Any diagnosis of a mental disorder is frightening, but so too are those crushing depressions when you can’t function, the times when life is simply too much or when you are simply out of control. It was after my second suicide attempt that I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The crushing, life draining, depressions I had noticed (obviously), but somewhere down the line I seemed to have missed the mania. Unfortunately those around me hadn’t and they had to deal with the mess that was left.
It is largely the misconceptions that surround mental illness that made my diagnosis so frightening, not just for me but for my family and my friends.
For me there was fear, but there was also a sense of relief, and at last I knew there was a reason for the way I felt and something I could try to fight. However, the initial thoughts are that if you have a mental illness you will be locked away in an institution, lobotomised, and your life is over. Those thoughts are based, not on what the reality is, but on society’s perception. A perception based upon generations scared to accept what is different and quite happy to lock it away – and literally throw away the key. You need to realise that your life is not over, in many ways it is beginning again. Once you realise that then you can accept the illness. You can accept treatment and you can live.
Sadly there were people close to me who believed these misconceptions and whether through a lack of understanding, fear that it was contagious, or simply shame, they distanced themselves and could not deal me having a mental illness. These were not just friends, or even close friends they were close family. Sadly it included my brother.
That shame, that fear of stigma, meant that I struggled to tell people when I was diagnosed. That I had a mental illness.
It made me feel frustrated, having to bottle in who I was and how I felt. Nothing should be bottled in, especially when you have a mental illness.
When I speak to people and tell them, happily and with no shame, I have bipolar disorder, then often their reaction is I don’t look mentally ill, whatever that means.
Thankfully, there have been those who have stood by me and learnt with me how to deal with bipolar disorder; my wife, my family, my friends. Especially my wife, who has fought every battle with me since my diagnosis. Initially her reaction was relief, like me, and the hope that that there was a “cure”. Now we know there isn’t a cure, a magic pill, but we can fight it together. But it is not just her support, or that of my family and friends, as the more I talk and then the barriers come down and the stigma erodes.
I still get depressed, I still have days when I don’t want to leave my bed, crawl under the sheets and hide from life. I still have days when I feel “wrong”. But I have support, my condition is well managed at the moment, I remember to take my meds and my life is good. I have a beautiful family, I have a good professional job, I can talk to people and I function. I have a normal life despite being mentally ill.
A mental illness does not define you.