Cairo Bipolar, A Tale Of Stage Management And Survival

An Egyptian writer shares her struggle with keeping bipolar disorder from invading everything she does and everyone she knows.

Looking down in Cairo
Looking down in Cairo
Pam Labib


CAIRO — I try to be the ideal bipolar. I try to perform my illness in the most rational and grounded way. I contain my episodes so they do not seep into my intimate and close relationships. Contain it and contain myself, so I don't offend you with my instability and intensity. I try to be the acceptable bipolar, the one who can talk about the disease as if it's as inconvenient as a hang nail, lest I allow it to unsettle you with its erraticness or its unpredictability.

I listen to your comments as you internally congratulate yourself on your acceptance and tolerance of neural diversity. You make the joke that everyone is bipolar too and how labels are so passé. I nod and hide my cringing insides under a tightly pursed smile. You tell me you love me, but my intensity can be exhausting, because you love giving constructive feedback. I swallow that slap across the face and let out a little chuckle and vow to never display my intensity to you again. I will learn to do better next time. I tell you about my sadness, about my grief, about my anger and anxiety. You hear me out with an invisible little smirk. I can feel it and see it. I hear it loudly, even though you don't say it.

My flooding emotions are not valid, since you cannot see a causal reality linked to them. My emotions burden you, whether or not they touch you, whether or not they invade your choices and will. Their presence disturbs you even though they ask nothing of you. When my mind is reduced to utter nonsense you find it hard to hear me. You find it even harder to hear me after you witness my mind and cognition falter, even when time has passed and they no longer falter. I drop some names, Foucault and Derrida and I drop some words: "subject" and "difference." I pray that I have redeemed myself with my intellect so you can restart to hear me. You don't want to isolate me and you wish me the best from a distance where my bipolar cannot disturb you. I absorb your judgment and try to do better next time. I try and educate you, so that I do not feel your judgment. I do so because I do not want to be isolated.

Half of all people with bipolar disorders have attempted suicide at least once, and 20% have succeeded. In both April 2013 and April 2017, I got so close to what would probably have been botched attempts, but miraculously, at 37, I have managed to dodge being a statistic. Both times, I was having a manic episode.

As someone with bipolar 1, I tend to have more manic episodes than depressive episodes and I tend to have more mixed episodes than I do simple manias. In a manic episode, there is a lot of energy. I can feel euphoric, elated at times; the mania colors the world as I perceive it. Colors are brighter and more saturated, empty space is speckled with glitter, catching and reflecting light in a million different colors. I am more likely to trust strangers and place myself in risky and unsafe situations. I will not only feel loved by the people around me, but worshiped and adored. My thoughts, writings and ideas are great — no, not just great, phenomenal. For about five minutes.

And then, with the same charge, I will feel despised, worthless, and regretful of all my life choices. As I alternate between one state and the other, with no rhyme or reason, my perception of depth becomes altered, the solidity of things becomes questionable and I become confused and anxious, losing touch with my existence within my lived chronology and body. I become haunted by the shadows that flit across my field of vision to a soundtrack of deafening sounds and screams. I can imagine how hard this must be for you to witness, so please, I understand, do keep your distance.

For years, I refused to be on medication. I had a really bad experience when I was first diagnosed 18 years ago. As of April 2017, I have managed to find the right combination of therapy and medication. For years, I put all my energy into holding the pieces of reality together as my brain waged a war against my senses, my logic and thought processes. I had never imagined that a pill could do this for me — hold my mind together so I can continue with my life, uninterrupted.

Drawing by Ola Abulshalashel, the late artist in Cairo who struggled with mental health.

Every episode had required a cleaning up period following it, whether it be physical injuries needing to be tended to, or professional, social and romantic redemption. Life was often unforgiving, so instead I tried to forgive myself and forgive the bipolar disorder, yet work harder on containing it. I accumulated exhaustion with every episode, with the amount of time, energy and resources that were required in my everyday life to manage them. Schedules, routines, nutrition, therapy, writing, processing, sleep, exercise and reflection help minimize their frequency and intensity, but the cruel joke is that these are the very same things that an episode dismantles before reaching its crescendo. You kept my inconvenience at arm's length. Every time I pulled through, I either did it on my own, or had invested in deconstructing your biases, vetting and educating you so that you could be there next to me.

My ability to resist and to be optimistic is worn out

The times I wanted to end my life, there were three thoughts slamming about and around in my head, throwing snippets of other thoughts and self-perceptions into the air like confetti. One: I couldn't take the pain I was experiencing right now and wanted it to end now; Two: I couldn't take the pain resulting from wanting it to end it now and being fearful and resistant to ending it now; Three: even if this pain passes, as it always does, it will also come back again, as it always does.

Over the years, my ability to resist and to be optimistic has become worn out. Being able to go on, before the medication, came with having an extensive support system of friends that could hold my hand and bring me down from the edge, whenever I was endangering my life. My life depends on a support network that has taken decades to create. This support network is large enough that I can strategically rotate through it. In those moments, living wasn't a question of what I wanted or didn't, but whether or not, by relying on my support system, I was able to get through the episode intact.

Finally, being on the right medication has really helped me, but it took over a decade for me to be able to trust that the mental health establishment would be able to help me. I have been to more harmful therapists than I have been to ones that could actually help me. I have taken more medication that has exacerbated my condition than I have medication that actually helps. I have known more people whose words and actions, subtle and overt, conscious and unconscious, have alienated me, than were able to embrace me.

The level at which I am able to manage this condition is not proportional to the support that was readily available to me, but to the labor that I was able to devote to creating a support system, a task I will never deny was made easier because of class privilege. I resent that those of us who have chronic mental illnesses have to do this to survive, above and beyond the energy that is exerted merely to live with a forever unstable and shifting reality.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!