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David Baxter

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Living and writing with bipolar disorder
by Dia Calhoun, author

As an author living with bipolar illness who writes for teens, I am very concerned about mental health issues for teens. My story begins eleven years ago, when, after many trials of medication and therapy, I was finally diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder. My doctor traced the illness back to when I was a teen. A light bulb flashed. Why not might write a novel for teens about being bipolar? But I feared for my privacy. I wanted to keep my illness secret, wary of the stigma surrounding bipolar illness. I was not ready to tell my story, nor did I know quite how to tell it.

Years passed while I wrote other books?and kept my secret from all but family members and a few close friends. Then one day I read the Grimm?s fairy tale of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. In this tale, twelve princesses wear out their shoes each night and no one knows why. Mysterious princes whisk them across an underground sea to a palace where they dance the night away. I put the book down, picked it back up. What, I thought? What is calling me? I didn?t know.

I kept thinking about the story. Then one night, in spite of medication, an episode of my illness struck. Imagine yourself spinning on a stool, huddled, legs tucked up, spinning faster and faster, dizzy, sick. Sometimes when I am hypomanic?I have bursts of fiery creative energy. And as I spun and spun that night, thoughts racing and racing like fists pummeling my brain, the princesses popped into my mind. I saw them dancing in their gorgeous dresses, but dancing wildly, on fire, all night long. Like me. Dancing deep in their subterranean sea. Like me. Then I knew. The princesses were manic. Like me. That interpretation of the fairy tale was what had been calling me.

But the princesses were ill because they were under a spell. I needed a girl who had bipolar illness because she was physically ill. And that is when fourteen-year-old Phoenix Dance, apprentice to the princesses?s shoemaker, leaped on to the page. I first saw her, an artist, when she was deep in the clutches of hypomania, frantically drawing shoes, pinning sketch after sketch onto the wall. (I was a graphic artist for many years before I was diagnosed, and had hypomanic episodes where I would draw hundreds of sketches, just like Phoenix.) Phoenix swings between the Kingdom of Darkness (depression) and the Kingdom of Brilliance (mania). Over the course of the book, as she solves the princesses?s mystery, she comes to terms with her condition and treatment, as I, too, have had to do.

When I finished the book, called The Phoenix Dance, I had an epiphany. Wouldn?t the book do more good in the world if I revealed that it was based on my own experience with bipolar illness? Wasn?t it time to share my secret in order to help others? After much soul-searching, I decided to write an afterward to the novel where I disclosed my own bipolar illness.

I am so glad I found the courage to break my silence! Not only was it personally liberating, but also so many people have said the book helped them to understand bipolar disorder better. Bipolar kids have told me my struggle to live a productive life as a writer has given them hope for their own tumultuous lives. After an author presentation I made at a school, a teen girl came up and said she felt moved to come forward with a secret of her own.

I hope the book, and my personal experience, will inspire kids and adults to come forward with their own stories about bipolar illness, to write them, to speak them, and most of all, to share them. Together we can shine a light onto this difficult illness and give the world a better understanding of our struggles and triumphs, both ours and those of people we love.



Dia Calhoun is the winner of the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children?s Literature, and the author of six books for children ages 8-16: Firegold, Aria of the Sea, White Midnight, The Phoenix Dance, Avielle of Rhia, and The Return of Light: A Christmas Tale. She lives in Tacoma, Washington.

You can learn more about Dia at www.diacalhoun.com.
 

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