Why I Wake Up & Text My Best Friend
navigating mental illness and self-compassion
trigger warning: psychiatric medications, bipolar disorder, depression
We need to show up when we would rather not. Even just by waking up some days, to let others know we’re alive. Because they might need us. Because we might need them.
Two years ago today, October 25th 2013, I took my first dose of Seroquel (quetiapine), one of the most commonly prescribed anti-psychotics, used off-label as a sleep aid.
After a couple previous years of stability with the anti-depressant Cipralex, it caused a manic episode. While Seroquel worked as it was supposed to for me in terms of stabilizing my mood and helping me sleep, I suffered serious cognitive effects.
I decided to go off of it when I realized I barely remembered anything from my first year of grad school. The videopoems I began making that year by some fluke brainwave are hauntings — “I don’t know how to tell the story I want to tell because I don’t remember it.” My instagram is my memory.
I got off Seroquel June 2015. (I’m still on Lamotrigine/Lamictal which I personally find incredibly helpful). I tapered down for a year and when I got to zero, I still had insomnia, sensory hallucinations, and worst of all, wicked histaminic reactions for two weeks (common withdrawal side effect, for whatever weird reason). Delusions, those I can handle, but itching and sneezing! It would have been laughable if it wasn’t so obnoxious.
I am privileged I was able to manage the withdrawal without being institutionalized. I’m grateful for it, and it is a testament to the hard-won stability of my current life, the rare security of my housing situation, the strength of my support network of chosen family and friends.
My diagnosis of Bipolar Affective Disorder Type 1 came a couple weeks after the prescription. I’d had episodes since I was 15, but resisted diagnosis because I resisted medication.
I now understand my diagnosis and medications, my coping mechanisms, both maladapted — like obsessive daily rituals — and recovered — like sobriety — as tools and strategies for survival.
Now that I’m not sedated, some days like today, none of my strategies work. Some nights I have nightmares and sleep extra poorly and wake up to an avalanche of bad affects and traumatic memories with no way out other than waiting until I can sleep, to wake up, and try again.
I don’t like these economies of wellness and desire and kinship. I don’t like to think of my existence in terms of trade-offs, risks and rewards, investments and dividends, a small but relevant resistance to the logic of capital. But it’s hard not to do, especially in relationships, especially when we are so programmed to think in terms of self-worth, who we owe what to, what we are owed, whether we are deserving of love, success, kindness.
There’s a movement in the psy professions towards thinking about ‘self-compassion’ instead of worth/esteem/acceptance. I think this has beautiful possibilities, like its kin-concept ‘self-care,’ but it’s still wrapped up in a capitalism-friendly neoliberal-swaddling cloth. As if being encouraged by our bank accounts and consumer debt to obsess about our ‘worth’ isn’t bad enough, forced to place values on our productivity, our relations, our successes and failures, now we have to be mindful of our own compassion towards ourselves.
‘Self-compassion’ translates into us doing even more work every day just to be okay.
And while that sucks, it’s true. And necessary.
We do have to be compassionate towards ourselves, in order to make up for the compassion-deficits that exist in every economic structure and political system we deal with on a daily basis. We are bombarded, everywhere from standardized testing to airport security, with denials of our specific sensitivities, our joys and pains, our histories and dreams. We are stripped of our senses while simultaneously forced to prove our identities to whichever disciplinary authority needs to turn us into a basic-income-unit or a quota.
We have to be compassionate for ourselves to make up for the compassion fatigue we all deal with in some way or another because of all these structural deficits. Especially those of us who care for a living professionally, as social service and healthcare workers, as teachers and educators, as call-centre and customer service workers — hell, as baristas, servers, and bartenders. Especially those of us who care for the lives of others personally, in non-quantifiable and thus unpaid emotional labour, as parents, siblings, children, chosen family. Those of us with less access to social services like childcare, eldercare, healthcare, because of poverty, addiction, madness, because of race, gender, ability.
Self-compassion is a part of the care we provide each other. The many of us who can’t afford to think in terms of investments and dividends because compassion is necessitated by our networks of care. It is not a choice. It is not a trade-off. Its importance is self-evident and essential to our day-to-day survival, intersubjective and interdependent.
This is the difference between self-care and self-compassion. In a generous view, self-care tells us to prioritize our own care so we can more properly care for others. Self-compassion tells us to accept non-judgmentally that sometimes we can’t care, for ourselves or others.
Accepting our limitations, finding compassion for ourselves within them, allows us to find the ways in which we are capable and expansive. We must accept our limitations because many of us need to care anyway, in whatever way we can. We need to show up when we would rather not. Even just by waking up some days, to let others know we’re alive. Because they might need us. Because we might need them.
There are definitely days I would rather just not wake up. There are days I think it would be better to still be sedated, to just not remember at all. And maybe it would because it would be less stressful. My psychiatrist would probably tell me so.
But I got sober, diagnosed, and medicated, because I saw the suffering of those close to me, and decided that I had to do everything in my power to care.
And that includes remembering.
There is already so much I don’t remember, years I have lost to madness and addiction. While some things I am able to recover, like my relationships, my work, my credit rating (fingers crossed), I know some things just can’t be recovered.
It’s a choice I have made (and a privilege) to have days like today to be able to remember tomorrow.