We Need to Support Mental Illness, Even When It's Not Cute

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I am the parent of a child with a severe mental illness, although it’s taken me several months to say that confidently and without my voice wavering.

How did we end up with a diagnosis of a severe mental illness in such a young child? With increasingly difficult and extreme behavior at home, a psychiatric inpatient hospitalization was our only option for getting help for her. We needed to get some answers. It’s incredibly frustrating trying to help a child when you don’t know what’s wrong, especially when things are getting worse. The apex of her illness presented a few months ago when I found her in the backyard trying to take her own life. I can’t put into words how it feels to watch your 6-year-old trying to kill herself. It’s not something any parent is supposed to ever see. We needed help. After a very long hospitalization, we were finally discharged with a name for the illness she has been struggling with — my daughter has pediatric bipolar disorder.

After her discharge we planned a slow transition back into school. Monday morning started with her kicking me trying to get my attention as I brought into the building. I bent over to talk to her like the doctors taught me. First, validate her feelings: “I can see you’re feeling frustrated and trying to get my attention.” Next, try to instruct her on a more appropriate manner of getting my attention: “Do you think you could’ve said nicely, ‘Excuse me?’”

Her response? “Get the f*ck out of my face!

Then she took off.

Oh yeah, F-bombing on the first day of second grade. That’s how we roll. And parents who had previously promised their undying devotion to supporting mental health awareness are suddenly silent, quickly ear-muffing their kids. The ones who don’t know she lives with a mental illness are looking at me (and her) like, “What did your kid just say?”

I completely get it. It’s easy to say you accept mental health issues until you actually see it. Sometimes, it’s messy. Sometimes, it involves F-bombs. It’s easy to look at her and just think she’s “one of those bad kids.”

But she only swears when she’s really feeling bad and is starting to lose control. I wanted to walk over to those parents and explain: “She has bipolar disorder. She gets to a point where she’s no longer in control of her words or her body. She was overstimulated and overwhelmed and feeling horrible inside. She’s not stable yet. It will get better soon. She’s not really like that, she’s lovely!” But would that make a difference?

It’s easy to share memes on Facebook say you support mental illnesses, but until you’re there, in the thick of it, you can’t understand what it’s like. Would you accept it if a mental illness incident happened in front of you? Would you feel compassionate, or would you judge? Does my daughter need to have a giant sticker on her forehead saying “Mental illness on board, please be kind”? Why can’t people just be kind anyways?

In all fairness, she also gets lots of hugs and lots of “you can do this!” when we’re out and about. She’s the poster child for mental illness. So cute, little, photogenic and usually smiling.

But it’s easy to be supportive of her mental illness when she’s smiling up at you. She looks the part of a functional 7-year-old, even when inside her head she’s struggling to keep it together. When that F-bomb deal-breaker echoed through the hall, if disapproval had a sound, that would have been it. But what if I told you she cried for hours earlier this week when she realized she would never be cured of bipolar disorder? About how she cried when a girl she knew who broke her leg got her cast off, because that wasn’t going to happen to her brain. About how after school on Monday she obsessively paced her room, muttering about how everyone was looking at her and everyone thought she was weird and “crazy.” Would that make you rethink the way you reacted to her mental illness-related outburst?

She’s not giving me a hard time, she’s having a hard time. And despite how fervently I want to scream out the realities of mental illness to create awareness and understanding, I feel like this type of illness will never truly be accepted until we start talking about what it really looks like. Despite how cute she is, she isn’t fully accepted for her mental illness, even now. And once the cuteness and littleness wears off, my daughter will just be another person with a sick brain who’s poorly understood and feeling alone. We need to start showing her now it’s OK to be who she is, F-bombs and all.

Jade's daughter is smiling and holding a sign that says, "I have bipolar disorder!" She has blonde hair, and is wearing a black shirt that says "World Mental Health Day" in green.
Jade’s daughter.
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What They Don’t Teach You About Bipolar Disorder In Psychology Class

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Bipolar disorder is a serious disease.

It’s not fun. It’s not trendy.

Bipolar (for me at least) means consistent medication, dose changes and getting adequate sleep to stay well. Bipolar means periods of extremes. Mania and depression, then mania again. A cycle through the seasons.

Mania is a state of the brain. It seems rather misunderstood as a whole. It’s important to know that being in mania doesn’t make someone a maniac. I took the liberty of looking up “mania” on an online dictionary. Here’s the super informative definition:

(1) excessive
excitement or enthusiasm; craze: ex:
The country has a mania for soccer.

OK…so in second place:

(2) Psychiatry. manic
disorder

Mania. I had no idea what it was until I experienced it firsthand.

In my psych class at Clemson University, I remember we breezed right through it. Which is fine, lots of material to cover, right? I scribed in my notes something like:

mania — affective disorder characterized by euphoric mood, excessive activity and impaired judgment. 

While this is true, I had no grasp on what this would entail in real-life application. It was simply a multiple choice answer on a test.

It wasn’t until my nonchalantly jotted bullet point became my reality that I understood.

My bipolar disorder freaking sucks. It’s not something I can ignore and say, “Just..stay there, I’ll deal with you later.” It’s really hard. But I’ve learned a few thing, things you can’t teach you in psych class.

Bipolar means living with haunting and embarrassing things I did or said in the past.

…but it doesn’t mean I have to dwell on them day in and day out. And I don’t (anymore).

It means I have a serious condition that needs to be addressed and managed.

…but It doesn’t mean I think of myself as some sub-human specimen who can’t do what everyone else can.

It has made me manic, but not a lunatic.

It has made me depressed, but not completely hopeless for eternity.

It means I have a disorder that I might not disclose to someone I just met, but this doesn’t mean I’m not doing everything I can to fight the horrible stigma.

It means I didn’t expect to be a part of a group that’s often categorized with a host of cruel jokes.

I’ve carried shame in my past, but I’m not currently in hiding over who I am. In fact, who I am is far more than my diagnosis of bipolar. I’ve been hospitalized, but I’m not a tragedy. You may have learned my disorder in a “cool psych class,” but that doesn’t mean you know who I am.

This is why people with bipolar disorder need to tell their story. We are still human and want to be heard.

You are not solely the definition in a psych textbook!

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Dear Future Boyfriend, From a Girl With Bipolar Disorder

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Dear future boyfriend,

There’s only so many times I can sneakily take pills in front of you without you noticing. At brunch when our friends are taking selfies, or at dinner when you’ve gotten up to go to the bathroom.

Or what about when someone asks me to take a shot of vodka with them? I don’t want to say, “No, because my antidepressants mixed with booze will make me black out.”

Or when you spend the night with me for the first time, and I desperately try to hide all of my medications under my bed in hopes you don’t see them.

I don’t know how to tell you that I was diagnosed with bipolar II, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder at 23. I was away at school, and never felt more alone than I did in that moment sitting in my car out side of the psychiatrist office, looking down at a looming list of prescriptions with funny names, to treat an illness I had only ever heard bad things about.

A million questions — like, when do you tell a significant other about it? Do my friends find me exhausting? Are my parents embarrassed? Are people afraid of me? Will anyone ever accept me for what I am? — have paraded endlessly through my mind since. All I’ve craved is acceptance. But how could I ask for acceptance when I’m so afraid to admit I have mental illness? So I’ve lied to my bosses about doctor appointments, lied to my friends when I lose weight, faked illnesses like the flu when I’m actually so depressed I can’t even get out of bed.

By nature I’m energetic and outgoing, but I can rarely keep this facade going for longer than a week before I get pulled down by my illness. Sometimes I just want to be alone, and other times I need so much encouragement and reassurance from my friends as I fall apart. In the same week, I can love my life with my whole heart, and then wish it was over.

Let’s pretend you meet me in a local restaurant, and you ask me out. What am I supposed to do? Say, “Just so you know, I have bipolar type II — can you pass the butter?” as we sit down for our first date? Is there really ever an ideal way to drop news like that? My illness does not define who I am, but it does matter to some people.

But this is me, take it or leave it. If you do decide to continue this relationship with me, I have a couple requests:

1. If I’m having a really rough week at work, know what brightens my mood. Buy my sunflowers and take me for a hike. Since I can’t really go out and drink the working gal blues away, I need you to be my drink.

2. If I’m having trouble getting out of bed, understand this is my depression. Don’t let me isolate — make me breakfast and eat it in bed with me.

3. If I wake you up in the middle of the night from tossing and turning and crying out because of nightmares, don’t tell me to wake up and stop. Just hold me a little bit tighter.

4. If I’m grumpy or saying hurtful things to you for no apparent reason, tell me I’m being hurtful and let me apologize.

5. If I’m losing too much weight, tell me I look beautiful no matter what size I am.

6. When I question my existence in this life, show me how life would be if I wasn’t here. Tell me I should stay.

7. Cheer for the little victories. Make a big deal out of them.

8. Never give up on me.

If you don’t understand mental illness, just know it’s not our fault. I’ve tirelessly fought through my recovery, and I’ve done it alone because even though it’s so hard, I know I’m worth it. Being rejected because of a chemical imbalance is quite possibly the most humiliating experience. Dealing with nightmares, night sweats, reactions to medication, numerous doctors, therapists, while maintaining a full-time job, is actually pretty damn hard, and we are doing the best we can.

Just know that rooting for me, supporting me when I’m broken and loving me when I’m unlovable is the best gift I could ever receive.

Sincerely,

Shelby

P.S. To the people with mental illness: You are not alone. I know how scary it is to sit in the psychiatric unit alone, wondering what someone you knew would think if they saw you there. But you don’t have to go through this journey alone. We are stronger together.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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Manic Doesn’t Always Mean Happy

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It feels like all my senses are lit on fire. I feel deeply. Sights are brighter and sounds are louder. Everything seems colorful.

But then it quickly gets tainted with an inky blackness and several shades of blue.

It feels like hope withering from my hands; it’s watching any drop of motivation left disappear.

Then, the creative sparks set off in my brain and the psychomotor agitation starts
up. I feel jittery and I can’t sit.

I want to paint and create and write my thoughts down. My ideas of grandeur. Yet, I know there’s no point. Because the sadness hits me as fast as an anvil dropped from thousands of feet above me.

The pain in my stomach is raw and my appetite disappears. I’m torn between wanting to lie in my bed and never come up and running ten miles to burn off my energy.


It feels like having a tangled mess of thoughts in my head, racing so fast, faster than I
ever believed possible.

This is what it’s like for me when I’ve experienced a primarily manic mixed episode. It’s a part of bipolar disorder where, along with feeling predominantly manic or depressed, the opposite mood seeps in. Aside from my regular depressed and hypomanic moods, I get mixed episodes that are primarily manic, but they’re the farthest thing from fun.

When I have this kind of episode, I feel sadness, euphoria, anxiety, creativity, boundless
energy and hopelessness. I’m full of racing thoughts and a constant restlessness all at the same time. I feel like a genius but I also feel self-loathing. I feel happy, sad and like the world is ending somehow all in the same moments.

Mania doesn’t just mean I’m running around and having a good time, although sometimes it can be enjoyable — especially when I feel creative and limitless, my words pouring out of my mouth with rapid speed. But in other instances it feels like anxiety and sensory overload with thoughts that are too fast to grab a hold of.

Mania comes in many forms. Not everyone experiencing it is engaging in risky sexual behaviors and spending sprees. Sometimes this mood state means abnormally happy and elated, while other times it means extremely anxious, irritable and fearful.

Just something to keep in mind, whether you’re just curious, you love someone with bipolar or you have the diagnosis yourself, manic means a lot of things, and it doesn’t always mean happy.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us a story about a time you encountered a commonly held misconception about your mental illness. How did you react, and what do you want to tell people who hold his misconception? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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To Demi Lovato, From a Mother of a Girl With Bipolar Disorder

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Dear Demi,

I just wanted to say thank you on behalf of my 11-year-old daughter who has bipolar disorder. You see, because you are so willing to talk openly about having bipolar disorder, you have helped reduce the stigma surrounding this mental illness. I’m sure you are aware of how people feel when the hear the word “bipolar.” They worry if you’re a safe person to talk to. They worry if they can be friends with you. The list goes on.

Because you’re such a public figure and an inspiration for tweeners like my daughter, your voice carries a lot of weight. You may not want to be a role model, but you are. You can either use your status to spread acceptance or hide in shame. I, for one, am grateful that you chose to take the high road.

I’m teaching my daughter to advocate for herself. My hope is that one day she will use her voice to let others know she wants to be loved and accepted for who she is, not who the media tells others she is.

Demi, I want to encourage you to continue using your platform to show children like my daughter they’re not alone. It won’t be easy. Some days you may feel like giving up. Please don’t! Keep moving forward. Kids like my daughter are counting on you. I’m counting on you.

Fondly,

The Mother of an Adoring Fan

Cate's daughter is shown posing similarly to Demi Lovato.

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The Mighty is asking the following: Share a powerful moment you or a loved one had with a public figure. Or, write a letter to a public figure you feel has helped your or your loved one through his or her work. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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When Having Bipolar Disorder Is Like a Juggling Act

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I have bipolar disorder. Please notice, I do not say “I am bipolar.” Because the sum of what and who I am is so much more than a simple chemical imbalance. What does it mean to have bipolar disorder? For me, it means I share the inside of my head with many different aspects of myself. There is Depression. There is Mania. There is Anxiety. And there is Stable. These are my ever present companions. I perform miraculous juggling acts in order to keep them all in check. Strangely enough, each one has her own talents and special needs.

Depression writes in terse, sparse sentences. Salubrious, grey imagery of rainy days and dark skies. You want to be careful when you read depression. She can suck you in at a moment’s notice, even when you think you’re doing well.

Now Mania, she writes in long, flowing, beautiful streams of consciousness. Rainbows and waterfalls and pink unicorns. She inspires super human feats of strength. She can go for days without food or sleep. Mania does my best creative work. But beware the crash, because Mania can only last for so long, and when she goes back into hiding, Depression is more than happy to stick her head out and send in her ugly step-sister Anxiety.

Anxiety writes in short, nervous bursts. Worry, dread, shortness of breath, tightness of chest. The world speeding by too fast to even think about catching up. Anxiety keeps you awake nights writing poetry about useless worry and feelings of hopelessness.

And Stable…Stable doesn’t write much at all. Stable is the goal of all the medications I take.  She is…well, she’s even tempered, patient, beige. She’s not as creative, but she takes direction very well. She’s organized and well-dressed. She keeps things running smoothly.  But strangely enough, she’s also lonely. Lonely for intimacy, for laughter and craziness. For affection and art. For the little things in life that make it not only bearable, but enjoyable. Stable cruises through life with few noteworthy events, but she’s not lying awake nights writing hopeless poetry. She’s not performing feats of super human strength. Stable gets lots of sleep and plenty to eat.

The truth is, Stable pretty much runs my life. She keeps me doing all the important things that need to get done and she directs my daily actions. I guess in the long run, Stable is in charge of the whole crew. She’s the juggler who keeps all the balls in the air. She keeps the others in check. She makes sure my head doesn’t get smashed in the door. She keeps me from trying to run a marathon or play touch football. She helps me sleep at night when Anxiety would keep me awake. Stable loves me. All of me. And all of my different aspects.

And on good days, she melds them all seamlessly together to create a smart, sexy, confident woman who can handle whatever life throws at her.

The Mighty is asking the following: For someone who doesn’t understand what it’s like to have your mental illness, describe what it’s like to be in your head for a day. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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