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What I Want You to Know About My 'Stable' Mental Illness


What does it mean to have reached a place of relatively stable mental illness?

On the outside, in my life with bipolar 2 disorder with ultradian cycling (basically, mood cycling multiple times in a day) and generalized anxiety, it means getting a lot of, “You’re doing so much better,” from other people.

While this is true — I’ve grown a lot in the past year from the mental wreck I had been for several years (my words, not anyone else’s) — I always feel strange when I hear that phrase and its variants. On one hand, I’m proud people can recognize the work I’ve put into myself, a mirror that shows that my own summations about myself are true (because I still have trouble trusting my own views on myself). It’s also nice to have verification that my current medication is working better for me than my previous cocktail.

But, on the other hand, it makes me wonder how “bad” I seemed to other people, what people said about me to each other and if I have been too vocal about my disorders. It makes me feel shame I still don’t quite understand. For as much as I understand and tell other people that the brain is an organ and can get sick like any other part of the body, there is still the conditioned response to hide my suffering and embarrassment that I am struggling at all. Hearing that phrase from the people closest to me, those I have allowed myself to be the rawest with, has a more muted effect. But, from other people, it feels downright weird.

What is it like on the inside? Here, I’m going to ask you to use your imagination.

Imagine that, every day, you have to push a little boat, your little boat of life, out to sea. The horizon is clear in the distance, always waiting for me to reach for. Some days it’s easier to push the boat out than others, but you always get it out there onto the water. When you’re on the water, wind blowing into the sails, you go about the business of living your life, leaving your little shore behind. The water is usually relatively calm. Sure, there are ups and downs, the mood of the sea changing as it wishes, but not too much for me and my little lifeboat to handle. I can navigate the sea, doing what I need to do, taking a nap in my boat if the sea gets a little too rough, before finding the next little bit of sandy shore in the evening to rest. This is most days.

But then there are the days when thunderheads crowd your view of the horizon and it feels like it’s made of lead. But you have to push the boat out, right? You can’t give up just because things are harder today… right?

Eventually, you do get the boat in the water and climb in, but the tempest has been waiting for you and the sea is unforgiving. No matter how good you’ve become at navigating, at handling the ways of your ocean, there is no sun to show your direction and the waves crash against you until panic or anger threatens to drag you overboard. What are you supposed to do first, with your skin sensitive and raw from the salt and surf: bail water, keep yourself from being thrown overboard, keep the wind from tearing out your sails or steer the boat?

Then a dramatic change: the sea goes flat and the wind dies, leaving your boat stagnant in the water without any wind in your sails to move you forward. The rain that has been waiting pours, too heavy to see past your nose, and you’re so tired, so very tired. You try to row, but the rain pins you down, and you can barely lift your arms. All you can do is sit there and wait for the rain to stop. This cycle repeats itself throughout your day, tempest and torrential rain until, utterly raw, you find a small bit of shore to land your boat. Is it the same shore you left this morning? Did you make any progress? Were you sent back further than you had sailed the day before? But, even exhausted, it takes forever for rest to come, if it comes at all. All you can do is hope that the next day will be kinder than today. For, over time, that is the driving force for continuing at all: hope for a better tomorrow.

Through medication, support, a lot of self-introspection and self-care, I have become more stable. Most days, though they are still exhausting, though I still must fight, I can put my boat out on the sea, keep sailing towards the future I am working for and enjoy living along the way. Even waking up every morning, every single blessed morning, with anxiety settled firmly in my chest, I’m still alive (this month is the two year anniversary of trying to end my life) and I can still put my feet on the floor. Most days, even when the anxiety becomes depression, I can still find things to be happy about and reasons to keep moving. Some days, the kind days, I can just be happy and enjoy the successes I’ve done and feel excitement for the future. I can love my husband and my dog with my whole heart. I can find things to be grateful for.

There are still those days, though they are thankfully less frequent, that come with no warning at all, where the anxiety (my manifestation of hypomania) utterly crushes me, leaving me restless, irritable, angry and sometimes panicked. Then the switch flips and the depression settles in like my bones are made of lead, leaving me lying in bed, crying, wishing it would stop. There’s no telling how many times I will cycle on those days and, even lying in bed at night, I cannot make my mind stop enough to sleep. When I do, I have to leave the light on.

With all that, even on those days, I still have to live my life, fulfill my responsibilities and keep my little boat going.

Photo by Cristobal Baeza on Unsplash