I have always tended to operate under a series of hard rules. Hard Rules; you know, like “oh crap, I just touched that burner and it was hot!”
New rule: don’t touch hot burners!
This is a rule that is always true. If I see a hot burner, I don’t touch it (at least, never on purpose but I’m a bit of a klutz). Having said that, many of these sorts of rules that I’ve gathered up over the years have been helpful, some even life-saving. Don’t throw temper tantrums at your boss. Don’t swim out into Puget Sound where the undertow can drown you. Don’t get in a car with a random stranger. Don’t ever wear black and brown together.
Sounds useful right? Well, for the most part it is, but I have always had a tendency of somehow shuffling all rules into the “hard rule” category. Inflexible. Rigid. Once it is there, it is there forever.
Even though that is a concept that seems useful when it comes to ideas like “don’t touch a hot stove burner,” it is useful because a hot stove burner is always hot.
On the flipside, there are aspects of my life and of having bipolar disorder that might be true sometimes and not true others. Of course, in my life having a mental illness is true, but to say that I am always manic or depressed or agitated or homicidal or suicidal is not true.
These sorts of facts lead me to strange places somewhat reminiscent of math class where these rules become much more complex.
“My suicidality warrants hospitalization if and only if it is a level three on my suicidality scale, requiring x, y, and z… (you get it).”
Despite all the nit-picking and tweaking that has gone into these rules, these ways in which I keep myself alive and relatively healthy, there is one that somehow slipped under the radar. It managed to sneak into the hard rule category without any real revisions over a period of years:
Because of my bipolar symptoms, I am not trustworthy.
These days I can see the difference between a generalization and a rule, but the truth of the matter is that despite how my understanding of myself and my symptoms have improved, there has been a wall of fear that has kept me from being able to edit this statement.
I don’t know exactly where it came from, I don’t know if it was something external that I was told or that people suggested or if it was purely created out of the fear I had of myself and my inability to control myself sometimes. Yes, there have been some incidences that have scared people, but I expect this rule is probably more about how much I scared myself.
For me there was always a big fog around my symptoms or any number of the unhealthy urges swirling around inside me at any given time. I mean, what if something happened? What if they just slipped out before I could realize it?
For many years I allowed myself to defer back to this rule. When people would ask me,
“Oh, do you want to hold my baby?”
“Can you watch the cash register for me for a minute?”
“Mind unwrapping this new kitchen knife set with me real quick?”
The answer was always no. No, sorry, I might punt your baby. Or steal all the money. Or suddenly believe I can juggle knives.
A few years ago I had a friend who had a baby and she insisted I hold him. As it turned out, I held him and he didn’t burst into flames. Or turn into a squealing pig. In fact, nothing weird or inappropriate happened. After returning the baby to her I considered two things that really shook the foundation of the untrustworthy rule I had created.
- My friend trusted me so much she practically forced me to hold the baby.
- In that moment with that baby, I was trustworthy.
This friend did not know much about my past, but she knew my diagnosis. While part of me clung to the notion that she trusted me because she didn’t know about the bulk of my untrustworthy behavior, it felt meaningful that in that moment on that day, she considered me trustworthy enough to hold the most precious thing in her life.
On top of that, the fact that nothing went wrong was kind of like a slap in the face to the rule that had been created. I could be trustworthy. Er… maybe not all the time, but sometimes, yes.
Even though this one moment was the key to begin revising this rule I had created for myself, it has taken thousands of situations and the knowledge I gain about myself and my symptoms every single day to keep reshaping it into something more true.
After all, when my symptoms first started I was really just a kid. I had no idea what they meant or why they were happening, and I had no skills or knowledge to help me keep them from exploding out from me whenever they felt like having a party. When my mind wove a terror filled tapestry for me, I didn’t know I shouldn’t believe it.
Really, getting to know how my different mental states work have been like working out any other part of my body. I couldn’t walk into a weight room and bench press 300 lbs on the first day because I had to build strength first, I needed to learn my own limits in order to push myself to my goal, and be able to take care of myself and heal up if I pushed myself too hard.
Even though having mental illness is a constant for me, my understanding of myself and my symptoms have changed over time. Living with it means adapting as my understanding and knowledge grows, and affording myself more trust over time because that unknown I have been so afraid of? Well it is shrinking every day.