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Please Don’t Tell Me I Just Have a Chemical Imbalance

Go beyond brain chemistry to provide more empowering messages of recovery.

WikimediaImages / Pixabay
Source: WikimediaImages / Pixabay

We met first on Facebook. Then I realized he was in one of my favorite FB groups.Then he emailed me. Nooo, he wasn't stalking me. Chris Cole and I have something in common. We both have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and psychosis. Then I read his book. Raw, unflinching and insightful; that's how I describe it. When I had finished his memoir, I knew I'd like him to share his unique yet universal view in a post. Without further ado....

Please Don’t Tell Me I Just Have a Chemical Imbalance - Guest Post by Chris Cole

You probably already know what it’s like to fall in love. Everything in your world suddenly changes. You can’t think straight. Your appetite is altered. Sleep somehow becomes less necessary. Your body feels lighter and more energized. There’s a sense of hope in the air. All of life seems more possible, a little more limitless than before.

And if you’ve ever been a teenager, you know what it’s like to feel invalidated by those endless comments about your state of boundless love being “just hormones.” Oh yes, your parents were right, no doubt about it. No, it is not actually a good idea to drop out of high school and run away with the cutie in your history class.

Now that we understand Romeo and Juliet were in a chemically altered state, we have to next admit that chemistry wasn’t solely responsible for their love. This is what I’d like to ask of clinicians, doctors, and advocates for mental illness in general and bipolar disorder specifically: Please don’t tell me I just have a chemical imbalance. There is a whole lot more going on inside my mind and my relationships and my world than the balance of serotonin or dopamine or norepinephrine.

When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I was absolutely shocked. Prior to that I had (almost) instantaneously believed I was the Second Coming of Christ, got arrested in my freshman dormitory, and stripped naked in my jail cell insisting that the officers come look at my naked body as proof of my divinity. It was NUTS. Clearly there was something chemically off in my brain.

Once I was hospitalized and came down from my manic high, I had way more questions than answers. It would be those questions that would lead me down a confusing, risky, and unnecessary path of denial. As far as the answers went, no one ever broke script: “Bipolar disorder is like diabetes… You have a chemical imbalance in your brain… With the right medication, you can lead a totally normal life.” There wasn’t anything necessarily wrong with those messages; it’s just that they were incomplete.

I was incredibly insecure before my diagnosis. I was struggling to accept the death of my childhood friend. I was scared of the transition from high school to college. I was in love with a girl that didn’t love me back. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Most notably, I was already struggling with addiction, disordered eating, and body dysmorphia before my psychotic episode. So when the doctors told me I just had a chemical imbalance, well, I knew that wasn’t entirely true. There was other stuff going on.

If you tell me that my psychic discomfort is only due to brain chemistry, it does me a disservice in three notable ways. First, it’s disempowering. If my only problem is a chemical imbalance, then there isn’t much for me to do than wait for medication to set me straight. Second, it’s fatalistic. But the brain can change, maybe not to the degree that bipolar disorder goes away, but we know enough about neuroplasticity to believe there is hope for better treatment and less symptoms. Lastly, it’s invalidating. Telling me that brain imbalances are solely responsible for my emotional turmoil belittles my real life struggles. No medication was ever going to treat the existential angst or my religious confusion or the fact that I hated my body.

Knowing that brain chemistry is off during manic and depressive phases of bipolar disorder is crucial to acceptance, forgiveness, and defeating the stigma present in society. We cannot forget that wonky neurology creates painful distortions and emotional disturbances. But let’s also remember that recovery depends on a great deal more than medication, and in most cases, that’s a good thing. It means we have power. It means there’s hope. It means we can change.

Chris Cole is a life coach for folks in recovery, and his new book, The Body of Chris: A Memoir of Obsession, Addiction, and Madness, is now available everywhere books are sold. For more information and links to social media, visit