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What is Neurodivergence?
I have my little diet of fear—internalized homophobia, fear of external homophobia, internalized misogyny, fear of sexism, fear that I forgot to lock my car or turn the stove off, etc. But for me, fear of another manic episode and the trauma of hospitalization shadows me pretty much every day. When I’m more balanced that fear dials down, but it’s still there.
The fear is balanced by the joy I experience being neurodivergent. “Neurodivergence” is a positive reframe on having a “mental illness” diagnosis. I generally think the diagnoses in the DSM have about as much legitimacy as horoscopes. For me, that means they do line up to a degree, but it can be harmful or at least unhelpful to take them too seriously. My diagnosis is Bipolar. I have experienced acute mania and severe depression, and have had to endure four involuntary hospitalizations.
More Radical Reads: Psychiatric Survivor: The Trauma of Involuntary Hospitalization.
Appreciating someone’s neurodivergence doesn’t just mean having compassion for the struggles they’ve had to endure as a result of being wired differently in a neuro-normative society. It also means valuing our important contributions to the world. Kay Redfield Jamison wrote a book, Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament that chronicles the lives of Virginia Woolf, Vincent Van Gogh and others. It’s not just manic-depressive neurodivergents whose perspectives are valuable, of course.
Neurodivergency is an umbrella term for anyone whose mental experience falls outside of what society considers “normal.” I mention Jamison to bring light to my own experience and that of many others. And it’s not just artistry that matters; neurodivergents can be amazing activists, organizers, teachers, religious leaders, healers, and so on. Sometimes it feels a bit like being a witch or wizard in Harry Potter instead of a muggle. I don’t say this to be arrogant, but rather to reclaim a positive frame; neurodivergents have been marginalized and oppressed for centuries, in particular from Western medicine.
In some cultural contexts, neurodivergents would be shamans, or at the very least their connection to the symbolic realm would be honored, and folks would guide them through their journeys in and out of different dimensions of reality. So claiming a title of “neurodivergent” rather than “bipolar” or “autistic” or “schizophrenic” or simply “mentally ill” is a way of resisting negative stigmas and seeing the beauty and positivity in what has been denigrated. At the same time, I know that I need to be careful with my delicate, yet powerful wiring. As The Icarus Project says, I need to honor my “dangerous gifts.” I need to take care of what can be a blessing and a curse, especially in this culture.
What Does Self-Care Look Like?
Recently, I took a last minute plane trip to Vegas with a friend that meant we would only be able to sleep for an hour and a half in her car before jumping on a flight, and then planned to turn around and fly back that evening. Our return flight got delayed and we had to spend the night in Phoenix. Needless to say, it was a wild, impulsive idea—and not really one well-advised for someone with bipolar disorder such as myself. But there was a part of me that rebelled. I work hard, I reasoned. I take such extra hypervigilant care all the damn time to not lose my mind, don’t I deserve to have some fun? Self care is one thing, but self policing my behavior out of fear of living too large gets exhausting.
My experience of psychiatric “treatment” is an institutionalized oppression just like the other forms of power that haunt me and others. I can’t do anything to change those forces. At least not by myself. That’s about collective action. Psychiatry needs to be dismantled and rebuilt, like all other systems of coercion and control.
But what can I do? 12 step recovery has given me a great deal of serenity—largely through its foundational building block—the serenity prayer.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I (alone) cannot change (systems of oppression), the courage to change the things I can (how I relate to those systems, how I relate to myself and my community), and the wisdom to know the difference. (the space between self and social movement—that margin where we can move mountains).
What is the Power of Coincidences?
So are you ready for a dizzying moment? Here goes: as I was typing the previous paragraph at Liminal: A Feminist and Womanist Writing Space in Oakland, someone opened a fortune cookie. She read it aloud: “A great pleasure in life is doing what others say you can’t.”
And for a moment, my brain—which is still, four days later, recovering from sleep deprivation and overstimulation—wigged out a bit. That is just too coincidental, I thought. Does she know my story? Does everyone? That’s the paranoia flavor my mania takes—Truman show plus the NSA, basically.
But then I remembered recovery. I remembered that my Higher Power wants to guide me with gentle signs, and sometimes the GPS that is my Higher Power has to bark at me a little louder: “REROUTING. REROUTING.” Coincidences resonate more when I need extra guidance back to the path.
See the thing is, it was a HUGE pleasure to throw caution to the wind, skip a night of sleep, and hop on a plane with one of my best friends. To do as the fortune cookie said: “do what others say you can’t.” A core belief speaks: “Bipolar? No way you should skip a night of sleep to travel!” And…maybe that’s a reasonable piece of advice. But that doesn’t mean it’s not okay, to well, gamble a bit. (I mean we went to Vegas after all—not to gamble or drink, but just for the adventure). At the end of the night, fear caught up with me. I was terrified I would be caught, handcuffed, fiftyonefiftied, locked up. That skipping a night of sleep meant I had broken The Rules. It was hard to say if the pleasure was the rebellion, or the actual experience, or both. But I had just finished a long year of teaching and I needed to blow off some steam. This impulse in me roared, despite The Rules. But being locked up for your mood and your thoughts can really alter your feelings about your feelings for years.
Two days after the trip I had a manic thought and it scared me. But with some help from my compassionate psychiatrist and empathetic friends, it passed. Right now I am experiencing the fortune cookie moment, and I can either choose to be scared by that, or smile, and thank God for cueing me when I need it.
The trick is to not get invested in a singular interpretation. This is life, not an English paper. The trick is to just see it as a moment of God smiling at me. Because God rarely wags their finger, yells, or sics the NSA on me. Not the God I want to understand.
More Radical Reads: 5 Lessons I’ve Learned About Mental Health Care in Spite of Psychiatry
What is the Value of Neurodivergence?
I have a brain that likes to see patterns. I have a brain that is really superb at seeing patterns—it’s an adaptation to fear, to trauma. In some ways it’s maladaptive, in some ways it’s beautiful. I am a poet. I am a writer. I am a performer. I am a teacher, and that is another expression of my creativity. The pain of taking my pattern-seeking too far can be acute, but the pleasure of where my mind/spirit flies on its best days more than makes up for it. The Icarus Project’s early work speaks to this real dilemma: their first publication is called Navigating the Space Between Brilliance and Madness. 95% of the time, I live in the sweet spot. I flew a little too close to the sun when I hopped on a plane to Vegas. But the wax in my wings isn’t melting. I am finding the golden mean again. This is years of experience guiding me. This is the wisdom of knowing myself inside and out. In recovery, there is a saying: “the solution looks nothing like the problem.”
Valuing my neurodivergence means both appreciating my unique and awesome way of observing the world, and also valuing me, my health, and honoring my limits as a highly sensitive person.
But it also means not living in fear of the way institutionalized, oppressive psychiatry has responded to my difference my whole life. It means harnessing the power of my unique mind to get in touch with a power greater than myself. That power is spiritual, measured, sober, gentle—not the NSA or an angry God. Navigating that thorny patch is what will set me free.
So I’m not going to regularly fuck up my sleep routine, and I have to eat some humble pie here; my neurodivergence can also be usefully framed as a disability. And my disability actually has these limits for real reasons. The Rules are not there just to make my life difficult. Most people would struggle at least a little bit the week after skipping a night of sleep and travelling. But I don’t have to punish myself, either. I’m human, I get to make mistakes, and I get to live large sometimes if I want to. I just have to double down on self care afterwards and be in conversation with supportive people and my doctor. I’m not bound to a life sentence that denies spontaneity and fun. And wacky thoughts don’t always mean early warning signs for a full blown episode. It could just be the God GPS saying “rerouting, honey—now you get to take care of yourself.”
We all have a little GPS. What do I do? I proceed to the route.