It’s a Difference, Not a Disorder.


Creative genius Shiina Ringo accurately illustrating the complex landscape of my brain. Photo not by me.

I have Bipolar 2, and OCD.

I have chosen to be out about being neurodiverse as a way of dismantling stigma, and because I have the privilege of not being placed at risk by being out. My friends, family, and romantic partners already know, and it doesn’t present a risk to my ability to make a living.

Being neurodiverse does change the way I operate in the world. I do not function well within highly structured environments and socially sanctioned institutions, I get bored easily, and I prefer being my own boss because I have issues with authoritarian hierarchies. Fortunately I have figured out ways of circumnavigating these systems to create a life on my own terms, which is a subject for another post.

What I really want to write about today is why I don’t think my disorders are actually pathological. I think they present inconveniences for operating in modern American society. I think they are misunderstood and carry heavy stigma. But I honestly wonder that if we lived within a society where these differences were accepted, if they would really be considered disorders? If people could take naps and mental health days when they needed to, instead of being pushed to work more and more? If everyone had access to healthy food, social outlets, and whatever physical expressions helped them feel good? If everyone had enough money and resources that they didn’t live in fear of homelessness or destitution as the result of one catastrophic event? If taking medication and getting therapy or doing spiritual work wasn’t so stigmatized and difficult to access? If it was accepted and understood that some people (and realistically, probably most people) experience their energy as a cycle of ups and down, rather than a straight line of consistent productivity?

It is not hard to find information about how my differences and those of others who experience neurodiversity can be detrimental and must be “managed.” And yes, management is important with regards to independence and functionality. (I wouldn’t qualify to receive government disability even if I wanted it). But I want to dig into the ways that these differences have actually been tremendously beneficial and wonderful in ways that are not always well understood.

I am creative. Creativity, aesthetics, beauty, spirituality and love have always been the thing that have driven me through life. I received a master’s degree with the expectation that I would be better equipped to take a more conventional path, but the truth is I still work and thrive as a writer, artist, and performer. It’s how I make my living.

I have never experienced writers block. I have been too tired or depressed to create, but I have never struggled to access the divine stream of ideas that come to me easily and effortlessly. This is not bragging, this is one of the secret joys of being bipolar. If anything, I have more ideas and inspiration than I can keep up with most days.

I feel intensely. People who know me well will describe me as “intense.” This can be hard when the feeling is of disappointment, sadness or anger, but truly amazing when it’s a feeling of inspiration, love, or joy. Wanting to tell everyone you love them is a classic symptom of hypomania, but I’m not entirely sure it’s a bad thing.

I see things differently, and love problem solving. I have a hard time accepting “accepted knowledge.” I can perceive dimensions and perspectives that might otherwise be overlooked. I love getting to the bottom of an issue, and using my intuition to sniff out what might be needed or missing.

I am detail oriented, and a sponge for information. OCD can be a tremendous gift for a writer. People without OCD tend to see it as a disorder where people wash their hands til they bleed, and obsessively clean everything in their house. That’s not how it presents in me, and I’m not going to discuss the less pleasant aspects here.

OCD helps me see details, and notice when something is “off.” This is a tremendous help when editing. To be honest I don’t edit my own work as thoroughly as others, but I have been told that I am almost brutally thorough when editing other people’s writing. It’s almost as if it gives me a finally honed intuition or instinct for what looks or “feels” correct in my work. Its a huge gift for problem solving.

OCD helps me remember, and process information quickly. My friends are always baffled when I remember some minor detail of an interaction that occurred years prior. I have to be very organized, systematic and remember a great deal of details for all of the work I do. This is part of why I did well in school (but not in the 9-5 world), and was able to learn a language like Japanese. I recall a friend telling me about the video game Katamari Damashii, which means “Soul Clump” in Japanese. “Oh, that’s because the kanji (pictograms) for katamari and damashii look similar” I said, in response to the peculiarity of the name. (It looks like this 塊魂 if you have Japanese fonts enabled in your computer, and you are curious). This wasn’t because I was looking at the written name, it was a connection I made by visualizing the characters in my mind. Oddly enough, my short terms memory is fucking lousy, and I struggle to spell things out loud, or transcribe spellings of words or number sequences that people read off to me, so this skill works in mysterious ways.

I have received tremendous gifts for  personal growth. Because my distress tolerance is relatively low (I can’t “suck it up” it feels like torture), I am not able to stay in situations that make me miserable for very long. (That said- I don’t mean not facing positive challenges, because I enjoy those. I mean learning to set firm boundaries, put my needs first, and extricate myself from toxic situations).

Seeking help was never not an option for me, if I wanted to survive. I learned quickly that if I was going to be okay, that I had to do the work myself, but that I needed external support as well. This has meant 15 years of therapy (worth every penny, and everyone can benefit from it), a decade of seeking out the correct diagnosis and medication, self care through art and exercise, and deep spiritual work. It’s pushed me to develop myself in ways that other people might not, without these types of challenges.

I am fearless. I am often told by people that the thought of what I do (being self employed with no “guarantee” of income) would terrify them. By contrast, the idea of being chained to a desk everyday fills me with dread. It’s hard to understand that even those “stable” jobs are not guaranteed, your income is capped, and that these jobs provide a false sense of stability- anyone who has worked as an entrepreneur, waitress, or exotic dancer can tell you that it’s NORMAL for the market to ebb and flow, that you will have lean weeks and flush weeks. Once you understand that, and trust it, it becomes less scary because you understand that things are ALWAYS changing and that surfing that wave and evolving with it is actually hugely rewarding.

I know it’s considered tasteless to toot one’s own horn in our society, but it’s important for me to recognize and celebrate the ways that what society has labeled “mental illness” has helped shaped me into a good person in many ways. That it’s not so simple and black and white. And I am certain that there must be others who feel this way as well.