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Finding Where I Fit Within the Language of Diagnosis

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Last summer I curled my hot body between the cool dark aisles of the university library basement.

I wanted to lie so that my thighs didn’t touch together, so that my arms didn’t have to rest on the other parts of my body. I wanted to find a way to position the thing of me so that I no longer felt my thingness at all. Could I float just above the ground, could I exist without the feeling of hot touch on my prickling skin? I was crying, but it wasn’t like feeling sad — it was itchy. I wanted to climb out of myself. I couldn’t stop moving — I pulled a white button from my long skirt. I pulled all the thread from the skirt’s hem and I wrapped it around my finger. I watched until my finger turned purple and numb. I was afraid someone might dig me up from this place, afraid I might not be able to slither back into my normal way of being. I was meticulous about performing my sanity. It was important I kept these experiences private. I thought my experience might make me sick. I didn’t want to be sick — didn’t want other people to reinforce the narrative of sickness on my body; my mind. I wondered if my experiences were allowed to happen without being called anything at all.

My partner found me down in the bowels of the library — he who I’d made complicit in my silence. He became the only person who felt safe to be around when I was struggling. Often, I’d stay at Uni until one in the morning before catching the tram to his hot, damp apartment, unannounced. Sometimes I’d sleep all day while he worked at his desk with his shirt off, sweat dripping down his back. I found it hard to be alone, but there was nowhere else to be, so I clung to the space around his body. We were irreconcilably different in our beliefs, our interests — but I pushed for us to stay with one another because I wanted the closeness. He held my hand through the dizziness and I unfurled from the basement of the library. We hobbled up the stairs. It was almost 40 degrees outside. The air felt like it was searing the insides of my lungs. We spoke of getting better and the narrative of sickness and how it might be time to do something about it.

I hadn’t slept for two days. I wrote, wrote, wrote, deliriously, in bed with my laptop on my knees. I drank instant coffee. I walked all the way into the city at four in the morning to watch the sun rising over the river. The work I produced during those overexposed days earned me first class honors marks in half my subjects. I failed the other two. My academic transcript is like some weird reflection of the way I live in quiet extremes. I’m most creative when I’m scratchy inside my body, not sleeping or sitting still. It’s also a time when my control slips, so I might speak too fast for too long to somebody I’m close to. So I might begin to feel afraid. Other times, I am hollow — this is easier to control. It’s as though everything that defines me has been sucked from my body, like marrow from bone. This is the place the scars on my arms and legs come from — scars that make me angry and embarrassed now, because I don’t know who it was that made them. I don’t know how to explain. When I am burrowed in cottony emptiness, it’s easy to stay hidden. I know how to act from this place. Some days I’m like an exposed nerve being scraped against a rough carpet. I can’t breathe.

I told it all to my psychiatrist — I tapped my foot too fast on the carpetty floor and cried and cried. I said I was sorry and I laughed at my crying. I wriggled and my body stank like sweat. He said I had bipolar — said this was hypomania — said I should be taking medication. Valium and lithium. Later, I thought this was funny. It seemed like a cliché.

The valium only worked if I took too much — and then I just slept and slept and missed the way I used to dream, vividly.

Sometimes I’m still angry at the way the lithium takes away the kind of creativity that tears you to shreds, hurts, bleeds. Mostly, I am relieved I can find peace inside my own body. That my writing isn’t always something frightening — that my work no longer emerges from nowhere in big, angry, bursts that leave me grainy eyed and unable to find sleep. Sometimes I see lithium portrayed as a prison — a kind of impermeable barrier between a person and their creative mind. For me, it provides the kind of creativity that doesn’t hurt — something that carries on for months. Sometimes I might skip my medication for a week, let mania creep into my periphery, write from this place. I’m afraid I’ll forget what it feels like. What it feels like scares me, the kind of exhilaration that might come the moment before you fall off a tall building. I’m scared because I’m talking too fast to someone, spending money on things I don’t want, moving, moving, moving. Someone said once that it’s like you’re on cocaine or something. I can’t stop. So I take my medication, or maybe it’s just taking my control back.

Later, I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, but it’s easier to understand it as a way of explaining behavior I learned in childhood. It allows my trauma a place in my present life — recognizes that neglect or violence against the body doesn’t occur in a vacuum, so that now, when I feel like my sense of self dissolves every night while I am sleeping, and when I find my emotions dictate most of my choices, and when I’m so terrified of being alone, I might trace this way of being back, back, back. I might reconfigure old circuits built from trauma.

Often I find myself resorting to diagnosis words — to tell people the words is easier than explaining the thing of them. But I still wish the things I might experience were allowed to happen without being called anything. I wish I was not placed on a narrative of sickness. I have never found the words for what it really felt like — what it really feels like. It doesn’t feel like the way my diagnosis words feel when you say them. It doesn’t feel like I fit into my diagnosis words all the time. Sometimes I am well, and just a person. Mostly, I am just a person. I don’t know if I’m still sick when I am well. I don’t know if other people are OK with me existing as two things at once. Can I be myself when I am OK, and is it OK to still feel sick sometimes? And if I feel sick do I become my sickness? Can I maintain my selfhood, even when I’m sitting inside my cupboard with my arms wrapped around my legs, rocking back and forth. I don’t want to damage the version of me I like most.

I’m sure some people are confused by the way I never shared my experiences until the diagnosis words could explain them. I have kept the thing behind my diagnosis close to me. Sometimes I feel as though the shame lies not so much in the diagnosis words, but in the thing of them. In what they really mean.

They mean; it bleeds and tears and screams and is so full of memories wrapping tendrils around the fragile necks of your dreams that even when you are sleeping, at three in the fucking morning, you cannot breathe.

They mean; I’m sorry I wish you could just inhabit my body for a moment, feel what it feels like, because I don’t have the words for this, because I don’t think it’s my responsibility to make you understand

They mean; I’m just myself. I don’t want to talk about it.

Editor’s note: This piece is based on an individual’s experience and shouldn’t be taken as medical advice. Please consult your doctor before going on or off medication.

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How Carrie Fisher Inspires Me to Be My Best Self as a Person With Bipolar Disorder

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I relate a lot to Carrie Fisher.

She’s funny, poignant, sweet, and charitable. I’d like to think I have some of those same qualities.

I once had the opportunity to meet her and got to tell her how much I appreciated the work she does to bring light to bipolar disorder. I’ll never forget the hug she gave me and how she seemed to genuinely care how I was doing at that exact moment.

I love hearing her talk about the struggles she has with bipolar disorder. I’m really a nobody with bipolar disorder who writes articles that get a few views here and there. But Carrie Fisher, Demi Lovato, and others speak and command attention.

I appreciate the work she does because she gives me hope. She inspires me to keep writing and to keep sharing my story. The fact that she is so raw and honest encourages me to do the same. I think she does the same for others who are struggling with mental illness.

There’s a quote, “with great power comes great responsibility,” and I feel that celebrities who struggle with mental illness and come out about it have a responsibility to be real. Don’t sugarcoat it. Help people see we’re human. We have fallibilities, yet we have redeeming qualities as well. Fight the stigma.

I can’t do that as a relatively anonymous writer, but my heroes like Carrie Fisher can.

I love that she fights the stigma and does it in spades.

I’m grateful for people like her who have the courage to show the dark side of mental illness, as well as the light side — that there is hope of recovery, and even though the possibility of relapse is always there, challenges can be overcome. A “normal” life of purpose and happiness is possible, even with serious mental illness.

That’s what I love about Carrie Fisher. She shows there is hope of a meaningful life, no matter how the odds are stacked. I’ll keep trying. I’ll keep fighting the good fight because I’ve got a role model to help keep me on point.

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Photo by Matt Klein

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What Happened When My Bipolar Disorder Medication Started Working

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What happens when your medications actually start working? I have been asking myself this for some time now. Because my medications are working, and today I feel so good.

In the past few weeks, I have been sick of myself, hating myself, being in a constant low, and crying for no reason. All of this happened because my medication cocktail was wrong. It’s like October doesn’t exist for me now, because I don’t want to think about those days. Those days remind me of my past — a past where I was paralyzed with fear of my own brain.

My medications have recently been changed, and suddenly I feel good. But I ask myself, is this actually feeling good or just part of a manic phase? See, I have trouble trusting my brain, for legitimate reasons. Wouldn’t you, if you were a prisoner of your own mind? But still, I thought about writing this when I’m almost feeling good about myself, because this doesn’t happen often.

I feel relieved for the most part. I feel like I was trapped inside a box of emotions, suffocating, alone in the dark. That changed with my new medications. So I constantly like talking about it. I randomly tell my husband how I’m feeling better with the new medicine, how my life must have improved from the ill-fated October to now.

I don’t want to get over-confident though, because in the back of my head the voice tells me I don’t deserve happiness.

I feel afraid, terrified. Because the nagging voice in the back of my head perpetually keeps reminding me of the things that could happen if I crash again. Because my anxiety won’t let me go. “What if? What if? What if?” It just so happens that my relationship with anxiety is a very complicated one.

My depression and mania can be subdued by the medications, but I don’t think I can say the same for my anxiety. I’m tired of being anxious all the time, even now, when I should have a few peaceful moments of feeling good. What if it’s just another manic phase? What if my medications stop working one day? What if this is a start of a whole new kind of low? What if this is just the calm before the storm? What if?

From my bipolar disorder to my PTSD, it’s as though my brain has conjured up a cocktail of mental illnesses for every occasion. Like even now, when I should celebrate while I can, but I can’t. I feel like celebrations are not really for me. And when I get a chance to celebrate, I can’t take it in fear of jinxing it.

Today, I finally felt something new. What if I deserve a bit of happiness? What if this is not part of my mental illnesses at all? What if I’m feeling good for all the right reasons? What if this is what it feels like to be “normal”? After all, isn’t that what I want? To feel “normal”? What if, for once, I don’t let my anxiety win?

I want to conclude by saying that no, my feet are still rooted to the ground. But I realized I deserve a little bit of good in the middle of the storm that goes on in my mind. I might just take a little time out to enjoy this feeling a bit, even though it might just be a mirage created by my brain. I want to thank my psychiatrist mostly, because without these medications I’d still be rotting inside myself. And I don’t think they get thanked enough for the help they do.

Today was a good day. I hope tomorrow will be, too.

Image via Thinkstock.

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How Do You Love Someone With Bipolar Disorder?

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How do you love with someone with bipolar disorder?

It can be hard AF.

I struggle to love me, and I have bipolar disorder.

I’ve got friends who love me though. I asked them what makes me so appealing, and they had some surprising answers,

One of my friends told me she loves me because I’m funny, I’m creative, and I’m kind. She loves me because I genuinely want to do good in the world.

My other friend had similar answers: I’m funny, honest, and compassionate.

I was once told that even though I’m a difficult person, there’s still something innately likable about me, and well, my friends’ answers prove that’s true.

My daughter loves me because she relates to the mood swings and understands when I’m struggling.

My husband shows his love for me by being kind, compassionate, and understanding.

What does that compassion look like?

He knows I love Robert Downey, Jr, so when I’m in a funk, he’ll turn on movies with him in it. I just recently watched “Sherlock Holmes,” and snuggling my husband and enjoying the movie really helped me know I’m loved. He forces me to talk when I want nothing more than to clam up. He takes me out on dates when I want to curl up in bed and sulk. He surprises me with trips for just the two of us to help me get out of my head and to have something to look forward to.

Loving a person with bipolar disorder may not always be easy. We can be unpredictable. There’s a chance we might hurt you when we’re hurting too. I inadvertently hurt a good friend of mine with my last suicide attempt, and I see the consequences of that. But I’m still innately likable. I’m still a good person, even though I do have mood swings, even though I have rages, even though I cry and sulk.

I also delight in making people happy and serving others. And people see that about me.

I’m loved because I’m quirky.

To love a person with bipolar disorder, like anyone else, you have to be willing to be hurt, you have to take a chance, you have to be prepared to roll with the punches. But there are so many good sides to loving a person with it. We can be quite creative and can help you get your house beautified or with a DIY project you’re stuck on. We can chatter your ear off for hours, and yet we can also turn around and listen when you need someone to lean on too.

Loving someone with bipolar disorder can be scary, but the person behind the disorder is worth the effort. There are layers to a person, and peeling back the layers and starting to love someone with bipolar disorder is a beautiful thing.

Like people say, if it’s difficult, it’s usually worth it. And a friendship with someone with mental illness can be difficult, but is so worth it.

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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The Toll the Medication for My Mind Takes on My Body

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At present, the thing that makes me most uncomfortable is the way my body has changed due to my medications. I’m sure everyone with some kind of mental illness and going through therapy experiences changes in their bodies. I’m no different. I put on a lot of weight over the past year, and now, it makes me feel bad about myself.

How do you cope with something like that? Every time I visit my psychiatrist, I ask her to give me medications that won’t make me gain weight. Every time I’m on Google, I type “how to lose weight” or “why do bipolar disorder medications make you gain weight.” Every time I try to start an exercise routine or a diet, my mind won’t even let me get out of bed.

I know these thoughts are in my head, and they’re not healthy. It’s different for each individual. Today, I want to talk about the humiliation and loss of confidence I feel when I look at myself in the mirror. I see all the ways my body has changed in places, and I feel regret, like a sharp knife cutting through the chest into my heart. I flinch at the sight of me.

I know I have already done more harm than good to my body. I have scars to bring me back to reality every time I wander in the fantasy land where everything is “normal.” I have been told to treat my own body like a temple, but that was long gone when I first cut myself. I have taken medications that were not for me for far too long to do damage to my internal organs.

Now, when I think about the ways my mind has tortured my body, I feel ashamed. Knowing that all this time it was me who did the harm under the spell of my mental disease, I feel a pang of unimaginable guilt. It is true. I have been my brain’s most abused prisoner.

While we think others around us are most affected by our disease, we forget about ourselves. We feel guilty over everything, think about making it up to everyone, but we don’t think of ourselves. Everything that happens around us, the mistakes we make, the deplorable decisions we take, those are all as hosts to our mental illness. We pay the high price for it all, except we forget ourselves.

We don’t apologize to ourselves, our bodies. We apologize to anyone else we might have hurt or done wrong to, but we exclude our bodies.

Now that I stare at my image in the mirror, I just want to say I am sorry. I apologize for all the crap I put you through, all the unhealthy things I have taken in, all the times I hurt you, all the medications I still have to take to be normal and not hurt you.

But you know what I realized today while looking at myself? I have paid enough. I have sacrificed enough to be sad about how my body looks now. This is the price I pay to be ordinary. Because none of us are ordinary, really.

I think I said this before and I will stick to it: People with any kind of mental illness are far from ordinary. I have been struggling with the changes in my body, body shaming myself, all the while not realizing these are the medications that hold me together, hold my brain together, so that I can’t harm myself further.

If you are feeling the same thing I have been feeling for so long, then just stop. Stop and take a look at yourself again. You’re beautiful no matter how your body has changed. You’re held together tight with glue. There is no reason to hate your body. It has gone through enough. Don’t forget yourself. You’re your own little miracle no matter if your brain tells you otherwise. Don’t let your illness win this war.

If I can’t accept myself then how can I expect the society to accept me the way I am? My campaign Hope Is Good is more than a cause for me, it’s my entire life. I wish to help people, but I can’t do that if I can’t help myself. So, I have made a promise to myself: No more shame about my body. No more guilt. A promise to love myself.

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Harrison Wheeler Creates Comics Inspired by Mental Illness and the Workplace

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For illustrator Harrison Wheeler, humor heals. Wheeler, a former vice principal turned artist and mental health advocate, creates mental-health inspired artwork based on his experience living with type 1 bipolar disorder and addiction.

Cartoon of two men. First man says "Bipolar? Really? You don't look crazy." Second man replies, "Maybe not, but you're looking pretty darn ignorant, pal."

“Drawing is my zen, it’s how I think, how I communicate,” Wheeler told The Mighty. “I’ve always been socially-minded with my art, be it comedy, writing or drawing.  [A]fter mounting my one-man show ‘Jesters Incognito,’ it dawned on me that my art could help a lot of people. Drawings are easy to share and say so much efficiently. There’s a lot of words on the internet, yet showing is so much more effective than telling.”

Illustration of wavy lines with the text "recovery is process."

As a professional cartoonist, Wheeler creates a variety of images for campaigns as well as his mental health advocacy work. “I’ve drawn rather glib cartoons and more PSA comic strips on suicide – those were rough, to be honest – as well as inspirational designs,” he said.

Given his familiarity with corporate environments (many of his illustrations are dedicated to marketing and communications) Wheeler hopes his creations can help alleviated some of the workplace stigma around mental illnesses. In Canada, where Wheeler is from, an independent survey revealed 71 percent of Canadians living with a mental illness are concerned about workplace stigma.
Cartoon of two male characters in business attire. First man says "How can you possibly be so relax? This comic panel is falling apart." Second man replies, "Is it, Fred? Or is your anxiety warping your perception?"

“I approach recovery from mental health by speaking and leading workshops on how creativity helped me self-actualize, how in fact I believe mental health can be viewed as an asset for living our lives more creatively, and how communicating with compassion in the workplace is going to make for healthier, wealthier lives,” Wheeler said. “I try to approach the subject with comedy because there’s enough drama in the world.”

Illustration of people with the text "Hey. We all have mental health."

From his portfolio, Wheeler says his favorite cartoons include, “We All Have Mental Health” and “Compassion Problem.” “I dunno, I like them because they are at opposite ends of the spectrum of my style.”

Image of hearts with the text "Doctor, something's wrong. I started practicing compassion and now I've got all of these ... feeling! Can you help me?"

“It’s a strength,” Wheeler said, commenting on what it’s like to live with a mental illness. “It’s a beautiful accent to your character. Once we are able to accept it and learn to manage it, our conditions are no more limiting than an oddly shaped birthmark on our knee.”

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