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