I’ve wrestled with being open, honest and vulnerable about my recent diagnosis of bipolar II disorder. From battling the stigma, guilt and denial that comes with a mental illness diagnosis, to practicing self-care, recovery is not simple or quick. While it’s easier with family and close friends standing in my corner, most days I’m trying to be better for them. Only recently have I tried to be better for myself.
Here are five ways I’ve been able to embrace my mental illness:
1. Acknowledging its presence in my life.
I think bipolar II was a secret I kept from myself for years. It seemed to sit there quietly in my unsettled mind, occasionally making an appearance just to remind me it was still there. I always willed it to go away, but denying its existence only brought more pain. In the depths of my most recent major depressive episode, I resorted to self-harm and began cutting my wrists. I wanted my outside to match how I felt on the inside. This left me with four scars on my left wrist, and I ultimately reached a point where I could no longer hide my struggle from family and friends. As a result, I spent a week in the psychiatric unit at a local hospital.
Sharing this struggle and my subsequent diagnosis with close friends and family was the best thing I ever did for myself. People came out of the woodwork to support me. I didn’t realize how much I needed all of them until they appeared. By finally admitting I needed help, I was no longer alone in my journey. I realize now how crucial family and friends are in my recovery, and I’ve found that by acknowledging my mental illness, I’ve laid the groundwork for a dependable support network.
2. Making friends with fear.
I was plagued with fear when I was first diagnosed with bipolar II. Fear that people might judge me or think I was different and weird. Fear that the free-spirited, adventurous qualities my friends and family loved about me were just the byproduct of being hypomanic. Fear of the realization I would live with bipolar for the rest of my life, leaving me wondering what “the rest of my life” would even look like. However, admitting I was afraid and voicing my fears brought an enormous amount of relief. I started to view my diagnosis as a blessing — it meant I knew what I was dealing with. Armed with that knowledge, I can use fear to understand what I need to do to manage my illness and continue living a healthy, stable life.
3. Acknowledging my current state of health.
In my most severe depressive episode, I stopped taking care of myself. I didn’t shower. I didn’t cook. I didn’t clean. The thought of doing any of these things nearly debilitated me, and as a result, I stunk, didn’t eat and slept in dirty sheets for months at a time. It wasn’t until I went to the hospital that I became mindful of how poorly I was functioning in the everyday world. I needed medication to stabilize my mood, and help doing even simple things that seemed so overwhelming. The only thing I seemed able to manage in the initial weeks after my hospital stay was taking a shower. I was too exhausted to do anything else. But even though it was a small task, it was something.
Understanding my abilities and limitations is important to my recovery process. I can’t think about where I want to be or how I ultimately want to function. Instead, I continuously have to ask myself where I’m at and cut myself some slack. I know now I might need help getting through rough patches, but I’ve found there are people in my support network who are willing to help, even if in small, but significant, ways.
4. Participating in the recovery process in a meaningful way.
When I decided to take an active role in my recovery, I began educating myself about my mental illness and joined several support groups. The support I give and receive in these groups has been the biggest blessing in my recovery. They are my brothers and sisters: my comrades. They are the few people I know truly understand what it’s like inside the mind of someone living with bipolar. Writing has also been helpful. It’s given voice to my worries and fears and helped me process and grieve my diagnosis. Taking an active role in my recovery process has empowered me to seek help and find purpose and meaning in a post-diagnosis world.
5. Not letting it define me.
As soon as the psychiatrist diagnosed me with bipolar II, I thought others would stop seeing me as the free-spirited, adventurous, sometimes sad and lonely writer and instead start seeing me as that crazy girl. The pervasive stigma that exists regarding mental illness is an issue I’ll constantly fight. Some people will embrace me while others will shy away, but I can’t let how others perceive me define my existence. Yes, I am different, unpredictable, impulsive, at times reckless and at other times seriously depressing, but I am also so much more. I am a strong person with a giant heart. I am a loving daughter and caring friend. My mental illness is a part of who I am, but it is not me. For that reason, I decided to use my mental illness as a vehicle for change.
If you live with a mental illness, know you are not alone in your journey.
A version of this post originally appeared on The Scenic Way Home.
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