Mom: EUGEEEENEEE! Your bipolar medication. (pills shake in the pill bottle)
Eugene, get back HERE! I’m gonna grab you by the SCRUFF! THIS IS GOOD FOR YOU! I’m your mom! It’s cause I care about you!
Mom: COME ON OUT. OK, and stay out!
Mom: RAHHH (Mom breathes heavily while taking the pill out of the bottle and hastily shoving it inside the blondie)
Now swallow! I’m going to keep your mouth shut until you swallow.
(Pills clammering and bottles opening)
Ahhhh (screaming) Fuck.
You have a new message from Eugene. Bipolar disorder, the condition formally known as manic depression affects about 5.7 million American adults, or about 2.6% of the U.S. population 18 and older. The median age of onset for bipolar disorder is 25 years and an equal number of men and women develop bipolar illness. It is found in all ages, races, ethnic groups and social classes. Would you like to reply?
Reflective Essay on Bipolar Bare
After watching me struggle emotionally for a long time, my friend began encouraging me to consider seeing a psychiatrist. I was hesitant and had many reasons to refuse. I was hesitant because I am sober, and taking a psychiatric medication felt like I would be violating my sobriety. And I was hesitant because I wanted to leave room for my sadness and my emotions without running from them. And I had heard horror stories from other friends about going through withdrawal from medications or psychiatrists administering the wrong ones or even friends coerced into taking pills. Plus what was I supposed to think each time I took a pill? But my friend kept encouraging me to consider it. And when I finally went to the psychiatrist, as a last resort after trying everything I could find to improve myself emotionally, the psychiatrist diagnosed me with Bipolar II.
What am I supposed to think each time I take a pill?
Oh? You want a mantra? The psychiatrist asked. Well, what do you think about when you take a vitamin? — It’s like taking a vitamin.
As I wondered what I would tell myself, my friend remembered her mom simply wrapping the family dog’s medication in cheese. She remembered the drama of my cat, Lilith, hiding under the bed in anticipation of her medication and then us pulling her out and prying her mouth open. We decided to reenact these scenes in preparation for the first pill I would take. The video was a way to reenact normative narratives we already knew of taking medication in anticipation of what will likely become a lifetime of taking pills. And from there, it grew to include the first fourteen mornings that I took the pill and documents the transformation and flow of emotions around taking it over those days.
The video uses limited language. Much of the sound is nonverbal (screaming, meowing, the sounds of pills clamoring, and pill bottles opening). The verbal sounds are an electronic voice sterilely reciting statistics about bipolar disorder, and the friend force-feeding the medication. I hope that the non-lingual and visual aspects of the video are emotionally evocative while the spoken elements feel jarring in their limited focus. Perhaps the nonverbal pieces try to communicate complicated feelings around medications that fall outside traditional ways of speaking and traditional mental health narratives. And perhaps they point to a struggle to articulate a fear of pills, fear of the emotional suffering that led to pills, fear of coercion, fear of side effects, fear of social repercussions. It’s an exploration of how one embodies “bipolar.”
Allan Tasman, Jerald Kay, Jeffrey A. Lieberman, Michael B. First, and Michelle B. Riba mention that the term “bipolar” is misleading – it’s not a binary and the poles are more blended than the name suggests. (1) The depression of mania. The mania of depression. And mixed states. The word bipolar offers organized and clear plastic cubes to dissect and locate symptoms, to stack one on top of another in a list, but is that what it is? What about all the colors and weird stories, the bodily intensity – sweating, shaking, vibrating, blinking, drying out, collapsing, crawling, hoping, feeling without wisdom in the rawest, unilingual way?
Bipolar Bare is a way to meditate on taking medication and an exploration of the narratives we have around mental health in our culture. It’s interesting that the friend forcing me to eat the Lamotrigine-laced blondie seems crazier than me in the video. Perhaps it speaks to the way our narratives of illness are culturally constructed and certain strange behaviors are valued while others are pathologized. This is one way the video makes space to challenge clinical and pharmaceutical narratives that we often relate to as objective facts. And perhaps the video is a response to the psychiatrist’s question, what do you think about when you take a vitamin?
The video blurs rich experiences, statistics, and strangely familiar scenes and refuses to neatly fit into a specific frame with a single argument. It instead captures a multiplicity of competing narratives and experiences and perceptions. It speaks to narratives about bipolar disorder as a result of biological vulnerability or chemical imbalances that are separate from a person’s “true self.” It speaks to narratives of bipolar as the simple equivalent to having high blood pressure, and nothing to be scared of. The video defies the binary between advocacy and clinical mental health narratives and in doing so creates a messy and explorative way to relate to psychological struggles.
This video is a beginning to creating personal and social change. It is a self-exploration of wellness and growth. And it is an opening to a bigger conversation about expanding our social discourses beyond traditional and familiar spaces. This video names and embodies a messiness that is often unspoken and glossed over in neater, more common narratives about wellness.
The video is as much about art making as a tool for communication, resistance, and self-definition as it is about mental health. The video forces viewers to explore discomfort and mystery around bipolar that fall outside clinical and advocacy binaries. Viewers witness my artistry as much as they must also stare into bipolar disorder. They stare into what it means to be crazy and to face craziness without justifications or comforting qualifications. The video takes the viewer to witness and wonder.
Eugene SG Massey is a multimedia artist whose work explores themes including trauma, violence, psychology, family, spirituality, meditation, queerness, silence, cruelty, and intimacy. They make experimental sound and video art, write and are learning cello. Eugene is also a wrestler with the Boston League of Wicked Wrestlers (BLOWW) a performance, feminist-wrestling troupe. Eugene’s work outside of their art includes DIY bike repair, working at a domestic violence crisis center, research, and leading a queer youth group.