There Is Nothing Trendy About Mental Illness

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There is one thing that really makes me angry, and that is how mental illness is wrongly portrayed in the media. Usually people with mental illness are painted as incapable of living a “normal” life, that they’re a bit odd and don’t fit in with society. Most commonly and most dangerously, people with mental illness are depicted as frightening and violent. Of course, this makes me frustrated because I know these portrayals are untrue and add to the stigma we fight hard to eliminate.

But recently, new depictions of those with mental illness show movie and TV characters as eccentric geniuses, desirably quirky, cute and vulnerable, or that their mental illness is a trendy fashion accessory.

While this is better than stereotyping people with mental illness as violent, this still makes me angry because it trivializes mental illness. It’s also dangerous, but in a different way — it makes an undesirable health condition seem desirable and even an advantageous trait. Though I live a “normal” and successful life as someone with a mental illness, I can tell you, mental illness is not desirable. Mental illness is not trendy or glamorous. Mental illness is devastating, debilitating and deadly.

I have bipolar affective disorder, which means I have episodes of depression and episodes of mania. I have periods of stability in-between episodes. I’m only 25, but I have had a tumultuous few years thanks to my mental illness, involving suicidal depressions, psychotic manias, long hospital stays and electroconvulsive therapy. I would give anything to have a life without these interruptions and to not have to worry about how my illness may impact my future.

Mental illness is not something to be desired. There is nothing trendy in not washing for days or not being able to get out of bed. There is nothing to be desired when your thoughts are going so fast it is scary and you cannot concentrate, or when you talk with such speed that no one can understand you. It is not attractive when the only legal thing that immediately slows you down is a cigarette. Neither is waking up hung-over because you drank yourself into oblivion the night before.

The hospital is not trendy. It is a facility to keep people from intentionally or unintentionally harming themselves. It is not glamorous to spend weeks in hospital; it is upsetting because you have to put everything on hold.

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The public breakdowns are not cute; they’re embarrassing. During various hospitalizations I have been so agitated I tried to break windows, tried to escape, paced for hours, cried hysterically, lay comatose on the floor and was sedated and put in seclusion. I assure you the distress I felt was not trendy.

The constant fighting with family when unwell is not glamorous and neither is feeling alone. As hard as loved ones try, no one can completely understand how hard it is to live with mental illness. This loneliness can feel like isolation at times.

The crying is not cute. Crying so hard that your eyes become puffy, that you have snot pouring down your chin, that your sobs turn into grunts and your body uncontrollably shakes is unattractive. And this crying can go on for days and nights.

Having to take medications to function is not “hip.” It can take years to find the right medication and the side effects can be terrible. It is not trendy to be unable to walk straight, to have double vision, to have vivid nightmares, to always have a dry mouth, to feel sedated, to wake-up every night drenched in sweat, to have wild tremors and to have your head down a toilet continuously vomiting.

Being talked down from the edge of a cliff is not trendy; it is soul-destroying for everyone involved. It is not cute to lose touch with reality. It was not cute to see things nobody else could; it was confusing and disturbing to say the least. The paranoia is not quirky; it is downright scary when you think people are following you, so you don’t trust anyone – especially those who are trying to help. Those times were not fun and I was not being eccentric, I was severely unwell.

The terror that mental illness brings is not trendy; it is real. There are no words that can describe what it is like to be in the suffocating grips of an acute episode of a mental illness.

There is nothing trendy for family members who have to care for loved ones struggling with mental illness. There is nothing glamorous about the destruction that mental illness brings. The reality of mental illness is destroyed relationships, job losses, financial losses, disrupted studies, lost futures and lost lives. There is nothing trendy in the stigma and discrimination sufferers of mental illness still face; it is unfair and a disgrace.

Portraying people with mental illness as dangerous only contributes to the stigma and makes the fight for fairness harder. But portraying mental illness as trendy or as a cute quirk trivializes the damaging experiences of suffers — it’s an untrue representation of the devastation mental illness can cause.

Mental illness has the potential to kill, and there’s nothing trendy about that.

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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When Mental Illnesses Feel Like 'Friends'

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We’ve all had friends who have had a bad influence on us. But the kind of friends I made are different. They are in my head.

I met my boyfriend, Bri (bipolar) first. I can’t even remember when we became friends or how. Looking back, I remember Bri being in my life as early as third grade, but I never knew how much of an impact he would have on me then. Right now, Bri and I are closer than ever, but we fight a lot. We are always on and off and I never know where we stand. Sometimes Bri makes me really happy and sometimes he makes me really sad. There is no in between. Bri introduced me to Deb.

Deb (Depression) became my best friend. She was always introducing me to new people and habits as well. With these new friends, I didn’t need anyone else. Of course, Deb did make me feel really sad, but she was my best friend and I didn’t want to lose her. Deb made me not care about anything, which I loved. Deb didn’t like when I talked to real people though. She liked when I stayed in my room by myself. I began drifting from reality quickly because my real friends thought I did not like them anymore. I was closer with these friends in my head so I no longer needed real people in my life.

Before me and Deb became friends, Deb was friends with Sue (suicidal thoughts). Deb introduced me to Sue and we all became very close. Sue was always on my mind. Sue liked to play games with me though… She liked to come and go but she let me know that she was always there. Sometimes she was right there giving me hugs and sometimes she was with other friends, but I knew she would always be there for me and this gave me a sense of relief, which I needed after becoming friends with Annie.

Annie (Anxiety) was the type of friend you didn’t want to be friends with. The only reason I had to be friends with her is because she was friends with all of my other friends. We did not like each other though. However, since she was friends with all of my other friends, I had to be nice to her. Annie always put me down and told me I was ugly and that I would never be good enough. She made me scared to talk to people because I was so self-conscious. I always tried to be good enough for Annie, but nothing seemed to impress her. Sometimes when she got mad at me, she would attack me and make me cry and cry and cry. She would repeat all of the negative things in my life over and over again in my head. She would then make it hard to breathe because she would make me cry so much. When she attacked me, my mind would race with negative thoughts and it was hard for me to win the fight she was starting with me. These fights usually lasted only a couple minutes, but seemed like a lifetime in my head. Annie made me so self-conscious, and made me care what people thought, even though Deb made me not care about anything at all; It was like a war inside my head.

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To fight this war, I needed a lot of alone time to think to myself. I thought about a lot of stuff and this war in my head made it very hard to focus on reality. My grades began to drop because I couldn’t concentrate on anything except my new friends. I was addicted to the way they made me feel (even when they made me sad) and wanted to understand my friends better.

One day, Deb, Bri and Sue were all against me and told me to kill myself. Annie was in on it too. They told me that nobody would care if I was gone and they were trying to help other people by making me disappear. They also said it was in my best interest to do this so the war in my head would end. I overdosed that day. I was put in the hospital with people who were also friends with Deb, Annie, Sue and Bri. They had more friends than me though. These people were also friends with Ed, (eating disorder) Cat, (self-harm) Ana, (anorexia) Mia, (bulimia) Addie, (ADD) Owen, (OCD) sophie, (schizophrenia) and Izzy (insomnia). Me and Izzy clicked right away.

After multiple episodes of overdosing, I grew angry with my friends for having such bad influences on me. However, at this point, these were the only friends I had anymore after isolating myself from my real friends. My real friends became enemies to me because they did not understand me anymore. Maybe this is why they say to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Because I was finally starting to realize the friends that were in my head were mentally abusive. They made me block out people and brainwashed me into thinking they were there for me. They took a toll on the way I acted towards the people I needed the most in my life. I had lost touch with these people because of my mentally abusive friends.

If you are friends with any of these demons, or know anyone who’s friends with them, please understand these are not the right friends to have. They are mentally abusive and it took me so long to realize this. Even though they are so controlling and hard to get rid of, it is possible. They come in to your life unexpectedly and maybe unwanted at first, but then change you into a different person. You will begin to think they’re there for you but really, they are against you. Find the motivation to make new relationships with real people. Medication can be another solution. And most importantly, talk to someone you trust. I found that is the biggest step to stop being controlled by terrible friends.

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

The Crisis Text Line is looking for volunteers! If you’re interesting in becoming a Crisis Counselor, you can learn more information here.

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 Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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The Baggage of Bipolar Disorder

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I will always be a little bit strange. A second-­guesser of even my most obvious traits and talents. I will often wonder when I will crack… again. And settle for the normalcy only a person like me can have. I search constantly for a sign — some signal to alert me I am finally free from powdered fantasies encased in pale, yellow shells. I slide on by, hoping my stride doesn’t snag on a nail too soon. You may see me in my glory, in my happiness and in my joy, but I will always refrain from committing fully to celebration.

No, it’s not fair that at times I doubt my clout with my own rationality, and, at times, I start to think, “Is this really me? Is this really me?”

Built on the backbone of pills, held on by a balance not quite my own. Four years and eight months of memorable moments. One giant hope this identity of mine really belongs to me.

I will crumble when your words twist into 3,000 meanings at once. My brain overloads, and I ponder which meaning you wished me to imply. The air in the space around my head compresses, and the cells inside lose color as I lose sensibility. Frequent chatter, not of tongues, but puny particles pecking at my brain, preparing for a battle that need not exist in the first place.

Are you listening? Because although at times these words I speak may not dole out the perfection I wish they’d supply, my heart has always been in the right place.

silohette of crystal

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Please know if I end up not the person I say I am, I am the person I mean to be. It’s a constant struggle between reality and sanity. One I do not wish to fight, but neither silence nor surrender is an option.

Expectations of comprehension, I do not have for you. I know the extent of your compassion and the length of your arm. If it is warmth I seek, I trust you will give it to me. I fear not frost, nor sleet, nor stone when I am with you. But I will understand a need to leave.

For the baggage I carry is not for you. And it clings to my back like a banged ­up tattoo. And I don’t even know where it’ll go when I’m through… with being afraid of loving you. And when I’m done with this obnoxious disease that refuses to knock with courtesy… when I can brave life without these pills that pardon me for all my ills… oh, if that day were to come. Oh, if that day were to come.

I’d be needing baggage none.

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe your experience of not quite fitting under one specific diagnosis or a label your community identifies with. 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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My Son Has Bipolar Disorder, and He Is My Hero

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In the third week of September 16 years ago, I met my second son for the first time. A difficult pregnancy with preterm labor and several long, tedious weeks of bed rest concluded anticlimactically with an apparently healthy baby born on his due date, a relatively easy two-hour labor. He was loud about announcing his arrival into the world but quieted quickly when the doctor placed him in my arms.

Any mother and most fathers can tell you about The Gaze, that first moment when your newborn child fixes his or her eyes on you and makes him/herself the center of your world. Michael was a master of The Gaze. As I stared into his endless midnight-blue eyes, I was possessed by a sudden strange thought: “This soul is much older than I am.”

A black and photo of Liza's song as a baby.

The moment stayed with me through my son’s agonizing marathon toddler tantrums that grew into inexplicable preschool rages, continuing right up until he was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 13.

I was and am his caregiver. But I have always felt an ancient wisdom when I’ve looked in his still-deep blue eyes, a sense of timelessness that transcends our relationship and his illness. Michael is an old soul.

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And I’m not even really like that. I’m the science girl, not the New Age one. I read quantitative studies and consider outcomes and sample sizes and effects, not the ineffable but undeniable power of my child’s mind.

But now that he is celebrating his 16th birthday, I think about everything he has had to overcome in his brief life: the night terrors, the paranoia, the overwhelming sensory swamp, the dysgraphia, the bullying from peers, the teachers and principals who have said, “He has so much potential. Why does he act this way?” I think of his four stays in juvenile detention, his three hospitalizations. I think of the keen loss he experienced when he was separated from his siblings for several months. I think of the hole in his heart created when his father left him. This second son of mine has fought so much harder for happiness than most of us ever have to.

And the thing is, he’s winning. Despite the illness, despite the odds, Michael is winning. Maybe not every day, but slowly, bit by bit, his resilience, my son’s old soul, that ageless wisdom, that precocious sense of humor, keeps him from the abyss that rocks below every cradle, but especially below the cradles of our children who have mental illness.

I am his caregiver, his mother. But he has taught me lessons about humility and strength, about perseverance, and about forgiveness. His experiences with his own “different” brain have taught him to be so much more tolerant of others’ differences, and he has taught me by example.

Mental health is important to all of us. But people with mental illness have to work so much harder at it. My son is my hero. As I watch him claim the life he deserves, I remember that day when we first met, when he caught me in the power of The Gaze. This is a young man who will go far in life (again?). This is a young man who can teach me a few things. I look forward to learning them.

Follow this journey on The Anarchist Soccer Mom.

 The Mighty is asking the following: Parents of children with mental illnesses – tell us a story about working within the mental health system. What barriers of treatment have you experienced? What’s a change in the system that could help your child? 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 You Have to Box Your Way Through Rapid Cycling Bipolar

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I have symbols tattooed on my arm. In case I forget. In case, one day, I wake up in a strange place, in a strange mind, sans words or weapons, behind the guise of the mental health system. These symbols represent stages, tenets, of a very large thought. Mental martial arts, if you will. They keep me boxing; they keep me sane and functioning. I worked hard to formulate these ideas. Many brain cells were sacrificed over the years in the name of progress, many before I was ever diagnosed with anything.

Steve's tattoo of symbols
Steve’s tattoo

The institutions of intervention, official and familial, never did much for me in terms of, well, intervention. So I fought and learned. Boxed and studied. Sacrificed and trained. It’s been a never ending journey back and forth to the blackboard from my seat. I have formalized the conditions of severe retribution and retaliation for my natural state.

It sounds like a little much. It is. It’s necessary.

Rapid cycling bipolar doesn’t ruin my day anymore.

But it tries.

No one has any clue that I cycle randomly throughout the day at work. The medications stifle it to a certain extent, yet my mind is essentially a random idea generator. Don’t be fooled, by “idea” I just mean a stream of thought. They can be helpful, harmful, distracting or the ever popular all of the above. I’m not sure if anyone can appreciate what this means. My mind never stops. Ever. It’s a constant stream of associative thought and imperceptibly swift mood changes. This is not particularly useful at work.

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It’s a condition of constantly having 12 to 15 thoughts on the tip of one’s tongue. It’s a condition of the three stooges all trying to cram through the door at once and ultimately failing upon all three counts. So, enter the training. I’ve spent the requisite 10 thousand hours to master the craft of meta boxing, of essentially bullfighting this associative stream of madness. It streams. I wouldn’t say I ignore it, but I just don’t actually engage it. Through detachment, I kind of let it dance by itself in the corner like that friend who has had too much to drink.

Unfortunately, that dancing companion is my main consciousness, which means I’m not left with a ton of weaponry to deal with my surroundings. My tattoos and the invisible scars from a lifetime of conscious battle cling to my mind as I interact on various levels, without the use of most of my available brain power. It seems to work well enough, though. Aside from certain idiosyncratic behaviors, I manage. My speech can be stunted or stuttered on occasion, though, as I sometimes struggle for the correct words to reflect thoughts on that secondary platform. Sometimes I just can’t get ahold of them at all and must remain silent. Writing is a different story, so I try to express as much as possible that way.

No one at work has any idea, to my awareness, that I’m not speaking to my capabilities, that I’m sacrificing brain power in an effort to control myself. It’s been a struggle, from time to time, to accept that many of the people I know don’t actually know me very well. I have thoughts, ideas that go beyond casual conversation. I walk around, and I see the angles, I see the subtleties of situational dynamics. Through the process of controlling myself, through all of the symbolism on my arms, I have learned how operate within those angles.

Every day is a boxing match. Every day is an opportunity to demonstrate the skills I have acquired. Detachment is but the first of seven symbols. Overt associative streaming is but the first opponent. Every day I practice my martial arts, and every day no one has any clue. Perhaps one day I will speak my mind.

In the meantime, I box. It’s what I do.

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 Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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When It's Hard to Accept a Late Bipolar Disorder Diagnosis

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I was diagnosed just a few months ago. I suppose I always had a hunch. Others in my family history have dealt with this disease. But I thought I only had major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder (along with its friend social anxiety) and post-traumatic stress disorder and oh yeah, I’m a recovering alcoholic, too. (This long list just made me laugh a little out loud, I suppose it’s because I have an odd sense of humor…I think it’s called gallows humor.)

I’ve experienced symptoms of these other mental health issues since my teenage years. I was always been told I was dealing with major depressive disorder, and I always have, off and on. I’ve had three hospitalizations now, four if you count the outpatient partial hospitalization program I went through a few months ago. But maybe it wasn’t until I became more knowledgeable about the symptoms of these different disorders — or noticed the times I overspent money and/or times I felt super euphoric for no real reason or for the littlest reason, only to come crashing down. I’m not sure exactly when, but something in the back of my head thought it was possible. Something else in my head said, “No way! You don’t do the extreme things that are said to be symptoms of bipolar disorder.” Even my psychiatrist said I didn’t meet the criteria when I mentioned it to him a few years ago.

But this fall, when the most severe symptoms of depression worsened and I began my descent into the pit, my therapist at the outpatient program I mentioned previously confirmed my concerns. Then in November, the doctor at the hospital where I was an inpatient confirmed my concerns. And finally, my new psychiatrist after the hospitalization confirmed it as well. Bipolar type 2 was the general consensus.

Something in me didn’t believe it, though. Something in me didn’t want to have that diagnosis. Something told me I was going to face a whole new set of stigmas, and I did not want to deal with that. Something in me said, no way.

But I took the new medications. I hated the new medications. We switched around some of the medications. We’re still switching around some of the medications. And, believe it or not, I think I’ve turned a corner and I don’t feel like dying most of the time. (Praise God.) But something different is going on with me now.

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I’m waking early in the morning before my alarm clock goes off. (This is really odd for me, as I am a sleeper!) I can’t fall back asleep these days. I now have new found hobbies and interests that are consuming most of my thoughts and time. As in, I can’t stop thinking about them and all the things I want to do and what I should do next and all of the ideas are flooding my brain at once. My mind is racing as if it’s trying to catch something and I’m running with it (and running really isn’t something I do). It’s not simply that I have a lot of thoughts, I have a lot of thoughts all at once and they are grand and filled with the greatest optimism. My days are full somehow. There are so many things to get done! But guess what? None of them are things that I really should get done. If it weren’t for my meds, I doubt I would go to sleep at night at all, at least not until very, very late. Additionally, I may or may not be spending money on things I shouldn’t be…and rather impulsively.

I added all these thing up in my head and I did a little research on “what hypomania feels like.” It turns out, I could so relate.

I had an appointment with my psychiatrist yesterday. They took my blood pressure. It was unusually high for me, not dangerously high, but high for me. I found this interesting considering how I’ve been feeling. I told my doctor about all of these symptoms I’ve been having and yep, she thought I was definitely experiencing hypomania. She believes I’m in what’s called a mixed state right now, because I still have depressive thoughts and moods, but am also experiencing the hypomanic highs. She’s made a few adjustments to my meds (again) and now I’m a little worried I’m going to feel sad all the time.

And truth be told, I’m also a little sad that it’s true. I really do live with bipolar disorder and I have been for a long time. I suppose there is a little bit of grieving that goes on with any new diagnosis, a grieving for the health we had or the health we thought we had, whether it be true or not.

The good news is I finally know what I’m dealing with and I honestly have no reason to attach any kind of stigma to myself. Living with bipolar disorder is no more shameful than living with arthritis. Unfortunately, if I’m really being honest, it’s going to take me a while to believe that in my heart, because for some reason I feel a little more faulty and a little more broken right now.

Follow this journey on Mommy Muddling.

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