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Why I Felt Alienated at the Women's March as a Woman With Bipolar

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On January 21, 2017, along with millions of people in America and worldwide, I marched in support of women’s rights and against the agenda of the new presidential administration. I saw cute signs and pink knitted hats aplenty. I marched with a group of women my own age. We chanted. We carried signs. We filled the streets of our planned route to overflowing.

I found the experience profoundly alienating. Here is why.

I have a disability known as bipolar type I.

I am one of the lucky ones. I can take a pill every day and keep symptoms at bay. I can “pass” for normal. I can hold down a job. I can date. I can meet new people and form superficial friendships.

When I went to pick up my prescription the other day, the woman told me how impressed she was I knew the name of my medication. What does that tell you about people’s perceptions of people like me?

Nothing good.

About two months ago a guy who runs an online journal asked me for an article about stigma and why I don’t like it as a label. I tried to write one, but I actually couldn’t. Partly because I had a lot of other things going on in my life. Mostly because I was just too angry.

Here’s the way I see it.

The root word of stigma is stigmata, a bleeding mark or wound that is impossible to hide.

With prejudice and discrimination, the moral fault lies in the person who is prejudiced.

They are the bigot, the racist, the sexist and the homophobe.

With stigma, something is still wrong with you  —  the victim. The person who is signing a “Stop Stigma” pledge, or wearing a “Stigma Stops Here” at a National Alliance on Mental Illness fundraiser is showing what a kind and gracious person they are to look past your “flaws.” They are doing something above and beyond what is expected and necessary.

I believe the image of the person with a mental illness this brings to mind is somebody who needs proper care and treatment from family members or the state. Somebody not capable of looking after themselves and who certainly should not reproduce.

These images do not match, in the slightest, the brilliance, heroism and achievements of Kay Redfield Jamison, Sylvia Plath, Patty Duke, Ted Turner, Lord Byron, John Nash or Winston Churchill. It does not match the lives and achievements of the people I know with diagnoses personally. It does not measure their ability to recover and bounce back.

We’re here. We’re crazy brilliant. Crazy in love. Passionate, visionary or you know… just our everyday selves. We are accountants and poets. We are parents. We are black, we are white and we are queer.

Stigma is discrimination. Pure and simple. Why do we need another word?

Or if we’re stuck with this word, stigma, why is “stigmatizer” not in our vocabulary? Why does it seem people consider it one iota less bad to hate a person with mental illness than to hate another marginalized group?

We’re here, but you would never know it. Because we are invisible.

And our invisibility puts us in danger.

We are at risk for loss of health coverage because we live with mental illnesses. We are 16 times more likely to be killed by the police. Yet our problems are seen as primarily medical or personal, not political.

I am not here to compare injustices. I am not here to deny that I have access to certain categories of privilege due to my skin color and education. This isn’t something well-meaning allies can fix for us. You can kindly treat us as human beings and stop to check your privileges and assumptions, yes. But change has to come from somewhere else. Basically enough other people who have been dealt this shitty impossible magical hand-decorated game winning card in life need to decide that they are actually still human too, and worthy of respect and dignity.

Injustice is difficult to impossible to attack without community. And community in our case has major obstacles for building. It is too easy to hide. Too risky if you don’t. I of all people should know. But we’ve got to start somewhere.

The women I marched with didn’t know I was bipolar. Nor was I about to tell them. That label has cost me too many close relationships in my life. Not the illness, the label. Most people don’t get that distinction.

I wonder if anyone from my support group would have been willing to march. Maybe I should have asked them.

Maybe next time, if there is a next time, I will.

A version of this piece originally appeared on Medium. Follow Rose on Twitter @rosecheval.

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When You Miss the Early Signs of Mental Illness

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As parents we can get busy — busy with life, with carpools and jobs. We get busy with helping with homework and figuring out what’s for dinner. 

Maybe that’s why when my daughter started withdrawing the summer before eighth grade, I was too busy to be really concerned. When she wanted to stay in her room on a beautiful day, I dragged her with me to the pool. As she got quieter and quieter, I was still busy juggling life with her two active siblings.

Suddenly all that came to a roaring stop. I was at school bingo with her brother and sister when I received a call from her best friend’s mom. Everything stopped when this woman told me her daughter admitted to her that my child was having suicidal thoughts. The child I had left home alone for the evening was having what? I ran out of the school leaving my children with another mother and prayed desperately during the five minutes it took me to get home. I can’t even remember what I promised God I would do if I could just find her home safe. I do know I would have promised anything. So I burst through the door, found her OK and sat her down to talk. How could I have been so blind? Not only was my child so depressed that she wanted to die but she had been self-harming for months. My beautiful daughter had cuts on her arms and legs. How had I missed this? 

This happened on a Friday night and by Tuesday, my child, my first born, was admitted into the hospital. I have always thought I was good in a crisis, but nothing prepared me for the paralyzing feelings of fear and helplessness that sometimes made breathing impossible. 

We got a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. This was based on her symptoms and the fact that there was a family history of bipolar. Now here comes the meds. Those little pills that can bring a whole suitcase full of side effects. We would wait to see what worked and in a year we tried at least six different kinds. The drowsiness, weight gain, stomachaches and hallucinations she went through were all in our quest to find what worked. Each time I went to the pharmacy, I prayed that this time it would help. Our home also became a place where sharp objects were locked up and you couldn’t even get a Tylenol without a key. 

Between the end of eighth grade to middle of freshman year, she was hospitalized four times. We finally realized we needed to do something more drastic and we sent her to a residential program for a month. We had to stop this endless cycle of in and out of hospitals. We finally found a medication that helped and she began to see a physiatrist and therapist regularly. We also had to fight with her school to get her accommodations that would help her be more successful. 

Everyday I was still looking for signs, afraid of missing something. I became something of a robot. I still did the carpools, homework and laundry, but I had pushed my emotions down so far I began to fear what would happen if I let go for a second. How could I break down when she needed me? To this day, there are fears and emotions I haven’t truly dealt with, but are still in the vault I locked inside myself. The whole family was affected by this. Once when I had to take her for an appointment and I had a friend pick up my other kids after school, my kids were instantly panicked their sister was back in the hospital. My husband, an incredibly strong man, struggled with the helplessness of not being able to chase away the demons that were threatening to take our child away from us. 

Fast forward two years and here we are. My daughter surprised us with a granddaughter her junior year and while it was a difficult pregnancy and the postpartum depression was crushing, she made it through. My granddaughter is the most beautiful baby and while we are blessed to have her, she is also blessed with a wonderful mother. Now she’s about to graduate this year, my daughter who may be the bravest and strongest person I know. (Although she would probably argue this). She plans to attend college and hopes to one day help teens who are going through what she went through. 

What would I say to other parents? I guess it would be to slow down and look around you. We can get so busy in the maintenance of our lives that we stop noticing things. Even kids who are hiding things from you are also sending you signs that they are in trouble. 

We were so lucky we had family and friends to help. Just knowing my friends were there at a moment’s notice was life saving. When our insurance wouldn’t pay for a residential program, my in-laws paid the bill without hesitation. Every night I prayed for her to get better and for God to give me the strength to help her. 

There is no cure, no magic pill, no words that can keep her from ever falling into depression again. I can only hope that we have given her the tools to fight through it and the knowledge that we are always there for her. 

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Beautifully Bipolar

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I am the voices inside your head. The screams of inadequacies no one seems to remember and the whispers of all the things you can be doing right now because you can do everything. I am the persistent need to sleep with the uncontrollable drive to be awake. I am the nervous twitch, the rubbing of hands. Maybe I’ll play with your hair or dart your eyes around, making everyone in the room uncomfortable.

I am the reason you don’t shower for a week while furiously cleaning the house. Next week, let’s shower four times a day but never do the dishes or take out the trash. I am the fist through the wall and the torrent of tears. Deep and profound sadness mixed with furious anger pulsing through your very soul but without purpose or cause.

I am the impulse purchase, the drug and alcohol binge, the one night stand. I come without warning, and I strike for no reason.

I am the painting, the poem, the spark of creativity. I am the emotional sensitivity and understanding. I am the dizzying highs, the terrifying lows and the appreciation for the middle ground. I am the random hug or brief moment of eye contact. The breakthrough moment where everything seems perfect. I am the fortress of the savant. I excel at the unexpected, and I surprise you all the time.

You curse and question my existence. You ask, “Why do I live with this? Why can’t I cure this?” There’s a part of you that doesn’t want me to leave. I am normal, to you. Why can’t people see that? You’ve tried to “cure” me but in reality you want to use me, control me, and that’s OK.

I tell you you’re not “crazy” while telling you you’re completely “insane.” I cloud your vision and open up your senses. I am a river of perpetual confusion and brief clarity.

I am bipolar disorder. I’m a bitch, but I’m beautiful too.

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When Bipolar Disorder and Anxiety Keep You Housebound

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Bipolar disorder and anxiety keep me housebound, and many people do not understand. I am in such a fragile place that even a trip to the grocery store is difficult. My anxiety has become so out of control I have trouble leaving the house even to walk my dog with my fiancé. I begin to shake and hyperventilate before we’ve even left the house. There are some days when I can overcome my anxiety and walk the dog. However, more often I become so overwhelmed that it is no longer an option.

While battling bipolar disorder, I have lost a lot of strength and find it difficult to function. During the worst of my illness, I’ve had depressive episodes that can range from really bad to mild. On my really bad days, I cannot leave my bed, and all I want to do is sleep. On my mild days, I can walk to our home office and distract myself with the computer. I barely leave the top floor of my house while having a depressive episode, and that’s OK.

However, during manic episodes, I have too much energy. I am all over the house, cleaning and baking. I want to leave the house. The only thing is my mind has been trained to think the world is scary. My anxiety keeps me housebound.

When I feel severe anxiety, I cannot pinpoint why or what actually causes it. For me, battling bipolar I disorder not only means extreme shifts in mood, but it also means delusions and hallucinations. This increases my anxiety levels, and I fear the response from others in the event that I do hallucinate.

I have reached a point where, to avoid the severe stress levels, I stay home where stress is more manageable. My psychiatrist once told me to listen to my body. I know I never give myself a break. I hope by giving my body a rest, my treatment options will help me to become stronger and I will have the courage to leave the house.

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What 'Bipolar Obsessiveness' Is Like for Me

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I went to a Natalie Diaz poetry reading yesterday, and it was — apart from being amazing — the only good thing that has evoked an emotional response from me in months. I mostly cry when someone catches me doing something mildly terrible, like checking my email in class or when I have to reckon with the mountain of work that causes me extreme existential distress, while simultaneously requiring completion in order to keep me on a trajectory towards a future I am preemptively resenting. Objectively stressful tasks like job applications and finals cause me exactly 0 percent of my anxiety, or if they do contribute to my anxiety, it’s in an indirect way. It’s the obsessive tangents that manage to work me up and derail me.

And let’s just say Natalie Diaz’s poetic advice was of little help.

She said, and I quote, to “lean into your obsessions.” Thanks for the very Sheryl Sandberg-esque tip, but I’m already constantly looking over the event horizon of my obsessive void into the concentrated mass of unimportant tangents that actively threaten to stretch me into nothingness at any given moment. So “leaning in” sounds a lot like succumbing to my lack of control over the things that create an internal illusion of having control. Fun.

Yet I’ve found attempting to combat obsessions can basically be tantamount to giving in to them. Trying to pull a thought relevant to reality out of my brain without dredging up a scenario that will literally never come to fruition feels impossible. Obviously, the unreal scenarios are more appealing, and with manic grandiosity telling me anything is possible or depressive hopelessness telling me nothing in the real world matters anyway, whatever obsession my brain dug out of its recesses can fester endlessly.

For me, obsessions include but are not limited to poetry, eyebrow plucking, eating only 1,000 calories, other random beauty rituals, hand-washing, showering, texting some boy I met once and have now romanticized into the impossible, streamlining my closet, optimizing space in my room, drinking, how the world alternates between grayscale and Clarendon, and my oscillation between god-complex and self-loathing.

None of these things may seem that detrimental on their own, but combined and given the power to relentlessly derail any remotely productive train of thought I have, they’re the worst. My brain is one massive detour, but I’m unaware of this until I see other people’s brains leading them to some tangible destination. You know, like a job or grad school or whatever. And mine’s just over here like, “Count the number of ripples when a raindrop hits that puddle, and if it’s more than five, that’s a sign you should talk to the next guy you see,” or “Hear those song lyrics? Do exactly what they say.”

Obsession combined with either a surplus of energy or feverish lethargy can be disastrous. The former ensures the broken record can keep twitching well into the night, and the latter propels me into a state of obsessive inertia, because I’m too exhausted to try to move.

When either of those instances reaches its peak, what was once an impossible idea is no longer distinguishable from the possible. I’m not out of touch with reality per se, but it does become extremely difficult to know what’s an emotion/thought versus what’s a symptom. And suddenly I think, “Maybe I am one giant symptom. I am mental illness incarnate. This is a conspiracy. Maybe.”

I want to think my obsessions are as simple as me trying to cope with all those pent-up emotions that periodically get released in inopportune and seemingly minuscule instances, but that implies I have more control over them than I actually seem to. If I could just say, “OK, brain. Dissociate through obsession,” then maybe I would actually enjoy it, but it’s more like my brain is like, “Time to obsess over things that simultaneously represent your nameless emotions and allow you to project your emotions onto them so you can not deal with — but still be affected by — your emotions in a really roundabout way,” a.k.a. dissociation.

Even though obsession can feel overwhelming, unpacking the emotional baggage I carry with me everywhere — be it from mental illness or anything else — could be exponentially more overwhelming. My brain obviously has some passive awareness of this, because it does the obsessing with no oversight from me. Zero work is involved in making my brain work overtime at being unproductive. It’s its default setting apparently.

I don’t lean in to my obsessions. I fall into them headfirst and involuntarily.

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How I Manage 'Those' Days With Bipolar Disorder

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Sometimes there are those days. I’ve taken my meds, gotten my eight hours of sleep, took the dogs for a walk, worked, stuck to my schedule and even thrown in a quiet mediation. Regardless, the rage and anxiety echoes like a sledgehammer through a plate glass window.

I talked to my psychiatrist and therapist about this, and anger management exercises were the suggestion. That just made me angrier. Why do I have these days? Whether I’m on the mania or depression side of the fence with my bipolar disorder, there is just no escaping days where my condition seems to want to exercise its control.

When I introduce myself, I say, “Hi, I’m Fred.” It’s never, “Hi, I’m Bipolar!” I’m not ashamed of my disease; it’s just like any other and requires maintenance. No stigma here.

So what do I do when these days happen? I may have found a simple solution: embrace it.

My disease isn’t going away. Period. I can manage it most days with all of the things I’ve mentioned above. There are however those days where fear, anger and/or anxiety are going to team up and try to make me backpedal. I simply won’t have that. I have equipped quite an arsenal, support team, group and mental health professionals if I need the extra teamwork to get me through. The real stigma is being too afraid to ask for help. So why not give it a hug? It is after all, part of me.

Part of not letting the stigma win is also knowing when to ask for help or just admitting, I’m having a rough day; those are going to happen. I know this sounds really simplistic, but if you think about it, I am the one in control of feeding the rage, fear or anxiety. By embracing it, I cut off its food supply. It’s not always easy, but something worth having seldom is. With a clear state of mind during these storms, the tentacles of these monsters retreat into the depths with more haste.

It is, after all, my life. Giving up is simply is not going to happen. If not for myself for those who love me and support me in the good times and bad.

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