I was 22 when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. At the time it was still termed manic-depressive illness, and I confess, I have always preferred that title. If I’m going to have a mental illness, I would prefer something specific rather than the indistinct-ness that comes with a illness called “bipolar.”
For me, having a name assigned to what ailed me was a relief. I discovered the stigma attached to being labeled with mental illness a bit later, but truthfully, I had experienced discrimination all of my life for the simple fact that I was different. My way of thinking was different from most people, and I had sensory issues, which caused me to malfunction in most environments with a lot of noise, light, and commotion.
I believe that I began malfunctioning at 5 when I attempted to integrate into the noise of a traditional classroom, but my illness did not manifest completely until I was in my early twenties. It has been “game on” ever since, and along the way I picked up a very severe co-morbidity anxiety disorder called agoraphobia, which further cemented my inability to live life the way most people function.
I spent 10 years trying to find stability, and through those years I learned so much about myself and my illness, not to mention the psychology of human nature in general. I became an authority on my illnesses. I call them MY illnesses, because they are part of my life. They are not going to leave, and so I own them. They are squatters on the landscape of my life, but they are not going to leave, so it is up to me to keep them corralled and to try to find a way to live the best life I can.
I decided about 10 years into my illness, when I finally found some stability and sanity to go along with it, that I needed to not only be informally educated, but formally educated as well. I was an authority in my field but I needed the credentials, per societal dictates, to show that I was, in fact, an authority. I spent a decade and achieved education to the doctoral level in psychology. My doctoral work exists in leadership psychology, which has helped me expand my understanding to the workplace and the structures that exist in our culture on a societal level.
When I was first diagnosed, mental illness was taboo. There has been a pendulum swing in our society that has made being mentally ill more acceptable, which is good, but has it really made being mentally ill in our society easier? I’m not so sure. We have a lot of people diagnosed with major mental illness very quickly, and that is not necessarily a help to them. EVERYONE is not bipolar. I’m sorry, but there it is. The truth is that a very small percentage of people are bipolar, and an even smaller percentage are agoraphobic. I use these two illnesses, as they are what I deal with, and so my vantage point is a little clearer on these than on others.
I have to be honest, I get annoyed when I have an individual come up to me and tell me, “Yeah. I’m bipolar.” I say, “How do you know?” They say, “Well I went to my GP, and he said that I was probably bipolar because I’m moody.” I say, “Are you receiving treatment for your illness?” They look at me like I have two heads. “Uh, no. This was a long time ago. I just make it work.”
At this point, my irritation is threatening to breach. GP’s are not qualified to assess mental illness, people. Would you go to a podiatrist for a heart condition? Come on! If you have a true mental health issue, go to a psychiatrist or at the very least, a therapist. Psychologists can’t prescribe, but they can refer to someone who can.
Then there is the pattern I tend to see in people I have this conversation with, and that is they tend to have substance abuse issues and are justifying erratic behaviors by saying they are bipolar. Meth and alcohol are very indicative of mood instability. Now, that does not mean there isn’t a mood disorder that kicked everything off, but what I get is this inference of, “I have bipolar, and I do just fine on my own without medication or treatment. It’s not that big of a deal.”
So, on a personal level, pulling from my own experience with mental illness and my professional knowledge of this disease, which is expansive, I will respond by supplying the following: You do not have major mental illness if you are “managing just fine on your own.” Sorry, but there it is. You may have times of remission where you do not experience symptoms, but it comes back, and if you have not been medicated, the impact of an episode on the life someone with bipolar is equivalent to a “Defender of God” level tornado on a small town.
I have gotten to the point where I have had the above scenario occur so many times that I have started saying, “Then you don’t have bipolar. Sorry. You cannot manage true bipolar on your own. Not. Gonna. Happen. For one thing, the illness grows as you age. Trust me. Nearly 30 years with mental illness, and a couple days without meds, I’m in a depressive bell jar so deep, nothing but death can find me. That is the reality of major mental illness. It is very frustrating that people use the diagnosis of mental illness as a means to excuse behavior; behavior that is wreaking havoc on those who love them. The diagnosis is not a free pass. It’s a starting point to control.
For the past 20 years, I have worked in a crisis intervention status with families who have a loved one going off the rails with bipolar disorder. The very first thing I teach the family is boundaries. If you have bipolar you have to own it, take responsibility, and make the effort to get it under control in ways that perpetuate stability and health. That is YOUR responsibility; not your family’s responsibility; not society’s responsibility. Take accountability for your illness!
Yeah, it’s not fair, but there are a lot of things in life that are unfair, and I know what it is like to spend youth grappling with the knowledge that the dreams and possibilities for life may in all likelihood be at an end because of an illness that has taken over. But many people have to come to that reckoning with all different kinds of illness. Mine just happens to be mental and more difficult to treat than most illnesses. So be it.
I can say that I am glad I took the route I took, rather than that of denial, substance abuse, and escapism. I embraced the truth of mental illness and found a very rich existence in a different life. I found a belief in God I never would have pursued had I not had to address mental illness in my life. My journey with bipolar disorder has defined me and honed me in a way I could never have expected, and I have chosen to spend my life looking forward to what is on the horizon, for I know that even though the routine things in life throw me for a loop, the expanded and deeper meaning of life is not lost on me, and I am all the better for it.