I have mentioned a number of times that a major motivation for doing this blog was to help get information about what living with bipolar is really like into the world.
Part of the reason information needs to get out there is because of the stereotyping and stigma associated with mental illness.
The reality is that I have never really experienced this. That is probably why I was open to the idea of talking about it publicly. The thing about mental illness is that it is usually easy to hide. You don’t look different, you don’t necessarily act different, people don’t generally know unless you tell them. So it is easy, in a lot of ways. Also, the stigma doesn’t generally carry with it a lot of hatred, more avoidance. To my knowledge, no one has blown up a psych ward, no one pickets in front of a group therapy clinic, certainly no one acts violently towards us. I don’t compare it to other struggles of other people, they are different.
But there are things we have to deal with. People do make noise when a person with a mental illness gets put in charge of watching children, like all of us are violent psychopaths on the verge of murderous rampage at every second. Or worse, that we are pedophiles for some reason.
People question our drugs and our treatments and make it seem like those things make us more dangerous. This isn’t necessarily a huge deal to people with diagnosed mental illness (although I have had plenty of discussions about medications and why are we on them and what are they actually doing) but it can be a monstrous thing to overcome for someone who needs to sleep better, or gets the occasional panic attack, or maybe has a bit of the blues. Those people might refuse medication because of stories they have heard about them, and that is a shame.
In my life, I have encountered two ignorant viewpoints that I think are very destructive and they probably play a role in a lot of suicides. First, and by far most common, is that a person with bipolar can do a lot, and possibly even cure their symptoms, by using self-help techniques. I cannot tell you how many times I have been told to simply ‘think positively’ and things will improve. In fact, I have gotten that comment on this blog before. I suppose these people have no idea how silly that sentiment is because they don’t have this disease. But let me assure you that no amount of positive thinking will change my brain chemistry. I am wired to think and feel this way. Now, positive thinking is a good thing, and I think an important thing in life, in general. But let’s not conflate it with actual treatment. Far too many kids are committing suicide because they didn’t know what to do and all the advice that was given to them was about having positive thoughts. I also find it really demeaning. Like somehow what I am going through is not because of a disease I have, it is because I am not thinking positively. Like I am causing it, or willing it upon myself.
The second thing is the idea that bipolar is somehow a flaw in your character. Like being aloof, or jealous, or having a bad temper, being bipolar was just a shitty part of your personality. This delegitimizes it from a crippling disease to just a character trait, and couldn’t be more ridiculous.
I have never had people distance themselves from me, or say negative things to me (even ignorant statements were made to me trying to help), or change in any way after they found out. If those things happened they were courteous enough to do it behind my back. So I consider myself very lucky.
But I was, for a very long time, afraid to tell anyone. I wasn’t always sure I was bipolar, but I knew I suffered from depression from the time I was in middle school. But I never told anyone, not even my parents. Even after my first hospitalization I kept quiet. Even when friends in college opened up to me about being on certain pills and such, I kept quiet. My sister and my now wife were the only people to know about it for years and years. But when my second hospitalization occurred, I decided it was time to speak out. And I haven’t really looked back since.
The only people who I don’t tell are my work colleagues. I am afraid of what they will think and how it might affect my career. I have never lied about why I was in the hospital or why I have so many doctor’s appointments and such, but no one has ever asked me either. I feel like it is okay to be this way. I wouldn’t tell them if I was diabetic either, but I wouldn’t be afraid to. I don’t reveal a ton of myself at work. If someone stumbles upon this blog, fine. I don’t really care.
Thankfully, I never had a ‘tell your parents’ moment. I doubt most mentally ill people do. I let the doctors do the talking. I think my parents had a hard time with it still, but when it comes from a doctor (and I have now been diagnosed as Bipolar Type I by five different psychiatrists) there is some authority there that a kid cannot provide. Unfortunately, there still isn’t a medical test that you can take to confirm you have bipolar, but I hope that one day in my lifetime that will be the case.
I just want people who need help to get help. Suicide is the leading killer of teens and twenty-somethings. It is extremely preventable. People who already feel weird and terrible on the inside should not be worried about feeling more terrible if they open up. People who feel like they might need help should be encouraged to seek it out. And people who stand in their way should move.