Why I'm Not Hiding My Mental Illness Anymore

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Elaina J. Martin's eyes

You wouldn’t know it by looking at me. You wouldn’t hear it in my laugh or smell it on my skin. It wouldn’t announce itself like a suitor at the door a century ago. When I tell you about the time I styled the “Real World: Austin” cast or if you heard me on the radio, you wouldn’t have a clue. I chain words together to form sentences. I lasso sentences around the moon. You wouldn’t know it by looking at me, but I am sick.

I am mentally ill.

It has something to do with chemicals and my brain. Too little. Too much. It has to do with stress and life. It is no one’s fault, not yours.

Not mine.

I have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. And Anxiety Disorder. And once upon a time, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But most importantly, I have Bipolar Disorder.

I didn’t catch it like a bad cold. It must have always been there, waiting. Breathing on my neck. Sitting in the dark. It waited until I was flying high to make me crash. And unlike a cold, it won’t go away. Ever.

I have Bipolar Disorder, and it has changed my life. It has taken my career and some of my friends. It has broken relationships. It has broken my heart. It has led me to the Intensive Care Unit, the psych ward, free clinics, Duke University and more doctors than I can name.

Up to a third of all people who have Bipolar Disorder die by their own hand. Suicide. Death. I have nearly died. A few times. When my mind is right it is not there, that dark shadow. But sometimes I lose my mind. I climb trees in sequin dresses. I go 110 mph. I climb on third-story roofs at two in the morning. There is more. So much more. But those are secrets for me and those that love me.

By telling you this, dear reader, I risk turning you away. But I am stable now. I take my medication. I go to therapy. I see a psychiatrist. I manage.

I am telling you because I need to be honest. I want to talk about the mentally ill. I want to be okay with myself. I don’t want to hide anymore. My mental illness is a part of me, as much a part as my curly hair and green eyes.

There is a stigma attached to the mentally ill. If I had heart disease or diabetes people would sympathize, make exceptions. But because my illness affects my mind, it is seen in a different light. I cannot be trusted. Words from my mouth are shaken with salt.

I am writing my experience in words and pages and chapters. I want to share it with you. Bring you inside the hospital walls, take you up on the roof. I want you to understand how it feels to not trust yourself, to check in every day and make sure that your mind is indeed still there. It’s scary. I am scared most of the time.

I have grown dependent – on my family, on my boyfriend, on my best friends. They hold me down, keep me from flying into the sky. They watch me through trained eyes. Am I well? Am I sane?

I want to make it okay. I want to write my way into your heart so that when you hear the phrase “mentally ill” you open your arms, you say, “I don’t understand, but I will listen to you,” you say, “I know ElainaJ, and she is sick but she is beautiful.”

I wouldn’t be who I am without my illness. It has shaped me; created a curve in the “J.”

And I am so blessed. I have people who care about me, who take care of me when I can’t, I have my words and sentences and essays. I have a way to speak when my mouth is closed. I have you, dear reader.

I don’t want to hide anymore. I don’t want to be embarrassed or ashamed. I don’t want to pretend that everything is okay when it isn’t. I don’t want to lie, white or otherwise. I don’t want to stretch the truth to fit me. I want to be me. Bipolar disordered me. Mentally ill me. Me.

I could say I would understand if you stopped reading or stopped calling, but I wouldn’t. I am still me, just a little more quirky than most. I am still me, just with an excuse for what you can’t understand.

I have made mistakes. Haven’t you? Fueled by mania I have lost my mind. A lot. But I always come back, sometimes quicker than others. I forget what I’ve said and what I’ve done, and I ask you to remind me. Psychotic breaks. Mental amnesia. Just another day as ElainaJ.

I’ve been holding off on posting this blog for a while now. I am afraid – of what you will say, of what you will do. But I need to be okay with who I am, whether you like me or not… And I am okay. A little bit crazy. A lot of bit kind.

I hope you’ll stay.
Xoxo,
ElainaJ

This post originally appeared on ElainaJ’s personal blog. You can also read her PsychCentral.com blog, “Being Beautifully Bipolar.”

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Mental Illness Allowed Me to Find My Gift -- My Messy Beautiful

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A close family friend who I’ve known since I was a baby invited me to his parent’s house for a Jewish holiday meal one night in 2009, as he did whenever those special occasions roll around. I’m not Jewish, but they treat me like family, so it’s only natural to be at these events, surrounded by friends and loved ones and good food.

After dinner, Dave and I were chatting, catching up on what we both had going on. He described his plans of starting a nonprofit with a good friend of his to give back to the community. I remember my exact first reaction:

“Why on Earth would you want to start a business that doesn’t make you a profit?” Luckily, I didn’t say it aloud.

What I forgot in that moment was what Dave had been through. Early on in his life, he had everything going for him — top athlete, funny guy, made decent grades in school. But in college he got caught up with the new found freedom and after making some bad choices, he started doing drugs to self-medicate the pain away. Hard drugs. One night he almost died and so his parents found a treatment facility in California, and he went away to get help. He found his recovery path and stayed at the treatment center to become a counselor himself. His addiction led him to a place where he found his gift. And now he had come home and was ready to give his gift away to the world using his nonprofit as the vehicle through which to share it.

It would take five more years for me to understand this concept.

Growing up, I painted murals on the walls of my room and wrote in my journal, read poetry and spun dreams of becoming an artist. But when the time came in college to pick a major, I reached for the safe choice: Business, with a concentration in marketing. That way, I could graduate with a degree that would ensure I’d be able to get a job, while at the same time I’d be able to tap into my artistic side. Really, I was thinking more about money and my future and much less about longterm happiness and making a difference in the world.

I wasn’t following my heart, and my lack of follow-through made me envious of my girlfriends who entered the fields of teaching, nursing and speech-language pathology because they were going to graduate and go out into the world and touch people’s lives each and every day with their talents, and they’d get paid to do what they loved. I wished I could follow my dream of becoming an artist by studying writing or art or design.

But could my creative, business-y work really touch someone’s life the way theirs would?

I was too afraid of the unknown.

Too afraid to fail.

Too afraid to be less than perfect.

Too afraid to expose my feelings through my work.

Too afraid I wouldn’t be able to support myself.

Too afraid of all these things that stood in my way.

They were my fears. And piled up together they appeared as a roadblock to the path to following my dreams.

Upon graduating, I start out in the corporate world with that versatile business degree, and I get a taste of success in the form of bonuses and commissions that keep rolling in as I continue to prove my worth to the company as the top-grossing recruiter within the agency. I like this compensation system, and so I work harder and harder. I’m helping people find jobs, and I’m helping companies find talent they desperately need, and it feels rewarding all around.

But over the years I become greedy. I work longer and longer hours to pull in the “big bucks.”

At the end of 2005, as I’m anticipating the best year-end bonus of my career, the life I had worked so hard to build up to that point came crashing down around me. I suffered what could only be described as a “nervous breakdown” at that moment. I spent a few nights in a psych ward, but upon my release the psychiatrist I saw attributed the episode to the lack of sleep I had experienced the week before when my husband was away on business travel.

Two weeks later that hypothesis would be proven wrong when my mind succumbed to another manic episode for which I had to be hospitalized on Christmas. Talk about the lowest low one can feel — being left by your family at a psych ward while your mind unravels faster and faster until you’re unrecognizable to even yourself. That was eight years ago, and Christmas, to this day, still brings up mixed emotions for me. More so gratitude now, but fear used to consume my thoughts. Fear that it could happen again, that my life was over now that I was diagnosed with a mental illness. That I’d never have children. That my husband might leave me. That my life was practically worthless now that my brain was sick.

I spent 2006 behind a veil of black. I mourned the life I had to leave behind. My success as a recruiter, my friends at work, my nice, fat paycheck with all those bonuses and commissions. The tears were in endless supply that year, though I tried never to let on to my friends how unhappy I was. I woke up most mornings with anxiety crawling up my spine and would crumble onto the couch at the end of the day, a mess of nerves and sadness and self-pity.

In my mind I couldn’t see past the day ahead of me. My future was so cloudy, it was as if my diagnosis had pulled an eye mask down over my forehead so that my vision was blocked. No more thinking a year, two years, five years down the road like I had been so used to doing. Those days it was about surviving to see the next sunrise. I battled suicidal thoughts and although ashamed to tell my husband and parents about the images in my head, I did. My psychiatrist adjusted my medication and over the course of several months, the thoughts gradually began to dissolve. I was no longer fighting for my life each day, but I was still battling the voice in my head which asked me continuously what my purpose was.

MyMessyBeautifulPin

It’s been almost nine years since I was diagnosed with type one bipolar disorder. I’ve had two kids and had two more hospitalizations because I was protecting my babies from the psychiatric medication in my bloodstream which I know now I’ll have to take for the rest of my life. I made it through five years of mania and meds and therapy and psychosis and depression and wanting to just make it all stop. And came to the conclusion that the reality of life with mental illness is that it will never stop; you can only learn to manage it so it doesn’t manage you.

Having overcome my mental health disorder allowed me to find the courage to write about my experiences. It may have taken me time to understand the beauty and impact of true vulnerability, but I’m proud to say that I’m there now. Telling the world that I live with bipolar disorder and still love my life has been the most liberating and gratifying step I’ve taken in this career I’ve carved out for myself. Dave is now the first person I go to for advice. I feel lucky to have such a close friend as a mentor so I don’t feel like I’m starting completely from scratch.

I’ve become a mental health advocate, and I run a nonprofit called “This Is My Brave,” whose mission is to ignite and actively promote a positive, supportive, national conversation surrounding mental illness. Next month my associate producer and I will debut “This Is My Brave” – the show: a live, theater-based production made up of 14 individuals from the community who will share their stories of living with mental illness through personal essays, poetry and original music in an effort to silence stigma and inspire change.

I found beauty in the messiness of life with bipolar disorder. It’s in the people who lift me up when I’m down and in the people who have opened up to me about the struggles in their life with mental illness.

I’m grateful to have found meaning in my life and to be able to give hope away to those who might be in the midst of the same painful place I found myself in years ago. I know they can find a way out with the support of friends and family and quality psychiatric care. If I can do it, they can too.

This post originally appeared on Bipolar Mom Life.

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