My brother Austin made a remark a few nights ago that resonated with me. We were sitting across from each other at the dinner table. The topic of conversation was the same as it had been the previous night, and the night before that: bipolar disorder. As usual, I hogged the mic and bitched about how much I resented my bipolar disorder for being the black mark of my life and major handicap in my pursuit of success, love, happiness, and full-living. After ten minutes of complaining, I finally stopped to catch my breath. Austin took the cue to interject an observation.
“Belicia, you’ve changed. You used to be more of a… you know, a fighter. You would stand up to challenges and face them. Right now, it seems like you’re giving up.”
For the first time that day, my eyes lit up. “You see?” I exclaim, gesturing wildly. “You noticed it too, right? I’m not the same person I used to be!” I felt strangely validated by Austin’s words. It wasn’t a compliment, but rather an acknowledgement of something I myself silently suspected was happening, but perhaps was too afraid and ashamed to admit. My inner flame was flickering. My fight, my courage, my dreams and goals and ambitions, were all dissipating. And people were starting to notice it. I was becoming the very thing I’d always feared becoming– a noodle. Boiled alive by circumstance and negative mindset, and rendered soft, flimsy, and weak. Bending in the face of adversity. The opposite of a fighter.
And it was all bipolar’s fault. I blamed the bipolar for shattering my self image, decimating my confidence (which has never been high to begin with), and throwing me into a pit of uncertainty, questioning and existential despair. I resented it for ruining my life, rendering me completely dependent on meds, therapists, psychiatrists and parents, to simply live normally. I cursed the illness for limiting my potential. I mourned the loss of my pre-bipolar life, where I could dream as widely, vastly, and freely as I wished, without fearing a manic or depressive episode. I hated that my parents had to bear the burden and stigma of having a mentally ill kid; my brothers, a mentally-ill sister. I pitied those around me for having to deal with my volatile moods and unreliability. And most of all, I pitied myself for having to live the rest of my life with the illness. How will I ever achieve my dreams, when I must forever tiptoe around my bipolar? How will I ever find love, what with the intense stigma surrounding those seven letters? B-I-P-O-L-A-R. I’m the “crazy chic” no one wants in their lives. I am unstable, unpredictable, a bomb waiting to explode. “Not girlfriend material”, a guy I was dating– bless his tactless, unenlightened little heart– said to me. He was a fool for saying that, but his concerns were not altogether unfounded. There goes my dreams of marriage, of having children, of raising a big ol’ family and watching my kids and grandkids and great-grandkids grow up. I don’t get any of that, because I am bipolar, and hence, unlovable and undesired. (Talk about internalized stigma…)
Austin, perhaps sensing the rabbit hole I was going down, interrupted me before I could embark on another self-pitying tirade. “But you do know that you have a choice, right? You can choose to change your mindset about bipolar. You don’t have to let it ruin your life.”
His words gave me pause. I realized he was right– I have a choice to change the way I view my illness. I could either play the victim card and spend my days wallowing in self-pity and bitterness about having bipolar disorder without doing anything constructive to better my situation. Or, I could learn to accept the illness as a part of me– an immutable trait, just like the dark color of my hair or muscular body type– and coexist with it.
There was a line in Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated, that I find befitting to my present mindset: “Sometimes I think we choose our illnesses, because they benefit us in some way.”
I didn’t go up to God right before he sent me to Earth, tap him on the shoulder and say, Hey God, why don’t you make me bipolar? I feel like that would be a cool thing to be. It’ll spice things up, make life more interesting. Thanks so much! I never chose bipolar, just like one doesn’t choose to have diabetes, cancer, or terminal illness. My bipolar was God’s will, the hand I was dealt. But there is always a choice as to how to respond to challenges. You can either practice learned helplessness (the belief that nothing you do can change your circumstances) and become a sad, pathetic noodle. Or, you can choose to adopt a growth mindset, embrace the suck, and deal with the issue at hand with courage and optimism.
The past couple weeks, I chose the noodle life. In some ways, it did benefit me– I didn’t have to fight the hard fight. I made excuses for not following through on goals and commitments. I crawled into a cocoon of fear and self-doubt, where I was paralyzed from making any movement in life, for fear of disrupting my inherently unpredictable mental state. If I stay stagnant and comfortable, I won’t have an episode, I told myself. So I stopped aiming high and dreaming big. I stopped working hard at my goals. I stopped doing things that used to fulfill me. I stopped putting myself out there with dating, because I feared nobody would want to be with someone like me– bipolar and ugly. Without knowing it, I used bipolar as a one-size-fits-all excuse for my passionless and sheltered existence. I used the bipolar label to justify inaction, sloth, and stagnation. I blamed the illness for rendering me a noodle, floating lifelessly in a bowl of cold, stale soup. But in reality, I did that to myself. My mindset had nothing to do with bipolar.
I tried the noodle life, and realized that it doesn’t suit me. I hate feeling weak and powerless. While I’ve sworn off the practice of making grand proclamations, I will break that promise today, just this once, as I hereby declare death to the noodle! No more of that “I have bipolar so I can’t live a full and meaningful life” bullshit. Today, April 10, 2021, I resolve to re-adopt the fighter mentality that has served me all these years. It’s what got me to graduate from UCLA in three years whilst battling untreated bipolar disorder. It’s what fueled me for ten years as a gymnast, and now a Latin dancer. Bipolar did not make me weak– if anything, it has forced me to adopt a strength I would not have needed, had I been born with normal-functioning neurons. The victim mentality I have fallen trap to these past couple weeks– that is weak behavior. It’s how losers and noodles choose to live their lives. But I know I am not that. So why am I acting like one?
You have bipolar, Belicia, but you WILL live a full life, IN SPITE of it. Prove your demons wrong. Repeat to yourself, every morning, the following:
- I have bipolar, but that won’t stop me from attaining mental stability.
- I have bipolar, and I will still kill it in grad school.
- I have bipolar, and I am more than capable of earning my PhD.
- I have bipolar, and I will find someone who loves and accepts every part of me.
- I have bipolar, and I will be a great mother one day.
- I have bipolar, and I will have an illustrious and fulfilling career.
- I have bipolar, and that is the superpower behind my creativity, passion, and empathy.
- I have bipolar, but I am not the illness. I am Belicia Tang, and there is so much I have to offer the world.
DEATH TO THE NOODLE!!! BELICIA TANG IS BACK IN ACTION AND READY TO KICK BIPOLAR’S ASS!!!