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It’s time to stop calling people “crazy.”

Wearing a hospital gown, my hands trembling, I approach the front desk for the fifth time in half an hour. The woman sitting behind it is already frustrated with me, but I am desperate. I need to talk to my family. I need to get out of here.

I am 18 and scared. I’ve spent part of the morning lurking near the doors of the day room, eyeing the exits, trying to envision my escape. I am not a rule-breaker, but I feel trapped. If they won’t let me out, I’ll find a way. The nurses spot me and give…

I’m realizing the inadequacy of relationships, personal kindnesses, and hotline numbers alone.

When I think about the things that have allowed me to survive periods of suicidality, I think of people. Family. Friends. Doctors and nurses. Therapists. I think of loving gestures that helped me during particularly vulnerable and high-risk times. The four leaf clover from my aunt and uncle when I was in the hospital. My sister-in-law preparing a meal downstairs as I tried to muster the energy to get out of bed. The basket of succulents from my coworkers that appeared on my doorstep after a particularly hard day of intensive outpatient treatment. …

I’m speaking out as I work toward silencing the voice in my head

Photo: Paper Boat Creative/The Image Bank/Getty

I am walking through the snow before sunrise. Pristine, untouched—the first snowfall of the year. Branches bend as the flakes continue to accumulate. Little by little over time, they become powerful. They break what’s in their way. They speak.

I have been told it is my turn to speak. I am crushing the snow with my boots. I’m scared. I’ve never spoken about this before. I walk beneath the arch of a tree, hunched over, its backbone rounded, heavy with snow. My voice is frozen beneath my tongue as I move my lips. I hear nothing. Deep breath. Try again.

“While bipolar often feels like my adversary, I’ve spent much of the last year defending and explaining my illness.”

Every two weeks, I take an hour-long bus ride to the psychiatric unit on the edge of town. The bus is always empty; I settle into a seat and crack the window. I try to read, but reading has become more difficult this year. I usually end up staring outside, letting the rowhouses and hydrangeas drift past.

I notice the ripples on the water as we pass the reservoir, industrial yet ethereal. It reminds me of swimming in Lake Michigan many summers ago — floating on my back, the city skyline pressed into the background. I bet the reservoir tastes…

“The pain of realizing how many damn candles people have been lighting in my honor and how few I have been lighting for them.”

I used to be afraid of walking home from the metro after dark. I know we live in a safe area — colorful rowhouses line both sides of the street. Cobblestones. Benches. Parks. Coffee shops. Doormats disingenuously welcome unexpected visitors.

“The metro is only ten minutes away,” my husband said. “If you’re not home in ten minutes, I’ll start walking that way. I’ll call the police.”

But my anxiety persisted. My heartbeat quickened when anyone was walking behind me. I would see shadows and run to the other side of the street. I would clutch my keys in one hand…

I “came out” with bipolar disorder a year ago this week — during National Suicide Prevention Week. It was the most important thing I’ve ever done.

Over the last year, I’ve had to lie less. I’ve had to hide less. When I was hospitalized in June, I was able to tell my boss, friends, and family what was happening. One of my coworkers visited me in the hospital. I’ve received more support, and more meaningfully, I’ve been able to offer more support.

I’ve used the terms and said the words that once felt unspeakable.

Psychiatrist. Rapid cycling. Lithium levels. Mania…

I grew up thinking poetry was a normal professional field. I thought being a poet was something you’d casually mention at a cocktail party, a mundane fact that would be met with a polite, slightly bored smile. “Oh, great — my daughter is, too,” the host would say, turning to refill someone’s drink. A poet — just another job like a teacher or a police officer or a doctor.

It was my grandfather’s doing. He is a poet. He introduced me to poetry before I could read. He sprinkled surreal metaphors, sentence fragments, puns, funny limericks, stanzas into my childhood…

“We need you here. Stay.”

…We walk slowly and he holds my hand, points out different types of trees and birds on branches. The light is colorless and shines directly into my eyes. They hurt. But he is talking, and I know suddenly that I am not nearing the end. That I will recover. That the leaves will return soon.

We are walking, and I am remembering car rides as a child. Speeding through tunnels, brief darkness followed by this brilliant light. Discovering a penny on the floorboard, suddenly apparent. Blinding copper — a color I’d always known.

I’ve been…

The other night, my husband and I arrived home to find a letter slipped under our door. It was a long note in jagged cursive from our neighbor, an elderly man who lives alone.

“Hello Mr. and Mrs. Miller, I notice you get the Washington Post. I cannot afford such a fine newspaper on my modest retirement benefits. I was wondering if I might borrow it after you are done with it each day.”

We were both caught off guard by his earnest request. He had obviously been taking note of our paper and wanting to read it. He had…

Bryan Barks

29. Writer, mental health & gun violence prevention advocate. Washington, DC.

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