I’m not sure who needs to hear this message, but it’s on my heart to share it.
Today I had an excellent meeting with David, my therapist. We moved beyond the minutiae of my life and headed into the deep, dark, existential woods. As we talked, he asked me this question: “What does the world need from you?” That is a heart-centered question, friends. And the answer came easily to me.
I know that helping to reduce the stigma around mental illness is one of the things the world needs from me. As long as people remain uneducated about mental illness, and as long as access to treatment remains difficult for so many people, stigma will remain. We have to understand how mental illness affects both mind and body. We have to acknowledge the connection between mental health and the health of our communities, schools, churches, relationships, military, and even the economy.
I could keep going, but spouting off about reform is not the purpose of this post. The stigma I’d like to focus on is self-stigma.
I have bipolar disorder. If I had to pick a Top Three of psychiatric conditions that are considered the “craziest,” bipolar is right up there with personality disorders and schizophrenia. Most people don’t understand what bipolar disorder really is; I’ve found that the laywoman’s definition of bipolar is being “like, happy one minute, and then totally sad, like, a minute later.” Bipolar disorder is also a helpful armchair diagnosis if you see someone acting in a way that’s outside the norm, and you aren’t really sure what’s going on, but you know they’re acting really crazy, and doesn’t “really crazy” just mean “bipolar?” (It does not. Check out this link and educate yourself.) nimh.nih.gov/…ipolar-disorder/index.shtml
My first psychiatrist told me within a few visits that he thought I was bipolar. No, thank you, I said. He asked me to read a book that described the symptoms and see if they sounded familiar. I read some of it, but with a wary eye, and stuck it on a bookshelf.
One night, a year or two later, I couldn’t sleep. I hadn’t slept well in several days. I was exhausted, but I couldn’t turn my brain off. Project ideas and rapid thoughts and my very expansive mood kept me buzzing, and I finally got out of bed so I could pace. In what I believe was divine intervention, the book popped into view. I grabbed it and turned to the description of mania. I had every single symptom on the list. Every one. I couldn’t deny it anymore. I said “I think I’m bipolar” out loud, and I hated the sound of it. I am bawling as I type this. It’s still very hard a decade later to go back to that moment.
Suddenly all those stereotypes described me. I was one of the crazy people. I jumped down the Google rabbit hole. Google was more than ready to tell me what percentage of bipolar people attempted suicide and what percentage actually killed themselves; how a bipolar person’s life expectancy was lower than average; how many bipolar people were homeless and unemployed and had a co-morbid drug addiction.
This was not how my life was supposed to play out. People told me when I was growing up that I was really going to be somebody, that I was talented. I made great grades and won shiny awards. Even if I wasn’t sure of my direction when I graduated, I knew there was a purpose out there for me.
But this diagnosis–and the symptoms I continued to experience– felt like a death sentence. How was I going to change the world if I couldn’t get out of bed, or become financially responsible when I went on $900 manic spending sprees? The lows could be terrifyingly low, the highs uncontrollable. I tried so many medications at varying doses, and nothing leveled me out.
I felt like such an emotional and monetary burden on my parents, who were doing their very best to understand this condition. I believed I was a shitty friend because I’d cancel plans at the last minute when depression wouldn’t let me move. I couldn’t trust my own damn brain. Every time I thought things were getting a little better, every time I’d start taking care of myself consistently, I’d have another episode, and I believed I’d never improve. I scared my family with my lows; I called my dad (multiple times) to tell him I wanted to die. I had to go to a mental hospital on an overnight school field trip because of psychotic mania. I was supposed to be watching those sweet children and instead became so high that I remember almost none of my time at the hospital. I threw a shoe at a coworker, who then had to help me go to the bathroom. Do you know how embarrassing that is? It guts me just to type it. Today I can see the gift in that experience–I developed a beautiful friendship with that coworker--but at the time, it was devastating.
I believe the journey of recovery centers, in part, around one’s relationship to stigma. In my therapeutic journey, so much of my work has focused on how I relate to the disorder. I’ve gone from rejecting my diagnosis, to over-identifying with my disorder (and talking about it to anyone would listen: new supervisors, first dates…), to struggling to discern if my actions, words, and thoughts were coming from me or from my manic-depression. Only in the past couple of years have I leveled out enough to get a better sense of who I am apart from this bundle of symptoms. I’m starting to kinda sorta ride the waves of higher and lower energy. I think I’m beginning to feel like me again.
But damn if I haven’t felt like an absolute waste of space, more times than I can count. I have disappointed myself and convinced myself that I deeply disappoint my family. I’ve had great days that I hoped and prayed could simply be great days, like the Normals got to experience; almost inevitably, they were the first blushes of hypomania. If I start feeling that all is right with the world, I have to get my doctor on the phone.
I titled this post “You Are Not Broken” because that’s a message I’ve learned to tell myself. I used to think of bipolar as the enemy that lived in my head. There was me, and then there was this dark, beastly thing that hung around and effed up my life. It was all about fighting that beast. And this mindset meant that every time I had an episode, I’d lost. I hadn’t fought hard enough. I needed another thing to feel guilty about like I needed a hole in the head. The enemy mindset required some reframing.
You know what, friends? My bipolar disorder is a condition. It is genetic, and it is biochemical. I did not cause it, and I cannot make it go away. It is no different than being born with any other chronic disorder. There is nothing to feel guilty about. It’s hard for me to believe that consistently, but it’s true. Do I bear some responsibility with my bipolar disorder? Yes. If I do or say things in an episode that harm another person, I have to make it right, but the Normals have to do that too.
Can I tell you what’s beautiful about this disorder? It makes me live my life with more intention. I have to take good care of myself. I can’t drink, I have to limit caffeine, watch my sleep, try to move my body, spend time centering myself. Being able to take care of myself during level periods is a gift. Those acts of self-care are also acts of destigmatization, because I am affirming that I am worth taking care of. I am not broken.
My compassion and love for others has grown. I can sit with someone in pain who doesn’t know if life is worth living, and I understand where they are. I know the highs, which has given me some sense of what people with addictions chase. The support of my family, friends, and treatment team has made me feel so unbelievably loved, and knowing how fortunate I am for their care increases my gratitude and love for them. I am so thankful for level periods. I get to be alive, in a world where I can do some good. I don’t want to be part of a suicide statistic in a Google search. If I do come up in a Google search someday, I’d like it to be under keywords like “oldest living tap dancer” or “Ms. Smyrna Assisted Living 2062.”
I’m not going so far as to say that having bipolar disorder is a blessing, but I will say this: I WAS MADE JUST AS I WAS MEANT TO BE. I am not inherently deficient. As a matter of fact, I am beautiful, and there is only one Me in the world, so I better let my little light shine. I am not broken. You are not broken.
Happy Mental Health Awareness Month.