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Please Stop Telling Me I'm Not Sick

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Yes, my disorder is real, and I’m sick of you saying it’s not.

No pun intended. Because the reality is, I am sick. And that’s OK. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 17, and for years I told myself it was a misdiagnosis. Yes, I was seriously struggling with my mental health, but I blamed life and the obstacles it threw at me.

I was so used to hearing it from other people – “it’s all in your head” – and started to believe it myself. As if I would suddenly be “cured” if I just changed my outlook on the situation. As if my depressive episodes were nothing but a result of my attitude, and as if my reckless manic episodes were a result of my character. As if it was my fault all of this was happening.

But it just wasn’t working. I could no longer keep pretending everything was fine. Contrary to an unfortunate popular belief, no amount of healthy eating, exercise, water drinking, and extra sleep made a difference. It felt like a race, a constant struggle to keep what was on the inside from getting out, pushing the shame and the heaviness back underneath the surface.

Accepting my illness was a vital driver in my decision to get help. I am not cured. Bipolar is a lifelong illness. But with professional help, it is possible to learn to manage the disorder and even reduce its symptoms.

I don’t tell everyone I have bipolar disorder, but when I do share my illness with people I am often met with an, “Are you sure?” or “It’s probably not that,” as if because my illness is invisible it is imaginary. What’s troubling about these statements is that they generally come from a place of good intentions but feed off (and into) the stigma surrounding mental health. I’ve quickly learned this can affect my relationships, that there will be times I will be met with judgment. Being told to “Just be positive” or “stop being so negative” in response to sharing something so private is soul-crushing. It’s invalidating. By telling me I’m being negative, you’re implying my illness is a result of my attitude. That is not the case.

This false idea that mental illnesses are just be made up and thrown at us by doctors and that diagnoses are wrong perpetuates negative attitudes towards the medications and treatments that could help save our lives. These types of attitudes hold people back from getting help all of the time. I have had friends tell me with the best intentions that I shouldn’t take medication. I know it does not come from a place of malice but a place of ignorance. We aren’t taught to see mental illnesses the same as we would see the physical ones. I’ve had to kindly explain several times that my brain is sick the same way your lungs can get sick or your digestive system can get sick.

As someone with fairly strong political beliefs and as many of us who struggle with mental illness do, I often feel an onus to play the role of the educator. But educating can be exhausting. And the weight of owning my identity as a person with an illness can sometimes make me feel like I am making a martyr of myself. It is a difficult balance.

Although the stigma that surrounds mental health is getting better, much of bipolar disorder is still extremely misunderstood. There are still many, many misconceptions. Even though I’m not, I worry about being seen as a “crazy, erratic” woman – especially when it comes to dating. I regularly stumble upon jokes or posts that perpetuate the negative stereotypes – most recently, a meme that reads, “When your girlfriend tells you she’s bi and later you find out she meant bipolar” and am immediately reminded that some people may see me as unworthy of love or as too much to handle.

I will be the first to say I am a lot, and I wouldn’t change that for the world. But I will never be too much. Some days my illness feels like too much. But while it is a part of me, it does not define me. It has taken me years to accept and understand this. Yes, I am sick, and acknowledging I am sick is crucial to getting better. So, while your intentions might be good, please don’t try and take that away from me. I’m going to be just fine.

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Thinkstock photo by Ingram Publishing

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Life With Mental Illness as Captured Through My ‘Bipolar Lens’

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As someone who has struggled with mental health challenges for much of my life, I have been through many types of treatments. I have taken countless medications, and I have been through both group and individual therapies. I have been hospitalized, and I have done magnetic and even shock therapy.

There is value for some people in every kind of treatment, but for me, one of the most valuable tools has been photography. For me, photography is not only a form of self-expression but it is also a form of mindfulness. It helps me to be present in my body and in the current moment instead of lost in negative thoughts worrying about the past or the future. Photography helps me to be grounded in the now, and when you live with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses, it is easy to lose contact with the now.

The following photographic images are from a series I created using multiple exposures that were combined to more closely capture my complex moods and visually represent my various mental health disorders and challenges, which include depression,anxiety, addiction, panic disorder with agoraphobia, borderline personality disorder (BPD) and elements of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention deficit disorder (ADD). These photo composites represent darkness and light, despair and hope and the various peaks and valleys of living with mental illness as captured through my bipolar lens.

a double exposure image of a woman against a fence

a double exposure image of a sign that says, "Pick up poision."

a blurry image of people in motion

a double exposure image of a woman and lights on her face

a double exposure image of a side profile of a woman and green lights

an image of fingerprints

a double exposure of a doorway on a background of flowers

an abstract image of lights and a woman's face

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction and need help, you can call SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

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The Cognitive Difficulties of Bipolar Disorder

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What if you woke up tomorrow and for the life of you couldn’t figure out how to measure ingredients to make breakfast for your family? What if on the way to work you experienced a full blown panic attack because you suddenly couldn’t remember where you were going? What if you found yourself staring blankly at your checkbook unable to grasp the concept of writing a check, a task you’ve completed effortlessly a million times before? Would you feel desperate and afraid? Would you obsessively wonder why your brain is constantly backfiring, causing routine tasks to become nearly impossible? These situations are just a few examples of what I’ve been dealing with lately.

Unfortunately I’ve dealt with cognitive difficulties such as an inability to string thoughts together coherently or process and organize information ever since my doctor and I began what has been nearly a decade-long search for the right medication cocktail. But lately I’ve sensed these issues are more than just a result of a med change, especially since they seem to be lingering longer than usual. Something odd and scary seems to be happening in my head, making it difficult to function, especially at work. Whether due to med changes, aging, years of being a lab rat for countless psychiatric drugs, lack of sleep, excessive sleep, the cloud of depression or detachment of hypomania — who knows? Most likely the answer is all of the above, but regardless of the cause I’m learning it is a common component of bipolar that I’m just beginning to learn about.

Several months ago I started to notice I couldn’t keep up with certain tasks. I couldn’t sleep because I was under a tremendous amount of stress, and little by little I noticed I was struggling to keep my moods stable. Processing, organizing and keeping track of data became much more difficult. Presenting information to my students or to peers took a tremendous amount of effort. Participating in professional conversations triggered panic attacks because I feared that whatever came out of my mouth would be nonsense. Imagine standing in front of a room full of children when your thoughts suddenly freeze and no matter how frantically you search the next thought remains out of reach. Feelings of uselessness and embarrassment quickly settle in as your audience stares at you wondering why you’ve stopped talking. Hopefully you eventually recover, but every day the fear of it happening again haunts you.

What makes it more frustrating is that one day I might be totally productive, able to complete all of the tasks in front of me (including data and planning) seemingly effortlessly. Everything makes sense and not another soul — including myself — would ever sense there was something “wrong” with me. However, the following day I may not be able to add fractions or comprehend a fourth grade reading passage. More often than not though the second scenario has become my reality.

Over the years I have become quite good at coping with these issues and have been able to function successfully in most situations. I’ve learned when to ask for help and when to keep my mouth shut. I know when it’s necessary to allow myself extra time to complete tasks or take time to be alone to gather my thoughts and recharge my batteries. However, in the last few months it has become increasingly difficult to manage these symptoms successfully to the point I’ve had to take time off from work.

I’ve had to remind myself that despite these setbacks there are still things I am really good at and it’s OK to have to put other things on the back burner for now. I’ve had to work really hard to keep from resenting what is happening or feeling robbed by this illness. I’ve felt sorry for myself and wanted to throw in the towel completely instead of searching for the silver lining. After all, this has thrown a huge wrench in my plans for the future and I’ve struggled to understand where this will lead me and why it is happening.

But recently a friend compared life to a story that is full of plot twists, which has really helped change my perspective. Maybe the strengths I have been discovering will turn me toward bigger and better opportunities where I’ll be able to help people in a different capacity or perhaps I will wake up tomorrow morning with a clear mind able to pick up where I left off without ever having to change my path. Either way I am learning that no situation is hopeless. Never in a million years did I think I’d actually go through with writing and sharing my struggles with the world. But in the midst of dealing with these cognitive issues I have learned to channel my energy elsewhere and it has opened unexpected doors. When I focus on that and keep moving forward in faith, I see this current plot twist taking me down a path full of unknowns, but I’m also witnessing the good resulting from my willingness to take risks.

Whenever I’m on the brink of succumbing to the belief that things will never get better, without fail something totally unexpected happens to remind me that God is really looking out for me and using me to help others, just in a different capacity than I envisioned. Isn’t the most memorable part of any story when the main character is confronted with something completely unexpected but she digs deep to endure all of the twists and turns, ups and downs, roadblocks and surprise detours? The author knows exactly where she will end up along with everything it will take for her to get there. She just needs to keep moving forward.

Yes, I’m having difficulties managing and dealing with these symptoms, but if my past is any indication, the road ahead is sure to make me stronger. Maybe this current set of circumstances will make me more compassionate to others. Maybe being honest will help someone else who is struggling. Maybe writing about these symptoms will encourage someone else or enable others to understand what it feels like to have to deal with these difficulties.

So as difficult as it is to deal with these cognitive difficulties now, I have to remind myself that it really will all work out as it is supposed to even if it looks completely different from what I envisioned a year ago. I’ll go to bed tonight not knowing what tomorrow will bring, but I will continue to remind myself that’s OK because the author of my life knows and that is enough to give me peace and carry me through another day.

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Thinkstock photo by m-imagephotography

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7 Things I Wish People Understood About My Bipolar Type 1

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I have bipolar disorder type 1. I wish those in my life knew a few things about my life.

1) I am not a threat: Whenever someone finds out I have bipolar disorder, they give me a look of insecurity and fear. They treat me differently, and I can see and feel them judging me with everything I do.

2) I have no control over my symptoms: When you get mad at me for my mood swings, outbursts, or ups and downs, it doesn’t change anything. I am not making an excuse, I’m explaining a fact.

3) I am not lucky to be home all day by myself: I do not like being alone, I did not choose to be unable to work. So your ignorant comments about how great it must be, how lucky I am, they only hurt me.

4) Stop telling me it’s all in my head: I suppose it is because it’s a mental illness, not a thing I chose.

5) Bipolar depression is more than being “sad.” I feel impending doom all of the time. I want to die. I isolate myself. I hate myself. I can’t do responsibilities like bathing, doing housework, going out with a friend, etc. All become kind of impossible for me to do. I feel nothing or everything all at once. I cannot make it go away. I cannot “fix” it.

6) All of the positive thinking in the world will not make my illness go away.

7) Guilt: I feel it every day, all day. I constantly feel like I am not good enough because I do not work, because I have this illness, because I can’t do “normal” things that everyone else can do. But I fight, every day, all day.

This is an illness, not a choice.

There are more, but I hope this helps.

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 Invisible Tattoos of Bipolar

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Today I found myself hopeless, depressed and just staring at this permanent marker.

I kept imagining what I would look like with all the words I have been called over the years written all over me… Would there even be enough skin?

I may not have the wounds on me for everyone to see, but I feel like they are visible to the world and they are more than visible to me.

I want more than anything to rid myself of these heavy scars, but they always seem to be there staring me in the face when I look in the mirror.

How do I rid myself of painful thoughts that threaten to tear me apart? I want to stop living in what seems like an endless circle. I want to take my life back and smash this mirror that has a hold on me, but in a way the mirror has become my twisted friend. Why do I embrace the guilt when it feels so cold?

I don’t want to be familiar with pain. I don’t want to face it another day. These invisible tattoos are weighing me down, and I must be rid of them.

Someone once told me we are never given a burden we cannot handle, but sometimes I wonder if there was some mistake. People have told me I am strong. The truth is I feel weak in almost every way.

Bipolar is not something I chose. It was just something that happened to me, and now I live with it every day.

The tattoos will never define me. I know who I am. Bipolar is a part of me, but it will never define me. That is the one battle I refuse to lose.

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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To the First Responder Who Gave Me Hope When I Was Suicidal

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I’ll never forget the night I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Life had become too hard to handle. My great grandma had just passed away, my dating life was hard, abuse plagued my life at home and school. I was struggling with a paralyzed stomach but was being told it was all in my head. I was slowly losing my hold on reality. Slowly slipping away.

There were nights I would hide under my blankets, trying to escape the noises or the shadows of people present but not real. First it was hypomania, then psychosis that took over my life, my first semester of college. I couldn’t handle it any longer. So I wanted it to end. I planned my suicide and in that moment opened up the portal for judgments like, “You’re so selfish” and “You’re a coward.”

There was one guy that night who talked with me like I mattered. He cared. His actions spoke volumes to me that night and helped me through the darkest time in my life. So here is a letter I wrote, to the man who changed my life for the better. As a reminder that there are first responders who are not judgmental or uncaring, and who genuinely care about the lives of those they serve.

Dear Officer,

I’ll never forget the night I was home alone, crying and working up to ending my life. You and your partner knocked on my door. You asked to come in and then proceeded to ask if I could tell you what was wrong. I had stopped crying, but that question, the very idea of trying to put into words my distress broke me down even more. Suddenly, my rule of not crying in front of people became obsolete. What did it matter anymore? I was breaking down and couldn’t go on any longer.

You had me sit down on the couch while your partner stepped outside to talk with dispatch. You talked with me like I was another human being worthy of love. You talked to me with love and respect. Thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for giving me hope that life isn’t always going to be this dark, scary and hard. Your words let me know someone heard me that night and cared enough about me to remind me of my worth. You told me about your family history with mental illness, and in that moment, whether you knew it or not, you reminded me I’m not so broken that others won’t or can’t love me.

You reminded me there is life after this. There is life after contemplating suicide. There is life after my planned suicide. It’s not always going to be easy. In fact, some days and nights are going to be so hard I may hate myself for reaching out for help. Then your voice, your message comes to mind, and I know someone cares. Someone will miss me. You only saw my darkest storms within. You saw nothing really of the happy woman I am.

You should know it’s because of you and your kindness, your love, that I found my hope. You could have come in and repeated what others were saying. You could have blamed me for these thoughts and feelings and done the same thing, accused me of one thing or another as if I had complete control over my thoughts. Instead, you reminded me it’s not my fault — it’s a real illness, it’s mental illness, and there is no shame in living with it.

Because of you I have gone on to meet new friends and have new life experiences. I won’t say my life is easier since you gave me hope again, but I believe it’s worth it. After my diagnosis of bipolar disorder, I moved home and struggled with finding a doctor who could help me. I finally ended up in an outpatient program at the psychiatric hospital. I learned things about myself I didn’t know before.

There have been days and nights I have felt like I am so broken, dirty and unlovable. I didn’t understand how someone — anyone — could love me again. My mind felt broken. It was as if I was trying to look at myself, view my life, through a broken, cracked window with cobwebs on it.

Still I find myself thinking of you. Your demeanor. It was 10 at night, and you took the time to talk to me like nothing else mattered. The very idea that someone out there cares gave me hope, that maybe someone else cares, too. My family and friends care. The ones I met after that night care. I have gone on to write, and to somehow change lives. All I could see was darkness. No spark of light.

Thank you for that night. Thank you for the night you walked into my life and showed me nothing but love and respect. Thank you for showing me that someone does care, that there is hope for my life, and life is worth living. Thank you for taking my hand and helping me up. Thank you for doing your job the best way you could. I know it couldn’t have been easy for you, sharing your story or opening up about your family history. I know this because I, too, have a family history. This history is part of the reason I felt so horrible, why I hated my life, but maybe there was something to this that I didn’t understand yet. I have now lived both sides. I’m still living it. I’m learning that mental illness does not make any one of us worthless or unlovable. However broken we may feel does not determine our worthiness of being loved.

One last thing: I want you to know that I am enjoying life again. I’m fighting hard for the life I have, but I’m stable. I finally found a great therapist and a great psychiatrist. As it turns out, I’m allergic to the antipsychotics I tried, and antidepressants make me suicidal, but lithium is amazing. You talked with me like you had nothing better to do, and now here I am… My physical health hasn’t been the greatest, but I want to fight for my life because you showed me my life matters.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

One grateful young woman

Image via Thinkstock.

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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