By Chris Cole
Some people get confused about why this mental health advocate is concerned with anti-racism, when there’s so much work to be done for anti-stigma. I don’t know for sure, but my general pulse is that people think of my story as a hopeful one of recovery with severe mental illness. There’s been serious substance use, body dysmorphia, alcohol poisoning, car crashes, psychosis, mania, depression, narcissistic injury, unrequited love; the list goes on and on. When I tell my story, I try to make a point to mention all the opportunity and good fortune I have been privy to in my life and in this body. Up until recently though, I had been content to let privilege be a background item—important but not critical.
The current social climate in the Unites States, in addition to my own spiritual and existential explorations, has me reconsidering the significance of my social location with regards to my recovery. As a white man of profound privilege, I feel a strong conviction that the time has come for me to consistently name privilege, in order to provide greater context and nuance, leading to higher comprehension, understanding, and competency. The more we understand, the more compassion we have, and the better solutions may come out of such clarity.
One day I’ll write a book focused exclusively on the intersection of my own whiteness and mental health recovery (tentative title, and yes, please recommend a literary agent: Diving Through the Eye of the Needle), but for now, I just would like to explain a little bit more about where I’m coming from in order to connect the dots for folks who don’t yet see the intricate tapestry of power and privilege and freedom and liberty.
My entire life, before I ever was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, felt like a constant navigation of social constructs. Who I get to sit with at lunch, who I get to play with on the playground, who will bully me, where I will be safe to be myself, and to what extent I feel free—these were daily considerations and points of confusion. How much this impacted my mental health is somewhat mysterious, yet that it impacted my health is an absolute certainty.
There was no greater confusion than the eventual conditioning of fragmented love, which is my own false belief that I was not free to love certain people in certain contexts. This was a pain born of a culture which encourages me to compartmentalize my love for another, which in turn teaches me that the love available from another is also compartmentalized, is also less than full-hearted and open. Believing that I could not be free to love, and that I would not be able to get the love I wanted, was at the root of all psychological pain and confusion for me. Reclaiming that Love, that right to Love, is my recovery path today, which is also my spiritual path.
I don’t experience bipolar as a high and low; perhaps at one time this is what it felt like to me, but that was years ago, and I wonder how much of that was just a story told to me by medical doctors, which I adopted without thorough self-examination. I experience bipolar as a kind of energetic aperture, an opening and closing of sensory experience, indicating what I’m capable of allowing in and out of my nervous system. My open heart today is what prevents wildly unpredictable compensatory swings. The more I can rest in the tenderness of my heart—the more I can make a home in the dwelling of self-Love—the greater is my capacity to cope with a nervous system far too sensitive for these chaotic times.
To shut off from Love within my body, is to eventually invite my body to rebel, forcing me into the homeodynamic compensations of an unbridled Love. This Love is a force which no treatment can contain. There is either acceptance of this Love, or there are various degrees of sedation. This is the desperation of Love from a crying infant. This is the plea to God from the roof of a home surrounded by the waters of a hurricane. This is the shaky tenderness of making Love for the first time, or the trembling lips speaking sweet words to another, without the certainty that feelings will be reciprocated. None of us can refuse this Love. This Love is built into the system, woven into our DNA. Only hatred, greed, and delusion is capable of distorting this innate intelligence.
Love does not exist in a vacuum. We come to know Love in relationship. We learn Love through nourishment, through touch, through play. Any lack of Love’s expression in health and wellness is a disease, which must exist in relationship as well. There is no individual which deserves blame and punishment, without recognizing the relationship of the individual to the systems which provided, or withheld, Love.
This is where social justice becomes unmistakably crucial in our comprehension of Love in ourselves, in humanity, and in our world. I see bipolar bodies as oppressed. I see schizophrenic bodies as oppressed. I see all bodies with “mental illness” as oppressed in a culture that would have us believe sickness begins and ends with the individual, or that mental illness is objective outside of cultural expectations and social influences.
This is not entirely unlike how I see marginalized groups in our country, regarding racism especially. To use a historical example, In 1851, the physician Samuel A. Cartwright (1793–1863), coined a term “drapetomania,” which he described as a treatable mental illness, saying, “With proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many Negroes have of running away can be almost entirely prevented.” As a white man today, who has experienced my fair share of mania, I can only tell you that Dr. Cartwright was not entirely wrong: mania is an emergency mechanism in the psyche, telling us to run like hell, only I’m not running from oppression; I’m running from the delusions of a white supremacist culture which consistently and systematically indoctrinates me into empathetic dissociation disorder. I am running away from all the messages which convinced me that my heart is not welcome, that the Love of Christ is to be worshiped only, never emulated, and that forgiveness for this life was more critical than the Love already available to us now. I’m running away from Christianity as an identity, running toward Christ as a measurement.
So in an attempt to wrap this up, when I wear a Black Lives Matter hat or post about anti-racism, I’m making the point to draw a line between my liberty and another’s freedom. I’m standing with the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, anti-oppression, queer theory, neurodiversity, ecopsychology, the pain in my psyche which attempts to convince me of my utter impotence to impact my world and to save my own life. I’m standing with native and indigenous peoples, committed to my own imperfect understanding of those who have been othered for so long. I’m standing in this imperfect body, devoted to imperfect understanding of a perfect Love in each of us. I stand with Dr. Cornell West, who says, “Justice is what Love looks like in public.” I stand with Reverend angel Kyodo williams, who calls us to “[emerge] from behind the fog of the ego-mind of whiteness.” I stand with Dr. King, when he says, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and I add, Love anywhere is a threat to ignorance everywhere.
I have suffered tremendously, but I do not see myself as suffering anymore. I am bipolar, but bipolar order has replaced bipolar disorder, for I am free to Love. If we can’t make space for our own suffering, we won’t be able to hold space for another. I think part of the reason anti-oppression movements are painful for so many, is because we know our own pain, but we haven’t felt free to feel it. We have lived a life of microtrauma, where we married our safety to incongruent and inauthentic responses to life, in order to find a security that never came. We feel in ourselves how we had to be more masculine, more feminine, more white, more intelligent, more religious, more successful, more silent, and how all these ways of being were circumventing the liberty of Love in our unconditioned hearts and minds.
Please be gentle with yourself, and offer compassion to all of humanity, in any way you can. Sometimes this compassion is logging off Facebook for a few days, or taking a day off work, or finally breaking down and crying all those tears which we learned to hate, but which were Love all along. There is healing to be had in all of us. Let’s stand together in Love, and come to know true power together. Let’s stop looking for power in ignorance and begin seeing power in connection. Let’s wake up.
Chris Cole hosts the Waking Up Bipolar podcast and is the author of The Body of Chris: A Memoir of Obsession, Addiction, and Madness. He offers life coaching for any number of mental health conditions, specializing in bipolar disorder and spiritual emergence. Learn more about Chris at colecoaching.com.