image credit: Beth Kirby
About a year after getting clean, I was sitting in my therapist’s office, and I decided, with her encouragement, to start a website and forge the career I really wanted. I poured myself into it as I’d previously poured myself into my own dissolution. A lot of my weaknesses are also my strengths; that’s how it goes, I think. I liken it to nuclear fission—it can either power cities or destroy them.
This post comes to you courtesy of Off We Go: Entrepreneurs & Mental Illness, a guest post series coming to you every Tuesday while I’m off, writing and Internet-less, at Hedgebrook. Today’s post is by Beth Kirby.
Listen to me read this piece below:
I’ve been thinking about identity a lot, that patchwork of signifiers we quilt and name “I”. Who am I? Do I ever really change? I’m Beth, a freelance writer, photographer, stylist, and recipe developer, as well as the creator of the food & lifestyle blog Local Milk. I spend my days doing everything from creating & testing recipes to planning & hosting events, photographing & styling shoots to writing, and catering dinners to doing all the little things one has to do to run a business and keep one’s home in some vague semblance of cleanliness and order. I’m more than what I do though. I’m also who I love & who loves me; I’m a partner, sister, daughter, and friend. A soon to be aunt. I’m a 30-year-old woman, a southerner. I’m a thrower of ambitious dinner parties, an avid wanderer, and a lover of linen. I’m a cat owner, a collector, a divorcee, and a hat lady. But I’m other things too, harder things, and I’ve been those other things a lot longer. Alcoholic. Addict. Bipolar I. OCD. ADHD. Comorbid. That’s me on paper.
And for a decade it seemed as if those words were the whole of me. I wasn’t entirely hollow, not at first. I wrote, albeit infrequently, mostly non-fiction lyric essays about casual sex, cocaine, dissolution, and running. I cooked, drunkenly but passionately. I never baked. Ever. I always said I “lived the book I couldn’t write.” It wasn’t glamorous, and by the end, as the years wore on, it was downright terror. Razor blades and dirty needles, faceless men and hysteria — I self-medicated myself to near death, but I survived, little more and hardly that. I’m not a fan of war stories. I share all this in the hopes that if you know that I came from there to here — dive bars to farmers’ markets —you’ll know anyone can. Recovery is possible, thriving is possible.
No, it doesn’t sound good, but it’s all too common, comorbidity — disease heaped upon disease. When it rains, as they say, it does in fact pour. But what is disease? A lack of ease, quite literally. So what does it mean to have comorbid mental illnesses? It means I have multiple sources of lack of ease — lack of ease in thought life, emotions, behavioral control, perception. It means it’s hard. So much so, I never dreamed I’d be a functional human being, let alone self-employed. Truth be told, I’m not even sure I knew the reality I now inhabit — a reality in which I’m creatively fulfilled, have healthy relationships, and can take care of myself — even existed.
Because mental illness isn’t the province of ghosts and demons, nor is it the province of willpower and moral fiber. It took me a long time to understand that last part; I still struggle with it. It is physiological. And it’s no more my fault than my grayish eyes.
Anti-psychotics to anti-epileptics, benzos to SSRIs, I’ve been prescribed so many different medications over the course of my life I couldn’t even begin to remember them all. They say people with bipolar disorder are terrible historians anyway. Their side effects have been legion, from narcolepsy and nightmares to hair loss, weight gain, mania, and so much more. At 28 years old due to lithium toxicity, my thyroid stopped functioning properly. I’ll be on medication for that for the rest of my life. I spent one morning years ago in a hysterical panic, so convinced alien ships would darken the sky and spell certain death that I was taken to my mother’s house, put in her bed, and promptly sedated. I’ve been institutionalized twice. These things happen. Because mental illness isn’t the province of ghosts and demons, nor is it the province of willpower and moral fiber. It took me a long time to understand that last part; I still struggle with it. It is physiological. And it’s no more my fault than my grayish eyes. That bit, that bit allows me freedom. That bit allows me to work, create, and have relationships, to ride the waves instead of allowing them to suck me under. I’m down to only two pills for mental health now, but I take them dutifully each morning because I accept the simple fact that my brain does not function properly without them. It doesn’t function perfectly with them, but it’s better.
So there you have it. The first step I took towards functioning: accepting I am sick. Don’t get me wrong, accepting it is one of those one day at a time sort of things. I waver. I’ll probably always waver. I have a natural tendency to want to blame myself, to say, “I’m not ill, I’m just a weak person.” But what I realized was that taking responsibility for the treatment and management of my mental illness and blaming myself for them are two entirely different things. Once I accepted I was sick, which happened the second time I was in treatment, I was then able to get clean & sober and to then take responsibility for the management of the rest of it. If anyone out there reading this suffers from comorbid addiction and another mental health disorder, I’m going to go ahead and say, speaking from my experience, you can’t even begin to approximate functioning until you’re clean. So that was the first and biggest step for me.
A lot of my weaknesses are also my strengths; that’s how it goes, I think. I liken it to nuclear fission—it can either power cities or destroy them.
But what happened after that? Another raging neurosis leapt in to take the addiction’s place, and I ended up in an outpatient treatment facility for an obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s been a long path. I had to accept that too. About a year after getting clean, I was sitting in my therapist’s office, and I decided, with her encouragement, to start a website and forge the career I really wanted. I poured myself into it as I’d previously poured myself into my own dissolution. A lot of my weaknesses are also my strengths; that’s how it goes, I think. I liken it to nuclear fission—it can either power cities or destroy them. It’s my belief that reality isn’t entirely cruel and mental illness is not without its perks. The same thing that almost ate me alive also fuels my creativity and my drive. I didn’t get cured. I live with mental illness, learned to live with it. That, not some magic pill, is what allows me to have a full life. Accepting it has allowed me to build a life, something I never even dreamed of, in spite of my daily struggles and maybe even because of them.
Sometimes my house falls down around my head, and I can barely stand the thought of getting out of bed, and other times I only sleep every 48 hours and get oodles done. I simultaneously accept that and look to manage it. I’m not ashamed of it. I work with myself, not against myself, and by doing so, I can swing back to that ephemeral spot in the middle, that spot I’m tempted to call normal, much easier.
I would feel remiss if I didn’t mention the how of my accepting & managing. I believe we’re multi-dimensional creatures, infinitely faceted and complex. I believe we are physical, emotional, and spiritual beings. Therefore I take a multi-pronged approach to what I would call my treatment plan, my plan for living. Know this “plan” is an ideal, not something I always live up to. Unfortunately mental illness often stands in the way of the very things that make it better, and that is why we fight, must fight, always.
To treat the physical I take medication, eat healthy & take supplements, try (okay, largely in vain) to keep a regular sleep schedule, and aim to practice yoga and move about during the day. Emotionally, I give time to my relationships, and if I’m at a time when I feel I need to see a therapist, I don’t hesitate. I talk about what I’m feeling. That’s all feelings really want, even the ones that don’t make sense. I don’t judge them. Now for the last prong.
Spiritually, I do what I choose to do. It is my own. I don’t think one has to be a theist to have a higher power. Quantum physics can be your higher power. Hecate can be. It doesn’t have to fit into a traditional framework, and it doesn’t have to not fit. Your spirituality is your own. But, speaking solely for myself, I’ve only found peace in this life when I have some form of relationship to some higher power. When I’m interacting with the mystery, when I’m making a decision to have faith in something bigger than myself—that is where I’ve found freedom. That’s where many people like me have found freedom. You don’t have to believe in a god to meditate. You don’t have to be an atheist to see the divinity in math. You don’t have to be pagan to believe in the power of herbs. It’s this life, this planet, this great singular metaphor — this wonder and this bigger than I — that ultimately gives me freedom. It’s the interconnectedness of it all, the myriad languages to describe the various facets of reality as we experience it. I live in wonder of these things. I have faith in the mystery and in the bigger than me. I choose to believe everything happens for a reason for no reason other than I live better that way. I live in the hands of something other than myself. I rest there. In my blind, amorphous faith I give up my need to know so much, and there’s so, so much acceptance to be had in that place.
I morphed. But, as in the mathematical branch of topology, I don’t believe I’ll ever compromise the Euclidian space I occupy. Whether I’m a donut or a coffee cup, I’m still a thing with a hole in it.
So have I really changed? Did some fundamental shift happen? Yes and no. I gained faith in something. That was my turning point. I morphed. But, as in the mathematical branch of topology, I don’t believe I’ll ever compromise the Euclidian space I occupy. Whether I’m a donut or a coffee cup, I’m still a thing with a hole in it. I believe we remain homeomorphic to ourselves. Which is to say, we are who we are and on a fundamental level we remain that way, but the manifestation of that I are vast. Mental illness most certainly doesn’t mean defeat. If you’re laboring under the misapprehension that it does, because it certainly can feel like it does, my advice to you is to know your weaknesses, carve out a space for them in your life, and then climb. And fall. And climb again without fear. And fall again. And never stop. You’ll find you’ve climbed very far and achieved more than you thought possible, even with all those falls. And personally, I think you’ll be better for them. Suffering can breed a wisdom and compassion you’d never have without it. So let reality bend and ripple, let alien waves of sadness come followed by great gusts of wanton electricity, and work hard when you can, rest when you can’t — it’s okay when you can’t.
Born and raised in Tennessee, Beth Kirby currently works as a freelance photographer, writer, recipe developer, and stylist, and she spends the rest of her time blogging about cooking with locally sourced ingredients, travel, the sacred found in the mundane, and entertaining on her website, Local Milk. Her work has appeared in print in Home and Hill Magazine and Food & Wine, and online on Kinfolk, Food52, Saveur, The Kitchn, Spenser Magazine, and more. When not behind the stove, lens, or keyboard she can usually be found combing farmers markets & flea markets alike in search of inspiration for her next project. You can find her on Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Find more posts from the Off We Go: Entrepreneurs & Mental Illness series here. Other pieces of writing that you might find interesting include On Robin Williams, Mental Health Advocacy, & Small Gestures of Comfort, Briars: Beyond Coping, and my own e-book about compassion and living well with mental illness, Light Gets In.