Kody Keplinger: But Sometimes, It Does Suck

Kody KeplingerKody Keplinger is the author of three books for teens: The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend), Shut Out, and A Midsummer’s Nightmare. Her first middle grade novel will be released by Scholastic next year. Currently, Kody lives in New York City with her guide dog, a very upbeat German Shepherd named Corey. When she isn’t writing, Kody spends a lot of time eating Thai food, marathoning Joss Whedon’s TV shows, and vlogging. You can find her on TwitterYouTube, and her website.

I’m nervous about writing this post. I’ve been very personal on the internet before, even about my disability, but I’ve always tried to present a narrative of positivity of sorts. Sure, I’ve talked about ableism and other unpleasantness, but in regards to me and my abilities and my experiences, I’ve tried to veer on the side of happiness and empowerment. Presenting anything else is hard for me, because there are so many ways for my words to misread or misinterpreted or misunderstood. It calls to mind a line from the song “Breathe (2AM)” by Anna Nalick:

And I feel like I’m naked in front of the crowd/’Cause these words are my diary, screaming out loud/And I know that you’ll use them however you want to.

But the goal of this website is to be a resource for writers and readers, to educate people on the realities of disability, to help people create and identify well-written disabled characters. And because of that, I know I need to be fully honest.

I don’t speak for everyone and would never try, so I want to start by saying that this is MY experience and MY reality and MY observation, not everyone’s. So, I’m going to talk specifically about blindness here. With that said . . .

When I read about blind characters or see them on TV or in movies, they always go too far in either one direction or the other. The characters are either completely ruled by their disability – physically and emotionally – constantly breaking down about the struggles they face, fearing the outside world, struggling to adapt, etc. Or, they don’t seem fazed at all. In fact, you might never know they were blind because they are independent and fearless and nothing – NOTHING – holds them back.

One might assume that I’m okay with the latter portrayal, but the truth is, I hate both, because neither is honest.

If you’ve read much of this blog, you’ll know why the first option – the character completely ruled by their disability – is a bad portrayal. Presenting disabled characters as weak or fragile is problematic and unrealistic when the vast majority of us live full, happy lives. But the second option, the disabled person who isn’t even fazed, that’s not honest either. In fact, those representations almost fit into the superhero trope to me – they feel like overcompensation on the part of the writer, who doesn’t want to present a weak character, so instead they erase all signs of the character’s disability other than the bare bones – this case, there character can’t see, but that’s it. That’s the only sign of their disability.

The reality, at least for me, has always been somewhere in the middle.

Most days, I don’t think about the fact that I’m legally blind. I mean, I do  – I have a guide dog, I use accessibility functions on my computer, etc – but these things have become such a part of my life, that most of the time, I don’t think about why I’m using them. I don’t think about the fact that not everyone does. In fact, most of the time, when I hand my roommate my laptop to show her something, she has to remind me to zoom out because, well, she isn’t blind. I forget. Because this is just my life. This is normal.

Most days, I don’t really think about it.

But there are other days, too, when I can’t help thinking about it, and sometimes, it sucks.

When my friends talk about going to clubs or out dancing, I always have to bow out. I’d love go dancing with them or to go to a club like other 22-year-olds, but because of my vision, I don’t think I could enjoy it. Clubs are too dark for me to navigate, and too loud for me to use my hearing the way I’m used to. (Note: blind people don’t have “better” hearing, but we do use what hearing we have more efficiently.) If I went to a club, I’d have to leave my guide dog at home (too much stress for her), and I’d be stuck clinging to one of my friends. It wouldn’t be impossible, just not worth it.

Thinking about that sucks.

Before I got my guide dog, Corey, clinging was something I was very paranoid about. Even with a cane, sometimes I needed to hold onto someone’s arm for help. I was always worried I was getting annoying or being an inconvenience. I always thought about how much easier it would be on them – not me, but THEM – if I could see. With my best friends, this paranoia wasn’t a big factor. But with new people – especially with boys I might potentially have a crush on – it was a source of anxiety. And sometimes, when Corey can’t help, it still is.

Thinking about that sucks.

I was born legally blind. My condition is congenital, so I don’t know what it’s like to see well. I don’t have the same feeling of loss that some people who’ve lost their sight later in life do. But I’ve had to stop Googling the name of my condition, Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis. Why? Well, LCA, as it’s called, has many variants on many different genes, several of which (like mine) haven’t yet been discovered. A couple of those variants, though, have shown some success with gene therapy. Some people have had their vision improved. Most of the time – like 99% of the time – I don’t think or care about a cure, because I’m okay with my life as it is. But when I Google my own condition and all I see are pages of articles about breakthroughs and cures! And none of them apply to me. Whether I care about a cure or not, that gets to me.

Thinking about that sucks.

Most days, I don’t think about my disability at all. But every now and then, I do.

Some people might misread this post. They might want to post comments like “Stay strong!” or “You’re so brave!”  If you’ve read much of this blog or any of my other posts, you know that’s the last thing I want. I’m not strong or brave or inspiring – I’m a person living my life the way that’s normal to me. All I’m saying is that there are emotional implications that come along with disability, and while portraying a character whose life is controlled by their disability is problematic, portraying a character who faces no emotional implications of their disability is problematic, too.

So, when writing a disabled character, think about this. You can still have an independent, capable character while acknowledging the emotional implications of that disability as well.

I’m scared to post this. I’m scared of how it’ll be read. I’m scared that the negative feeling I’ve talked about will get more focus than all of the postive things I’ve talked about in the past. I’m scared that you’ll see these things as weaknesses.

But you all deserve my honesty, and hopefully it’ll help someone who is writing a blind character to think about those other, deeper elements. That’s my goal – not to elicit sympathy or consolation. I don’t need that. I like my life, I’m happy with it, and these occasional, sucky times don’t change that at all.

Corinne Duyvis: Autism, ADD, and Depression, a.k.a. Bad School Experiences 101

Corinne DuyvisCorinne Duyvis is a lifelong Amsterdammer and former portrait artist now in the business of writing about superpowered teenagers.  In her free time, Corinne studies Dutch Sign Language, finds creative ways of hurting people via brutal martial arts, and gets her geek on whenever possible. She also sleeps an inordinate amount. Find her on Twitter.

Her debut YA fantasy novel Otherbound (Amulet/Abrams, 2014) is about a boy who’s spent ten years involuntarily witnessing the life of a mute servant from another world every time he blinks–and what happens when they discover they can communicate.

I often see writers focusing on the social aspects of autism in high school, which I think is awesome and important. But for me, although I was a mess, socially speaking, the issue of schoolwork was far graver.

In this post, I’ll recount my high school experiences (in embarrassing detail) in the hopes it may shed a light on the kinds of problems autistic characters may be likely to encounter in school–both the practical issues and the emotional ones.

I entered high school at the age of eleven, one year earlier than usual, due to being picked on in grade school. I was instantly faced with two problems.

The first problem: one boy decided I made a great target. The rest of the class followed. I was consistently picked on throughout the entire first year. After that first year, a teacher cracked down on the class like a goddamn superhero, and I was no longer picked on. Still, I resigned myself to being a permanent outsider; I barely had friends, and though I would hang out with one or two people during school, I never met up with anyone outside of school hours. In retrospect, I was far too stuck in my other problems for my social skills to develop normally.

See, the second problem was that schoolwork had been a breeze all my life. Now, it no longer was. With upward of ten subjects–expanded to a mind-blowing nineteen later on–I had to learn to study for the first time ever. Notably, my best subjects were the ones that required memorization. Languages? Vocabulary was a snap. For grammar, it depended on how the rules were structured. Memorizing case inflections in Latin? Sure! Memorizing standard rules about sentence order? No problem. Anything more complex and nuanced than that? I crashed.

The same applied to maths: give me a few rules to memorize and I excelled. Enter nuance, and my frustration levels racketed. I’d stare at problems in my textbook and nothing made sense, which frustrated me to tears because I knew I should be able to do this–so why wasn’t it working?

History and geography were just as bad. I had to read long, complex narratives, when at the time I had no earthly idea of how to single out the most important aspects. I would read, and read, and read, and nothing would stick.

This was a big deal for a perfectionist like me. Homework took ten times as long as it ought to. I flailed my way through the first few years with the worst study habits possible: I procrastinated, got distracted, moaned and complained and agonized, never scheduled … Homework was basically my beating my head against a brick wall and wondering I was getting such a headache.

Eventually, even the thought of homework made me burst into tears. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I didn’t want to go to sleep at night knowing that I’d have school first thing in the morning. My bike rides to school were fuzzy with tears, and I had constant thoughts of flinging myself into this canal or in front of that truck. I had panic attacks. One of them was set off by a bad grade for a German test.

In short: I was hella depressed.

But I still got decent grades. I managed.

Up until I entered the fourth year, when a different homework system was introduced. This system promoted independence and discipline. Instead of teachers saying, “Memorize these words by Tuesday, study this maths problem by Wednesday, do all the assignments on pages 78-85 of your Chemistry textbook by Thursday,” we’d get assignments like, “Oh, make sure you’ve completed chapters one through fifteen by January.” We discussed certain topics during class and were left on our own outside of it.

I crashed and burned.

Before, the constant looming deadlines of homework had kept me agitated, frustrated, and without any sort of free time, but they also made sure I got at least some things done. Now, having distant, abstract deadlines, and each subject being nothing but nuance rather than rote memorization … Nothing got done.

My depression got worse. I’d skip class, sitting in the school library and staring at the computer screen in a film of tears, and then I’d have a panic attack because oh god I’m skipping class what am I doing this is not me this is not me. I couldn’t conceive of any sort of future outside of school school school for years to come, and after that, there’d be college college college. I wanted to curl in on myself and never wake up so I’d never, ever have to deal with homework or school or obligations or anything ever again.

A couple months into this new school system, we called it quits. The only classes I attended were English and Art. I spent the rest of the time working in the school cafeteria, since I still had to be on school grounds.

And for the first time in years, I had peace.

After being strung along by an incompetent doctor for a couple of years, we finally gave him the finger and went straight to a psychologist specializing in children’s mental health. We’d read a book about Asperger Syndrome, recognized a lot of symptoms, and explained our suspicions. They tested me. Not long afterward, I received an official diagnosis.

And I was so, so relieved.

It wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t dumb for not succeeding. I wasn’t a failure.

Everything crashed into place. My social skills, or lack thereof. My obsessive focus on certain hobbies, to the exclusion of all else. My dislike of eye contact. My picky eating. My repetitive movements.

And my study skills.

Autistic people, as it turned out, often struggled with vague, abstract deadlines. Autistic people thrived on clear instructions. Autistic people had a hard time moving from one activity to another. Autistic people couldn’t separate the wheat from the chaff when reading narratives.

If we’d known sooner, we could have avoided so many problems. Instead, what we had was a traumatized fourteen-year-old tentatively recovering from depression, a brand-new diagnosis, and a mother determined to find the right place for her daughter. We found one. I enrolled in art school at the age of fifteen. I had barely homework, I filled my days with something I loved, and I flourished.

At twenty-three, I was diagnosed with ADD. Another few pieces of the high school puzzle clicked into place. (Why was I distracted so easily during homework? Why did I zone out during explanations and classes? Why couldn’t I write more than a sentence in my notebook before feeling the urgent need to doodle in the sidelines?)

All in all, the story has a pretty happy ending. I’ve taught myself a lot of the skills I lacked, I’ve embraced my autism, and I’ll have a book on the shelves this June.

But despite that happy ending, over a decade after leaving high school, I still have recurring nightmares of going back. In the dreams, I’m not worried about facing the bullies. I’m not self-conscious about being unpopular, or not knowing how to act. Instead, I’m back in the classroom after all these years. I look at the blackboard or my textbooks, and I panic. I’m back. I don’t understand. I’m behind on everything. I’m never going to be able to catch up. I’m never going to understand.

I’m back, and I’m going to be a failure all over again.

And it’s so odd to see that something that left such lasting scars on me is rarely even mentioned.

Kayla Whaley: On Bullying

Kayla WhaleyKayla Whaley has a BA in political science and is currently finishing her Master’s in Public Administration with an emphasis in nonprofit management. She interns for both the Atlanta Young Writer’s Institute and Month9Books. Her bookshelves consist almost entirely of kidlit and she writes YA fantasy and contemporary.

Kayla was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy III, a neuromuscular disease, and uses a power wheelchair.

I don’t remember the first time I was bullied, but I do remember the moment I finally realized that I had been bullied. It was a couple years ago. I had just presented my undergraduate thesis, the last big hurdle before graduation, and a group of us went out to celebrate after. I don’t know why I was telling this particular story, because I’m sure they’d all heard it before.

The story goes like this: All through high school, almost daily, I’d be driving down the hallway and someone would throw their friend against the lockers screaming, “I saved you! She would have KILLED you!” Different people every time, too. It was hilarious for them, and the way I always told it, with a bemused “Kids, eh?” attitude, made it hilarious for everyone I told.

That night, as I was telling it for the millionth time, something clicked. I stopped mid-story and said, “Oh my God. I was bullied.”

In retrospect, it was obvious that’s what that was. I thought back to how those incidents always made me feel: confused, embarrassed, ashamed. I’d duck my head, and drive faster down the hall. By that night in the restaurant, four years after high school, I’d forgotten how I always used to stare at the ground when I drove, hiding behind the binders and books I held against my chest.

I wondered how I could have missed it. I thought about how I have always dealt with what I now recognize as bullying with a nonchalant, play-along kind of humor. Because, like I said, it never FELT like bullying. It certainly didn’t feel good, but I didn’t have the language to understand what it actually was.

In one of the early episodes of Glee, there’s a scene where Artie, who uses a wheelchair, is stuffed into a porta-potty by a group of football players. While Glee obviously aired well after my formative years, this is the same portrayal of bullying I’d seen growing up time and time and time again. Bullies were violent; they beat you, pulled your hair, knocked your books down. Or they were verbally abusive, cussing you, calling you names. Bullying was something done TO YOU. It was obvious and hateful.

Nothing was being done to me, only around me. No one ever directly assaulted me (physically or verbally). And I hadn’t been given the tools to understand what was happening.

As soon as I had that realization in the restaurant that night, I also realized exactly how often I’d been bullied. In elementary school, in middle school, in high school, and even in college. It was always relatively subtle. Just subtle enough for me to ignore my feelings, and for me to think I needed to be in on the joke or else I was being too sensitive. No one ever said this to me, but I could see the relief on my friends’ faces every time I joked about those incidents. It made them so much more comfortable if I laughed about it, if I encouraged them to laugh about it, too. Because that meant it wasn’t a big deal.

I could give you a list of all the times someone has belittled me, insulted me, or dismissed me because of my disability. I could tell you about the times even my closest friends did it without realizing, because I didn’t even realize. I could tell you about all the guilt I felt after that night, thinking I was stupid for not seeing it sooner, blaming myself for not stopping it.

But this post isn’t about that. It’s about the fact that, as always, representation matters. Bullying as violence/verbal abuse should not be the only view of it we see, because it is not the only manifestation of it. Does it happen? Absolutely. Should we talk about the fact that it happens? Absolutely. But that should not be the end of the discussion.

If you’re writing a disabled character who deals with bullying, I’d encourage you to consider a more nuanced portrayal. The big, mean jock beating the kid in the chair is not the only story to tell. And frankly, bullying was not that big a deal for me. It happened, yes, and I can see now how it affected me, but at the time? I had scores of friends. I was near the top of my class. People liked me. And I had so many other, more important problems to deal with than the idiots in the hallway.

I guess what I’m saying is that it’s complicated. As most things are. Bullying may very well be a part of your character’s life, but it may not be the most important part.

S. Jae-Jones: I’m Not Your Manic Pixie Dream Creature–Debunking Bipolar Stereotypes

S. Jae-JonesS. Jae-Jones (called JJ)’s emotional growth was stunted at the age of 12, the age when adventures were imminent and romance just over the horizon. She lives in grits country, where she pretends to be an adult with a mortgage and a car. Other places to find JJ include Twitter, Tumblr, and her blog.

But you don’t seem bipolar.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say this to me. I also can’t tell you how many times people have been dismissive or incredulous about my mental illness, simply because I don’t fulfill many of their preconceived notions about bipolar individuals.

Here is a truth about me: I have a mood disorder. I was first diagnosed when I was 17 years old, and a senior in high school. I have been hospitalized, I have been medicated, and I have spent years in therapy. I am also—I would like to note—a happy and (mostly) productive member of society, with a full and fulfilling life. These things are not mutually exclusive.

Being “out” about my bipolar disorder is tricky, partially because society as a whole still demonizes mental illness, and partially because—unlike being female or a person of color—bipolar disorder is not a visible aspect of my existence. Do I wear the physical signs of a “crazy person” the way I am identifiably female and not white? No. Because of this, a lot of people tend to write off or trivialize my mental disorder as being invalid.

Here are the facts about my life as a bipolar individual:

  1. I suffer from mood swings, or more properly, “states”. I have manic states and depressive states, and cycle through them a few times a year.
  2. I am no longer medicated for my disorder.
  3. My family has a history of mental illness: my maternal grandfather and my maternal uncle most likely suffered from bipolar disorder (although it was undiagnosed in both). My grandfather led a rich and artistic life until he passed away from lung cancer when I was two. My uncle was an alcoholic and committed suicide.
  4. The severity and intensity of my mood episodes have lessened as I’ve grown older. Or perhaps I’ve become more equipped to deal with them through therapy and with the support of my family and friends. It does not, however, mean I am “cured” or that I no longer suffer (and suffer in very real and tangible ways).
  5. It is a very private disorder. I keep my feelings to myself. This is in part because I don’t want to contribute to the very stereotypes that plague other individuals with the disorder, but also due to the fact that those who do not suffer from mental illness simply do not understand how my manic and depressive states differ from more moderate feelings of happiness and frustration. My friends and family can provide support, but otherwise, I prefer to be left alone.
  6. How do I tell the difference between a manic episode and happiness, a depressive episode and sadness? In between my moods, I have a “normal” state of being. I get annoyed by little things or excited by big ones. I get sad when my feelings are hurt or pleasantly surprised by small acts of kindness. In the 11 years I’ve lived with this disorder, I’ve come to recognize JJ vs. Manic/Depressive JJ. When I am manic, I am Too Much Me. When I am depressive, I am Not Enough Me. But this revelation comes after years and years of trial and error.

These are the facts about my life as a bipolar individual. But not all bipolar individuals exhibit symptoms of their disorder in the same way, just as my experience as a woman and my experience as a person of color is not identical to every other woman of color. I do not speak for everyone with mental illness, but I can tell you about the stereotypes about bipolar disorder that are harmful to those us who live with it:

  1. Bipolar people are a ticking time bomb.
    There is no enormous sign that says HANDLE WITH CARE. Bipolar states are not necessarily triggered by small, external factors like a work disappointment or a bad day. More often, these small external factors are like the straw that broke the camel’s back; chances are you were already approaching a state of mania or depression, and this small, external factor exacerbated a mood you were already in.

  2. Bipolar people are moody and sensitive.
    I suppose by definition bipolar individuals are moody, but not all of us are habitually so. When I am Me (as opposed when I am either Too Much or Not Enough Me), I’m generally sanguine and easygoing. A minor frustration or setback doesn’t usually make me irritable or put me in a funk; I tend to laugh it off and move on. There are plenty of moody individuals who are not bipolar; therefore, moodiness and bipolar disorder are not one and the same.

  3. Bipolar people are self-destructive and lack impulse control.
    I don’t deny that there is a high incidence of suicide and substance abuse comorbid with bipolar disorder. I also don’t deny that in the early stages of my disorder, I engaged in a lot of self-destructive and suicidal behavior, and felt as though I couldn’t control myself. Many undiagnosed and untreated cases of mental illness devolve into suicide and substance abuse, but correlation does not necessarily imply causation. A lot of times, people with mental illness turn to self-destructive behaviors as a way of coping with their disorder, either consciously or subconsciously, and in many of those instances, these self-destructive behaviors can be treated with medication and therapy.

    The thing about impulse control though—I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but as someone who considers herself a person with a large amount of willpower, Sitzfleisch*, and self-discipline, sometimes I feel as though certain behaviors are beyond my control. Sometimes, in either my manic or depressive states, I find myself doing things that I wouldn’t ordinarily do, and can’t for the love of God figure out why I can’t stop. Or why I can’t start. Most of these behaviors are small: I can’t make my bed (and my make my bed every day, thank you very much), I can’t respond to an email, I’m smoking cigarettes again, I can’t bear to face people I know and love, I can’t do anything but sit in front of my computer and obsessively read 70 million articles about the history of pantaloons. Sometimes I honestly can’t get up out of bed and face the prospect of eating. Or working. Or existing. I’ve learned to pick and choose my battles. With some things, I can wrest back control. With others, I can’t. But again, this is something I’ve learned to live with over time.

    I have to note too, that when I am Me, I know the difference between “I just don’t feel like it” and “I cannot”. Sometimes I feel like a lazy slob. But then I usually kick myself in the butt and get it done. Sometimes I feel like a gross person and eat an entire can of Salt ‘n’ Vinegar Pringles in one sitting. But then I shrug it off and go back to my normal routine. That’s “I don’t feel like it”, or the occasional indulgence. These things are normal, and even good from time to time. And then there is “I cannot”. I am not hungry, but I cannot stop eating. I am hungry but I cannot bring myself to eat. I am desperately lonely but I cannot bear human contact. These are the “I cannots”. They are very different from the “I don’t feel like its” and that’s where the issue of “impulse control” can become very fuzzy with people with mental illness.

  4. Bipolar people are artists, magical, tortured, misunderstood, etc.
    As with suicidal tendencies and substance abuse, there is also a strong correlation between bipolar disorder and creativity. There is a strong artistic streak in my own family; my grandfather was a painter, my uncle was a poet. I dabble in art and writing and music. But that in itself doesn’t indicate bipolar disorder; there are plenty of artists, musicians, and writers who do not have mental illness.

    But what I loathe in portrayals of bipolar people is this tendency to turn them into Manic Pixie Dream Creatures. Certainly manic episodes can come with increased creative output or productivity, as well as impulsive and reckless behaviors. In my own manic states, I have been described as being mercurial, tricksy, coy, a “free spirit”, eccentric, etc. As with some depressive states, in my manic ones, there are a lot of instances of “I cannot”, but sometimes, it comes with “I can and I WILL”. I can do this extreme thing because I can, so I WILL. It’s not to impress anyone, and it’s absolutely not to make anyone think I’m this otherworldly fairy put on this earth to change your life. In this case, it is compulsion rather than lack of impulse control that I feel is beyond me.  For me, a manic state feels like there’s an external force pulling at me, pushing me, and I’m just swept along in the current. Swimming upstream is hard.

  5. Bipolar people are “crazy”.

    This one is a little harder to unpack. “Crazy” is a loaded word, and it’s also a word that is so broad and vague as to be almost meaningless. But in everyday parlance, “crazy” is often a word lobbed at young women who act in ways that go against the grain of society. I hate that word. I hate how unspecific it is. I hate how dismissive it can be of the complex and varied existence of those living with mental illness. I also hate how it seems to be almost exclusively applied to young women, whereas young men are “troubled” or “tortured” or “misunderstood.”

    What is “crazy”? In nearly every context I’ve heard that word applied to someone, the person saying it usually means “she’s acting in ways that are contrary to my interests”. I don’t deny that manic or mixed states often cause me to act in ways that are irrational and unreasonable, and that I’m not exactly the easiest person to be around. And certainly many people who have mental illness can suffer delusions. (I have.) But “crazy” is thrown around so lightly these days that it’s become a dismissive slur.

    People living with mental illness can be unreasonable, irrational, and delusional. They can also make poor or selfish decisions. But that is not exclusive to people with mental illness; everyone can be “crazy”. Bipolar people are not this way ALL THE TIME, nor are they always this way when not on meds.

The other day I was out with a new-ish friend of mine and I casually mentioned my bipolar disorder.

“You’re not bipolar,” he said.

“How would you know?” I asked.

“You don’t seem bipolar. You’re not nuts.”

“And I suppose you would know.”

The truth was, he didn’t know. He made assumptions based on the stereotypes that exist. He assumed that because I wasn’t a “constant emotional wreck” and that I didn’t have a mental illness.

“How do you function without meds?” he asked. “I know bipolar people, and when they’re off, they go off the deep end.”

“You’ve never seen me on meds,” I replied.

“That’s true,” he said. And he got thoughtful. “Funny. Would never have thought that about you. But you don’t always know everything about people.”

Medication is something of a tricky subject for me. Many people need medication. And when I was first diagnosed, I was placed on a pill regimen. (Diagnosis is tricky—I was initially diagnosed as clinically depressed, then they thought I also had an anxiety disorder, or perhaps OCD, and even potentially ADHD. It was only after two psychiatrists and four different therapists that I got a proper diagnosis.) I disliked it. Later I would describe it to my therapist as feeling like I was never myself. I felt like a robot or an automaton, or another thing that went about its business and routine with no passion or intensity. I disliked it. I would have hated it, if I could feel.

Fortunately for me, I had a therapist who worked with me. We worked on a lot of different exercises, including writing down what I felt in a journal, and then reading back to recognize the patterns in my manic, normal, and depressed states. Then I learned to recognize when I was in those states. And then I learned how to live with them.

This approach doesn’t work for everyone. It works for me. For me, there is power in naming something and recognizing it for what it is. And just like everything else in this complicated world we live in, there isn’t a unilateral treatment for mental illness. I was lucky; my parents were incredibly supportive and helped me find the treatment that worked for me. Each bipolar individual is different. I’m just one.

Here are some things to keep in mind if you include a bipolar character in your work: the disorder often manifests itself in late teenage years. I was 17 when I was diagnosed. This is possibly THE WORST TIME in life to be diagnosed—in addition to the trainwreck that is puberty (or maybe that’s just me) and hormones going wild, you have mental illness fucking up your shit.

BUT. It doesn’t define your life. Or at least it didn’t define mine. I had to learn how to modify my life to accommodate it. I had to miss 2 months of school, and I eventually had to drop physics. (Boo hoo.) This was a huge blow to my pride; I was always a good student, and moreover, I was always at the top of the academic pyramid. But I couldn’t continue living the way I had with my disorder, so I made compromises. In between manic and depressive episodes I was still me. I was still silly, fangirlish, serious, and thoughtful; I still participated in activities that were important to me: visual arts, creative writing, and piano. Sometimes I couldn’t manage the things I loved. Sometimes I could. Being bipolar didn’t overtake my life. And it shouldn’t be the only thing that defines your character either.

*Sitzfleisch: German, noun. The ability to sit through something boring. Lit. “sitting-flesh”. This is one of my favorite German compound nouns.