a koala staring from a tree

Dear Bill:

I don’t know if your name is really Bill. I’m trying to remember if your handler told me your name before she handed me the equivalent of a snarling cyclone of teeth with a hair trigger, but if she did, it escapes my memory. So let’s go with Bill. I’m not entirely sure the exact point of this letter, but I do know it’s not an indictment. I have forgiven you, Bill. I have forgiven you for biting me. On the ear.

I think it’s more than that, though. I think, by being honest, by publishing this trauma, by getting if off my shoulders and into the ether, I think I can forgive me, too. Because, let’s get real, Bill… the movie reel of my life contains some cringe-worthy moments, moments that bring me true regret and shame. But you know what? Maybe… maybe… I was just doing the best I could with the hand I was dealt. Maybe I don’t need to vilify myself anymore.   

I think I’m writing this, Bill, because I forgive myself for being bipolar.   

But let’s back up. It’s like I said, Bill. I have forgiven you, but that doesn’t absolve you of blame for the incident. I mean, didn’t do anything wrong. I was just trying to do my part for wilderness conservation, just trying to donate my $15 to get a picture with a cuddly little koala. And what happened? What happened, Bill? I got bitten. You bit me. On the ear.

So, I’m not trying to make you feel bad, but I do think it’s important that you understood what I was going through when you decided to mince the sensitive cartilage and flesh which is my earlobe like hamburger meat. You see, I was having a rough time of it, Bill, a really rough time. I totally could have used an adorable photo opportunity of a picture-perfect moment with a loving little living stuffed animal, an animal l had always dreamed of seeing. And instead? 

The ear, Bill. You bit me on the ear. 

I was half a world away from everything I knew to be true when my bipolar disorder made itself known. I wasn’t doing well in the Land Down Under with no recourse for mental health treatment. I was alone, Bill, and sick, and stuck there for a whole semester. I was having issues. 

As you might imagine, I didn’t know what was going on. I only knew I felt helpless, Bill, helpless and confused and so, so miserable. I don’t know if illnesses in the brain exist among marsupials, but if they do, you can surely empathize. And empathy was what I needed, Bill, someone to tell me I was not going crazy and it wouldn’t last forever and that everything would be OK. But instead?  I was viciously mauled, with nary a consideration for my deteriorating state of mind.

Let’s flesh this out a bit. (Get it, Bill?) Let’s flesh out what happened.

You smelled like Eucalyptus, first of all, and that endeared you to me. And then, Bill, after I had a accepted you from the random, clueless sheila working for the wildlife refuge, after she handed you to me, after you reached up your little face and snuffled my ear with your cold, wet nose… after all that, you opened your fangs and chomped down on my ear like a hungry, hungry hippo.

Your teeth weren’t sharp, Bill, not like I expected. They were flat, and strong, and they ground down on the tender meat of my earlobe with the pressure of a vice. I know you’re evolutionarily designed to eat leaves, so you’ve no need for sharp incisors; but the pressure was almost worse, as delicate tissue was crushed and blood flow immediately restricted to cells starving for oxygen. I’m not going to lie, Bill; it caused some damage. Sometimes, I relive the bite, waking from a sound sleep with a scream, clutching myself to reassure me I’m still intact. Clutching my ear.

But like I said, Bill, this letter isn’t an indictment, not of you, not of anyone. It’s not even an indictment of me, thought Lord knows, Bill, I have indicted myself for my own actions over and over again throughout the course of years of mania and depression. But I don’t think I’m to be blamed, Bill, any more than the lady with the conservation program who clearly had no knowledge about your capacity for carnage. Maybe I can finally be pardoned. Maybe my scar is a badge. My scar, Bill. On the ear.

What I mean, Bill, is that I figured something out in that moment. In the midst of chaos and pain and bewilderment, and the omnipresent misery that is undiagnosed and untreated bipolar disorder, I had a revelation, like a prophet of old. I do not deserve to be this unhappy. I do not deserve to be this scared. I should not be this hopeless. I deserve better.

They say times of intense stress lead you to learn who you really are. Do you know what I learned, Bill? I learned that I do have power, even in the midst of such a state of impotence. I have the ability to change my circumstances when I desire. I can will myself, not to a state where my dopamine and serotonin are at normal levels, but to a state where I recognize I need self-care. I can will myself to embrace that care, and to accept love from my support network. I can work, and try, and fight, and I can do it all even though my brain is fighting to do the opposite sometimes. Because I am not my bipolar disorder. 

So, like I said, Bill, I’m not here to beat a dead marsupial. I guess I want some absolution, for us both. Because, you see, Bill, I’m doing much better now. Don’t get me wrong… it was a long road. It took years of willpower, of appointments, of tears and frustration. I had a lot more to learn, beyond that flash of insight as your molars clamped onto my body and refused to release. But I did learn, and I’m starting to attribute the catalyst for that life change to my life-changing bear attack.  

I learned about mindfulness and trying to exist in the moment. I learned to ground myself. I learned to overcome the stigma of my diagnosis and the shame associated with medication; after all, I like to remind myself now, I am no different than someone with another illness. My medicine works in my brain, but it is no less life-saving. Now, I have a family who understands the psychological damage of a savage encounter with a wild animal, the consequences of barely having escaped with my life. Now, I’m at peace. 

And you, Bill, I want you to be at peace as well. I want you to manage your temper. I want you to sublimate your rage. Maybe some koala-based cognitive behavioral therapy would benefit you, too, Bill, because I honestly worry that some other hapless, mentally-plagued girl will show up at the refuge and be subject to similar, Eucalyptus-scented wounds. I think you can beat it, Bill. I do.

Truly, I want nothing but the best for you. Thanks for the great story, I suppose, and the constant visual reminder of a tragic period in my early 20s. I’ll never forget you.

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As the holidays approach, I made a list of four presents my bipolar disorder left under the Christmas tree:

The ability to feel more and be more emotional

My bipolar disorder gave me the power to get to know my emotions better. It has allowed me to explore them. People’s emotions usually change in a matter of seconds or minutes. When you have bipolar disorder your emotions may stay for a while. I get to explore the many emotions and get to know them. When other people are feeling lonely this emotion sometimes goes away as soon as loved ones show you they are with you. But I get to know this emotion called lonely. I get to stay in its apartment in a building called depression. I get to talk and know him because it doesn’t matter how many people are around me, telling me and showing me they love me. I am still staying in lonely’s apartment. Even though this sounds like a bad thing it’s actually not for me. I get to know all emotions from head to toe. I have learned how to deal and handle them since I usually stay in their houses for a while. Having this gift makes me empathize more with people. Since I know all of these emotions so well, I help people and teach them easier ways to deal with them.

It has shown me that life is a roller coaster ride.

I usually describe bipolar disorder as a roller coaster. Sometimes you are at the peak of the roller coaster where energy overflows your body. But when you get to the peak you know it’s eventually time to come down. It goes way below ground level into a deep black hole where the cart usually stops working and you have to wait for it to begin working again. When it begins working it sometimes stops at a ground level where you are stable but you know the ride will start again. This roller coaster has shown me that life has its ups and downs. With bipolar disorder the definitions of “ups” and “downs” are altered. I have learned how to deal with the roller coaster in my life, which I usually call my “Bipolar Adventure,” because it really is an adventure where you ride your emotions and get to know your true self.

It has shown me the true meaning of being strong.

My bipolar disorder has made me go through hell. I like to relate the going through hell part with this quote:

“The Devil whispered in my ear,
You’re not strong enough to withstand the storm.
Today I whispered in the Devil’s ear  
‘I am the storm.’” 

I see the devil as my depression telling me I am not strong enough to overpower him. And by saying I am the storm, I’m saying I’m the one in control of my brain and he doesn’t have power over me anymore. This has shown me that the strongest people are not those who fight battles in front of us but the ones who fight battles we know nothing about. I fight bipolar disorder every single day, and it has made me the strongest person I know.

4. And last but not least: It has shown me I should love myself just the way I am.

Bipolar disorder showed me that I need to learn how to become besties with it because whether I like it or not, my illness will always be there. I learned to embrace it and in some ways love it. This is a lesson I will always value because it’s helped me learn how to love my flaws. They are part of who I am. I love myself, and I am proud of the person I’ve become thanks to my illness.

I am really grateful my bipolar disorder left these four presents under my Christmas tree. People with mental illnesses sometimes are so focused on the negative things they have gone through that they forget to look around and see all the life lessons and presents their illnesses may have given them. I encourage you to go check under your Christmas tree, too. I’m grateful my illness gave me these presents because they have made me the awesome human being I am today.

Happy Holidays!

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Since I was diagnosed with bipolar 1 with psychotic features, you have been asking me a bunch of questions. So, I would like to tell you five things about my condition during this holiday season:

1. I am not “crazy,” and I am not “just doing this” to get attention.

The auditory hallucinations I’m experiencing are because of my condition. I am not making all of this up. Please, stop calling me names and stop asking me if I am “losing it.” I am not.

2. My mood swings are not like your typical mood swings.

Please, stop comparing yourself to me. This is not because it’s “that-time-of-the-month.”

3. My episodes are not by choice.

I am dealing with manic depression. I am not just sad. I am not lazy. I am having trouble getting up in the morning.

4. I am not a killjoy.

I’m sorry if I can’t keep up with the holiday feeling. I’m sorry I barely get out of bed and talk to you. I wanted to, but my body won’t let me. I am too empty to function. I am sorry, too, if you are having troubles keeping up with my mood change. I am sorry if you are confused. I am, too.

5. I want your support and understanding.

I want your love, and I want your respect. I want you to be here for me while I am trying to recover. I want you to understand and accept my condition.

I love you, guys. I need your support and love more than ever. I cannot handle your frowns, frustrations and disappointments. Please, bear with me. Be with me. One more thing, please stop comparing your struggles with me, and please, stop calling me weak. I am trying to survive every day. I am fighting for my life every single day.

Happy holidays.

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I hate the holidays – not in a Scrooge kind of way but in an everyone’s-increased-happiness-is-rubbing-bipolar-disorder-in-my-face-extra-hard kind of way. To make matters worse, my birthday is literally on Christmas Day, so I’m supposed to be the absolutely most excited of anyone else. In reality, it’s just a reminder of all the parties I won’t be having.

I’m not sad. It’s more like Christmas decorations go up, and I can feel my emptiness intensifying or being spotlighted or something. I know emotional repression/depression/dissociation has rendered me incapable of experiencing so-called Christmas spirit, and then there’s the – surprise – guilt that comes with being unable to feel what I know I should. But I always play the part because god forbid my mental illnesses get accused of bringing other people down during the most wonderful time of the year. Plus, I always think there might finally be enough lights, garland, and ugly sweaters in the world to temporarily inflate my empty husk into something that resembles a person. Not to mention that manic Allie loves all the stuff, but I have unfortunately come to terms with still being in a depressive episode for the foreseeable future.

I can’t possibly be alone in this. Whether the holidays are imbued with a greater spiritual significance for people or not, there’s always a vague emptiness that accompanies a sea of unwrapped presents. A feeling of “OK, what next? Wait. That’s all?” For me, it’s like eating a great meal really fast. I don’t even remember what it tasted like. I just know I’m miserable now.

Sure, there’s family and all that jazz, but the immense pressure put on making the holidays a time for intense bonding and a setting aside of differences takes me out of the present moment enough to forget I’m supposed to be enjoying myself.

The first Christmas I spent with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) (my other mental illness) really threw me for a loop because, while surrounded by my entire family, I had this persistent and intrusive thought that one of us wouldn’t be around for the next Christmas. Did this come to fruition? Obviously not, but there’s something about the combined newness of my birthday, Christmas, and New Years that really sends my anxiety into overdrive. Like the possibilities for terrible things to happen has just been rewound and set back into motion. Relentless pessimism, anyone?

Plus, the whole idea of a “fresh start” just reiterates to me how out of control I am, and with people throwing the word “resolution” around like it’s nothing, my inability to choose my mood/state of mind is constantly being brought back to the forefront of my everyday life. Since I’m in my last year of college, this year’s “fresh start” is particularly loaded. Four or five Christmases ago, I was a gifted kid with a lot of promise. Now, I’m behind my peers in every sense of the word and lack all motivation to regain my footing.

Trust me. I’ve done the whole “fresh start” thing before. Every time I feel even the slightest reprieve from my depression, I attempt to get my life together. When I finally have a plan in place, depression or hypomania can completely and utterly destroy it. So why bother trying to fight the wrecking ball of my moods and anxiety? There are so many things I want to and know I can do, but I am always caught off guard and suddenly at the mercy of my mind at the worst possible moments. But that’s a little bit of a digression.

I’ve definitely been trying to channel my holiday-induced hyperawareness of my mental illnesses into humor or irony in the past few weeks, but the reality is completely absent of humor. I unironically live with this every day, and neither I nor anyone else with a mental illness wants pity because of that. Just know that for all the Christmas-spirit-killing my honesty does, it pales in comparison to fighting tooth-and-nail just to exist and inhabit a reality that vaguely looks like normalcy from the outside. I’m tired of feeling selfish for not being able to push my mental illnesses to the side during moments of objective happiness.

The holidays – no matter which ones people celebrate – carry such a profound sense of “another year down, X amount of years left” for those of us with mental illnesses (and I have a birthday in there, to boot), and guess what? That is depressing, so it makes sense that no one wants to hear that during the holidays or any other time, for that matter.

Yesterday, my school held its ceremonial lighting of campus, and all I could think about was how detached I felt from everyone and everything around me. All the people laughing, hugging, and singing forced me to step back and reckon with my inability to genuinely partake in those things.

But this isn’t a sob story. I think it’s important to remember that people don’t magically get better just because the season is supposed to be magical. If I were scared to be vocal about my mental illnesses or otherwise having to struggle in silence, I would want my lack of holiday spirit validated, so that’s what this post is for more than anything else. It’s OK to not be OK even when everyone expects circumstances to suddenly lift people’s spirits.

I can acknowledge that my current depressive episode, anxiety, and OCD aren’t going anywhere. I can also congratulate myself for making it another year even though I don’t particularly look forward to the year ahead, but that sentiment, of course, is operating under the assumption that I won’t feel any differently in the near future. But I’m taking steps toward getting better. So maybe that should be the resolution of people with mental illness: remembering how far we’ve come and remembering that our state of mind doesn’t have to be permanent, but it’s totally fine if we aren’t progressing as fast as we had hoped. Truth be told, progress is simply making it to see another holiday season.

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Stigma is a [email protected]#r-letter word. (I know there are actually six, but bear with me: as a metaphor connecting stigma to the various four-letter swear words commonly used in English, it works.)

I am speaking of the stigma that still surrounds mental illness and the lack of empathy and understanding that follows – and that’s at best. At worst, blatant discrimination is the result. Stigma is inappropriate, unnecessary and offensive. Truly a four-letter word.

I came to this realization through the unique experience of being diagnosed with both a major physical illness (a heart defect leading to open-heart surgery) and a mental illness (bipolar disorder). It was in comparing the two experiences, both personally and professionally, that I realized the destructive power of stigma, which is very prevalent with respect to mental illness but sometimes nonexistent with other more known illnesses.

The reality was that years after fixing one major organ with open-heart surgery, it appeared another, this time my brain, wasn’t working properly. Despite the similarities of the illnesses – in both cases, a major organ had a biological failure that created dramatic symptoms – there was nothing similar about the two experiences.

First, there was the challenge of self-stigma, which was so strong that for nearly two years I refused treatment and actually tried to find my way back to health through the sheer force of will and determination (as though that was a viable option).

Stigma reared its ugly head in a second, external way. This time it came in the form of confusion, discomfort, judgment and at times outright discrimination in the minds of those around me. This happened regularly and not only with those in my professional life but also those in my social life and family. It was jarring to realize all of the support, unconditional love and empathy that came my way when my heart wasn’t working was nowhere to be seen now that my brain was failing.

After finally letting go of stigma, I began to treat my illness properly – as a medical illness that required my attention, research and, ultimately, treatment. This approach lead to a successful return to full health within six months and, for the vast majority of the days since June, 2005, I have been living well with bipolar disorder.

Once I fully “owned” my illness, I realized I had the opportunity to help others by sharing my experience. Very few people have faced both a physical and mental illness, recovered, are willing to speak about it, and are effective public speakers. My degree in Theatre and Speech Communication, along with my interest in public speaking, provided the final ingredient.

So, in 2006, I started talking.

My message was, and still is, very clear: stigma continues to exist regarding mental illness because of fear and a lack of understanding. It may often be innocent, but it doesn’t belong, and education is the first step toward eradicating it. We should never again speak of mental illness in any other terms than what it is – an illness.

If you know someone with a mental illness (and statistics say you probably do) or if you have one yourself, be a part of the effort to clean up our act.

Stigma is a [email protected]#r-letter word. Let’s get rid of it.

Follow this journey on Empower Professional Services.

Thinkstock image by Victor Tongdee

Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

I have bipolar disorder. I’ve had it since early adolescence, though I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 19-years-old.

Throughout the years, I have dealt with soul-crushing depressions, euphoric manias that made me feel like I could do anything and dysphoric manias that reminded me why bipolar disorder isn’t the greatest gift the universe has given me.

In the past four years, I have gained a fair amount of weight, mostly from medication side effects. And as much as I pride myself on being a body-positive feminist, seeing my rounded face and arms makes me feel, shall we say, uncomfortable.

You see, up until I started taking antipsychotics, I had been thin my whole life. I didn’t always believe I was thin, but that was only because my idea of the ideal body type was rather unrealistic and unhealthy.

By the time I accepted my body for how it was, I was a freshman in college. A depressed college freshman. I couldn’t find the energy and cognitive stamina to study adequately for my classes, which affected my grades. I wasted seven hours of my time online every day. By contrast, I studied for maybe 30 minutes daily. I had a difficult time making friends, so I ate almost all my meals alone. And let me tell you, loneliness by itself can make you miserable, even if you are not clinically depressed.

The most severe symptom I experienced was a pervasive sense of worthlessness. I hated myself. I thought I was stupid, lazy and awkward. I had no friends because I wasn’t good enough for friends. My life was in shambles because I wasn’t strong and worthy enough to put it back together. I had fallen off the wagon, lost my place in life as someone who deserved to be here.

Honestly, the only thing I liked about myself at 19 was my figure.

I was diagnosed in April of 2011, towards the tail end of my sophomore year. I started medication in August, and quickly figured out not every pill works for every person. My depression my sophomore year was the worst I had ever had. For the first time in my life, I started seriously fantasizing about taking my life.

I tried three combinations of medications by August of 2012. One was marginally effective, but I was experiencing side effects, so my doctor and I decided to try for something better.

In early August of 2012, my doctor started me on a new medication. I had no expectation the medication would work, but within a few weeks my life and mood had changed so drastically I forgot I even had a mood disorder. I got closer to the few friends I had and I reached out to make new ones. I enjoyed my classes more, though I still hadn’t recovered my dedication. Best of all, I felt alive again, after feeling undead for years.

I was having such a good time I didn’t even notice the weight gain until November. I got on my parents’ scale while home on break and saw I had gained weight. Honestly, I didn’t even care. I was just so happy to be free.

But the pounds kept coming and coming. Antipsychotics have a strong track record for causing weight gain in patients and my medication is one of the worst ones. My pants got tighter. When my weight climbed again, I decided I wanted my old body back.

A little under a year after starting the new medication, I convinced my doctor to switch me to a different drug. In the summer of 2013 we switched my medication. When I developed severe nausea and vomiting on it, we tried a different one. That one caused my obsessive anxiety to spike through the roof. I was constantly on edge about situations that were unlikely happen, wondering how I would survive if I ever become homeless or if I would go to hell when I died.

By the end of the summer, I was back on my original medication. We knew it worked well, with the weight gain being the only side effect.

By December 2013, the medication lost its effectiveness. I began ultra-rapid cycling, being up and down several times a week. I crashed into violent suicidality every two to three weeks. We increased my medication and then further increased a few weeks later.

By the fall of 2014, I had had enough. The medication wasn’t working and I hated my body. I had gone up a few dress sizes and had gained more weight than I ever wanted. In October of 2014, everything fell apart and I had my first and only psychiatric hospitalization. While in the hospital, I was told I was hypertensive and prediabetic. This medication had to go.

I tried different combinations of medications. In the next year and a half, I graduated from a masters program, got a job I loved, lost that job, began dating the love of my life and started medical school. But one thing I didn’t lose was the weight. In fact, I am now significantly heavier than I was before I started antipsychotics.

I may be bigger, but I also am happier, healthier and more content with my life than I have ever been before.

Four years ago, I was skinny and the only thing I liked about myself was my weight. Now I am chubby and virtually the only thing I don’t like about my life is my size.

I am learning to accept my new body. It is still the same miraculous biological machine it was when it was lighter. And while I still hope to lose the weight someday, I believe my happiness makes me more beautiful than my thinness ever did.

My flabby stomach and lack of a thigh gap tell a story about my life. They are the result of a strong woman getting help for her mental health problem, deciding she didn’t want to be miserable anymore. I am proud I survived the storm. I am proud I was brave enough to seek treatment.

Our bodies are beautiful, regardless of their sizes. Always be proud of who you are and where you’ve been. You deserve to be alive and happy – I can confidently say it is 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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