After surviving her third suicide attempt, Dr. Rachel Kallem Whitman came to a realization: She had to stop trying to end her life and let others know what it was like to live it with bipolar disorder.
“I survived that and had to write about it,” says Whitman, who lives in Morningside.
Whitman’s book, Instability in Six Colors: A Bipolar Memoir (One Idea Press), is a meditation on what it's like to navigate “a mental disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, concentration, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks," as defined by the National Institute for Mental Health.
In person, Whitman is vivacious, expressive, and ebullient. An adjunct teacher in Duquesne University’s Department of Psychology, Whitman looks more like an artist or a musician. Her sense of humor is so sharp it’s not a stretch to imagine her doing stand-up.
Whitman admits that in a staid university setting — or almost any other working environment — her persona might be misinterpreted. Fortunately, her discipline is conducive to her condition. “Since I’m in the psych department, they love a crazy bitch,” Whitman says. “I think it gives them credibility. 'We talk the talk, but look at this one, she’s all over the place.’”
In Instability in Six Colors, Whitman outlines blocks of text in colors to indicate aspects, cycles, and moods of her bipolar disorder. Purple and pink represent hypomania, gold is mania, red stands in for psychosis, blue equals existing, orange represents the body, and green is for relationships.
Hypomania, a condition that is marked by periods of elation and hyperactivity, is Whitman’s “favorite thing in the world,” she says.
“You have endless energy. You are confident. You can go out every night, you are funny, you are engaging, you don't need to eat, you don't sleep. You feel beautiful. If I could have the sliver of the confidence I have when I’m hypomanic, I would be a force to be reckoned with. But it’s just sickness with a sparkly bow on it.”
Contrast that euphoric feeling with Whitman’s acknowledged tendency to harm herself, specifically through cutting. “When I talk about cutting, I hypersalivate,” she says. “I have a very intimate relationship with self-harm, and it’s not good. And it’s hard. I cope every year with this.”
Fortunately Whitman, whose bipolar disorder was first diagnosed when she was 17, has found a satisfying regimen of medication that not only allows her to function, but thrive. And talking about having bipolar disorder has been therapeutic.
“Part of my coping has been finding language to talk about these things to other people, and also to understand myself better,” Whitman says. “If you only look at yourself through the lens of mental illness, you’re not going to get very far. You’re not going to have a life other than disorder. That’s been something I’ve had to really push through, and fight.”