my family didn't even know what medications I was on. I was finally able to leave because I was "safe" but in reality I was so numb from medications I couldn't feel. 

It's hard for me to really remember what happened next. I know that my breaking point hit six months later when my mom began crying because "I wasn't her daughter anymore.”

I didn't smile. I didn't laugh.

I barely ate, and when I did go out, I wasn't interactive with what was around me. I sought alternative methods and focused on art therapy for my release. I ended up being connected with wonderful instructors and counselor who worked with me to find my outlets and coping skills. 

Today, I still struggle; but it's one that I've learned to accept and balance. I think a huge part of my growing with this difference in my life is not allowing it to define me. I've learned that I may have to approach of process differently than others when it comes to emotions but that difference is not a weakness, this difference is a strength.

I have learned to become stronger and to accept and love all parts of myself.


About the art:

The one suggestion I was given from the author of this piece was to include a semicolon, based on the Semicolon Project that influenced their experience with embracing their mental health struggles. 

After trying about 10 different ideas, I decided to focus the color on the background, and use line work to create a more dynamic semicolon with a message of, "I can survive," within. Through my research, I stumbled upon some really cool watercolor space designs that influenced the piece.

I was really nervous having minimal to go on with the piece, but I was delighted to hear that the author loved it. "I love this. It's very me," they said. I'm glad I got to play with a bunch of styles, and I'm really happy the author will be able to see themselves and their survival within it.

- Katy