Almost as long as I can remember, I’ve experienced moods that felt significant. Just what that meant depended on the day, ranging from feeling life more deeply than I could possibly describe to experiencing seemingly unending despair. It seemed obvious that not all the amplified moods were bad because some of them felt almost, well, sacred. Hold up, you may be thinking. Duh, that’s the mental illness talking. And you’d better believe I spent years believing that. But I’m done stamping all of my experiences “DISORDERED” because I believe the paradigm we’ve built to describe our moods isn’t helping us, and too often it’s hurting us.
Humans are incredibly skilled at sense-making. We take experiences and give them a greater context so we can understand them and integrate them into our lives in meaningful ways. The frameworks we use to make sense of our experiences are often premade for us, and that’s not always a bad thing. As a member of a society, we learn and accept and internalize the ideas that have become norms. Human sense-making goes way, way back to ancient myths pictured on cave walls and continues today in a multitude of ways, including the way modern society popularly conceives “mental health” and “psychiatric disorders” and prescribes exactly what we think should be done about all of this.
Sense-making comes so naturally to us that I made sense of my own high moods before I ever knew what they were “supposed” to be. As a Christian teen, I just knew I was experiencing ecstatic feelings and that they made me long for something I couldn’t quite name. At the time, I conceptualized them as a hint of heaven, a longing for the perfection I believed I’d one day have but that nothing on earth could satisfy. I later learned the DSM had a totally different take, and I came to think they were just another part of my brokenness.
I’ve since learned that the truth is far more complex, and the paradigm we’ve grown up with a lot less solid than we think.
I was exposed to alternative ideas about mental health for several years before I was ever involved in the mental healthcare system, the truth being that even those of us who can intelligently voice legitimate concerns about that system often end up interacting with it. While there are some awesome peer support organizations out there offering alternatives, these are the exception and not the rule and when things look especially bleak, we understandably get especially desperate in the absence of other options.
The moods that were significant to me were diagnostically significant, too, and so I kept going back to the societal default of framing my experiences in terms of symptoms and disorders. At first, it made me feel like things made sense. But as I continued to learn about the lack of science behind much of what I was being told, I began to feel like these ways of framing my experiences were hurting more than helping. By affecting how I saw my experiences, they affected the experiences themselves, and traits that had never been a problem were brought into hyper-focus because they were symptoms now. It was a powerful lesson that the frameworks we use to make sense of our experiences change the experiences themselves, no matter how smart or critical we are.
I looked around and saw a lot of criticism about what wasn’t working, but felt confused about alternatives. I needed a way of looking at my experiences that took into account their messy complexity, so I started doing some sense-making of my own. I began digging into my experiences and emotions and asking myself “If that didn’t help, what will?” And I came to an initial conclusion that was simple, but profoundly different from the wisdom I found in the mainstream perspective. I concluded that amplified moods weren’t necessarily bad and they weren’t necessarily good. They were neutral, and that was kind of a big deal.
One of the very first alternative conceptualizations of psych disorders I ever encountered was that of “dangerous gifts.” This came from the Icarus project, an amazing think tank and activist group made up of members diagnosed with everything from depression to bipolar to schizophrenia to those who’ve never entered the system to be diagnosed at all. It’s named after Icarus of Greek mythology who built himself wings only to fly too close to the sun and have the wax that held them together melt, expressing the duality of positives and negatives inherent in amplified mood experiences. I’ve wrestled for years with how I felt about this idea. It was intriguing, but sometimes these moods caused complete mayhem and heartbreak in my life, a fact that the members of the Icarus Project readily acknowledge.
I realized that while the moods themselves may be neutral, it’s not just the moods we’re dealing with. We’re also dealing with the results of how we respond to those experiences. I realized that when I really broke it down, any negativity that resulted was a product of my response, not the experience itself. Certain moods tend to make me hyper-aware of things I’m not satisfied with in my life, and feel deeply in love with life, and incredibly impatient to have everything be just what it feels like it needs to be. But I finally considered that this awareness and these feelings weren’t necessarily bad because they didn’t become damaging until the point where I responded to them by burning down my whole life without first thinking through what things I might want to preserve.
I don’t think of the experiences as innately positive, either. To do so would be to ignore the fact that they’ve led to significant pain and destructive periods in my life. To use the Icarus Project conception of “gift” without the very present realization of “dangerous” would be, well, dangerous. I don’t want to hurt myself and the people I love, and that’s where the paradigm has to move beyond the theoretical to the practical. To strategies that can help me navigate my experiences and live the most fulfilling life I can. To see the experiences as only positive could also lead to over-identifying with those moods to the point where I close myself off to factors in the body-mind connection that may be contributing to them. So I will continue to work on my health and hormonal imbalances to address those things.
So the ultimate question is What do we do with all of this? Where do we even begin? The first step, I think, is asking the questions because we’ve been given answers that we’ve found unhelpful or even damaging. When we start to realize that the ways we frame our experiences are so much more subjective than your shrink will ever admit, we can start to examine the frameworks that aren’t working for us. We become free to ask the questions for ourselves, to engage with our life by seeking our own authentic answers instead of taking them on authority. It’s an adventure, but I promise you it’s worth it.