Collective hours, days, weeks, and months of my family members’ lives have been spent trying to understand and unpack my brother’s inexplicable decisions and lack of reaction to consequence. Alex dropped out of high school, but the classroom doesn’t suit everyone. Alex was discharged from the Army, but they were just drug tested to make an example of his platoon. Alex lost his left leg in a car wreck, but everyone has a false sense of immortality and drives drunk when they’re 22. Alex shot himself in the head and lived, but “god has a plan” for someone who’s survived so much. Alex lives under a bridge, but that fabled rock bottom must be imminent.
Silence falls over the family analysts, downcast eyes resting on a coffee mug handle being pushed back and forth between someone’s thumbs. There isn’t much crying anymore. Those salty reserves were depleted long ago.
When I moved to NYC I packed my Diane von Furstenberg, Wellbutrin, and mounting guilt for leaving so much tumult back in Texas. The unidentified seeds of my depression and anxiety sprouted in childhood, their insidious, invisible tendrils choking me through high school and college. Because my mental illnesses were finally able to be identified and medicated, I became able to live some semblance of a normal life.
Alex has not been so fortunate. There has been so much anger bestowed upon my brother due to his inexplicable mental state, including from me. My failure to consider he could not help himself lasted for several years, and it’s only been just recently that I’ve let anger evaporate and acceptance rain down on us both. When I think of my brother, it is with sadness, but it’s mostly with love and mercy. Our genes come from the same pool, and it just so happens that the combination he got created a long-suffering mental state that is either not yet defined in the mental health community or is shrouded in obscurity, yet to be matched and applied to him. It is not his fault.
As an orderly person, it is a joy to classify and organize things, physically or mentally. Accepting the uncertainty of my brother’s co-occurrence of mental illness and addiction has been a paramount, unanticipated challenge. For so long family members have been hoping for the proverbial lightbulb to turn on in Alex’s mind, his final pivot toward a healed, “normal” life. Alex inspires me to reconsider normalcy, expectations, and success, because those things look different for every person. For my brother, it’s a sister who accepts and loves him from 1500 miles away. As if we were sitting next to each other, it is a virtual embrace, and for now it’s the best we can do.
1. Make it clear to you are there for them, but do not press.
Unfortunately, there is still negative stigma surrounding mental health today, and Bipolar Disorder is at the forefront of misunderstanding and insensitivity. Chalking up regular but perhaps undesirable behaviors as “bipolar” has crept into social jargon, and this general ignorance may make the diagnosis particularly challenging for your loved one to accept and embrace. Make yourself available to the person but gauge and respect their comfort (or lack thereof) discussing the new diagnosis.
2. Be patient.
When someone is diagnosed with any sort of mental incapacitation, not only may it take time to accept and embrace the newfound diagnosis but the pharmacological aspect may be a lengthy journey, too. One of the best ways to support your loved one through the process of new diagnosis, medication, and therapy is to be patient. It’s important to know that finding the right meds can take several tries to get right, and while it may feel tedious to the people around the person with Bipolar Disorder, trust that the medicinal process is much more taxing on the person ingesting the meds.
3. Understand that there may be backtracking.
Like any kind of healing or medical adjustment, there may be times that feel like one step forward, two steps back, whether it’s with therapy, work, relationships, or meds. Remember that the person with Bipolar Disorder is along for that tiring ride, too. Work hard to be empathic and gracious toward the person going through this transition, as there is not a one-size-fits-all solution and it may take some time.
4. Be respectful to the person diagnosed.
Before someone very close to me was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, being around them was like walking on eggshells. That was over ten years ago and we’re now able to openly discuss what things were like before the diagnosis. It’s important to approach your loved one with respect, and not harp on old behaviors that were perhaps undesirable. Remember, the person diagnosed was previously living with an undiagnosed mental illness and that is hard enough. It’s not fair to take shots at someone who is newly healing and trying to live a better life post-diagnosis.
5. Champion respect for Bipolar Disorder.
If you hear someone describing another person’s behavior as “bipolar” as a mean write-off opposed to an actual allusion to Bipolar Disorder, kindly let that person know their misnomer is hurtful towards those with Bipolar Disorder and the people who love them. This is one way to champion respect for your newly diagnosed loved one while maintaining privacy they may wish to have.
My website name change was unceremonious, which I later realized was a mistake. While the name makes me laugh and is meant to be a wink to fellow folks with mental illness, worried loved ones have contacted me to see if I’m okay, unsettled by casual references to delectable Greek food and crippling depression in the same sentence.
The Baker Part
I love to cook and bake and have a special interest in plant-based fare. It’s a ritual for me. Pulling a pile of colorful produce out of the refrigerator’s crisper, pouring rice milk into a measuring cup, leveling flour with the straight side of a butter knife – pure, meditative catharsis. In the kitchen, I am left alone with my thoughts and at the end have something tasty to share and show for it.
The dark side to my new moniker is that I use cooking and baking to busy myself when I am otherwise immobilized by depression.
The Bummed Out Part
Let me back up. I have experienced panic attacks and severe anxiety since I was eight years old, beginning when I skipped second grade and landed in an unfamiliar classroom. I’m talking drenched-in-sweat, sick-to-my-stomach, certain-that-death-or-worse-vomit-is-imminent, cannot-reliably-enjoy-normal-kid-things-like-movie-theaters-and-sleepovers-level anxiety. When I went through puberty I was plagued by depression in addition to the anxiety, exhausting me and causing a contemplative introversion I didn’t have the language to describe, let alone a community to commiserate with. So, not only did the fluorescent lights and linoleum floors in my chem lab make my brain go batty and my stomach feel like I was gonna hurl, I’d then go home at the end of the day, flop onto my bed in my Converse, and stare up at my ceiling in silence, praying no one bothered me lest I had to feign normalcy. My limbs felt like lead, and it wasn’t due to the average athleticism I displayed on the volleyball court several hours a week . Something as simple as polite, topical conversation was enough to overwhelm and exhaust me, do me in and trigger a fit of tears later, in private. Except for music, there was no place I felt understood. It did not help that the latter is often written off as fleeting teenage angst, a stereotype that played down my pain and isolated me further. The 90s and early 2000s composed a precarious chapter for mental health at large – it was so shameful to be sad. I had no affirming mental health community that said “hey, me too”, and so, I suffered. Days turned into weeks turned into months turned into years.
I didn’t cook when I was a teenager, I collaged my ceiling and wrote all over my black walls. It was as if my brain threw up on the inside of the small box I occupied, a room of mirrors, my reflection made up of melodramatic words and dark images. My family members thought it was strange, even a bit funny, but closing myself in my room for hours on end, listening to The Smiths and cutting up my dad’s Communication Arts books was my 2002 version of the same meditative catharsis I seek in the kitchen today.
Me and my brother Duncan in my dark dungeon. High school graduation day, 2006
Okay, I get it. You had a sad-ass adolescence. Where is this going?
I am a writer, and because I no longer work a conventional job I have the distinct and rare luxury of championing the destigmatization of mental illness. I’d like to be a mental health renegade, speaking up for those quietly suffering in a sterilized 9-5 environment while they live with Bipolar Disorder, depression, anxiety, or, loneliest of all, an unidentified mental issue. The pain of moving through life afflicted by mental illness pretending everything is hunky dory is truly inexplicable. Unless you have experienced it, I think it’s nearly impossible to understand. I don’t say this to be exclusive, but folks who do not suffer from mental illness often equate someone else’s crippling mental affliction to the time they felt anxious about their Tinder date with Jeremy, or the appropriate period of time they were devastated about the death of a friend or family member. It’s not the same. One is a normal exorcism of emotion, the other is a chemical imbalance that indefinitely stagnates and traps the sufferer in a hellhole of literal nonsense.
“Have Mercy” – Uncle Jesse
There is not only a lack of understanding about mental illness, but because it’s effects are often invisible I think there’s a level of disbelief due to lack of physical proof. If the severity is not visual, it can’t be all that bad. Or, it must be a phase. It is still not common knowledge that a person’s mental illness can be as debilitating as someone with a physical disability. It can be.
I’ve dealt with mental illness a long time, and have finally found the courage to speak plainly about my story and what I continue to go through. It was so freeing when I finally decided to tell the truth about my needs. For instance, I recharge best by being alone. It’s critical for my well-being, and it took nearly 30 years to unapologetically assert that simple need. I’ve been power-washing my shame away, satisfied by the revelation of my true self and proud to claim my mental makeup. Community and unguarded communication about what’s going on in our heads is so powerful, and I am here. for. it.
Twenty year old baby vegan, the original Bummed Out Baker. Spring, 2009
What does this mean for the site?
Of course I want to talk about thoughtful consumption, community via cooking, sustainability, my love of black clothes, and golden retrievers (duh). But I also want to exploit the platform I have to talk about mental health, something so many suffer from and so few feel safe being open about. As I said before, I have the luxury of not working in a conventional professional setting, which means I can speak freely without as much potential consequence, and I feel a responsibility to do just that. My hope is that, one day, mental illness will be given the same respect and dignity as any other health issue.
So, the point of Bummed Out Baker is not only to normalize a common mental state, but to evangelize the destigmatization of mental illness for myself and everyone who’s still suffering behind an office door, inside a cubicle, the confines of an ignorant social circle, a classroom, or your home. While the name is meant to inform and cultivate empathy, it’s also meant to make someone experiencing depression smile. It took me several years to find humor and help in mental illness, and if I can speed up that process for even one suffering person with some funny truths and a banana bread recipe, my job here is done.