Mental Illness, Queer Identity, and Me

In October 2011, at 28 years old, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder type 1. For me, for my life, this label has been extremely useful and in some ways, I grieve for the years of my life I spent living without it. I know several people with the same diagnosis who had severe episodes earlier in life, during their teenage years and so were diagnosed earlier. I somewhat envy these people. That they were prepared for an adulthood living with mental illness. That they were aware earlier and were treated earlier – even if their subsequent recurrences of their illness were as severe and as debilitating.

But, my story conforms in many regards to the narrative of Bipolar diagnoses. The most common bipolar diagnoses are given to women in their 30s, after a significant manic or depressive episode. And that’s how it happened for me. Between 2010-2011, I hurtled between, hypomania, depression, mixed episodes, a few weeks of clarity here and there, and finally, this culminated into what I believe to be my first true manic episode that lasted around 5 weeks. It was exhilarating and terrifying. I had delusions and breaks from reality. It was wonderful to feel powerful and frustrating to feel completely unable to wield it. In a break that lasted a day or two, I called the university clinic for a Mental health assessment. An hour with the psychiatrist would reveal that I had all the classic symptoms of the illness, without question. However, the doctor offered me this, “The diagnosis and label of Bipolar Disorder is only useful if it is useful to you. It is up to you whether you want to identify with it.” Indeed.

As I started counselling and psychiatric therapy, I quickly began to research and read everything I could find about the disorder. I took every personality test. I made my partner my editor to ensure I was unbiased in my answers – keep in mind I was in the middle of a Master degree and so very much attached to peer-reviewed papers and qualitative evidence. On one hand, it was uncanny, to read my “personality” in a book. It was a revelation. It was an explanation. It gave me some sort of reason for some of the things I had done, some of the feelings I had felt and some of the confusion I had lived with for years. On the other hand, I couldn’t believe how I had been living with this illness for what seemed to be my entire life, without anyone ever noticing. Did I hide it that well?

When I look through my past, I can see the echoes and shadows of bipolar disorder. As a queer person, I have been marked and scrutinized and othered. As a queer femme, my perspective as an outlier in the queer community has made me negotiate and re-negotiate my identity and what space I feel I am entitled to and welcomed into. My illness has complicated and changed my perspective on my queer identity in many way – silence about my illness and its affects, isolation through periods of depression, and the repression of the many sexual encounters that have confounded my gender and sexual identity.

As a queer femme, sometimes all you have as proof is your history of queer sexuality. All the womyn you’ve fucked, or who’ve fucked you. Sometimes I feel there is a calculation or formula about it. When did you come out? Are you active in the queer community? Are you a top or a bottom? If you’ve fucked men, how many and under what circumstances. The last question is one I have trouble answering. How many men have I fucked? What do you consider fucking? It’s in the double digits. Not quite in balance with the womyn with whom I’ve shared a bed, or a bathroom stall. Under what circumstances – rebellious teen, sexually abused girlfriend, drunken mistake, roofied at a bar, cherished friendship turned loving and sexual, for shits and giggles. The one circumstance that has *almost* remained constant has been mania or hypomania if we’re being specific. My special blend of mania is extremely hypersexual, with no inhibitions or impulse control. I’ve often explained it as “pushing the envelope”. There was a certain pattern – I’d dress provocatively, catch some random guy’s attention and off we’d go. I don’t really remember much else – my ego took over from there. I don’t know if I had a good time, but afterwards, I’d often feel pretty confused. I knew I loved women, that I loved the curves of their bodies and felt such fulfillment in our encounters. I never identified as straight or bi. Mostly I identified as a lesbian – with bad habits. Those experiences pretty much barred me from the LGBTQ community. I don’t think I passed anyway.

How do I explain or reconcile my sexual history with my queer identity, with my femme gender and my illness? Do I have to? Does it matter? Are other queer people entitled to my history and what it means to me, what it has meant to my own concept of identity? I was diagnosed at 28 years old, after a lifetime of mood swings, of personality changes, of unbridled ego, of devastating lows. In every way, I was fractured and broken. I like to describe depression as the thing that destroys you. Mania is the thing that destroys everything you love. Though the reverse is also true. In the past 4 years since my diagnosis, I have been putting myself together – for the first time discovering the characteristics, values, thoughts that make me truly me. I have clung to my queer identity and femme gender as buoys in a deep and stormy sea of change. It turns out that queerness and mental illness aren’t very different in the end. I have been marked, identified, seen, ignored, othered by both. I’m not sure which prepared me for the other, or if I was ever prepared for either at all, but at this moment, in this time and place, I am finally ready to reclaim who I am, in every complexity.

Posted with permission from the author, Connie L.

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