When I entered the world of living with bipolar disorder it took me many years to learn about the illness. Sometimes the descriptions of the symptoms I would read about would not apply to me, so I never could really get a handle on how the illness was alive and well inside of my brain. I had a hard time determining how bipolar disorder was affecting my day-to-day living. Until it became so debilitating that it was hard to ignore the obvious.
This is the thing about mental illness—it is complex to diagnosis, difficult to live with, and hard to explain to other people who have no idea what it is like to live in the world when you struggle with a mental illness.
But some of us have a need and desire to educate the general population about various disorders. Yet we are sometimes afraid to talk about our mental illness for fear we will be discriminated against or thought less of because we live with these disorders. Wow! Is it any wonder that many of us live in isolation after we become ill? It’s just not fair.
I don’t know a great deal about other mental illnesses but I do know a fair amount about bipolar disorder. I have numerous experiences on both sides of the fence, as a caregiver and as a person who lives with the illness. I know enough to have gained a tremendous amount of respect for this mysterious illness that impacts my brain. It can bring me to my knees with emotional pain with a depressive episode or it can make me so manic I can’t sit still. Whatever end of the spectrum I am fighting I am always on the lookout for the next major episode. I don’t get a chance to relax and chalk up my limited amount of sleep to “too many things on my mind.” Instead I have to monitor myself and ask the question, “Am I getting manic again? Should I call my doctor?”
In between my hypervigilance I try to live a “normal” life. I take care of my new adopted puppy, cut the grass, go to the grocery store and work a part-time job.
I’m looking forward to an upcoming trip to Washington, D.C. where I will attend the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) national conference. When I go there I am planning on joining other members in a National Action Day. This is where we will go to Capitol Hill and tell our story to our congressional members and ask them to support mental health services. It is an opportunity to share in two minutes what has affected me my entire life. I hope I can articulate what it’s like to have a mental illness disrupt your life. Then I want to explain how with proper treatment and a lot of hard work how some of us can and do recover.
We never get “cured” but we go on and live our lives in spite of the enormous challenges we have been given. We move on and learn to live our lives in the world of mental illness. It’s not always full of pain and sorrow. Sometimes it simply becomes the “way it just is.” I think you just get used to the struggle.
Serious Mental Illness Baggage
Serious mental illness-depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, OCD-come with a great deal of baggage. It does not mean that people can’t recover and go on to lead healthy, happy and productive lives. What I mean is that if we aren’t careful those of us living with a SMI will start to have a collection of negative past experiences that when compounded make it difficult to deal with.
This collection of baggage is something that usually begins with the onset of illness. It can include a negative experience from a hospitalization or with providers, it can be with a pile up of personal and financial losses, it simply can be an interruption of everyday life as we once knew it. One of the problems with all these things is how we cope and deal with it affects our mental health and we are already dealing with illnesses that impact our mental wellness.
My Experience with Bipolar Depression
I have a major bipolar depression problem that I have been fighting since I was in high school. It has taken me years to finally understand how the symptoms of depression manifest in my brain. Only within the past year have I been able to identify the negative thought process that often comes from the Lies Depression Tells You. But the reason I bring this up is to say that having depression makes it even more difficult to deal with the baggage. Sometimes it is just flat out more difficult to cope.
How I Cope
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand how losses have affected me. It wasn’t until today that I read an article that stated how difficult job losses are that I realized the impact my job loss had on me. I took some time to let the article digest and then I did a little exercise where I wrote down on paper all the things that happened as a result of that job loss.
For some reason writing things down seem to help validate the importance of them. It also has a way of releasing some of the negative emotions that come from holding it all in. It’s a coping strategy I am using more and more everyday.
In a time when politicians are trying to figure out what kind of changes they should make to the mental health system, I just get stuck on one fact–serious mental illnesses are difficult to live with but the point is many of us are living with these illnesses. We might not all be working in high paying jobs but many of us are dealing with the everyday baggage that has been left on our doorstep while maintaining our responsibilities as parents, caregivers, employees and as independent adults.
My hope is that we collectively will continue to share our thoughts and feelings about mental illness and in that sharing we can continue to find a peace of mind. At the end of the day it’s not going to be any one thing that helps us manage, but a collective number of things we do to help us live our lives. After all we deserve to have a life too!
Back in 1999 I was first diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. I came into the mental health treatment system in crisis. There were a multitude of reasons why but the bottom line was I was hearing for the first time I had a mental illness and I was feeling as if I was being labeled with some kind of curse. Of course years later I came to realize the proper diagnosis was a critical step in the recovery process and though I did not want a stereotypical label I did need the diagnosis.
Now I know there are other types of diseases where “labels” negatively affect the person who is ill, (AIDS is one of those diseases that come to mind) but I can only begin to explain how terrible it feels to get that label. What should have been a time to focus on understanding the diagnosis became a time to come up with all the reasons why it could not be right for me. You see I had to learn how to accept this Bipolar diagnosis and come to terms with the negative affects from becoming a part of a population of people with illnesses that are largely misunderstood by the general population.
I can’t tell you how many times I cried about my diagnosis. The energy I expended resisting having bipolar could have far better been applied to getting well. The insight I gathered over time helped me to peel back the layers of complexity involved in accepting a mental illness diagnosis and subsequently focusing on wellness instead of resisting labels.
When I talk to people today who are recently diagnosed with Bipolar or who may have a family member who has been diagnosed I listen to the unnecessary pain people carry because of the stereotypical labels. I try to reinforce the fact that many mental illnesses have treatments today that help people carry on and live healthy, productive lives. All this followed by I know it’s not easy but a proper diagnosis is the first step toward recovery.
I wish I could get rid of the negative connotations associated with having a mental illness. But in the meantime I’d say focus on the diagnosis and try to forget about the label. One of the keys to successful outcomes is early detection, so the sooner you have a proper diagnosis the quicker you can get well or at the very least learn how to live with the illness.
Labels are harmful but proper diagnosis saves lives!