A Guest Blog From Alexis Zinkerman
of A Mile A Minute
It is grand larceny to waste away the dull moments in life. Mania allows us to fill the dull spaces with everything. But true happiness is a balance of white, dark and grey spaces.
My memory often fails me as part of my illness. It feels fragmented like a dream. Since being diagnosed bipolar 1 25 years ago, it has been a long struggle for stability. Sometimes I feel I’m in a spin class rapid cycling to the loud beat of several different tunes. My motormouth was always on green light going miles for every minute.
Red light green light was a game the school counselor in fifth grade made me practice with my few friends sitting around a table. One person would talk. Then, she would red light them. Green light to the next person. It was supposed to help you learn how to have a conversation. I was never good at it. I talk at people when I’m manic for hours about my plans, schemes, dreams, desires. I never learned how real people talk to each other.
Maybe, that’s why I went into journalism. In journalism, I could ask hard hitting questions, rapid-fire, and then listen to people talk. Listening is key. It is with deep listening that you hear the true dialogue.
I went away to college in Boston. All I wanted to do was do, do, do. I joined every activity under the sun, took five classes, interned for a senator, took on side jobs, made dean’s list. I didn’t want to sit still, be with myself. Yoga and meditation were hard. I saw the grey spaces against a fractured sky. Every once in a while, I would get a glimpse of balance. But I remained stymied by it.
Sophomore year I ended up in a mixed episode. I had sent a suicidal message to an online chat room and someone called public safety at my school. I was talking fast, moving fast, telling everyone about my fabulous connections with politicians and celebrities. I wanted to attend the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. I had an important mission in politics in saving the world. After a long night in the ER with my well-meaning Resident Adviser, they sent me to a mental hospital. I spent eight days there.
I went back to school at the reservation of the deans. Although I wasn’t out about my mental illness to the students, I felt the stigma of silence. It seemed everyone was talking about me. “Where were you?” were their questions. I made up lies to placate them. I said I had the flu and went home. I wanted to be left alone. I wanted to resume my life as normal. However, life would never be normal again. Now, I had pills to take every day, support groups, doctors’ visits, all on top of a full course load. I dropped a class or two and lightened up on my activities. I only did ones that would advance my future profession and look good on a resume. I went to therapy and talked a blue streak but never remembered what I said.
Then, one day I decided to write about my experiences with mental illness in college for my magazine writing class. I was afraid of judgement when it came to workshop the piece. But no one laughed or ostracized me. Instead, some told me stories of people in their own families, and of their own struggles. I ended up winning a writing prize for that essay later that year.
I saw it as an opportunity to open minds and change the conversation about mental health. Years later, in grad school, I started blogging with a simple, personal blog called Light out of Darkness. I wrote about my struggles with school and work while having bipolar. I wrote about the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy group I was in at the clinic in downtown Chicago. I wrote about working for the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance’s Chicago office. I wrote when I was manic and staying up nights in a row. I wrote when I was so depressed that I couldn’t move and would stay in bed missing class and social events. I wrote about getting interviewed for the new BP Magazine about college kids and mental illness. I wrote about attending an Active Minds conference and a conference at the University of Michigan’s Depression Center. I wrote about going to Cook County Hospital at 3 A.M. to seek help for suicidal urges and self-injury. A friend sat with me in the ER, where they had no patience with mental health issues and yelled at me, and sent me to a psych ward in the South Side. I eventually pressed delete on the blog for my own journalism career’s sake. But this didn’t end my career as an advocate. Journalism as we used to know it was dead and I craved more bylines. So, a few years after I was married, I started a new blog—this time an online publication, called A Mile a Minute, where I interviewed people on mental health, wrote editorials and essays, and kept to date everything happening in the mental heath movement.
Today, the blog thrives and so do I. They found the right combination of medication and the right dosages to keep me stable. I meditate daily, go to therapy, train for 5Ks, work out, eat wholesome foods, and write for a living.
I finally made peace with the grey spaces I couldn’t stand to be in before. I fill my days with the essential things, my husband, my writing, movement, podcasts, books, and my cat Sunshine. It’s amazing because everything came down to the essentials in a pandemic. But for me, I had to learn to slow down and notice life way before. I talk with confidence now, slow and deliberate, and am not afraid anymore to advocate for what’s right and fair for myself and others.
We all feel emptiness. We all have love-shaped holes we try to fill with random activities, drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping. It’s by accepting the darks and the light, and the grey, that we truly find happiness.
Alexis (Maislen) Zinkerman is a writer, journalist, and blogger at A Mile a Minute Fresh Takes on Mental Health. She holds a Master’s in Writing from DePaul University and an MLIS from Dominican University. She has been published in the Hartford Courant, the Hartford Advocate, the Hartford Business Journal, the Windy City Times, We-Ha.com, CTNewsJunkie.com, and the Shore Line Times in Madison, CT. At age 19, while in college, she was diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder and continues to live successfully for over 25 years with the illness. Her knowledge as a mental health consumer as well as a journalist interplay in her life’s work to eradicate stigma and educate about the science of mental illness. She has worked with the Chicago chapter and the national organization of the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance as well as the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Connecticut affiliate. She has appeared in BP Magazine, U.S. News and World Report, and the Chicago Tribune on topics of mental illness, as well as being featured in the Psychology Today book Taming Bipolar. She is a blog columnist for the International Bipolar Foundation and has written for Stigma Fighters and Narratives of Hope. She also authored a novella about teen suicide, Brooklyn’s Song, available on Amazon. Her web site is alexisazinkerman.com.