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What People Who Think They Understand Mental Illness Don’t Know

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When I tell people I have bipolar disorder, some people say they “understand my experience.” This is fine if they have also been affected by mental illness. However, I can’t help but feel slightly skeptical when people tell me they understand when they haven’t been touched by mental illness. Unless you have been personally affected by it, you don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness when I travel to all the pharmacies in my region so I don’t have to face the embarrassment of going to the same one every weekend because I have at least six prescriptions to fill. Despite these efforts, all the pharmacists still know my name, my meds and my doses. The same can be said for my local pathology clinic where all the nurses know my name, my meds and my blood tests because being on medication that can potentially be toxic requires frequent pathology.

You don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness when I get to the end of winter utterly relieved that I have gotten through my seasonal depression alive. You don’t know mental illness when that same relief is coupled with dismay and despair at having to increase my medications because I’m at risk of summer mania. Yet, these medications make me feel so lethargic, apathetic and flat, question what the point is because it feels similar to depression. I wonder which is worse because they sure as hell don’t feel good either way.

You don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness when I haven’t felt normally tired since I was 18, before things really went down hill. You don’t know mental illness when the thing I miss most is waking up refreshed because my medications make me feel groggy. You don’t know mental illness when the evening is the worst part of the day because the grogginess begins to lift, and I get a glimpse of what life is like without a foggy head. Yet, cruelly it’s also the same time of day when I have to take the medications that cause the foggy head.

You don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness when my friends suggest a holiday away, even a night away, and I have an internal battle between wanting to go and be a normal 26-year-old and feeling utterly terrified of going. I know that even a slight disruption to my sleep routine can make me manic. You don’t know mental illness when I hear of my friends’ big weekend, and I feel bitterly jealous. If I were to do the same, then I’d probably end up in the hospital manic.

You don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness when a friend or family member says, “You seem quite high lately,” when I think I have been going well. Those simple words makes my blood run cold and feel like a punch in the guts. Worse still is when strangers tell me to “smile” when I’m depressed, and I’m just congratulating myself for getting out of the house and keeping myself alive. You don’t know mental illness when I constantly feel like I am being examined as if I’m in a petri dish, and this makes me constantly assess my own actions and words until I feel like an alien in my own skin.

You don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness when the side effects of medications that impact other areas of my health have already begun. You don’t know mental illness when I work hard every day to stay physically fit, but I already have high cholesterol and an underactive thyroid. So at 26, I need to manage health conditions a 26-year-old shouldn’t have to manage, even though to the unknowing person I appear to be in pretty good shape.

You don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness when I still have recurring nightmares about the hallucinations I had when I was psychotically depressed more than two years ago. Some nights, I dread going to sleep. You don’t know mental illness when I sleep on my mother’s bedroom floor when I’m suicidal so I feel safe because I know I won’t hurt myself through the night.

You don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness when people lower their expectations of you purely for having a medical condition. You don’t know mental illness when it takes the things you love like travel, work, friends and partners. You don’t know mental illness when it takes away the one thing you felt sure about, the one thing you could rely on, the one thing you could trust, yourself.

You don’t know mental illness, and you’re lucky.

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 or text “START” to 741-741.

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How I Learned I Can Be a Great Parent With Bipolar Disorder

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Being a parent and having a bipolar disorder diagnosis is hard. Before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, my world revolved around parenting. As a stay-at-home mom, that was my job. I would have to say I was a really good parent at that time. My son was my pride and joy. He always came first, and I enjoyed spending as much time with him as possible. But after some traumatic events in 2007, I was reduced to fighting an illness I didn’t know much about. The year and a half during which I was clueless about what was going on in my brain was the time I can say I wasn’t that great of a parent.

I remember a time back in 2007 when I was in a mixed state (although I didn’t know what it was at the time), and the nervous energy and depression were waging a war in my mind and body. I couldn’t stop those forces. It felt like I was a bomb about to go off, but I was hanging at that heightened millisecond right before an explosion and never exploding. I had my son with me, and I didn’t know what to do. I called his dad to come pick him up, because I knew he needed to be away from me. At that time, I felt it was crucial to do something to end that constant tension of the mixed state. I put my son in his room and put one of his favorite videos on. I went in the other room, locked the door, and proceeded to bash my head into a wall. That helped relieve some of the tension. As soon as his dad picked him up, I went to the hospital for what seemed like the 100th time to see if they could help me figure out what was wrong. Later on, case workers came by to visit to find out what happened. They told me I was a good mom to still think of my son despite what I was going through. I felt like a horrible mom, because I felt I couldn’t take care of him like a mom should.

Once I was finally diagnosed and on medication, I found it much easier to be a mom. I felt like I had a second chance, and the bond between my son and I grew into what it was before my illness kicked in. The year after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I graduated from college with my bachelor’s degree in education. Juggling parenting and work was difficult, but we somehow managed.

Things started to go south again in 2011, as the medication I was taking for my illness was beginning to destroy my body. I was starting to have horrible health issues: excessive weight gain, thyroid problems, constant colds and flus, easily broken bones. After trying many different medications that didn’t seem to work very well (either caused too much mania or too much depression), I turned to naturopathic medication.

Unfortunately, the naturopathic medication did not work for me. I relapsed, and it was awful. I spent about two months away from my son trying to recover from my relapse; I knew I couldn’t even take care of myself, so I certainly wouldn’t be able to take care of him. His dad was understanding and took care of him on the days that were normally mine. During those two months, I still visited him at his dad’s house and watched him play sports, but I knew I couldn’t take care of him like he deserved until I was stable. Once I was stable, I was able to take him home with me. That was one of the best days of my life.

Since 2012, I have had no issues with my disorder interfering with my ability to be a great parent. I believe the key to being a great parent is to make sure you’re healthy first. Make sure you take your medication regularly and as prescribed, get plenty of sleep, eat healthy and try to exercise. When you’re healthy, your relationships can be healthy. My son and I have a great relationship. We talk, listen, laugh, cry and spend so much time together. Making many memories together is one of the most important parts of parenting for me, because life can change so quickly.

As for the stigma around bipolar disorder and parenting, I feel it is unnecessary. Mothers and fathers diagnosed with bipolar disorder can still be great parents. What some people don’t understand is that bipolar disorder is a medical illness like any other, and it requires medication to treat the symptoms of the illness. If treated, we can be wonderful parents. I am living proof of that.

Editor’s note: Any medical information included is based on a personal experience. For questions or concerns regarding health, please consult a doctor or medical professional.

Image via Contributor.

A version of this post originally appeared on the International Bipolar Foundation.

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Naturally Bipolar

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Depression.

A lack of most expression.

Sadness is all that remains.

This attempts to keep me in chains.

I can’t easily get out of bed.

Racing thoughts run through my head.

I want negative thinking to leave for a while.

I have forgotten how to smile.

Everything is dull.

My mind and body pay the toll.

Hypomanic.

Extreme happiness and irritability arise.

I feel like every second is a prize.

I will not stop grinning.

Every second I am winning.

One thing goes wrong and my happiness is destroyed.

Anger is employed.

Everything seems great,

Yet still there remains a hint of hate.

Baseline.

This is how I act when I am fine.

Neither extreme has me aligned.

I process life with wise mind.

I am just me.

Bipolar symptoms do not control me.

Bipolar has no grip.

I still feel unsure of when my emotions will flip.

This is the nature of my bipolar brain.

I will not let this illness be my chain.

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To the Dean of Students Who Gave Me Hope When I Was Suicidal

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When most students think of a “Dean of Students,” they typically focus solely on the “Dean” title: a person who is in a high administrative position, constantly in meetings and unapproachable. And if a student does meet with the Dean of Students, they feel as though they are being sent to the principal’s office, like they’ve done something wrong. It’s as if students forget their job is to focus on a campus’ students.

I have gotten to know our Dean of Students, Nicole*, quite well. Since it is a small school, that is not the only hat she wears. She’s a professor, program coordinator, advisor and my internship supervisor, among other positions she holds on campus. I know she is in a high administrative position and she frequently has meetings. I also know she’s not only highly approachable and available to students — but ready for this one?

She cares! 

I’ve experienced first-hand that Nicole is not like many I’ve interacted with, regardless of her job, when it comes to concerns regarding mental health and illnesses. A few weeks into the beginning of our semester, I became manic. At first, I liked it, as I always do. I was getting my work done quickly, everything was super clean and organized, I was extra hilarious, sarcastic and fun to hang out with, no filter in the classroom and I was always on the go.

Then it wasn’t going away: my body constantly moving, mind racing, talking fast and excessively, driving recklessly, jumping out of my skin, had thoughts to harm myself and I could barely eat or sleep, if at all. After much trial and error with medications to help, eventually we found a combination that worked and I came down from the mania. But then, all of a sudden, I crashed. I became gravely depressed and suicidal. After having therapy four out of the five days during one week, I made the decision to go inpatient to get stabilized.

Approximately 17 hours before I went for my evaluation, I met with Nicole as both my supervisor and advisor since it would affect my internship and academics. Though I wasn’t surprised, she was so kind and supportive and asked questions about inpatient. I was thankful for that conversation because most people don’t want to talk about it.

Despite the fact that she was surprised to learn it was going to be my seventh time inpatient since 2011, she still believed in me.

Throughout our conversation, she kept saying, “when you go for your PhD…” I said “Nicole you’re killing me with this doctorate thing! I don’t even have my masters!”

She looked me in the eyes and seriously said, “You’re very smart and have a lot of good insights. You know you have a lot of potential…you do know that, right?”  I answered back, “Sometimes.” Considering the circumstances, she replied, “Fair enough.”

I didn’t tell Nicole the full reason why I was going inpatient.

I didn’t tell her that if my psychologist didn’t call the second she did, I was planning on killing myself, and how the next morning in our session, she was nervous and scared because I was that hopeless.

I didn’t tell her that my counselor on campus did a risk assessment and almost didn’t let me leave her office.

I didn’t tell her that I wanted to kill myself, not because of depression, but because I was tired of fighting; my mind and body haven’t belonged to me since I was raped and it was time to end The 100 Year’s War.

I didn’t tell her I was thankful for our meeting and conversation that day because it went well and was something positive she would have to remember me by.

About two months have gone by since I was discharged.

I haven’t told her that our conversation could have been our last one. Now, I’m glad it wasn’t.

I haven’t told her that her willingness to listen, ask questions and converse with me was inspirational.

I haven’t told her that our meeting, approximately 17 hours before my evaluation, helped me to be even more determined to graduate in May, making that day less anxiety provoking, as that day marks the 10 year anniversary of my trauma — a day I never thought I’d make it to.

To Nicole, my campus’s Dean of Students, here is what I am telling you: Thank you for seeing me when I couldn’t and didn’t want to see myself. Thank you for breaking the barriers of stigma, and having an honest conversation instead of a judgmental one. Thank you for not feeling sorry for me and seeing my strength and resiliency. Thank you for giving me a reason to continue on and be able to envision a future…a future I now want.

Thank youthank you, thank you for giving me hope.

*Name has been changed.

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

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

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What My 'Bipolar Bad Days' Look Like

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I have really good days with my bipolar disorder. Most days, I’m cheerful and happy. I sing and dance, I smile and laugh, and I enjoy my life during those moments. But then, I have bad days, too. Everybody has bad days, but “bipolar bad days” can be very different. I also have “stable” bad days, don’t get me wrong. But my “bipolar bad days” are so out of my control, and it’s frustrating.

For me, bad bipolar days are getting anxiety over the smallest tasks — the same tasks it takes my husband five minutes to do once he takes over. That, in turn, makes me feel incompetent, even though he genuinely does not want me to feel that way. Feeling incompetent makes me break down in tears, sobbing that “I just want to be normal.” I don’t want to have to take an anti-anxiety pill when I feel overwhelmed. I don’t want to have to take a pill every single morning. And every single night. I just want to be a regular ol’ person!

Lucky for me, I have a husband who looks at me and ever so sweetly says, “You don’t feel good today. I can tell,” and takes control in a calm and reassuring manner. I firmly believe he has no idea how incredible that moment was for me. He probably has no idea it felt so good to, for once, not be the one to say I’m not feeling my best. I felt understood and loved by one single sentence he probably thought was nothing at all.

It took me 25 minutes of sitting on the floor with sweaty palms, heart racing, hands shaking, and a hard, “fighting back tears” kind of lump in my throat to even start what it took him five minutes to complete.

Just in case you’re wondering, we are redoing the fabric on the valences in our RV. Sounds simple right? Not to my overwhelmed, anxious self on a “bipolar bad day.”

Image via Contributor.

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What I Need When Bipolar Disorder Pushes Me Into Isolation

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The other night, I was talking with a friend about what we’re currently going through in life. We do this from time to time, and it’s always beneficial. This time, though, amidst our discussion, I brought up the fact that I was thinking about running away, from home, from people, from life. Now, thanks to a single person in my life, this is no longer my plan.

How did I get to that point, though? It was not a thought that came to me suddenly, but rather a thought that had been festering in my brain for a couple weeks. I was ready to act on it, too. Put some gas in the car, throw my duffel bag in the backseat, turn on a CD and take off. I wasn’t thinking about where I would go or even how I planned to live once my money ran out, but I was ready to go.

The thing about my bipolar disorder is this: When I hit a downswing, I withdraw from life. It’s what I’ve done in the past, and it’s still what I do to this day.

How does that help, though? You may ask. Well, it doesn’t. In fact, it’s probably the worst thing I could do for myself in a given situation, but I do it all the same.

You see, when I hit that depressive episode, my thoughts become negative, and it’s hard to ignore them. I tell myself that if my friends wanted to hang out with me, then they would ask. Why do I have to be the one who always asks? Does anyone even care?

This line of thinking leads down a dark path of isolation that I have walked down many, many times. A path that has led to multiple suicide attempts and the loss of friends, who simply moved on. Yet, I never do anything different.

Say what you will about my brain, but at least it’s consistent. When I start that downswing into a full on depressive episode, my rational mind seems to be shoved to the back of my brain and remains quiet.

Do I know that I’m isolating myself? Yes. Do I know that my friends care about me? Of course. I just don’t know how to convince myself that those answers are true.

So what can we do to help others who are in a similar fix? Talk with them. Reach out, and see what they’re doing that night or for lunch. People like me, who isolate themselves when we fall into these holes, need to hear that you care.

The answer seems so simple, but we tend to get lost in our own thoughts and minds. When my friend and I have a talk or I go to therapy, my thoughts of running away or hurting myself seem to evaporate. It’s as if the mere presence and support of a friend is enough to light up the whole darkness of my mind and send those deceitful thoughts back to the abyss, at least for a little while.

The point I’m trying to make is this: We have so much power in our hands that we don’t use. It’s time to start using our power to help others. Reach out to your friend having a tough week, and let them know you’re there and you care about them. A simple sentence can go a long way.

I’m a big fan of “The West Wing.” Here’s a parable from the show that has gone a long way in my life: “This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, “Hey you. Can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

Then, a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, “Father, I’m down in this hole. Can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

Then, a friend walks by, “Hey, Joe. It’s me. Can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.’”

The holidays can be a tough time for you or your friends. All I ask is that you reach out to those of us who are struggling to remind us we are not alone. A little bit can go a long way. As always, remember that you are not alone. Reach out for help if you need 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 or text “START” to 741-741.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

 Image via Thinkstock.

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