“You’re an INFJ, Greg.”
“It means Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, and Judging. The same as me, actually. It’s a rare personality type. Only one or two percent of the population are INFJs. And we share the quality of being very difficult to read, or truly understand.”
I had just finished taking a Myers-Briggs personality test. I was sitting in the middle seat of the family van, and we were driving somewhere on a long road trip, probably to see my aunt and uncle in New Jersey. My mom was explaining the results to me. She and my dad run an independent business-consulting firm, and happen to be legitimate experts on personality types, having written at least one book involving the topic. I was eleven at the time, and just thought it was cool to take a personality test.
I particularly liked the idea of being hard to get. I imagined myself as being enigmatic and mysterious, characteristics I had always been taken with. I liked the idea of being different. Aspired to it, would probably be a more appropriate term. So I was thrilled to have it in writing that I was rare and esoteric.
Unfortunately, fate has a dark sense of irony. My greatest aspiration also became one of the most frustrating ongoing experiences of my life. I am, for some reason, very hard to read. Which is not much of an issue, in and of itself. The problem is that there have been a great many times that I desperately needed to be understood, and found no one up to the task.
Bipolar hit me like a bolt of lightning on a sunny day. I was fourteen, and had accepted a scholarship to a private high school, turning down four other scholarships in the process. I had finished eighth grade top of my class, and was being scouted by division 1 hockey schools. I entered ninth grade expecting similar success, and instead landed in a psych ward.
I’m not sure how it started, and if it could have been avoided. All I really remember is the fear. It was tangible. I woke up on day six of my new school year and couldn’t make it out of bed. The pressure of fitting in with my new classmates, acing high level courses, impressing new teachers and trying out for a new varsity hockey team weighed down on me. I might as well have been trying to lift a mountain, as opposed to my bed cover. I convinced my mom that I was sick and just needed the day off.
One day turned into two, and two into five. After a week, there was no faking it. My parents knew something was up, and that it wasn’t a stomach bug. They reached out to my doctor, who referred me to a psychiatric hospital. And so ended my life as a normal person.
They diagnosed me with Bipolar I. I was given new explanations for my problems, and shipped off to an outpatient facility. When this didn’t help, I was committed to an inpatient unit where I was started on heavy doses of medication. After a week of good behavior, but with no real answers, I was allowed back into outpatient.
Everywhere I went, I was told what I was feeling and why. Psychiatrists, therapists, and residence counselors tossed around words I had never heard of, like “mania,” “dissociation,” and “psychosis.” They told me I had a genetic disorder and that this was the cause of my depressive episode. Though confusing at first, the clinical language itself made sense. I found the terms to be abstruse and detached, but they gave me some insight as to what was supposedly going on inside my newly disturbed head.
It was the providers that I didn’t mesh with. Despite being armed to the teeth with textbooks and research, nobody really understood what I was going through. They said a lot of the right things, and nodded at the appropriate times, but couldn’t seem to get where I was coming from. In my head, everything I went through made at least a little bit of sense, even if I didn’t like it. In their heads, I had an incorrect way of feeling or thinking that needed to be resolved. And I was always wrong. My version of events was never accepted, due to my “over-emotional state” and “inaccurate perceptions.” I was observed, but never listened to.
In spite of all this, I survived my first depressive episode and found myself back in my local public high school. Which was more than embarrassing. I was already a subject of gossip in the town, due to an indiscretion with an older girl that occurred during summer camp several years before. So my sudden reappearance, after two years of Catholic school and the poor excuse of a “stomach bug,” only added to the rumors spread by the soccer moms.
Everyone knew something odd had happened, but nobody asked. For my part, I lied and isolated myself. I was a failure at fourteen. And worst of all, my brain was faltering. Math that used to excite me now looked like Greek (some of it was, at least during geometry), and my reading comprehension levels dropped somewhere into the Marianas Trench. I would find out years later that this was due to my medication, a fact that seemed to slip the minds of the doctors prescribing it to me.
Every week, I would meet with my therapist. He was a carbon copy of Ned Flanders, down to the mustache and vomit green sweater. I hated him from day one, and it got worse from there. Dr. Flanders was very fond of telling me I had “behavioral issues.” We rarely had a conversation that didn’t end with him triumphantly proving to himself that my behavior was just another obvious result of my mental illness.
I never agreed, but how could I be right? I was a teenager, and he had a Masters degree plus thirty years of experience in the field. So I stopped talking during therapy sessions. Which, of course, was also apparently due to my poor mental state, and couldn’t possibly be due to the fact that I thought he was an idiot.
Three superfluous diagnoses later, I convinced my parents to find me a new therapist. This culminated in a fight with Dr. Flanders where he recommended I be committed.
I wasn’t, thankfully. But it took me two years to find a provider I found helpful. She was a psychiatrist, and she did not win me over with medication or a beautiful treatment plan. She won me over accidentally, in a conversation with my parents.
It was our first meeting, and I was sitting moodily in a corner of her Cambridge office, dead set on ignoring her. My parents introduced themselves and ran through some of my history with her. Then my mom asked a question I had heard before, and hated hearing. She asked if this psychiatrist could please explain what I was going through.
I expected a canned answer. Instead, this psychiatrist said, “I want you to imagine your son just like everybody else. He wakes up, eats, goes to school, engages in activities, socializes, and sleeps. Only he has to do it with a 100-pound bag of rocks on his back. When he wakes up in the morning, he has to lift those rocks to get out of bed. When he goes to school, he has to move those rocks to think. And if he tries to ignore those rocks, or cast them aside, they just trip him up and cause more problems.”
I looked up, dumbfounded. No mania, no depression, no problematic thoughts and behavior; just a simple, surprisingly accurate metaphor.
I called this “getting it.” Better terms would be empathy and understanding. After two years, I had finally found someone who got me. We weren’t, and still aren’t, quite on the same page, but we’re at least reading the same book.
I didn’t spontaneously recover from this. I was still in a very troublesome and dark part of my life. At age 17, I found myself crashing into another crevasse, and retreating into another new school; a clinical one.
I didn’t find myself there, but I did find a lot of other kids like me. And for the first time in three years, I felt like I belonged somewhere. My grades went up, I laughed more, and I took up writing. I also connected with a lovely therapist at the school, who patiently sat through my tirades during our weekly meetings. She had a funny of way of making me feel better while saying practically nothing. She also framed everything in a context that made me feel like my thoughts and behavior were in my control, or could be if I tried. It was thanks to her, and this school, that I made it into college on time, with a darn good GPA and a modicum of self-respect.
College was great for a year. I did well in classes, made friends, and got drunk for the first time. It was lovely until the start of sophomore year.
The crash was foreshadowed in the same way as the others: intense fear, followed by more intense avoidance. Only this time, I had no parents to force me into and out of bed each day. I locked myself in my room, skipped class, and almost never slept. I binged on hours of animated TV shows on my computer, and slowly the lines of my reality started to blur. The husk of my body limped on the chair as I took part in the fantasies of a traveler in a far off land, college very much forgotten.
Weeks into this, I finally acknowledged that I was nearing a precipice. My solution was to consume the three weeks’ worth of medication I had neglected to take. I wasn’t trying to overdose. Quite the opposite. I thought I’d be right as rain when I woke up.
Luckily, I did wake up. I was naked, and a University Police officer was standing in my room. Soon the dean and head guidance counselor called an ambulance and brought my avoidant fantasies to a halt. What began after that was the most challenging, humbling, and fulfilling journey of my life. It was the start of my recovery.
Recovery was (is) a messy, risky process. Frankly, I dislike the term recovery because I have never thought I have something to recover from. I have never been able to dissociate my “illness” from me. It was actually this distinction and implicit acceptance that kick-started my “recovery.”
DBT teaches it as radical acceptance, but for me it was a moment of bitter honesty. This moment came a year and a half after my overdose. By this point, I had started to take a more active role in my treatment. I was making good practice of my newly learned CBT, mindfulness, and exposure coping mechanisms, all learned the year before at McLean’s BHP outpatient program. I made it through nearly another whole year of school, albeit on a reduced course load, before crashing again. Although it was less of a crash, and more of a moment of self-policing where I pulled the car over to check if I was being a safe driver. I asked to be admitted inpatient.
I stayed for a week, and enjoyed every moment. I rested, made friends, played Ken-Ken, ate armloads of ice cream sandwiches, and finished two books by Thich Nhat Hanh. I knew something was different, but couldn’t put my finger on it until day four. It hit me while I was reading a passage on acceptance in Being Peace. “I’m crazy.” The words tumbled out. At first I thought I was just being facetious, playing the role, being stupid. But I felt the honesty in the statement, and a warmth.
Acceptance is a funny thing. It’s such a simple idea, but so maddeningly difficult to achieve. I didn’t mean to accept myself in that moment; a gear just naturally clicked. Years later I would realize it wasn’t an epiphany so much as a culmination of the effort I had put into learning to understand and take responsibility for myself. But sitting there in the hospital, it just felt like I had miraculously found that last puzzle piece that had been lost in the attic.
Things didn’t suddenly turn around, like they do in the movies. But they got better. My grades went back up. I made new friends at school. I got reinvested in life. And best yet, I started to challenge myself again. By my last year in college, I was a different person. Oddly peaceful. I would sometimes find myself in my room, homework forgotten, just smiling, and feeling a little like the old wise man sitting in the cave on top of the mountain. Of course I hadn’t found all the answers, but I had learned something fundamental about being a person. About being me.
Self-acceptance is a very human experience, and a necessary one in the pursuit of personal happiness. It’s something that poses a problem to most people at some point in their lives. In my experience, the mental health field does an abysmal job of addressing this truth.
My diagnosis made it much more difficult to accept myself. Instead of learning to love and appreciate my intricacies and peculiarities, I was told to fear them. I was told that being different was bad, and that I needed to fix that. I needed medication and therapy to fix the problem that I experience life a little more intensely than most. I was packed into an evidence-based box, to be pitied and fixed.
To accept myself, I had to climb out of that box. I had to find the silver lining in the darkness that was my “condition.” And when I did, I discovered that life is so much bigger than the little world that clinical psychology provided me.
I am different. And yes, definitely a little crazy. But I am still human. I have dreams, and feelings, and likes and dislikes, just like everyone else. This is something that most providers seem to have forgotten, at least in my case. I find it ironic that a field so focused on understanding human experience misses so much on what it means to be human.
Working with providers was like trying to shove a mountain into a photo album. No matter how many photographs I took, I couldn’t capture the sheer size and breathtaking awe of it. And while I was forced to struggle up that imposing mountain, my providers had only ever looked at the pictures. Yet they called themselves expert mountain climbers because they had been studying that photo album for a very long time. It’s no wonder I never felt completely understood.
I am at peace because I took the time to know myself, and appreciate myself. I learned to love a life I was told would always be difficult. And I like being different. But when I tell people that, I just get a funny look, and one of those smiles that says “Uh-huh, right. I know you better than that.”
But they don’t know. Which is okay. After all, I always wanted to be an enigma.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.