A Mind on Fire


Photo 2016-06-06, 7 12 03 PMI.

My life is one long rerouting. Only I’ve not had the pleasure of Google Maps patiently telling me that I’ve taken a wrong turn and that it’s calculating the next best option to get me to my destination. Instead, I’ve lived one-way streets and stop signs, merging into single lanes and tight spaces. My life has been roadblocks and potholes and miles out of my way with no rest stop in sight.

I type the address into my phone to get to her office. Google Maps turns me this way and that and I obediently follow its directions.

“You have arrived at your destination,” my phone informs me in a professional robotic voice.

I stay buckled in my seat with my hands at ten and two. I look down and see that my knuckles are mottled from my grip and my palms are slick with sweat. I release the steering wheel and wipe my hands on my dress. I flip down the visor and pop open the mirror. I took care today. I showered and blowdried my hair. I put on a nude lipstick. Today isn’t a day when I can manage red. I can’t trust my lips these days, I don’t know what they’ll say.

My mascara promises not to budge, its waterproof formula guaranteed to hold strong and not break down, even when I can’t.


I tell her my story.

She’s the first one to really ask for it. Usually they just ask for my diagnosis and what meds I’m on, which ones I’ve tried, which ones have left me sobbing into my pillow and gasping like each breath is heaving multitudes and cracking my ribs like birds’ wings and I am a caged girl, trapped from the inside out.

They want to know which meds have passed my lips faithfully night after night but still the darkness comes. The color drains from the days and drags me into a palette of gray tones, muddied and crackling on the canvas. Which meds have I stood in line to pick up only to feel the fever build until I am wild hips as the bass of the good songs calls to me? When my mind overflows with colors and everything is so beautiful it hurts. I am undone schemes and my head can’t find my pillow on nights when the thoughts run rampant through my greasy hair, tangling my ideas like sticky fingers.

Usually they have my file open and they read questions on a checklist, never looking up, never really seeing me. Sometimes they don’t even bother to sit but stand at the entrance to the exam room like they might need to bolt out at a moment’s notice if something better comes along.

I am a woman with bipolar, with anxiety, with a file and a diagnosis. I am a name on a prescription pad. Usually they don’t see me when they see me.

She settles back into her chair like we’re going to be here for awhile, her eyes are soft and her hair is down, the salt and pepper waves looking neither fussy nor unkempt. She looks like a woman who is accustomed to hearing people tell her their darkest thoughts and greatest fears. She looks me in the eyes and her smile is kind, like she’s kneeling before an animal of prey, a broken winged girl, and she’s coaxing me to come closer, palms open, no sudden moves.

My eyes flick past her and up to a set of art drawings on the wall. There are a set of marker drawn animals in frames, reminding me of the art I display with a magnet on the fridge when one of my kids brings me their creation.

I need help. I want to see what else my kids create. I want to survive this.

My eyes settle on a rhino and the rest go blurry.

I hope the mascara will not fail me. I tell her my story.


When I was a girl in the bright and beautiful world, we played pirates. We cut up grocery bags and took the rough brown paper to draw out and place our treasure. We could navigate the world to the correct spot if we just knew where the X was.

To age the maps, my mother, who always indulged our imaginations, taught us how to soak the paper in dark black tea, to crinkle them up and dry them on the line like a set of fresh linens under the bluest sky. The final step was to get an adult and a candle and burn the edges.

I already knew where the darkest edges in the world were, they curled up and surrounded me, like a map of the world set on fire. They were crisp and black and left your fingers smudged and blackened like coal. Its char got everywhere when the burned bits broke off and they were always shedding off like old skins.

I found the treasure when I was a girl. I knew where to dig up the old coffee can we filled with mardi gras beads, plastic gold coins, and baubles we collected by begging our mothers to stop their grocery carts before the parking lot to feed the greedy machines our quarters and turn the metal dial, watching our treasure fall into the slot.

Sometimes we got a fancy emerald ring or a press on tattoo or a gummy hand that would collect fuzz in our pockets. But we saved the treasure so we’d be able to hide it and find it again.

We sat in the grass on the edge of our lawn with the Folgers can we had peeled open, the whiff of morning percolating while we divided up the good stuff. I slipped a ruby ring onto my finger and looked down at my hand. It was marked with black from finding my way.

The dark edges were always getting closer even among the beautiful things, even among the treasures.


I watch a clip of Paul Dalio, a filmmaker with bipolar who made a movie called Touched with Fire. I see Huffington Post’s clip of his interview in my friends’ Facebook timelines. He talks about art and beauty and meaning and I remember the good days when words come so fast, like the burst of a blackberry on my tongue, like nectar being scooped out and served at a bare-shouldered picnic on a day full of magnolias.

And I remember when the words dry up and it’s the hardest battle to tell that truth, to untangle my tongue enough to ask for help in all the ways I need it. To make appointments and plug in addresses and find myself on a couch telling a psychiatrist with kind eyes that I want to be around for my kids’ art. That I don’t want to be a 1 in 4 suicide statistic for bipolar patients.

Paul Dalio relates bipolar patients as something akin to being touched by fire, the way the burst of intense emotion is like kindling for creativity and imagination, that’s if it doesn’t consume you when it feels like the flames go out and all you’re left with is the smell of dank smoke and charred remains.

We make wide circles around the mentally ill.

The stigma right now is so severe that “the very best someone can hope for is pity,” he said. “And that’s not good enough.” Creating a society in which people are not ashamed to reveal their disorder, he said, would be a start.”


I tell my story.

What do you get when you mix the scalded edges of a mind on fire? What comes from the charred and brittle bits that shed from your world’s map? When you’re once again adrift on seas and toppling waves and you’re tossed from your mooring, you need the X written down and mapped out to believe in treasure again, to believe lost things can be found if we only know where to look.

You chart your way home on a journey of tears in your psychiatrist’s office. And when char and saltwater tears mix on the page, you get the ink to pen your story, to find your way to the beauty that was always buried and waiting.

Alia Joy
I’m the daughter of both a book lover and a storyteller and in that I was destined to be a writer. I collect words at http://aliajoy.com, dance to the good songs, and believe even the most broken stories have a redeemer. I live in Central Oregon with my husband, my tiny Asian mother, my three kids, a bunny, and a bunch of chickens. Sushi is my love language and I balance my cynical idealism with humor and awkward pauses.
Alia Joy
Alia Joy

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  1. Kristy says:

    I was recently diagnosed with Meniere’s disease, and besides slowly taking my hearing and not so slowly destroying my balance system, it seems to be messing with my brain. Your bravery in telling your story is like an absolute lifeline for me. I seek your words for truth and comfort and a tribe. You are a treasure.

    • Alia_Joy says:

      Thank you for being here with me in this space and for holding space for me too. You are my people.

  2. Megan Gahan says:

    Your writing just slays me, every single time. How you’re able to create such intense beauty in the midst of brokenness is an incredible gift. I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression and I love that I’m learning about bipolar through your words. You’re lifting the mantle guilt and shame off of so many who struggle with mental illness, myself included. Much love

    • Alia_Joy says:

      I wrote for several years about anxiety and depression but I did not want to name my bipolar disorder online. I didn’t want to name it in person either. I didn’t want that diagnosis so I denied it until I couldn’t anymore. Yes, the guilt and shame of mental illness is a heavy burden we were never meant to bear. Thanks for lifting it off with me.

  3. I struggle with depression and anxiety. I’ve held the imbalanced neurotransmitter numbers in my hands and sighed relief. It’s not my fault and the struggle is real. I’m glad you’re experiencing a bit of relief by way of someone experienced making room for your story. What a beautiful piece of it you gave for us here to imagine, Alia.

    • Alia_Joy says:

      Yes! It’s not your fault. Hearing that said out loud from the lips of a doctor felt like an absolution. I didn’t have to keep apologizing for not being able to fix myself with more determination and willpower. That is such a huge part of moving past the internal shame of not being able to just snap out of it or choose to be happy or choose to be calm. It was also a huge step to say I need better meds because parts of my brain don’t work as they should. Thanks for sharing some of your experience, Rachel.

  4. Rana Soliman says:

    thank you for this, beautiful

  5. “She looks me in the eyes and her smile is kind, like she’s kneeling before an animal of prey, a broken winged girl, and she’s coaxing me to come closer, palms open, no sudden moves.”

    What a blessing to have found this woman who truly knows how to listen.

    • Alia_Joy says:

      God heard my prayers and was merciful and kind to me when I needed gentleness and comfort was scarce. Waiting for that appointment felt like the longest two weeks of my life but I survived moment by moment and I asked for help and prayer every single day.

  6. This is equal parts beautiful and brave. Thank you.

  7. Such Beautiful words. You describe the struggle so well. You make it so that others can feel it. That is something that is hard to do. I struggle to even write about my struggles with mental illness and while I want to see light come and the stigma broken….I couldn’t begin to know where to start. Thank you for shining a light when I know that is incredibly vulnerable to do.

    • Alia_Joy says:

      We all have our place in this conversation. Some are listening and learning, some are moving beyond that and advocating, some are praying, some are writing, some are trying to get this conversation into the ears of those who think mental illness has nothing to do with them because they’re not affected. Some will sit with you when you cry or bring you a meal when you can’t get out of bed, or take your kids to the park on an afternoon when you have nothing left. And for those of us in the middle of it, it can be overwhelming to simply survive. We don’t need any more burdens to do more or make things better. You are doing hard work right now. You may not be writing about it, you may never write about it, but I guarantee when someone is hurting you listen and try to see them, when someone feels lost, you care because you know what it’s like. When someone says this is so hard, you understand part of that and share that burden so it’s not so lonely. ‘Me too’ is no small thing.

  8. This struggle is close to me because several women I love struggle with this. And the detours of mental illness–realizing, with a sickening start, that you can’t trust your own sense of direction? That’s part of me. Thank you for sharing this here, Alia. So thankful for you.

  9. Rebecca Jones says:

    It’s no surprise to me that gifted or talented people suffer the attempts to stop that flow, God’s blessings outweigh the darkness, remember to let His light and love in.

    • Alia_Joy says:

      Thank you. I’d even go so far as to say some of God’s blessings are best found in the darkness because they reveal our need in ways that self-reliance never can.

  10. Beautiful, beautiful writing. I’m so glad you found a psychiatrist interested in hearing your story and not just looking at your medical notes.

    • Alia_Joy says:

      Me too. She is a long awaited answer to so many desperate prayers. Sometimes we pray for healing and God brings healers in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it’s a psychiatrist and better meds, sometimes it’s a reader who listens and prays, sometimes it’s sunshine on a summer day. Thank you for hearing me.

  11. What a gift you are, letting us into your world, into your mind, into your story.

    O, and the brilliance …

    “like the burst of a blackberry on my tongue”

    “like nectar being scooped out and served at a bare-shouldered picnic on a day full of magnolias.”

    Just wow.

    You hold up the intense struggle and the intense beauty so powerfully.

    I don’t ever want you to be a statistic either, friend. Ever. What glory you hold.

    • Alia_Joy says:

      Thank you dear one. For listening. For making space. For reading out. It is a gift to me.

  12. Beautifully written and so true.

  13. Even in the darkest hours, your beauty shines through, Alia. And I am grateful for the doctor with the kind eyes, that one with the salt and pepper hair …

    • Alia_Joy says:

      She has been a literal life-saver the past couple months. I praise God for the merciful gifts of psychiatrists who actually care about their patients and see them as people, for antipsychotic meds, antidepressants, and a whole host of other life preservers, for the prayers and support of so many, and for people who don’t judge me because I’ve needed all the help I can get. I count you among those gifts Linda.

  14. So thankful to be on the wild scavenger hunt with you, Alia. Beauty abounds, but my map reading skills are a little weak. However, your words today are an arrow, pointing toward the Treasure.

    • Alia_Joy says:

      Thank you Michele, for journeying with me. Always blessed to see you in the comments. We’re all just finding our way, aren’t we? It’s best not to go it alone.

      • Reminds me of Anne Lamott’s: We’re all just walking each other home.
        Thank you ever so much for sharing your story!

  15. Beautifully written, Alia. I love the image of the map being burned at the edges. Thank you for sharing your story with the woman who would listen. And with us.

    • Alia_Joy says:

      Thank you for reading and sharing and being someone who listens. It’s a gift to those of us who often feel unseen, overlooked, lumped together, or silenced.


  1. […] Continue Reading at She Loves Magazine  where I share about bipolar disorder, searching for treasure and finding beauty in ash and tears, and what it feels like to live with a mind on fire. […]

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