Since my diagnosis in 2012, I slowly became indoctrinated in the medical model of mental illness which emphasizes a biological basis for “abnormal” behavior. As a person living with bipolar disorder, I learned to categorize my lived experience within diagnostic terms, like manic or depressed, and looked to therapy, psychiatry, and psychopharmacology for a cure. I felt limited in what I could do and the type of lifestyle I could have. Restrictions included my bedtime curfew, daily medication management, caution around the disruptive nature of traveling, entering into romantic relationships, and anything that could trigger my moods.
When experiencing a major relapse after attempting to get off of my medication and “cure” myself with natural remedies, I became even more convinced of the biological basis of my disease and clung to the bipolar science like it was gospel. I became serious about taking my meds, dove into CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), tracked my moods, and began perceiving my existence through the lens of manic-depression even more. In some ways, this save my life from complete sabotage as I was tempted to throw in the towel and quit my PhD program before it even started. However, the guilt and shame I carried from viewing myself in this way also took its tole. It’s not until I started learning about Mad Studies and Mad Pride, that I was able to step outside of the confines of my bipolar box.
When the Medical Model Meets Madness
After having achieved stability for almost two years, I still feel very connected to the experiences I’ve had when depressed, manic, or psychotic. I do all the things the Mental Health Industrial Complex tells me to do to stay well, but when it comes to interpreting the meaning of my experiences this paradigm comes up short. Richard A. Ingram, coined the term “Mad Studies,” a field of knowledge that talks back to the abuses of psychiatry and values the experiences of people with lived experiences and how they interpret them. By using Madness as a lens to understand mental illness, I am learning an entirely new vocabulary to help me make sense of my experiences.
My first attempt to reframe my experiences was by trying to develop a language of madness. Drawing from the strengths of person-first language and identity-first language, I found new ways to view myself. Some of my favorite deficits-based to strength-based reframes from person-centered language include:
|Hopeless/Helpless||Unaware of the possibilities, opportunities or one’s own capabilities|
|Manipulative||Resourceful, A person’s best attempt to meet needs with the tools that they have|
|Resistant||Exercising individual autonomy to say no or refuse|
|Abuses the system||Good self-advocate|
|Weakness||Barriers to needs and resources|
While thought-provoking and empowering, person-centered language has its limitations, particularly when it comes to understanding diagnoses as reclaimed political identities. I’ve become more comfortable with identifying as “Bipolar” in certain contexts in contrast to “a person living with bipolar” because of the ways in which my lived experience with this diagnosis has impacted every aspect of my life. It affects the way I move through the world comparable to my other marginalized identities like my Blackness or my gender. It is the same reason why so many people in the Disabled/Mad community identify as Mad, Disabled, Neurodivergent, Deaf, Autistic, and the list goes on… By claiming Mad or Bipolar as an identity — just another part of me like all my other identities — I find like-minded individuals who are politically invested in the same struggles for justice, equality, and liberation.
I have also found it helpful to look to other cultural conceptualizations of mental illness. I deeply resonate with the following reframes:
|Medical Model||Cultural Interpretations|
|Psychosis||Astral travel, Time travel|
|Channeling, Mediumship, Prophesy, Telepathy|
|Hallucinations||Tapping into another reality or dimension|
|Delusions of grandure||Oneness with the universe; Connection to Source|
The funny thing about Madness is that it requires individuals to live in a state of constant contradiction and paradox. It requires us to be able to hold multiple truths in one hand. I’d love to encounter more conversations about ways in which descriptions on both sides of the column can be seriously considered.
As helpful as it has been to find a vocabulary of Madness to help me navigate healing, recovery, and reclamation, words are limiting. This is way I have returned to the visual form to express myself. After deleting all my social media accounts after my mania and psychosis embarrassingly exploded on the internet, I am slowly making my way back to the digital realm. Despite its flaws, social media has been a deeply healing space for my to share my art and my insights and build community. I am now in the process in reconstructing my photography, poetry, film, and my academic sources to explore the visual vocabulary of Madness.
I’m answering the call to curate
return to representing states
no words can explain / words are limited
in the language of madness
more of its vocabulary is visualPoetry by Nadia Naomi
Image Description: Against the backdrop of a cloudy orange sky, Nadia dangles with one arm gripping a half moon and levitates off the earth represented by a minuscule silhouette of a tree on a hill.