I met with my psychiatrist, aka my drug dealer, today. I don’t mean to make light of mental illness — most of us who have mental illness(es) need medication, so it’s not that I am dissing prescription drugs. But I have been cynical and angry in the past about having to take medication. That is starting to change, which is why I tease when I refer to my psychiatrist as my drug dealer. I am trying to relax about being bipolar — to give myself a break.
In the past I hated going to see my drug dealer. Not that drug dealers, (ok fine, psychiatrists), are bad people, quite the contrary, but I hated going because it reminded me that I am dependent on mood stabilizers to keep me from swinging too far to the manic-side-of-life or too far to the depressed-side-of-life. In other words, I am not capable of living a stable life without them. Believe me, there is ugly evidence scattered all over my medical records.
I have known for many years that, between a genetic predisposition to mood disorders and situational traumas that have placed a ton of stress on my mind, I am a poster-child for someone who benefits from swallowing pills everyday.
Except for one problem.
The poster is only visible to a select few people in my life.
On the outside, I am the antithesis of a poster-child for mental illness because I am close-lipped about my condition. I hide it like you wouldn’t believe — behind big smiles, happy chatter, positivity toward others and toward life, and the favorable picture of myself that I present to the world.
In reality, I carry around nervous energy about my condition, guarded thoughts, withheld secrets about my illnesses and hospitalizations, and still, to some extent, embarrassment and shame. These feelings live inside me, all without even letting those nearest and dearest to me know what it is like all up in my head or that my illnesses have names and that there is informative, factual information about them from medical researchers all over the world.
The racing thoughts, rapid mood shifts, confusion, agitation, euphoria, continuous dialogue running through my mind, disorganized thinking, a sense of urgency, impulses, and anxiety is a lot to bear. Never mind the crashes that occur after coming down from the frenzied madness that is mania. And don’t even get me started about the two (postpartum) psychotic episodes I had after each of my children were born. On top of the mania and depression, I experienced paranoia, delusions, and hallucinations that nearly swallowed me whole. At 35-years-old, I am exhausted from carrying around these burdens. I am ready to overcome my silence by receiving more professional help than I have been open to in the past.
Already I am making progress. Starting therapy, coming forward to some of my family/friends about bipolar and anxiety and postpartum psychosis, starting this blog, engaging with other people who can relate, and by simply educating myself I am moving in the right direction. In doing so, I can ultimately educate others by providing information and sharing my stories.
I guess you could say I am entering, as my friend put it, “new territory” in my life. Part of that involves better communication with my husband about how my mind works. Though I have been the one fighting mental illness on the inside, he has had to fight it as my biggest support person. That is also a lot to bear. By me starting to come forward and us realizing that others can support me, too, must feel like a weight lifting from him. I cannot speak for him, but I think we are both going to benefit from continued openness on my part.
One of the trickiest parts about living with mental illness is that it is so easy for people to look at your life on the outside and name all the things you have going for you, and then follow it with, “So what’s the problem?” The problem is that while even though I am in good physical health, I have a supportive husband who is also a supportive father, two kids, a house, enough money for food and water and extra pleasures, as well as other positive attributes, that still doesn’t mean I can control my illness by simply snapping my fingers.
I have to work really hard to look at all angles of my illness and find ways to confront it with ACCEPTANCE. Lately I am doing that. By simply accepting it, I am able to work with professionals who can help me unlock my own personal code (aka treatment plan) that I must adhere to in going forward with the rest of my life.
Anyone with mental illness has to crack their own “code.” Mine looks different from the person sitting next to me to the person sitting next to them, and so on. That’s what makes mental illness so complicated and frustrating. Sometimes it takes years to even receive a formal diagnosis, and then after that, you have to go through trial and error with different medications, all while trying to balance the stressors of everyday life and unanticipated bumps in the road. Not to mention coming to terms with symptoms and labels that the rest of the world deems horrid.
Once you receive a diagnosis, the next challenge is figuring out what drugs your brain responds to. I fought medication for a really long time and was a terrible patient, not filling scripts, not swallowing pills as directed, and being downright impolite to doctors as I skated along on a foolhardy path. I saw mental illness as a terrible flaw that did not go in line with the vision I had for myself. Mental illness isn’t seen as desirable by society so I wanted nothing to do with it.
But you know what? Being bipolar humanizes me. And for the first time in a really long time, I feel myself being able to relax and see clearly. With my doctor and therapist, I am working on a custom-made treatment plan. Mine involves: medication, running, yoga, relations with my husband, therapy, writing, and currently, not drinking alcohol until I figure out how my body responds to this plan. Today my doctor told me that people who are on the type of medicine I take get drunk faster. She advised me to “test the limits” when I am feeling better, which made me crack up. Does she realize who she is talking to? Often, I don’t have an off switch when it comes to wine and beer. And alas, another problem unearths itself. In time, I hope I can figure out and adhere to my limit. Drinking too much, in my case, often lends itself to mania and distorted realities.
All that said, writing is quite possibly second in line of importance after taking my medication. Frank Kafka said, “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” I could not agree more. On days I do not write I feel discontentment and irritation and like something is feasting on my brain. Breaking away from the tamer, more polished version of my last blog has made me realize that I need to write from my heart and mind. And that not everything I write has to be void of, what might be perceived as, negative exposure.
I am bipolar. My brain is imperfect.
I am creative. My mind is authentic.
With each passing day, I am trying to live the life I was to live and show that face to the world. In doing so, I find myself enjoying simple pleasures in a new and unexpectedly joyful way. Stronger bonds with my husband and kids, richer friendships, the prospect of being understood better by family members, the taste of food, the funny in life — it is all so much brighter now that I am taking off my own blinders about mental illness.
Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll be a real poster-child for mental illness. I hope many others join me as we defy the stigmas attached to mental illness and provide a gateway for others to come out of hiding.
Who is with me?