Embarrassed woman

I Used to Hide the Symptoms of My Mental Illness Out of Shame

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I’ve worked really hard my entire life to be a person who is “presentable” to the world, so much so it has become second nature; I lost touch with who I really was. I became tangled up in my diagnoses, who I wanted to be and who I was by nature. What emerged from this combination was a confusing mess I struggled to navigate.

Part of the reason it took me so long to get diagnosed was because I was hiding my symptoms. Those I couldn’t hide I didn’t talk about or acknowledge, and no one else did, either.

Looking back, I know now my symptoms of bipolar disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) both began at a young age. It was easy to interpret some of those symptoms as normal behavior because I did not talk about the more extreme experiences — how I struggled to stay afloat at school and my periodic bouts with psychosis. Part of me did not yet understand these things, and for some reason I suspected these issues should not be talked about. Somehow I sensed the stigma attached to mental illness even then, and found myself affected by it.

As an adult, I felt pressures to be a certain person, to be everything for everyone, to not cause trouble, to be successful. I hid the darkest parts of myself, the symptoms that plagued my existence, and everything began to spin out of control.

Why hide?

There are a number of reasons. Shame, for one. I was ashamed of not being perfect and of being sick. A big part of me did not even know I was sick; I thought I was defective, or a failure at navigating life. I was also embarrassed by my symptoms. They caused me to think, speak and act in ways I didn’t have control over, in ways that caused me to wreck my life on a regular basis. I wore that shame and embarrassment at all times, the weight of it crushing me each day.

The stigma associated with mental illness was a huge factor that kept me silent, even though I didn’t always realize it. I was afraid to admit to the world I had these symptoms. I struggled, so I created and tried to play the role I’d cast for myself. But there was no willing away, no shedding my illnesses that I’d been avoiding for my entire life.

One of the ways I hid my bipolar disorder was through social withdrawal. No one knew I was staying up nights at a time, writing maniacally, exercising or shopping online, and then sleeping for days on end, because I avoided the company of others. No one knew about the shopping sprees at the mall until after the fact, and it was seen as some personal flaw rather than a symptom of a disease. No one saw the mood shifts, because I hid who I was from the world and only allowed them to see what I wanted them to see. I kept a carefully controlled image. Whether some saw through it or not, I didn’t know. I didn’t want to know. I wanted to believe I could change myself, that I could make these symptoms disappear. This only made things worse.

I hid ADHD through anxiety and compulsions. I am, by nature, very disorganized. I counter this by being obsessive about it. I’d go on huge cleaning sprees, but inevitably, things always ended up a cluttered mess. This might not sound like a big deal, but it affected every area of my life. It affected my self-esteem: “I can’t do anything right. I can’t even stay organized.” It affected my relationships: I never allowed anyone to visit without scheduling with me first, allowing me time to clean and organize. No spontaneous drop-by’s allowed. The idea that someone could knock on my door and me not expect it caused me great anxiety. It affected my time: I spent countless hours focused on cleaning and organizing, to no avail. Things always ended up a mess again. It affected my money: I’d buy lots of tools to help with cleaning and organizing, only to fail to use them. This symptom of ADHD has been painful for me. But I didn’t talk about it. I went to great lengths to hide it, much like my bipolar disorder, to the point of total isolation.

I hid my inattention and troubles with focus by overcompensating. I would stay up all night studying, memorizing texts so that I could make good grades. I didn’t want to say I wasn’t processing lectures at school. I just wanted to be like everyone else.

I made my life much more complicated than it had to be by trying to hide who I was. I suffered under the burden of stigma for my entire life, which is why I am passionate about making it obsolete. We don’t need to stay silent; we don’t need to hide. We need to talk about mental illness.

I have finally reached a point in my life where I am no longer afraid to talk about my illnesses. Do I still feel embarrassment and shame? I’d be lying if I answered with a definitive “no.” The truth is, I do still feel some negative emotions with regard to sharing, but it gets easier. I’ll probably always have mixed feelings because I am a private person and sharing is hard, but I want to show others they aren’t alone, and I want the world to see that mental illness is real and it hurts every bit as much as “physical” illness (I believe mental illness is physical, too). I don’t want others to feel they have to hide like I did.

So this is me. I am disorganized. I have trouble concentrating. I sometimes concentrate on things too much. I have mood cycles. I am impulsive. I sometimes spend too much money or make poor decisions in the moment. I experience psychosis at times, when my mood is too high or too low. I struggle with anxiety and panic. I don’t hide my struggles anymore. I do my part to try to lessen them. I don’t fight against myself anymore. I believe these things can get better and my symptoms do not paint the entire portrait of who I am, but they are a part of me and I have come to accept that.

But I am not my struggles. I am more. I am a person. I am a person who struggles, yes, but I am a person who loves, who writes, who creates. I am a writer, an artist, a wife, a pet parent. I am learning to let go of fear, to not be ashamed of who I am. It is a process.

But I am on my way.

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. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.
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5 Ways My Cat Gets Me Through Bipolar Depression

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I’ve struggled with bipolar disorder for most of my life, and have a particularly hard time with the lows that come with it. Bipolar depression strips me of all joy, enjoyment and energy. I experience extreme sadness, excessive worry, significant loss of interest in things I once enjoyed and intense feelings of worthlessness. It’s hard to pull myself out of the deep, dark well that is my bipolar depression, and I’ve found it’s better to have a rope. My rope, my life jacket, my savior during a depressive episode is my cat. He helps me get through bipolar depression in five ways no human can.

1. He loves me unconditionally.

I’ve found people can love one another when it’s convenient. And when love or compassion isn’t convenient for someone, it may be when I need it the most. My cat loves me unrequitedly, makes no demands and expects nothing in return.

2. He provides positive, physical touch.

Petting my sweet boy’s warm, fluffy fur gives me a great feeling of comfort. Positive physical touch releases endorphins in the brain that immediately calms me down and comforts me. Nothing is better than my cat climbing onto my lap when I’m depressed, purring away my sadness.

3. He promotes responsibility and routine.

During a depressive episode, I get completely out of routine and feel utterly out of control. I don’t go through the motions of the day like I should, and usually stay in bed because I feel like that’s all I can manage. My cat reminds me he needs to be regularly fed, groomed and played with. Taking care of him gives me a purpose and makes me feel needed, and that makes me feel important; like I matter.

4. He is a distraction.

Bipolar depression has a way of consuming my mind and preventing any positive thoughts or feelings from being had. My cat and his playful, loving personality distracts me from my negative thoughts and excessive worry. Watching him play always makes me laugh and forget the negativity that had just filled my mind.

5. He offers unlimited cuddles.

Snuggling up with my cat always makes me feel better. I feel loved, wanted and cared for, even when depression makes me believe I don’t deserve any of those things. When I’m stuck in bed during an episode, my cat is right by my side, purring me through it. His comfort is infinite, and much needed when I’m down.

To others, he is just a pet. But to me, my cat is a form of therapy. He helps me through my bipolar depression in ways humans can’t, or won’t. He needs me, and I need him, and we have the type of relationship all the time that humans only offer some of the time. Bipolar depression is hard to get through, but I can get through it because my cat is always there. He will never judge me, always accept me and never leave me. He offers unrequited friendship and everlasting love, and that’s what gets me through my bipolar depression episodes.

The author and her black cat.

The Mighty is asking the following: Create a list-style story of your choice in regards to disability, disease or mental illness. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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When You're Caught in the Riptide of a Bipolar Episode

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Bipolar disorder used to be called manic depression. In many ways, I think that term more accurately describes its riptide that carries you out to a point of hopelessness. It’s not an either or thing: manic, neutral or depressed. We don’t only feel three emotions. There is an entire spectrum. Sometimes, right in the middle, you get a spontaneous merging of opposites, a mixed episode, a period of increased risk of suicide.

Those days when everything blends together, emotions are out of control, depression and mania escalate. So you’re on the edge of the cliff, with more than enough enthusiasm and impulsivity to jump, as opposed to just crawling into a ball and crying through it.

I’m on medication. I have a strong support system. I know my weak points. I manage my life around them. I have a set routine. I go to bed early. I get enough sleep. I go to therapy when I need to. I read a shitload of books. I think I know more about depression and bipolar disorder than anyone realizes. I tailor-made my career around what I need as opposed to what I want. I avoid known triggers. I have done the work.

Manic depression still manages to kick down my barricaded door once in a while. Mixed-up, explosive emotions set on the highest volume, come screaming in, packaged in what psychiatrists neatly describe as “an episode.”

I want to explain what it feels like, not for sympathy, but to create a platform for understanding. For those of you who face the same demons, these words will hopefully help you feel less alone. I know I wish someone had told me how they felt so I didn’t feel like I was the only one going through this.

For any of you who have never experienced “the black pillow being held over your face while you struggle to breathe” feeling, I want to try find a way to let you in. We don’t get irrationally panicked for no reason. The anxiety, the prickled emotions, the heightened sensitivity, are all very real. It really feels like you’re fighting for your life and that you’re not in control of the devil suffocating you.

What manic depression is like:

  1. For me, there’s always a trigger. It can be something ridiculously small, like a comment. It can be something massive, like a breakup or accident but something sparks the fire.
  2. One thing (i.e. the trigger) goes wrong. Then suddenly, in your mind, everything feels wrong. You can go from happy about your career, your life, your relationship and in a second it’s all gone to shit in your opinion. One trigger creates the irrational belief that nothing is okay.
  3. You feel helplessly alone. In your mind’s state, it feels like nobody understands or cares (even if they actually do). This causes you to withdraw into yourself and isolate yourself from the world. In a mixed episode there is seldom sleep, but once it tapers into depression, this is usually the first port of call. Emotions are raw. Everything hurts. Any sensation is another gust of wind to the flames. You get a “fuck the world” attitude and shut the planet out.
  4. Emotions feel explosive. Not just sadness. All feelings feel heightened, anger, aggression, irritation, anxiety, impulsivity and irrationality.
  5. You have zero desire to do things you have committed to, activities you would normally enjoy or social engagements you said you would attend. You will skip the braai, the yoga and the book you couldn’t put down the day before. You don’t care about anything. This is, unfortunately, where we lose so much. In this state, we often make impulsive and damaging decisions, say things on the fly that can end relationships and walk away from the things and people we love. In that moment we just don’t give a shit.
  6. The person and thing we care about least is ourselves. At the peak, we become extremely self-destructive. For me, that means driving recklessly along an open, empty road. Fast, fast, fast. Music blaring. Laughing at near misses of concrete walls and sharp turns. It’s irresponsible. Looking back, I am horrified at what I did. In that moment? It was the only way to run away from the devil.

There’s also a strong desire to reach out for destructive relationships, those assholes from the past who you know will only destroy you. They are the ones you want to call, those names you write on the lists in doctor’s rooms “in case of emergency,” but they hold no attraction because (I suppose) you actually don’t want to be helped.

In recent months, I’ve been brave enough to talk my way out of it. Strong enough to stop that spiral. But every now and then, you say f*ck it and let the current take you. You feed the monster. Blare the music. Drink. Cry. Scream. Drive fast. Call the wrong people. Get reckless.

And sometimes you just want to but don’t. I was in that space recently. I wanted to get in my car. I wanted to be destructive. I wanted to throw it all away, but I didn’t. I kept myself locked inside. I cried. I drank a glass of wine. I turned off my phone. I got off the internet. I wrote this post. I examined the feelings and let them have their say. I let the tide carry me, but I didn’t let it take anyone else with me.

I will not allow myself to destroy lives anymore. I give myself some space from people so I don’t say things I will regret later. I stay off the roads so even if they are wide and open, I don’t put any person, animal, plant or road sign at risk. I don’t keep pills or weapons in the house that could kill me. I don’t send any emails or texts and I don’t make any calls. I breathe, and then I cry some more. I blare music into my headphones and just flow with the current.

Despite how horrible it all feels in the moment, there is still that tiny memory that sits in the back of your mind: This has happened before. It doesn’t last forever. This isn’t you. It will pass. This too, shall indeed pass.

After hours or days (mixed episodes don’t last as long as “normal” mania or depression may), the wrestling with yourself and your demons ends. You’re left exhausted, numb and sad. If you managed to not follow the urges to be destructive and damage your world, the recovery is usually quick. Sadly, if you succumbed and let the dark knives consume your space, it may mean a lot of broken pieces to pick up (most often not just pieces of you, but of others too). I have been there and it’s the absolute worst part of having bipolar disorder, the point where you step off the edge of reason and hurt the ones you love.

This time I was lucky. There were times I wasn’t. There will be times I may need to fight harder. Perhaps you, or someone you love, hasn’t managed to pull through “an episode” unharmed. Please know this: It isn’t your fault. It isn’t their fault. It is nobody’s fault. Sometimes the riptide is simply too strong to fight. There is always that tipping point where we no longer have control.

We can’t win every fight, every time. Manic depression, bipolar disorder or whatever you want to call it, is a powerful disease. Sometimes the frightening monsters we can’t hold back are mistakenly perceived as “us” and they really aren’t.

I am not complaining about having and holding this disorder, please don’t get me wrong. Given the choice, I think I would still opt to have bipolar in my world. It has given me endless passion, creativity and compassion. I have learned so much and consider this a tremendous gift.

But – and there is a but – some days are really, really hard. I chose to write about one of those days.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us about the first time you reached out to someone about your mental illness. Whether it was a friend or a professional, we want to hear about why you opened up, how it went, and why you’re glad (or maybe not glad) you did it. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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To My Dad on Father's Day, From Your Daughter With Bipolar Disorder

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Dear Dad,

Mental illness is hard to bear when you’re alone, but fortunately that’s something I’ve never had to experience because you’ve been there with me through it all. I’ve always been grateful madelyn as a child with her father

for your efforts to understand my bipolar disorder, but I’ve never verbalized it, and for that I am sorry. I’m choosing this Father’s Day to thank you for all the ways you’ve ever been there for me, and I want to start by thanking you for being there since the beginning.


I was challenging as a teenager. I broke all of your rules, disobeyed all of your requests and got myself into a lot of trouble. Even though you had to discipline me seemingly all the time, you tried to understand the feelings behind my poor behavior. You always knew there was something more going on, and you’d ask me how and what I was feeling. I got annoyed by all of your questions, but I see now you were simply trying to figure out what was wrong because you knew my behavior was more than just teenage rebellion. When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a young adult, after an entire adolescence of issues, all your questions were answered.

madelyn as a child with her father You were there with me when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, sitting beside me as the doctor explained my new diagnosis. When you took me home, you began doing your own research into bipolar disorder so you could gain a better understanding of the illness and learn how to help me through it. I will always be thankful to you for trying to understand, even if it did take a few years for you to understand completely. What matters is you tried, and you tried hard until you knew what to do to help me cope. I know I got impatient with you as you learned about my illness, and I’m sorry. My diagnosis was hard on you too, and it took just as long for you to wrap your head around as it did for me.

madelyn as a teenager with her father You supported my decision to move away from home to get better, even though you didn’t like it. You blamed yourself for my desire to leave, but I promise it wasn’t your fault. You took care of me after I was diagnosed and after my first hospitalization, when my new medication gave me tremors I couldn’t control. I couldn’t feed myself or brush my own teeth, and you helped me with both of those things — among others.When my medication was finally figured out, I wanted to regain my independence, and that is why I left. Even though I left, you didn’t let the distance separate us. You remained there for me via phone calls and Skype the entire time I was away, and welcomed me back with open arms when I returned.

For each of my three hospitalizations, you were there at visiting hours. You sat with me and talked with me and listened to me tell you why I believed I was in the hospital. You tried to understand, didn’t ask too many questions, and just sat there to comfort me and make me feel like I was not alone. Your presence made me feel more normal, or as normal as I could feel as I sat in the mental health unit. Your being there with me, smiling and holding my hand, brought me a wonderful feeling of comfort I will always be grateful for.

You’ve been there for me during my entire journey with bipolar disorder, and I am so thankful for that, madelyn as a teenager riding a snowmobile with her father and thankful for you. I am thankful for your desire to educate yourself on my illness, and for your willingness to understand what I go through. I am thankful you put up with my mood swings and don’t hold them against me. I am thankful you are my dad, and I am thankful you are the one in my corner. Thank you for always being there for me, and for being the best dad you can be to your daughter with bipolar disorder.

Happy Father’s Day.

madelyn as a child with her father

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Write a thank you letter to someone you realize you don’t thank enough. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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The Challenge of Accepting Love When I Don't Feel Like I Deserve It

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It was one of those nights when I was horribly depressed.

My partner had come from work and drove through horrible Manila traffic to see me and make sure that I was OK. While we were having the brownie a la mode I wanted, I felt a sudden gush of guilt.

I became horribly aware of his efforts to be with me, to make sure I was OK, and to ensure that I feel loved. That he made sure he was always within an arm’s reach. That he tried his hardest to comfort me when I was crying. That he made sure I was never really alone. That he drove for at least an hour to get to me, and that he needed to drive me for at least another hour to where I needed to be (home with my mom), before driving back home for another hour.

I was looking at him there, thinking Do I really deserve this? I started thinking that, maybe, I’m not worth the effort. I’m volatile, unstable and not very special. Maybe I was more of a burden than anything. I had this thinking that, for me to be loved, I had to conform to a standard. I had to be able to give something in return.

I feel that whatever I have to give would never be enough. I feel very afraid of the kind of life he will lead with me: the possibility of children also having bipolar and/or ADHD, the constant emotional rides, the insecurity. Other people might see me as “high functioning,” but I feel that he will be the one to see me in my ugliest, most vulnerable state. I’m afraid that he will come to regret his decision to stay with me later on.

What shattered me was what he told me when I said I wasn’t worth loving. He said, “That’s not for you to decide.”

It was true. Sometimes, we get absorbed with the idea that we have to be lovable that we no longer allow ourselves to be loved. With this, we undermine the other’s capability to love by setting limits on what they can and cannot love. That they cannot possibly love us because we are not good enough to love.

But shouldn’t love be without conditions and prerequisites? Isn’t the nature of love this unquestioning affection that says “I love you just because.” No questions. You are loved, not because you earned it, and not because you will return it. You are loved in a way that transcends bounds and without seeking for any reason.

When we were young, we were taught that for us to be loved, we have to be good enough, pretty enough, smart enough. We were told that we had to work hard for that love. In turn this makes us feel that we are not deserving, so when we are faced with an unquestioning love, we feel that we have to refuse.

The challenge then, is how to accept love when we feel that we least deserve it. To look at ourselves beyond our disorder and see that we are truly worth it, even if we think we are not. Most importantly, to see ourselves in the eyes of others who love us, and not only through our own hateful eyes.

The Mighty is asking the following: What do you want your past, current or future partner to know about being with someone with your disability, disease or mental illness? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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Why I Believe It's OK to Say 'I Have Bipolar Disorder' and 'I Am Bipolar'

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I have bipolar disorder.

I am bipolar.

Same difference? Some will say yes, many will say no. There are a lot of positive messages out there about the fact that we are not our illnesses.

I have multiple sclerosis (MS), but MS doesn’t have me.

I have Asperger’s syndrome, but I’m not Asperger’s syndrome.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not criticizing those messages. Indeed, they are positive, optimistic and even empowering. They remind us to consider ourselves as more than just our illnesses. But, I do have some reservations, too. Or rather, a different angle.

For example, I have bipolar disorder. Bipolar doesn’t have me, I have it. It doesn’t define who I am — I am still myself. But, does it? The difference is subtle. Who would I be, without my bipolar disorder? Would I be the same person? Would I have the same quirks, habits, preferences and dislikes? How much of my bipolar disorder makes me… me?

You see, I believe that without it, I simply would not be me — at least not in the way that I am right now. Some of these traits are bothersome: They impose limitations on me (I’ll get into more details on that in a sec), and sometimes, they take over with a force stronger than a tsunami. But some other traits are just the opposite: They are positive. They make me compassionate, sensitive, empathic. They make me strong.

Yep, I just said they make me strong. Because they do! Battling with your mind day in and day out is difficult. Even with medication that keeps me for the most part stable, I have bad days. There are days I’m more sensitive, days when I don’t quite function, or even days when I function too much. I can be super depressed for a day (or three), or hypomanic for a day (or three). These are tiny episodes, not long enough to be medically declared as such, but just enough to mess with my day (or week). And when I don’t have “baby episodes,” as we could call them, I still struggle with anxiety and panic attacks. Going through all these ups and downs and managing them while trying to maintaining a semblance of a normal life takes strength. Lots of strength.

My struggles makes me strong.

Would I be as strong if I had never had to navigate all these unstable moods? I’m not so sure. Maybe. But probably not. I could do without all the yo-yo-ing, definitely. But I’m glad to have that inner strength and resilience.

But what about those limits I mentioned earlier? All those positive messages we see everywhere on social media try to steer us away from viewing ourselves as having limits, right? They have us believing that we can reach for the stars, and that anything is possible if we put our minds to it. And isn’t that a good message?

Well, yes.

But also no. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely good to have this mindset of not giving up or of not withholding from trying something just because we are scared of failure. And we should never accept limits imposed on us by others. If we have a dream, we should definitely look at how we can achieve it, and go for it.

But, I believe it’s also important to understand our personal limits. They will be different for everyone, and might stem from personality, preferences or circumstances. I do have limitations, and I’ve learned to recognize them. My concentration is not as good as it used to be, I have anxiety and I do have unpredictable moods despite taking medication. Said medication also has undesirable side effects; for example, I am very fatigued in the mornings until about 10 a.m., and although I do function enough to get my daughters to school, I wouldn’t make any huge morning commitments, and I often do need to go back to bed after school drop off (I am blessed with a great neighbor who will sometimes bring them for me if I judge that I shouldn’t be driving — a good support system is key to living with any chronic illness, but that’s a topic for another blog post!) That being said, the stability the medication brings me far outweighs the side effects, so I take them diligently.

Briefly said, there are situations that are simply not a good fit for me, and fostering the ability to recognize them before throwing myself into them is a good life skill that actually helps me stabilize my moods. Otherwise, I’m exposing myself to constantly be swimming counter-current, fighting my core self — and that’s a fight no one can ever win.

I have bipolar disorder.

I am bipolar.

They are both intricately part of me.

I am myself.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one commonly held opinion within the community surrounding your disability and/or disease (or a loved one’s) that doesn’t resonate with you? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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