When you’ve spent most of your life (from the age of six onwards) tracing the outlines of your body — lump to smooth to stretch mark — standing flushed and blushing in front of your mirror, you become aware (though paranoid) when something goes awry.
You learn to check your paranoia quickly, making sure, absolutely sure, that something is wrong with you before you ask your doctors. You do not, I repeat, you do not want to mimic that incident in the eleventh grade where you begged your physician for a CAT scan because you knew you had a brain tumor. (They drew blood; they told you you were dehydrated; [you had been making yourself throw up for two weeks straight]; you drank water; they were right.)
When you’re fifteen, even if you beg, most psychologists won’t diagnose you with a mental illness.
“You’re fifteen,” they’ll say. “Your brain’s not developed. If you’re still like this in seven years, we’ll talk.”
You will memorize the DSM; you will mimic the symptoms you need to be diagnosed. They’ll roll their eyes; you’ll storm out angry (but come back next week); you just want to know why you’re like this (turns out, you’re fifteen.)
When you’re twenty and you begin to bulge, to puff, to wake up in the middle of the night with death dreams, anxiety shakes, you will think, at this point, that it’s definitely your fault. Your brain’s not developed. If you’re still like this in seven years, we’ll talk. It’s been five; your boyfriend’s being awful; you don’t understand any of your readings at school; you can’t set your memory straight; you haven’t been eating right; this is your fault. You will look in the mirror (awake after your death dreams) and poke and prod and run right out into the sunset. You will eat a balanced breakfast. You will try to do your reading. You will ask your boyfriend what he thinks is wrong with you. “Paranoia.” “Bulimia.” “I don’t know Jen, you’re probably dying.” You’ll try to not bring it up. You will do it all over again the next day.
Hysteria: the state of a woman expressing her emotions to such an extent where they become annoying to a man. Hysteria can range from mild to severe.
Mild: “No, Jen. You’re not getting fat.” Repeat 400 times.
Moderate: “No, Jen, I’m serious. You’re fine. Stop asking. No, it’s normal to be tired. Yes, even if slept all of last night.” Repeat 40 times.
Severe: *Walks out of room* Repeat twice.
This will continue for five months. You will begin to wonder: is there a difference between being a brat and being a nuisance and having a mental disorder? (y e s); do I know where those differences lie? (n o.)
Because of your history with eating, with claiming to have a mental illness, your shrinks will just sigh when you talk to them.
“I’m getting more tired.”
“Have you been sleeping?”
“Well, it’s been really hard because I’ve been getting so anxious.”
“Have you been practicing your Cognitive Behavior Therapy?”
“I’ve been trying, but even that’s been hard —“
“Jen, you have to practice your CBT. This isn’t going to work if you don’t try hard.”
“But, I — ”
(It is frustrating to feel like you’re climbing up a hill made of mud when you yourself feel like you are made of mud; when a new symptom can be explained by an old symptom and an old symptom can be explained by your own fault; when you are exhausted, “exhausting.”)
“I’m serious. I don’t think this is my fault,” you will argue after your third in-class panic attack, after your lunchtime meditation, your morning prayers.
“Well.” A pause, eye contact. “Have you been throwing up lately?”
“Yes,” They raise an eyebrow. “I mean, yes, but that’s in response to the anxiety. Like, I’ll freak out and eat too much, and…”
“Jen, these things connect; you throw up, you get anxious…”
“Yes, but I’m telling you the anxiety comes first.”
They will grant your request for a doctor eventually, once you turn 21. They will choose a psychiatrist in the suburbs. As you arrive to the office, see the beige laminate floors, you figure, you’re probably, finally old enough.
I remember my doctor — short, brown hair with a fine jaw, well pressed, clean cut like a lesser Kennedy, and fresh off somebody’s crew team. I was dressed in all black, puffy and pudgy. He remarked on this.
“I was cold this morning.”
“Maybe that’s why I’m at the doctor’s.”
He shrugged, I guess.
“Anyhow. given what you’ve told me, there are two possible diagnoses for you.”
(We had never met before.)
“They’re ADHD and Bipolar Disorder. ADHD is kind of like a hunter-gatherer in a modern world. See, in agrarian society, you till the fields, you peel the corn, you do one thing at a time. A hunter-gatherer has to always be looking — are the berries ripe — is the deer over there — is the sun about to set — do I need to get home? You see, neither are wrong, but when you’ve got a hunter-gatherer in a classroom, he can’t really act right, sit right, focus, so we have ritalin for him.
“Now, your bipolar girl. She’s kind of just like the ocean with too much tide.”
(Where the fuck did he get these metaphors?)
“See — normally the ocean tides pull and recede, but when you’re bipolar, they come out and come in too quickly, and sometimes you get a tsunami and sometimes you get a drought, you know?”
“Well, you can’t drink ocean water, so.”
“The drought. You can’t drink ocean water, so that doesn’t really work out, but like, yeah, I get what you’re saying.”
We started with a Rorschach Test.
He looked at me with a flatline.
“What do you see?”
“Kermit the Frog climbing a hot air balloon into a cotton-candy sky.”
“What do you see?”
“A waterfall of sheep.”
We continued with word association.
Men are: “Agents of the patriarchy.”
Women are: “Often repressed.”
My mother is: “Holy Lord, can we not.”
My father is: “Lazy. Oh shit, I’m sorry!”
My body: “Is a wonderlaaaaaaand!”
You need to take this seriously: “I am. Joy is serious business.”
Are you often cold?
Do you shiver a lot, even if it’s warm?
How often are you anxious?
Thanks for your participation. We’ll get back to you soon.
For days, you will wonder what’s wrong. You will Practice Your CBT. You will come to grips with you. In weeks, you will get a letter, a diagnosis.
Black and white
Prone to mood swings
Bipolar girls are like the ocean
Coming in and out when they will
Feast to famine
Tsunami to drought
Hysterical is what men call women when they’re being annoying
“You’re Bipolar — rapid cycling.”
Mind your CBT
You need to stop barfing
Then you’ll stop being anxious
Then you’ll start sleeping
Then you’ll dream again
“You’re Bipolar — rapid cycling, Bipolar Two.”
Be more calm
Only then, they’ll find your tumor.
“Oh, oops,” they’ll say, “sorry about that.”
Jen Byers is a photographer, activist, and cancer survivor currently trying to save the world from the Hot Cheetoh’s impending reign of terror. She lives in Los Angeles and can be found on Twitter or Instagram.
Art by Lindsey Wanberg