October 17, 2013

SarahI was feeling a bit muddled up earlier today and I texted someone to say ‘I wish my brain were normal’ but autocorrect turned it into ‘I wish were my brain were Norman’. I find it reassuring that even my phone objects to the premise of me having a normal brain.

A few years back, when the bad stuff started happening in my head again, I’d been over a year without any symptoms and within that time I had started a relationship.

I’d conveniently convinced myself that it wouldn’t come back…so it really caught me off guard when the sadness found me again. This time it clung right to me, stuck to me from the inside out like tar on a smoker’s lungs. Blackness and then more blackness on top, that I just couldn’t see my way clear of.

Somehow bigger than before.

Somehow more painful, more invasive, more permanent than ever.

How do you explain to someone you love that you have this illness?

How do you explain to someone you love that you have this illness that you never mentioned before? Answer: I didn’t feel like I could.

So I didn’t.

I didn’t explain. I just kept pushing it down. Right down to the bottom of my feet and then into my shoes, I pushed it down so far that I was walking around on it, but it was difficult to keep balance and so more and more it threatened to knock me over all together. It was becoming impossibly difficult to avoid explaining.

When you’re suffering from an acute episode of mental health difficulties, it becomes tied up with your behaviour, and your personality, and everything about who you are at-that-very-moment. It feels like such a defining part of your identity at that junction in your life and it feels almost impossible to separate yourself from the illness. To me, admitting it out loud felt like saying that the person he had fallen in love with might not be a real person at all. The real version of myself might be something a lot uglier, I couldn't be sure because I couldn’t tell which bits were me and which were the illness.

I got a diagnosis, Bipolar Disorder Type II

I got a diagnosis, Bipolar Disorder Type II. Finally! I finally had an explanation for my explosive highs and terrifying lows. At the same time, though, I was terrified of what this new label would mean for me, now that it was out there, written on all of my medical notes.

In my mind it seemed also to be written on the face of every doctor, therapist and key-worker that I met with. I was officially ‘mental’.

I asked myself a lot of questions; what happens now? Am I crazy? How can I possibly have a normal life now that I know I have this THING in my head?

It was a painful diagnosis to accept

More than all that, it was painful. It was a painful diagnosis to accept because I am highly intelligent. The wonderful things my brain can do (when it is working) are a matter of great personal pride. It felt extremely severe and overwhelming to now be told that there was something not right in my brain. Using my brain is the one thing I’d always been good at, and if I didn’t have that anymore then who was I supposed to be?

Do I give up being the high achiever, the talented writer, the mile-a-minute creative who was always full of good ideas and occasionally just a little knocked off balance by the world and all of the heart-breaking things in it?

Am I now supposed to be ‘Bipolar girl’ instead?

I was frightened of telling my partner

I was frightened of telling my partner. I tried to though, because I needed him.

He didn’t understand. He looked at me in disbelief, “Why can’t you just be happy?” and I wished I knew the answer as much as he did.

He is from West Africa. Culturally, I think it was a probably more difficult for him to understand. “Back home” he would say, “this does not exist”. I was frightened that I would lose him because if I couldn’t make him understand, then I’d never have his support, and without the strength of his love behind me I didn’t feel that I could ever beat this.

My GP encouraged me to bring my other half to my appointments

My GP encouraged me to bring my other half to my appointments. He was extremely involved in helping us communicate about what was happening to me. "The best thing to beat this illness", he told us, "is talking about it". He explained to my other half that this was a real disease that needed treatment. "It is not your fault this is happening to her, it’s just something that is there, but not talking about it, not being supportive, will make it so much worse", the doctor told him.

The doctor is also West African. “I understand” the doctor sympathised, “until I came to this country, I’d never seen it, but it's not because it doesn’t exist back home. It just means people aren’t talking about it”.

A year later, I decided to tell my mum

A year later, I decided to tell my mum. But when it came down to it, I was too scared. So I didn’t.

In the end, I didn’t need to tell her. The same man that I had been afraid of losing for fear that he would never understand my illness, now stood up where I was afraid to do so and explained as sensitively and accurately the difficulties my illness causes me as I possibly could ever have hoped. I’d never heard a more complex understanding of Bipolar illness from someone who wasn’t either mental health professional or a patient with Bipolar. Everyone can benefit from talking about mental health, no matter what his or her background or culture may be.

Talking about my illness made the people I love more loving and supportive

Mental health is a spectrum and we all have health issues, mental and physical. There's no 'sane' and 'insane', just like there’s no 'healthy' and 'unhealthy', there’s so much in-between. Talking about my illness made the people I love more loving and supportive. It also helped me to fight back, and to understand that it’s not all bad if my brain is a little more interesting than some other brains.

Right now, we’re still fighting, it’s still hard, but thankfully, now we are fighting it together, because we decided it was time to talk.

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