When I first got the diagnosis of Bipolar, I felt two things.
First, I was scared. I watched my mother suffer through the same thing for a long time and the disease scared the shit out of me. I did not want to go through that, and I did not know there were other options.
Second, I felt validated. It felt very comforting to have a doctor look at you and tell you that all of the suffering and pain was, at least in part, due to a disease. Everything I went through was real, I didn’t make it all up. Everything I went through was diagnosable.
A similar set of emotions occurred when I was put on medication, or when I was hospitalized, or when I saw my next psychiatrist that gave me the same diagnosis, and so on.
I think it is a fairly common thing amongst bipolars. We want other people to hear our story, to look at us and tell us that we are really sick. And I don’t think we look for this validation because we want to be sick. I think it is because we feel sick, but we are told we shouldn’t feel this way, and now we want others to recognize it.
You might say that it comes back to the stigma of mental illness, in a lot of ways. I have had a lifetime of people near me telling me to ‘get over it’, ‘just think positively’, and to ‘look around, your life is good’. So when a doctor says, “this is the reason you feel this way”, things sort of click into place.
But it isn’t just that. It is also because this illness very rarely attacks your body in ways that you think ‘sickness’ should look like. Outside of change in sleep and appetite, I have never had a single physical reaction. So it feels like the disease is all in your head, because it kinda is.
The really difficult thing about the disease is that you have a sense that what you are going through isn’t right, and maybe you read up on some mental illness and you identify with what is written, but you never know if what you are experiencing is normal or really severe. You simply never know what you are supposed to feel.
I always thought I had a very mild form of bipolar, and that maybe my depression got bad sometimes. I had no idea until I had my ‘break-down’ a couple years ago and needed nine months off of work and a month in a hospital day-program and an ER trip, and a couple relapses, and substance abuse, and all of that. I flat out asked my shrink, ‘how bad is this? Is what I’m going through bad or just kinda normal?’ and he responded ‘this is one of the worst bouts I have ever treated’.
The reason I thought my bipolar was mild was because I didn’t feel “crazy”. No one around me was telling that I was doing poorly. I wasn’t doing the things I have read about when people are being out of control completely. So I didn’t know. I know I felt worse than I had ever felt before, but I tend to think of myself as kind of a wuss.
But no, my doctor told me that. Maybe he was lying, but why? Either way, just to acknowledge I was experiencing something bad was all the validation I needed.
Being in an inpatient environment will quickly give you perspective. But it will also give you validation. Everyone there, for the most part, is more than willing to listen and commiserate and share their story. And you tend to see where you fall in terms of severity. It is a shallow thing to do, but you do it.
I was surprised to find how few people were suicidal, or even what I would consider severely depressed. A lot reach a breaking point far earlier than I did, and a lot more people get pushed into the program by their family, whereas going in was always more of my decision.
It was shocking to me, but it also made me feel like I belonged. It made me feel like I needed to be there, hell, if these people are here, I should definitely be. To be perfectly honest, when I was at Beaumont, they mixed in the psych ward and the eating disorder patients. I got real perspective talking to those girls. I had never seen people so willing to torture themselves and ruin their lives. My opinion of my disease, and my validation that things were bad for me, completely disappeared in my first conversation with a gorgeous young girl who had lost most of her hair, could barely remember the faces of her own family, and had extreme difficulty solving basic problems and puzzles. Staying in bed for a week while not showering? Not so bad anymore.
Sometimes knowing and not knowing can make you feel exactly the same.