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The Kind of 'Cheerleader' I Need on My Mental Health Support Team

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I was prejudiced. I admit it. When I was in high school, I believed all cheerleaders fit the stereotype: “buoyant and busty and just plain ‘dumb,’” as the singing group Uncle Bonsai put in “Cheerleaders on Drugs.”

• What is Bipolar disorder?

I still don’t really understand cheerleading, especially on the scale of professional sports. But I know some good people who have participated in cheerleading and cheer coaching, so I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about today. I want to discuss the kind of cheerleaders that offer support to those of us with bipolar disorder.

I suppose traditional-style cheerleaders are supposed to give encouragement before a thing is done. But I prefer ones who cheer after something — no matter how small — is accomplished. That is to say, I prefer cheerleaders who say, “You did it!” instead of those who say, “You can do it!”

Cheerleaders-before-the-event are common in mental health circles.

“Smile! You can do it!”

“Do volunteer work! Give it a try!”

“Get out there and meet new people! You’ll feel better!”

“Get some fresh air and exercise! It’s easy!”

But the fact is, no, I can’t always do it or give it a try. No, it’s not easy, and I don’t feel better.

It’s good to know someone believes in you, but to me, cheerleaders set me up for failure. If I can’t manage to smile or exercise or whatever, I have disappointed not just myself, but the person who thought I could do it — whatever “it” happens to be. Remember the Little Engine That Coul”? It was thinking, “I think I can,” not “Someone else thinks I can.” What does that someone else really know about how severe my symptoms are today or whether my meds are having their desired effect or how many spoons I have?

I prefer cheerleaders-after-the-fact – those who join me in celebrating victories, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem to others.

“Hurray! You paid a bill today!”

“Congratulations! You phoned your mother!”

“Good job! You took a shower!”

“Go you! You put on pants three days this week!”

These are accomplishments – things you actually did, not things that you might or might not do. They’re tiny victories, maybe, and you don’t see memes that encourage you to do them. To neurotypical people, they wouldn’t be accomplishments at all, just normal functions of everyday living. It’s too easy for me to picture cheerleaders-before-the-fact saying these things half-heartedly or sarcastically. “Oh, great. You fed the dog. Woohoo.”

I don’t want cheerleaders so much as celebrators — people who can join me in acknowledging it is a victory to write my blog post, or even to make notes for it. Or even, some days, to get out of bed.

I don’t expect someone to follow me around all day applauding every little thing I do. But on days when I feel useless and unproductive, like a failure or a slug, I do like having someone remind me I do make progress, that my struggles have value, that – as a friend of mine said – “not fucking things up worse is at least half a win.”

I’ll take half a win when I can get it. And a pat on the back whether I smile and get out and make new friends, or simply make it to my doctor’s appointment.

That doesn’t make me a glass-half-full person. It just means I’m grateful the glass isn’t completely empty.

Thinkstock photo via Creative_Outlet.

Originally published: August 18, 2017
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