Friday, November 7, 2014

Fighting Stigma: College Students Talk About Asperger Syndrome

The following article was written in the spring of 2014 about an event, on Asperger syndrome, which was held at Purchase College in Purchase, N.Y. I would like to thank all of the students who spoke so bravely that night about their experiences living with Asperger syndrome. The bravery involved, and the importance of speaking publicly about mental health issues cannot be overstated. I also want to thank The Purchase Phoenix for giving me the assignment to cover the event. Unfortunately, the timing of the story did not allow it to be published by The Purchase Phoenix, and this story has sat unpublished until now. This version is only slightly different than the version that was written for The Purchase Phoenix. Some time has passed, but I decided that the voices in this article deserved to be heard and that the issues discussed are just as relevant today. I hope you enjoy this article as much as I enjoyed crafting it, and that together, we can make a difference.  Watch the presentation below, and for more from the "Fighting Stigma" series, click on the links at the bottom of this page.
Mark Vasey     

Aspies, or “aspagites” as Sadie McMurrin calls them, sat on 10 chairs facing an audience of mainly neurotypicals. It is impossible to know who in the audience of around 50 was an aspie and who was a neurotypical, but once McMurrin and the aspagites shared their stories, the lines became blurred and it no longer mattered who was a neurotypical and who was an aspie. There were only people.

Truth be told, I did not know where I fell between the land of aspies and neurotypicals, when I first heard the terms casually used, at Friendship, Love and Asperger’s, an event held at 7 p.m. on April 24, in The Red Room, which coincided with my manic mood that evening at Purchase College.  Students with Asperger syndrome (aspies/aspagites,) discussed their experiences to help educate people without Asperger syndrome (neurotypicals).

The Autism Speaks website says, ”Asperger syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) considered to be on the 'high functioning' end of the spectrum (Autism Spectrum). Affected children and adults have difficulty with social interactions and exhibit a restricted range of interests and/or repetitive behaviors." 

McMurrin and the other aspies all delivered speeches to the audience of neurotypicals and were met with rounds of applause and laughter. She found out she was an aspie in the eighth grade, but McMurrin decided to officially come out publicly as an aspie at the end of high school. 

The Red Room (room 129) at Purchase College
“One day in 12th grade I had an epiphany,” said McMurrin. “I went up and I told everybody at this huge event, and this past fall during coming out day, even though that is usually reserved for people in the LGBTQ community, I decided I am going to come out about my Asperger’s on Facebook where everyone can see it, because I don’t care.”

The LIU Hudson at Westchester Counseling Honor Society and the Purchase College Supported Education ASD Program came together to make Friendship, Love and Asperger’s a reality.

“What we work on is squashing the stigma with mental health disorders,” said Julie Rundle, a member of the National Counseling Honors Society at LIU Hudson Westchester. “They all have very unique and special qualities and we wanted to let them shine tonight.

Speaking one after another inside The Red Room, which is an off kilter, almost box looking room that is red on the outside but green on the inside, the aspies shared their talents and accomplishments with the neurotypicals.

From my second row seat, I listened as David Cusack, the first aspie to share, talked about the work that he has done with the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). 

“I have been with NYPIRG for two years and it has been really awesome,” said Cusack. “I have actually liked it so much I am on their board of directors for the next year, which is really cool.”    

One of the topics brought up in the Q&A portion of the event was the elimination of the Asperger’s diagnosis from the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

“I feel about it the same way I felt when Pluto got kicked out of the planets. I’m pissed off,” said McMurrin. “Why are we being kicked out of the club? We are still Asperger’s. We still have the same challenges that we have. You’re kicking us out of the DSM club, which is not a very fun club. It is a lot of reading. It is a little depressing, but we were still part of it. You kicked us out. That is mean.”

Asperger Syndrome no longer exists, according to the DSM-5, and those who once would have been diagnosed with the disorder are now diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. There is only one diagnosis for everyone who falls into this category.

“I guess clumping all of the autism spectrum disorders into one seems really dumb, said Daniel Zuckerman, an aspie and a writer for The Purchase Phoenix. While being sensitive about issues of race, he added that it is like “saying that every black and every Asian person is the same” when they are not.

“Snowflakes come in a variety of sizes, colors, and complex shapes. They are all individually unique in structure,” said Doctor Susan Goldman, an associate professor from LIU Hudson Westchester and a neurotypical. “Similarly, humans come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. We go through our own processes of transformation: complex products of our biology and genetics. Deeply influenced and transformed by our environments: cultural, educational, social, and familial. Unlike snowflakes we thrive in super warm environments. Ones that are understanding and appreciative of our uniquity.”

The name plate for room 129,
 commonly known as The Red Room
When the event was over, everyone intermingled, talking, hugging, and it once again was impossible to tell who was an aspie or neurotypical. The speakers and audience members, all brought together by shared human experience, left The Red Room behind and ventured outside where the terms aspies, aspagites, and neurotypicals would be lost on anyone who was not inside room 129, a multi-purpose room in the student center at Purchase College, on a night which, outside those walls, was not unique in any way.

View more from the Fighting Stigma series by clicking on the links below:
Fighting Stigma: A College Student Living With Schizophrenia
Fighting Stigma: A College Student Living In Recovery From A Eating Disorder
Fighting Stigma: A College Student Living With Borderline Personality Disorder
Fighting Stigma: A College Student Living With Schizoaffective Disorder
Fighting Stigma: A College Student Living With Bipolar 1 Disorder  

Monday, November 3, 2014

Mary Lambert Sings "I Have Bipolar Disorder" In The Song "Secrets"

Mary Lambert's hit single "Secrets" starts playing on YouTube as she sings, "I've got bipolar disorder, my s***'s not in order."

Lambert is open about her diagnosis of bipolar disorder and her declaration, in the opening line of "Secrets," is the most bold proclamation of having bipolar disorder, in a song, that I have ever heard.

With "Secrets," Lambert is not the first singer to sing about having bipolar disorder in a song, but she might be the first to say "I've got bipolar disorder" in the first line of a song that is played on nationally syndicated radio, and has over five million views on YouTube.

The rest of "Secrets," which is off Lambert's debut album, Heart On My Sleeve,  stays true to the title with Lambert opening up about her secrets.  The other main secret that Lambert sings so beautifully about is being gay.

Lambert opens up the second verse singing, "I can't think straight, I'm so gay."

The chorus of "Secrets" holds Lambert's concept, of self acceptance and openness, together with the lines, "I don't care if the world knows what my secrets are, secrets are, I don't care if the world knows what my secrets are, secrets are, so what, so what, so what, so what." 

Lambert also co-wrote Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' hit single "Same Love," which advocates for marriage equality regardless of sexual orientation.

Despite being different in musical style, Lambert has entered the same realm as Demi Lovato, who has also come out about having bipolar disorder, and advocates for mental health and gay rights.

Listen to Lambert's "Secrets" to hear her so eloquently proclaim, "I have bipolar disorder," and enjoy a wonderfully crafted song.  

Learn about other musicians with bipolar disorder by clicking on the links below:
Musician Max Bemis And His Experiences With Bipolar Disorder
Musician Pete Wentz And Bipolar Disorder

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Openly Bipolar Musicians: Craig Owens

Coming out about having bipolar disorder is simultaneously difficult and rewarding.  It is challenging not only because of the public stigma of mental illness and the fear this sole fact elicits, but coming out also means accepting things about yourself that people outside of the mental health community could not dare to dream of.  This is the first installment in a series of posts, which will focus on musicians who have come out publicly about their own experiences with bipolar disorder to help others.     

Craig Owens:  Craig Owens, the current singer of the post-hardcore band Chiodos, opened up about his diagnosis of bipolar disorder after a suicide attempt in July 2008. 

In a statement released shortly after, Owens said, "I have been battling with manic depression, bipolar disorder, and constant anxiety attacks for years. This disease has caused me to hide in my bedroom for weeks at a time, push away the most important people in my life, and learn to hate myself even. I have tried to remain strong through the years, fighting off urges and using the undying support of my fans, friends, family, and loved ones to turn my depression into an art - a music to share with the world."

Owens, after being kicked out of Chiodos in 2009, began his comeback with the post-hardcore super-group Destroy Rebuild Until God Shows (D.R.U.G.S.) when the band released a self titled album on Feb. 22, 2011. The album was actually released on the record label of another openly bipolar musician. That openly bipolar musician is Pete Wentz and his label Decaydance Records. The album included the song "Laminated E.T. Animal," which hit me as being about bipolar disorder, especially when juxtaposed with the accompanying video.  To learn more about it, view my post on "Laminated E.T. Animal." Also view the video below. It is one of my favorite songs that relates to bipolar disorder.

Owens rejoined Chiodos in March 2012, and the band released its newest album "Devil" on April 1, 2014.  Owens continues to be a recovery success story. Owens recently shared part of an email he wrote to the rest of Chiodos with fans, which read, "I am here to help people, to do something positive with the pain / experience that I've endured, and to show others that they are not alone in the fact that they go through it as well.  That is why I continue to write, tour, open up, take criticism, sweat and sacrifice."

I love the music that Chiodos is making back with Owens behind the mic.  "Devil," is a truly masterful music experience that envelopes the totality of human emotions with a sound that is simultaneously melodic, heavy, and experimental.

Below, check out the song "I am Everything That's Normal," my favorite song from "Devil," and the album's closing track.  This song deals most heavily with the themes of mental health and addiction recovery.  The track ends with Owens repeating the lyrics, "I swear I'm different now." This is very fitting for both Owens and Chiodos, who have both overcome tough times and have grown to get to this point.

I wish Owens the best of luck as he continues to grow as a person and as a musician while sharing his experiences to help others.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Bipolar Disorder: The Friend In My Bed

Today, as I do every-time I decide to put fingers to black keys, with white letters on them, and watch as the words appear on the brightly lit glass screen, I am fully aware of my current state of mood and what this means for my potential present elevation of creativity.  For I am, "Touched with Fire," as Kay Redfield Jamison would say, and I fear that sometimes, "I'm flying too close to the sun," as Demi Lovato sings in her song "Heart Attack."  I accept my moods and use them as an advantage.

My name is Mark and I am bipolar, and I have come to realize that my bipolar disorder is not something to fear, but something to love and embrace.  I am not friends with the monster under my bed, but sleep in the same bed as that monster.  That monster is my best friend.  It is part of me, and I have succeeded through self-acceptance and love of myself, including the darker parts of myself, because there is no separation.  I allow myself to feel the ups, the downs, and everything in between and have opened the gifts by embracing the curse.

I toiled, skidded, slipped, fell, and slid, before getting up entombed in a "Groundhog Day" existence for three full empty years of my life starting in 2009 and ending in 2012.  Popping a Uranus-blue-Xanax in the middle of a class on the solar system, like it was nothing, to avoid any feelings of fear and anxiety in the universe, while other times I came in to criminology class so hungover from my nightly routine of alcohol that I would leave during that morning class and force myself to vomit in the restroom down the hall, and then slip back into class with a smile not wanting to create suspicion.  I knew the toilets more and more as my substance abuse progressed but what about white porcelain was intoxicating and what was I so scared of?

I have and will always be a more invasive species than the people around me.  I now do not deem this to be dreadful in nature, but sprouting up differently led me to get picked upon by bullies, except I had poisonous defense mechanisms, and that all too familiar manic rage getting me into trouble.  Perhaps my colors were brighter and darker contrasting from the pods around me.  My mom points out how I have always been different.  As a baby when I continually cried, to elementary school where I was picked on as if the others could sense that I was not like them, to middle and high school where I ran from pack to pack, sharing some traits with all of them, but none completely with any of them.

I tried to fit in but never did, so when my diagnosis of bipolar 1 rapid cycling finally came in February 2009, it was no surprise to me.

But I still tripped, crashed, burned, and hurt because I could not come to terms with who I was.  I was ashamed of being bipolar like I had been hit by a bus and I blamed myself.  In reality, I had no control over being bipolar because it comes down to genetics and environmental interaction, and the history of my family fleet is stronger than most for this Titanic susceptibility.

I attempted to hyper-manage my moods and medications.  I garnered all I could about this disorder, this curse, because I wanted to be able to eradicate it from my life as if it was an Alien growing inside of me. Perhaps this is why I halfheartedly attempted to self-destruct my ship in November 2009.  I realized that there was no pesticide to fix this and felt that I had been lied to by the psychiatric system.  They said that if I took my medications and changed my lifestyle, I could bloom again as if I was not bipolar.

Today I understand that this is a fallacy fully fabricated to create unsubstantiated hope.  I am able to love my roots, my stem, my flowers, for the magical man I am, because I am no longer trying to not be bipolar.  I believe in holistic treatment including medications, therapy, exercise, mindfulness, eating healthy, and regular sleep patterns.  I also abstain completely from drugs and alcohol other than caffeine.  Everyone is different, but this is what keeps me blooming daily. It is the fertilizer that works for me because I am not like everyone else. 

There is a large swell from advocacy groups to change the language of bipolar disorder from "I am bipolar" to "I have bipolar disorder."  This is just one example in an effort to de-stigmatize bipolar disorder.  This is largely based on the movement in psychiatry that pushes mental illness as a disease. I agree with a lot of it, but today I chose to use the "I am bipolar" terminology because bipolar disorder is a manifestation of biological differences in the brain with no cure, and there was never a time when I was not bipolar.  Bipolar disorder is so interwoven into my life that if you took out the bipolar disorder, I would change as a person.  Now think of any other disease that would have this effect if removed and its symbiotic nature.  I do not want to remove it from my life because I love myself for who I am and the struggles I went through to get to this place of transcendence.

I was in my apartment in Florida, while partaking in the Disney College Program, and my roommate Orion was watching "X-Men: First Class."  I came out raising my fist in the air and said "bipolar and proud," as a variation of the quote "mutant and proud."  I know Magneto became the villain, but before he made that decision, he said to Mystique, while she lifted weights, "You want society to accept you, but you can't even accept yourself."  I used to be afraid of what society thought, and I still do up to a point, but I have become more accepted in society by accepting my rose and my thorns and not trying so hard to fit into the field of grass.

Tonight, when I go to bed, my friend (bipolar disorder) will be sleeping, not under my bed, but next to me, and creating vivid dreams along the way, and when I wake, I will attempt to be the best I can be, while always practicing self-acceptance.  The best way to eliminate stigma is to share, not preach, and to not be ashamed.

Don't be afraid to show off your friends, flowers, and thorns.  We all have some, and we share more than we think.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Decisions That Define Our Paths

It was my first day at Westchester Community College in September of 2010.  The sun was shining high in the sky, creating one of those warm early-fall-days before summer is fully vanquished, and I was attending class for the first time in about 10 months.  I sat uneasy in the classroom, where the sun could not shine through the roof above, filled with anxiety.  Fear of failing again and what that might mean to my confidence coming back from some of the darkest times in my early recovery from bipolar disorder.  I called home that day questioning whether college was the correct choice for me.

About seven months later, I unceremoniously broke up with the girl I had been dating.  When I was unsure of my own abilities she had given me a reason to give education another chance.  She had also exposed me to journalism by leading me to the Viking News.  I had gotten some of my confidence back and I started to believe again that I could eventually achieve at a high level.

The long term effects of decisions made and of the power of human connection is often lost in todays world.  Instant results are sought everywhere and phone calls have turned into emails.

I am in a wonderful place in life and I will keep working to make the world a better place through hard work and human interaction.  I just don't know if I would have reached this place, with academic success at Purchase College, job offers, seven months in Disney World, loving and caring friends, happiness, and unlimited possibilities, if I had not made that decision influenced by a chance meeting with a young brunette in a hallway outside of a classroom in Valhalla.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Two Years Sober: A Reflection On My Recovery

The date was Feb. 13, 2012 and I sat on a couch in my house alone watching television completely obliterated off of Smirnoff vodka, a vodka not too cheap as to easily get sick from but also not too expensive, and in a malleable state where I could enter a world of bliss or go straight to an endless bottom, the story of Whitney Houston's death came on the news, and upon hearing the circumstances surrounding the death of an angelic voice, I started bawling like I hadn't cried in so long and I knew that it was time to start making progress in life, or risk dying every night on a mixture of hard liquor and benzodiazepines.

My drinking started long before that day of finality and cathartic rebirth in 2012 when I had my first drink at a party at the age of 15.  I was actually afraid to drink for the first time, more so than you would think an alcoholic should be and maybe inside I secretly understood some deep truth about myself that justified the trepidation, but I filled that red solo cup with some sort of cheep American beer from a silver keg in a container of ice, in a basement on the Jersey shore, and took those first sips on a journey that wouldn't end until rehab.

 My father walked into my room one morning around four when he got up to go to work, after seeing my light on, to find me passed out on a chair in my bedroom, head hanging and sitting in my piss soaked clothes, with a bottle of liquor on the floor, on the morning of Jan. 1, 2009. I cried, changed my clothes, and went to my parents room where I curled up in bed next to my mother, and told her I needed to get sober. I went to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) that day, with metal fold able chairs and coffee, and entered sobriety for the first time.

In February 2009, I ran outside at an AA meeting around Amherst Mass., the college town famous for UMass Amherst, feeling uneasy and thinking how it would be nice to run out into traffic. Something was horribly amiss at a time where things should have been improving, but my sleep patterns varied, my energy fluctuated like early spring temperatures, elation one moment morphed to anger to deprivation, and then came the suicidal thoughts, like movies that played in my mind and couldn't be turned off. I left college at Western New England University, then known as Western New England College, and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder upon entering a psychiatric hospital in a rural setting home in New York.

My suicide attempt, the saddest, darkest, most turbulent, and hardest time in my life, came in November 2009, while visiting my grandmother in southern Florida. At the time, I was on seven medications at high doses and felt what everyone fears when they go on psychotropic medications, nothing at all. No happiness, no sadness, no emotions at all, slow, dumb, clumsy, a failure who had left college once again because I couldn't cut it, and I sat on a bed, hard as rock, not being able to sleep, holding a bottle of Klonopin in my hand and held it up to my lips, brushing the bottle like a girl who you are nervous about kissing, anxiety filled and unsure of myself, but I knew I could not go on the way I had been living and tilted the pill bottle the final vertical tilt, emptying it in my mouth and swallowing.  I decided to live that night and woke up my grandma from her slumber, and was driven to the hospital when all memories fade.

Sometime in the summer of 2010 I returned to alcohol, unable to completely cope with the guilt of a suicide attempt, the fears that my life would never amount to what I wanted it to, and the knowledge that my suicide attempt came while completely sober.  I blamed myself for it despite that I had been on seven medications, which I now refer to as the near deadly seven and they were Zoloft, Ambien, Lamictal, Klonopin, Lithium, Cogentin, and Inderal. I was spiritually dead and turned back to spirits.

Linsanity was huge at the time, saving the under-performing New York Knicks, when I left rehab in March 2012. The rehab I attended was named Mountainside, fitted on the side of a mountain in Canaan Ct., and it was in that rehab, for 28 days, that I learned the foundational skills for who I am today. I learned to love myself, put myself first, do things for the good of others, do the right thing, and most importantly, learned to accept myself as a bipolar alcoholic, who by embracing these characteristics, could become not the person I wanted to be, but something transcendent.

It is now two years later, February 2014, and I grow every day. Sometimes that growth is slow and tedious, and sometimes it is rapid like magnetic convection but it is always forward.  I returned to Purchase College in September 2012. Since then I have amassed a 3.87 grade point average, my blog has reached new heights, including 238,000 total views since its inception in 2011 and has been linked to by the Boston University Center For Psychiatric Rehabilitation, I spent seven months working at Disney World, the happiest place on earth, for the one and only Mickey Mouse, and now I am living in the moment, not afraid to sit with the emotion of my past and excited about my future.

I think about all of the people who do not make it back from places I have been. Where are the people I met in psych wards and rehab? Are they still alive? Are they happy? Did they relapse? Will we meet again? I don't know, but I do know that, for me, two years is only the beginning and I spread love, one moment at a time. I never forget where I have come from and use that as fuel to head wherever life may take me.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

mtvU's 'Half Of Us' Features Macklemore

The polish is still fresh on those Grammy awards, but Macklemore is already out in the public eye trying to make a difference for those who suffer from the affliction of drug addiction.

Yesterday, mtvU released the interview that Macklemore did for "Half Of Us" where he opens up about his addiction.  Macklemore tells all about how his addiction affected his professional and personal lives, and how he eventually made the decision to get sober.

This is one of the most honest well spoken personal accounts of addiction and recovery that I have ever heard.  It is great to see Macklemore trying to make a difference and use his experiences to help others.

 Listen to the interview that Macklemore did for mtvU's "Half Of Us" below.

For more musicians who have spoken about their mental health and/or addiction on mtvU's "Half Of Us," click on the links below.
Musician Pete Wentz And Bipolar Disorder
Musician Max Bemis And His Experiences With Bipolar Disorder

For more on Macklemore and addiction, click on the links below.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: The Heist and Addiction
Macklemore's Recovery Success Story Overshadowed By Grammy Controversy