The Language of Mental Illness

When you finally get diagnosed with a mental illness (I say finally because it often takes a long time before people receive a proper diagnosis) you enter into a world with an entirely different language. If I did not know anything about mental illness I would be relieved to know I could do a “Google” search and try to figure out where I should start looking for reliable information about my diagnosis and the accompanying symptoms.

In 1984 my mother was diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder (now called bipolar disorder) during a crises situation and there was no such thing as the Internet to turn too look up words like psychosis. I had to physically go to the library so I could begin to understand what the doctors were talking about. I was only 19 years old at the time and I was scarred to death of leaving my mother in the hospital thinking it would be like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The scene that kept replaying in my mind was the psychiatric patient on the ward who was starring off into space without any connection to reality. “Was this going to happen to my mother?” I thought. The doctor did not take my hand and say, “It’s going to be alright. I understand you are afraid.” Instead he told me to pull myself together and convince my mother to sign voluntary commitment papers. “What is that for?” I ask the doctor and he replied, “To keep her from going to the state mental institution.” I don’t think it ever entered his mind that I had no idea what all these words meant nor the implications behind them.

Even with the best access to resources today it is still very difficult to understand some of these definitions. We are given a “label” and that is often a relief, but then what? Do we automatically understand the signs and symptoms of our diagnosis? Do we have a good handle on what it will take to get well again? Do we even know if we are capable of getting well? What did the doctor explain to us when he or she gave us the diagnosis? Did they point us in the direction for more resources or hand us a patient education brochure?

Often times the answer to those questions become each individuals’ journey on the mental health road to healing and/or hell depending on how you look at it. In my experience it takes a very long time, even years, to grasp the complicated nature of bipolar disorder. Many times it is only with a retrospective look back into the past where we can start identifying specific behavior and patterns that we now understand as being part of a manic or depressive episode. We might not know that the negative self-talk we hear often stems from a depressive episode. It might be hidden as “seeing the glass half-full” when really the glass isn’t even involved in our thought process instead it’s the depression doing the talking.

A lot of times I have heard people say that I liked the “manic” highs and therefore that is why I didn’t take my medication as prescribed. For some people that may be true, but for me I didn’t even understand what my manic high looked like, let alone try to have more of it. It took me years to realize and identify how to recognize the difference between mania and feeling good. After years of suffering with an undertreated condition I had to learn when my mood was actually normal. When I understood “normal,” I could find relief knowing that I wasn’t on the verge of another dangerous episode.

After sitting here for a moment I realized that even reading this blog one would have to have a basic understanding of mental illness or a willingness to learn about the subject. But even my choice of words indicates I have been using the language for quite a while. I am familiar with much of the mental health vernacular.

In my research I have found an interesting statistic. Did you know it often takes the average bipolar patient 10 years to find the proper treatment and that is after a diagnosis? For some people how can you tell the difference between manic grandiosity and arrogance? How easy is it to blame continual crying jags on losing your job? The fine line between normal reactions to external stimuli and those that are not normal behaviors or actions becomes increasingly cloudy when you are trying to decipher what exactly is “normal,” and how do these disease descriptors apply to me or someone I love?

We are more fortunate today that we do have the Internet for researching information and finding a wealth of knowledge about our diagnosis. The key is learning to look at credible sources and recognizing that it takes more than a definition to understand complex disorders. It truly is a language all to its own and one that needs time and patience to learn and comprehend.

6 thoughts on “The Language of Mental Illness

  1. I understand exactly where you are coming from.. That is the beauty of knowing that others have experienced many of the same symptoms and are not alone. Keep on writing. You are a tremendous support. Thanks, Sherry

  2. You have some great points! I think, for me, it has been really helpful to have people in my life who can view my actions from the outside and give me an honest opinion about whether I am overreacting or not (in their opinion). It can be really hard for me to recognize those moments and what constitutes “normal” after living with bipolar symptoms for so long! Thanks!

    1. Hi Sarah,
      Thanks for your comments. You bring up a good point about having input from a family member. It does make a difference to have that kind of “mirror” helping you to see various symptoms. Thanks again for commenting.

  3. Yes, there is just so much to know! So many things are misunderstood also. I did know that it can take up to 10 years to be properly diagnosed with Bipolar- the statistic used to be 8 years. I was in that statistic! It was exactly 8 years. And while manic happy highs are great, my manic episodes often consist of “bad energy”, and I have chronic Mixed Episodes. It’s one thing to understand the textbook or internet version of the illness. It’s another to experience it. I thank the Lord that I have found bloggers over the years to help me understand that I am not alone, and share with me their experiences too.

    1. Hi Jenn,
      Thanks for stopping by my blog. I am glad you were able to find a diagnosis and treatment. I think we are all a “statistic” of the mental health care system in one way or another..not always a good thing. I’m glad you took the time to comment. Amy

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