Reclaiming My Yin and Yang

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Sometimes I seem to waver between things feeling exciting and full of meaning and things feeling meaningless and fragmented. Or I oscillate between feeling highly confident and bold and feeling deeply anxious and uncertain, the complex reality of simultaneous contradictory feelings being too hard to hold. Sometimes I am buoyant and ambitious, and sometimes I struggle to just get by. (Paradoxically, it can be easier for me to exceed expectations than to merely meet them.)

To some degree, these are psychological patterns common to most people — the interplay of oppositions has a flavor of something archetypal, manifesting in each person in a unique way. Yet it was evident to me even as a kid that I had a sort of tendency towards “moderate extremes.” Around age 11, I remember thinking to myself that I had a pattern of “yin years” and “yang years”: years when I was markedly anxious, and years when I was markedly bold. I also at that age wrote a short story set in ancient China that depicted a young human girl with a lot of “yang energy” and a young dragon boy with a lot of “yin energy.” Yin and yang were complex concepts for me even then, signifying any or all of female and male, inward and outward, intuitive and rational, dark and light. In some way, I knew myself to be all of these, each pole deeply entwined with its opposite.

I was passionate about psychology in middle school, avidly reading Scientific American Mind. One issue of that magazine featured several articles about (binary) transgender kids. For a few months after reading them, I was obsessed with trying to understand how small children develop a gender identity. I once even interviewed a toddler at a playground, asking her questions like how she knew that her father was not a girl (her parents got annoyed at me for that). Another issue featured an article on the discovery of genetic relationships between autism, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. This intrigued me, for I observed in certain members of my family, including myself, traits that seemed potentially to be milder manifestations of these three conditions. I had previously wondered if I was autistic, partly due to the oft-repeated concerns expressed by my parents and teachers about my social skills, and now I wondered if my moody temperament had the seeds of bipolar disorder. Or perhaps I was just a “moody teenager”? But certainly, I seemed to get into more trouble with myself and others than did many other teenagers around me. Only time would tell, I surmised.

Indeed, I was given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder in the spring of 2021, when what initially was an obsessive rumination upon my gender identity (I worried, and then became convinced, that I had “lied” about being non-binary) first collapsed into the haziness of a depressive state and then developed into a confusing chaos of ups and downs. I actually was the one who first brought up the possibility of bipolar with my psychiatrist, similar to how when I first saw her, I mentioned that I had read about gender-focused OCD and believed that my anxiety often had an obsessive-compulsive character. But although she rejected the OCD idea, saying instead that I had generalized anxiety disorder that was just being temporarily concentrated on my gender, she appeared to take the bipolar possibility seriously, even changing my medication because of that. When in May I had an extreme breakdown that led to my being hospitalized, the psychiatrists who saw me in the emergency room and in the psych hospital seemed confident that I had experienced an episode of mania with psychosis, mixed with much anxiety and distress.

Even then I had some doubts about my diagnosis. I had certainly experienced an “extreme state” of a sort, and specific aspects of it did look a lot like mania and even a tad like psychosis, but it happened over only a few days, and it didn’t feel consistently like mania. But the “mixed” modifier seemed to account for that, maybe. I also about half a year prior experienced a somewhat less intense breakdown, in response to a stressful situation, that had an astounding number of similarities to this “manic episode,” so there was potential precedent for bipolar instability. Yet it was strange to me that the psychiatrist and others in the hospital mostly glossed over the crisis of gender identity that led to my breakdown, offering me no help for processing that and instead focusing on chemically controlling my moods. But I knew that I needed some sort of help, and the help that was being offered was according to this Western biomedical model, in the hyper-regimentation and sensory overload of a psych hospital. I was too disoriented and desperate to do anything but follow along.

When I was hospitalized for a second time that fall, in a different hospital, the psychiatrist there told me that she did not think that I was manic, despite the people in the emergency room having thought so. I was excitable and talked rapidly at the start of my appointment with her, but gradually calmed down as she spoke to me; manic people generally are difficult to calm. She suggested that there was something about my personality that inclined me towards intense moods. Immediately, I heard an implication of borderline personality disorder, though she never said that specifically, and this ended up angering me, to the extent of my acting out at one point in the hospital. I think I perceived a certain truth in what the psychiatrist said, but the idea of there being “something wrong” with my personality felt too painful (and ridiculous) to accept. After the first medication I was prescribed at that hospital for anxiety caused my mouth to be constantly uncomfortably dry, I told the psychiatrist something, I forget exactly what, but something indirectly meant to refute her suggestion that I had a “personality thing” rather than bipolar, that led her to prescribe me medications commonly used for bipolar disorder and intended to moderate moods from the top and bottom. Later I felt upset at myself for implicitly trying to sway the psychiatrist, but since the new meds were much more tolerable than the first one and might help even out my moods regardless of my diagnosis, I persisted with them.

After that hospital stay, I became more convinced that I had borderline personality disorder rather than bipolar and came to terms with that. I had not been diagnosed with it, but my hospital records noted me as having “Cluster B traits” as well as “unspecified” bipolar disorder, and borderline is a Cluster B personality disorder. It’s commonly confused with bipolar disorder and is a highly stigmatized condition, so I tried hard to be kind to myself about what I now perceived in myself. How surprised was I then that when I told my therapist at the time, a new one whom I began seeing a couple months prior, that I suspected that I had borderline personality disorder, she disputed the idea, saying that borderline tends to greatly affect people’s relationships in a way that I did not experience (“hallmark” traits include a fear of abandonment and a tendency to alternatingly idolize and then deeply hate a person). Yet she did not completely reject it, just as she still had not thrown out the possibility of my having bipolar. Labeling me with a diagnosis was neither urgent, nor really that important, to her.

My therapist’s approach of holding all the possibilities and not deciding on one too soon was, although initially frustrating, ultimately very helpful for me, especially regarding my complex and fluid gender identity. Regarding my mental health, it was also somewhat amusing, as my therapist told me to defer to my (also new) psychiatrist about diagnosis, and my psychiatrist, when I brought up the issue, then asked me what my therapist thought! My mind likes to categorize and to know things with certainty, so my care team’s disinclination to settle on a diagnosis irritated me, but eventually I found this approach liberating. It doesn’t matter how I label my “condition.” What’s more important is that I understand my personal needs and tendencies and develop my ability to respond to challenging circumstances, whether they arise internally or externally. Rather than a taxonomy of the mind, I need a physics of my psyche.

I’ve been fascinated with modern psychoanalytic theory as a way of more deeply understanding the idiosyncratic workings of my bodymind. I feel that its language of ego defenses, transference relations, and other psychological “forces” better clarifies for me the logic of my psychology than do the DSM’s myriad checklists of symptoms. Yet I also have many critiques of it, including its Eurocentrism and the fact that much psychoanalytic literature has deeply embedded in it a binaristic conception of gender. Thus I long for access to other alternatives to mainstream psychiatry as well, including the healing practices of my Chinese heritage, deeply rooted in a philosophy of yin and yang. I was actually initially hesitant to seek a psychiatrist, as I believed that I was experiencing a spiritual crisis that would lead to positive transformation. Why are such perspectives, which strive not just to get rid of distress but rather to make meaning from intense experiences, so often dismissed and neglected in conventional healthcare?

It’s not that the biomedical model has nothing to give people: many people have had their lives profoundly changed for the better by appropriate diagnoses, medications, and therapies, and I want people to have access to that sort of care if that is what they desire. But Western psychiatry (including psychoanalytic traditions) has done a lot of harm to people, especially when it is forced upon people as their “only” option. People’s experiences are wildly diverse, and only a diversity of options can do justice to our differing needs.

I’m hoping to get off my psych meds soon, having already largely tapered them down over several months, as I have become exasperated with the side effects and no longer think that the potential benefits outweigh the costs. (Also, I want to eat grapefruit again!) If later it seems that I would significantly benefit from medication, I would reconsider then. I’ve just started with a new therapist (since my previous one was affiliated with my college’s counseling services, and I just graduated), and I feel optimistic with them. They are non-binary and specialize in somatic experiencing therapy, which might help me to “get out of my head” as well as to process trauma that I carry in my body. I am working on creating a Madness map for myself in order to identify strategies to navigate distress, crisis, and extreme states. One goal I have is to avoid ever going to a psych hospital again by cataloging ahead of time other options for support and safety, including the long-term practice of mutual aid, that are less expensive and traumatizing and more conducive to healing for myself and for those I am connected to.

I’ve been on a waitlist for several months for an in-depth psychological evaluation that would include, among other things, assessments for ADHD and autism, and I expect to get off the waitlist in a month or two. But I’ve been questioning whether the assessments and potential diagnoses would be of enough benefit to me to justify the expense of the evaluation, especially as I already have a growing sense of what I want to work on in myself and what I need to survive in a world that is negligent of and dangerous for Mad and neurodivergent folks. I have embraced the identities “Mad” and “neurodivergent” for myself despite a lack of firm diagnoses, as it is empowering for me to name my experiences in a way that politically aligns me with Mad and Disability Justice movements. Similar to how my identifying myself as non-binary does not entitle anyone else to knowledge about the specifics of my gender experience, it is no one else’s right to assess whether my experiences adequately justify my identification as Mad and neurodivergent or to decide for me what being Mad and neurodivergent means for me. As I say in my experimental piano performance fluxing, quivering, transforming: I am, therefore I am.

I call myself yinyang ren, a person of yin and yang. The term is variously used in Mandarin to describe someone who is non-binary, trans, bigender, bisexual, or even intersex, but for me, a person of multifaceted, fluid polarities, it means so much more. I am yinyang ren: non-binary, Mad, neuroqueer, Han Chinese, an analytical and creative being, a deeply spiritual soul. I have always been, and I am always becoming.

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22 COMMENTS

  1. I find the term ‘neurodivergent’ just as offensive as the ‘n’ word that refers to race or any number of slurs referring to sexuality. If you are hoping for acceptance then you shouldn’t unknowingly offending others the same way they have unknowingly offended you.

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    • I am sorry to have offended you in my usage of that word. People’s feelings towards words vary, and certain words may feel empowering to some and be an offensive slur to others. The word “queer” is one example of this. A large number of people have reclaimed the term, which not so long ago was only used as a slur, to describe their identity in an empowering way. Thus “queer” is nowadays frequently used, especially among younger people, as an umbrella term for all gender and sexual minorities. But there are still many people who do not and cannot identify themselves as “queer,” preferring terms like “gay” (which can describe a specific sexual orientation or can be an umbrella term), for to them, “queer” may still be a slur that might have been personally used against them, or it might just simply not resonate with them as an identity. That is valid, and others should respect that and use the identity language that those people prefer. Similarly, although to my knowledge “neurodivergent” has not been commonly used as a slur, it can certainly have negative and offensive connotations for some people. However, it is a term that originated in the Autistic community as a way with which some people felt empowered to describe themselves, since unlike the language of “disorders,” it does not point to something that is “wrong” or “defective” about a person, but rather simply says that they “diverge” from socially-imposed norms. Autistic people have generally given permission for people who are not Autistic, but who also identify with experiences of conflicting with socially-imposed norms, to use the term to describe themselves as well. This certainly does not mean that every person with such experiences or even every Autistic person specifically must identify as neurodivergent, but many people do, and that is just as valid as your personal discomfort with that term. If you are comfortable with sharing, what language do you use to describe yourself? Perhaps there can be alternatives to the word “neurodivergent” that people like you may popularize. Language evolves, so who knows, maybe in 10 or so years “neurodivergent” becomes phased out and your own preferred language becomes what is commonly used. Either way, your feelings and preferences are valid!

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      • My biggest problem with the term “neurodivergent” is that it implies there is a “normal” kind of neurology that “most people” have, and that one has to be “autistic” or “ADHD” or fit some label to be considered “neurodivergent.” I object very much to the idea that there is such a thing as “normal” vs. “divergent” neurology, in fact, genetic diversity is critical to species survival, and one of the great joys of humanity is the amazing degree of divergence that exists within the “normal” range of human behavior. Ultimately, I see us all as “neurodivergent” which means the term really has no meaning. It seems to me that the term “neurodivergent” reinforces the idea that “mental illnesses” are somehow neurological and are discernible by “divergence” from some kind of theoretical “norm.”

        I have no problems with individuals identifying themselves as “neurodivergent,” but I can’t agree with such people deciding that I or others are “normies” and that one has to have special qualities to qualify as “neurodivergent.”

        That’s my view of it. I’m sure others have their reasons that will diverge from mine!

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        • I agree that the concept of “normal” is problematic and that ideally we’d just all be people with all sorts of idiosyncrasies that are universally accepted. That’s why personally I wouldn’t say that any person is actually “neurotypical,” but I would say that society is designed with neurotypicality as an *imposed* norm (rather than a naturally occurring one; as an analogy, think of the social construct of race and how whiteness is made to be a norm). No one actually fits in with all of society’s norms, but some people certainly feel harmed or excluded by those norms to a greater degree than others. I think neurodivergence is more of a subjective experience of clashing frequently with social expectations rather than an objective measure of how “different” someone is from a particular norm. So yeah, I agree with you that people shouldn’t gatekeep others from claiming the identity of neurodivergence for themselves or try to determine a list of objective criteria for identifying as neurodivergent. As I wrote in my essay, I find it meaningful for me to identify as neurodivergent without being entirely sure of what diagnoses, if any, my experience best maps to. It is a social identity that can sometimes interact with biomedical or even bioessentialist conceptions, but it does not have to. I do agree that the word “neurodivergent” can sound like it implies a statistical or bioessentialist framework, and I would welcome alternatives that don’t have such connotations!

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          • Thanks for your thoughtful reply! I agree that these things are complicated, and I appreciate the acknowledgement that “fitting in” to the so-called “social norms” is NOT a sign of “neurotypicality” but of ability to adapt to what are generally unreasonable expectations. The “ADHD” kid in class can’t adapt, and so is identified as “divergent.” Of course, it’s better for him than being identified as “mentally ill,” but that classroom is FULL of kids who are just as miserable as he is and yet don’t act that out for whatever reason, whether better suppression skills or more fear of punishment or whatever. Those kids are not any more “typical” than anyone else, they just don’t make trouble for the adults and are therefore identified as “normal.”

            Maybe the term “neuro” is what gives the word its “bioessentialist” undertone. Maybe if we simply identified ourselves as “divergent,” as in “diverging from expected social norms,” then everyone can get on board with “diverging” and maybe even find some new and better “social norms” that are easier for more people to live with!

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  2. I appreciated your blog and insight into how you are perceiving the world. We all wonder how others are perceiving the world and themselves inside that world. Here are some more words that might help your journey. We are all “human beings” and “mortals”. Meaning: every physical person is human/earthly (belonging to the earth) and we are all mortal (being destined to going back to the earth through death of our living body). Death is not “normal” or “right” even though all physical bodies die and decay. We are also all “spirits” residing inside of containers we call bodies. Spirits that have been given the rights and responsibilities of physical property called the “body” are spirits having a physical experience. So, we are all spirits having a physical experience. This is a wonderful and joyful thing and carries with it much responsibility. I look at my physical body and thank Mother Earth for giving me certain traits. I have a womb and can create (through the earth) and other beings after connecting with someone who has the opposite part (seed) that can grow my earth and multiply its existence. Only a womb seed and another groin seed (from male sex organs) that can be expelled into that womb can grow another earthly person. But where does the “spirit” for the newly conceived being come from? The seeds come from “Mother Earth” (Man/Woman) but the spirit that will inhabit the body comes from “Father Spirit” who is neither male nor female. “He” is often referred to as “Father” but can be called “Mother”- neither male nor female but PURE SPIRIT. Our Creator/God is HOLY SPIRIT. He/She is Creator. A multifaceted God who’s works are recorded in creation, scriptures and psychic encounters of the spirit realm. You, my friend, get confused because you have the ability to tune into both good and evil spirit realms. There is an evil spirit realm that rebells against “Mother Earth” and “Creator Spirit”. The evil spirit realm wants to take over your physical body for its evil purposes. Your spirit is stronger than evil spirits- you can resist evil and they will flee from you. Do this in the name of Yeshua/Jesus the Messiah/Christ. The Spirit of Yeshua/Jesus joined with a believing spirit (you) can cast out all evil spirits.

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    • Well said! Thank You for sharing your insight. I can tell you from my own mental health issues what you’ve said here is very true. I remember a time in the past I couldn’t walk across any bridges near the edge. This lasted many years maybe 10. If I walked near the edge I’d feel I need to jump over the edge. I literally felt I needed to jump. If I walked away from the edge I was always fine so that’s what I did. My feeling this way, that jumping feeling was not of me. That wasn’t me. But it still existed with in me. That feeling of jumping finally left me maybe 5 years ago. Another situation I had going on was this: I live on 36 acres. It’s very much a park like setting. I would walk the property every day. More for exercise but also for the quiet and the enjoyment. We have workers come to the property from time to time. We have some oil wells so they work on them. When I walk the property I would carry a walking stick. There was this one worker who would come who was always friendly. But on occasion something within me didn’t sit right when he would come by. Some days I would feel I needed to take that walking stick and hit him with it. He didn’t do anything that would cause this feeling within me it would just be there. Violence is not me. It’s never been me. But that feeling was there. That feeling of hitting him was so strong some days I literally had to drop the stick and walk away. He finally stopped coming around. No one else has ever caused that feeling to happen. But I believe it too is gone from my body. I’m in a really great place these days. I always stayed as far away from meds as I could. I delt with the issues that cropped up. I consider what I’ve gone through as just part of learning about the hidden world around us.

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  3. Here is a (I would suspect) not uncommon example of a young person totally adrift in the world when it comes to understanding themselves and life in general.

    They are all wrapped up in labeling themself, as if it is not enough to merely state “I am a human being.”

    This is the state the wonderful worlds of Psychology and Psychiatry have left us in. A state of Confusion. By abandoning the study of the Psyche, as their subject titles dictate, they have abandoned their jobs on this planet, which is a form of treason.

    Why not look, then, to those who did not shirk this job? It is not an easy job. It’s a little like looking in a mirror and describing exactly what you see, in excruciating detail, without getting emotionally involved with the fact that you are looking at yourself. But this has been done.

    Those supposed experts on the Psyche would have us believe that this work has not been done, or if started, has not been completed. They lie to hide the fact that they lack the courage to carry out their jobs.

    And they do lie. Though the work completed thus far may not appear to be in a state of glistening perfection, it’s well enough developed to be workable.

    So the “experts” merely lie when they tell you the work has not been done. It has. And parts of it have even been corroborated by independent researchers. So I say, let’s put down our fears of being assigned the wrong label or being socially rejected, and begin to talk about what we have learned about Psyche.

    This person, afraid to simply call themself a human being, needs this discussion to happen. And so does the rest of the planet. If we don’t start soon it could be too late.

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    • Larry, I really appreciate your emphasis on the wholeness of human, which really cannot and should not be pinned down by words. Words are such imperfect tools for understanding and expressing ourselves. As a musician, I find the imprecise yet expressive nature of sound a little more freeing than the pretense of precision that language presents, but even music can only be a time-bound, linear representation of complexly non-linear being.

      Growing up, I despised identity politics, feeling that my spirituality and fluid nature of being was far more important than social labels. I still am critical of identity politics and would never define myself *in essence* as queer, non-binary, Mad, Chinese-American, or the like. Yet those words do describe me, and I live in a society in which even if I personally shirk from social identity labels, such labels will be applied to me by others, often in incorrect and uncomfortable ways. I hate to define my gender as anything, even under such a broad “non-label” of a label as “non-binary,” for a label it still is. But currently in our society, the socially enforced default label is “cisgender,” and I do not wish to be assigned to such a default. To name myself as non-binary is thus an act that empowers me to create a space for myself where, despite the profusion of labels in our society, I can strive to be simply myself.

      It is precisely because of my disdain for labels that I have returned to my childhood language of my yin and yang. For that was my native language of fathoming my ever-dynamic self, and it grounds me in my deep sense of spirituality. Yinyang ren is not merely a social label; it is a personal and spiritual aspiration. This is why I write this in my essay:

      “[F]or me, a person of multifaceted, fluid polarities, [the term] means so much more. I am yinyang ren: non-binary, Mad, neuroqueer, Han Chinese, an analytical and creative being, a deeply spiritual soul. I have always been, and I am always becoming.”

      Yinyang ren is a language that allows me to function to some degree within a society obsessed with social categorizations (and the discrimination against persons of particular categorizations) yet also remain in touch with what I know is my true essence, which is unspeakable. I am never fully yin or fully yang: I am always flowing something in between, the precise point unmeasurable and unknowable. I can only strive to be, and more importantly, to be always becoming.

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  4. Dale says, “But eventually you may find you are the best therapist.”

    The best therapists help people become their own therapist/friend/parent (in a reasonable amount of time for a reasonable fee), which ideally is something that parents ought to teach their kids to become as they grow up. And why so many labels? Isn’t “human being” enough?

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  5. “The plague of mankind is the fear and rejection of diversity: monotheism, monarchy, and, in our age, monomedicine. The belief that there is only one right way to live, only one right way to regulate religious, political, sexual, medical affairs is the root cause of the greatest threat to man: members of his own species, bent on ensuring his salvation, security and sanity.” – Thomas Szasz

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  6. Wow, you are one bold and beautiful person. I love the energy you have in searching for answers. I love the combative style you have. Keep going and never stop. The world will greatly appreciate your works one day when you finally work through all of it. And you will. I was first diagnosed bi-polar 20 years ago. I knew exactly what caused it I actually saw it coming. Several years of seeing it coming before it threw me into a manic but also paranoid state of mind. It came in July of 2003. I still remember that time well. But then I didn’t know why. Why would this happen to me, me of all people. Why me? No one can learn great things from books. Great things are learned by experiencing life to its absolute fullest. I envy you. You have experiences I’ve never felt. You have a closeness at a level I haven’t reached and will never reach. Oddly enough I’ve never experienced depression in my life. Not one day not one moment. Never. But I am bi-polar. And also at this point in my life labeled everything else all the way to borderline personality. I’m always on the manic side. Every day I’m manic. What keeps the mania controlled is my wife of 43 years, who suffers a level of anxiety and maybe a slight touch of depression. My keeping her above ground keeps me grounded. But what also keeps my constant mania in check is my physical health complications that swing around about every 10 years. 4 days ago I had a parotid gland removed. A non cancerous tumor had grown within. But I also had another growth within the ear canal adjacent to that parotid gland which added a degree of complication. I knew about both growths from 4 years ago. So for those 4 years I was grounded as it weighed on my mind. Physical health issues do tend to weigh on my mind. And do keep me grounded to a point. That tumor, it first showed itself 20 years ago. It had come back and brought a buddy with it. It took that buddy to keep me grounded otherwise I would have simply ignored it. Oh, never any meds for me. None. Absolutely no drugs of any sort recreational or prescribed. I stay away from all physiatrists. They will never understand me or my every day joy of life itself. I look forward every day to what ever venture God has in mind for me. Yes God. Every day is another day of learning. Every day can also be a day of wonderment. Oh, absolutely no organized religion for me either. They too wouldn’t understand me let alone accept me for who I am. The spiritual world exists. It’ll show you wonders no one else sees. But they do exist. I experience things often. But must keep them to myself. But they do bring me joy and wonderment. If I may suggest, open your mind to all things possible. You’ll find yourself on a journey money can’t buy. Enjoy! And you go girl! The world will be in a better place because of you.

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