Defying stigmas about mental illness

When I walked into the house late last night the first thing my eyes honed in on were two pairs of kid-sized sneakers — a girl pair and a boy pair. I stood there in the dimly lit entryway, and I smiled as I thought about my two children sleeping upstairs.

Yesterday I did something out of my norm and drove two-and-a-half hours to Pittsburgh to attend a writing work-shop hosted by Creative Nonfiction magazine. The focus was on telling true stories about mental illness. In the past I would not have considered walking into a room filled with people who are openly admitting a connection to mental illness. Why would I ever want to put myself in that group of people? People with mental illnesses are crazy.

Nonetheless, my bipolar disorder and I walked into the room with openness to what lie ahead. In other words, I associated with a crowd of people who I clearly need more connection with as I reach continued acceptance about my illness. I felt oddly at ease and comfortable.

I was not nervous at all, and that felt really good. Nothing earth-shattering happened at the event and I didn’t have to stand on a stage and proclaim my issues, but I was there and that was more than enough. Funny how something that I have been so insecure about is now giving me a greater level of security.

This morning I switched gears. I stripped the beds and started washing sheets like I do every other Monday morning. I listened to the pitter-patter and banter of my son and daughter marching up and down the hallway with a pillowcase I dropped. They were each carrying a corner of it and told me that they were in a parade and passing out candy to the crowd. I watched as pretend fruit littered the hallway — the first mess of the day.

When I finally made an effort to get dressed partway through the morning I choose to wear my mom’s old college t-shirt. The fabric is paper-thin having been worn by her in the early 70’s and, occasionally, by me over the last ten years. As I put it over my head my thumb went right through the fabric in the back near the collar. It immediately pissed me off, and I felt sad at having torn it. Then I thought, Ahh fuck it, the tear only makes the shirt better. 

After throwing my unwashed hair high on top of my head into a ponytail to keep it off my face and the back of my neck, I looked in the mirror, giving myself a ‘good-enough’ approval. As I thought about my appearance yesterday — a nice shirt, corduroy pants, stylish boots, jewelry, make-up, and groomed hair — I had to laugh at my appearance today, the exact antithesis of yesterday’s.

Along the same lines, yesterday I felt professional and empowered by attending an event about mental illness, but today I feel like a regular old mom. The similarity between yesterday and today is that I feel at ease and comfortable in both settings.

Lately I have been digging deep inside myself and facing and writing about being bipolar. The many discoveries and breakthroughs are important, but I also know that so is regular day-to-day life. I hope in time that being bipolar will be intrinsically part of who I am and not just some ‘thing’ who walks beside me as I walk into a room or mother my children.

My psychiatrist recently asked me, “Is it fair to say you are nervous about your illness?” I responded with a resounding yes. I am absolutely nervous about it because of how I might be perceived by others. Yesterday in Pittsburgh I learned that many people are out there defying the stigmas about mental illness. There are people already on that proverbial poster I spoke of in my last post. Instead of them joining me, I want to join them.

But one thing I need to remind myself is to take my time. During both of my hospitalizations all I wanted to do was get home to my babies. To get out of confinement and get back to my regularly scheduled life. To ignore my diagnosis. To brush everything under the rug before medications kicked in and treatment plans were in place and necessary information understood.

Now five years later, I am learning more and coming forward to family and friends, and even a few strangers. It feels great, but I need to pace myself. Unlike trying to get out of the hospital as fast as I could, I want to ease into what lies ahead. I want to slow down and focus on the little feet that fit inside the kid-sized sneakers. To listen to the pitter-patter and admire the imaginations of my children. To appreciate a worn t-shirt that is part of a larger story and know that a tear only defines it more.

My friend gave me a card yesterday that read, “Weeeee! It’s amazing you’ve made it this far” and showed the silhouette of a person roller-skating with scissors in hand.

Weeeee! It's amazing you've made it this far.

The card snapped me back into the reality of my crazy, beautiful life. It gave me the encouragement and the funny and the support and the perspective that I need to continue on my journey of living with bipolar.

Today with my kids, I did puzzles and read books and played babies and battleship and play dough. I served spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. And tonight, we’ll all go to bed with clean sheets and the prospect of another day.

***

In the near future, I am hoping to write some posts without emphasizing my bipolar disorder all the time. After all, isn’t part of defying stigmas showing others that I am capable of leading a stable and ordinary life?

2 thoughts on “Defying stigmas about mental illness

  1. I love your blog. I love your honesty, and (for want of a better word) courage. One day, the stigma surrounding mental illness will be gone (after all, “normal” is just a setting on the clothes dryer) – until then, write on!

    Like

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