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My Bipolar Disorder Is Not Your ‘B’ Word

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Standing in line at a small coffee shop at the mall and absolutely dripping with boredom, I couldn’t help but allow my attention to wander to the antics of the crowd that surrounded me. Wild, ornery kids slammed their tiny fists against mannequins and display windows while parents, foreheads creased with worry, hurriedly dragged their families along to avoid making a scene. Large groups of high school students flocked together over shared plates of lukewarm french fries and shopping center pizza. Elderly couples wandered from shop to shop aimlessly, eyes darting all over the mall while their hands remained tightly intertwined.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

My people-watching was interrupted when suddenly the customer before me in line shuffled to the side so I could place my order. My eyes floated across the menu, knowing very well I was going to stick with my status quo of the usual peppermint mocha latte, I caught a string of venomous sentences from the coffee patron behind me. Unsettled by this stranger’s anger, I tuned out her words and was just about to place my order when my ears caught a specific statement that simultaneously burned both my ears and my heart with its callousness:

“I don’t know why my roommate has to be such a ‘psycho bipolar jerk.’”

“Psycho bipolar jerk.”

The words buzzed around in my head like a furious beehive, stabbing into the corners of my mind with reaffirmations of painful thoughts and beliefs I’d worked so hard to unlearn and repair. After spending so much time dedicated to therapy and finding the right medicine to manage my symptoms, I felt myself reduced to the confines of my condition, deemed powerless by the words of a stranger and inferior in the eyes of those without the same chemical imbalance.

My voice cracked when I thanked the barista for my order. I avoided eye contact with the person behind me and hurriedly made as much distance between myself and the coffee shop as I could. By the time I reached a quiet corner in the back of a relatively vacant thrift shop, I was bursting with tears, wishing I could erase my diagnosis from both the dictionary and the DSM-5, and cursing myself down to the cellular, chemical level that set my bipolar brain up for failure to begin with.

The first time I heard someone use my mental illness as an adjective, it broke my heart. After hearing similar sentiments again and again and again, my brain got desensitized, but my heart still aches for the type of understanding shown for tangible, physical ailments.

What this stranger didn’t know about bipolar is that it isn’t an adjective used to describe mean, temperamental, or otherwise unpleasant people.

What this stranger didn’t know about bipolar is that it’s a mood disorder that affects millions of people every year.

What this stranger didn’t know about bipolar is that it’s a condition, a battle, a struggle, and a battle wound.

But, most of all, this stranger failed to recognize that bipolar is not a “B” word.

When people use bipolar as a “B” word, with the “B” posing as an deductive alternative to belligerent or beastly, the initial knee-jerk reactions to such a term as bipolar become reactions of avoidance, ignorance, and disgust. With bipolar as a “B” word, a “B” word goes from a condition, to a sickness, to a curse and finally to a monster.

When people use bipolar as a “B” word, they flock to movie theaters and comfy spots on their sofas to watch the despicable, horrendous actions of fictional characters with their actions rationalized and justified by a non-fiction, horribly real condition.

When people use bipolar as a “B” word, the world becomes a bit less safe and a bit less bright for those who are battling bipolar disorder once it becomes apparent that those afflicted with this condition are automatically assumed to be moody, ill-tempered monstrous machines of rage and destruction.

When I crumbled and hid in the corner of that thrift shop and wept, I cried for the woman I really am and how it seemed she could not escape from the shadow of her mental health. But, it was in the deep darkness of that shadow that I finally began to see the light. Looking deep within, I searched for any hint of the “B” word, a single taste of mentally ill monstrosity that society’s stigma preaches, and found nothing except a single, absolute truth:

My bipolar is not a “B” word, but rather an “F” word, an “F” for all of the happiness, love, hope, wonder, excitement and vibrance I feel from the time I wake up to face a new day to the time I retire to sleep.

My bipolar is not a “B” word, but a word for my body’s struggle to maintain the right balance of neurotransmitters, a word to encapsulate my battle between deep, dark depressions and lightning-fast bouts of mania.

My bipolar is not a “B” word, but a part of myself I’ve grown to unapologetically respect, care for and treat with the love and compassion it deserves through talk therapy and psychiatry. My bipolar is a wound on its way to healing into a scar. My bipolar is a part of my life that will never rob me of myself, nor will it define my life or my future. My bipolar allows me to speak up about the importance of mental health in a way that will genuinely reach and help others going through similar situations… and there is nothing beastly or belligerent about that.

My bipolar is not a “B” word, not a word to throw around callously to categorize cruel people or explain egregious behavior. It’s not a dirty word, an insult or an excuse. It’s a part of me, a battle that myself and millions of others stand firmly on the front lines to manage and control. It’s not a mark of shame or a death sentence.

My bipolar is not a “B” word that scales me down to textbook symptoms and societally-driven stigma of explosive temper tantrums and childish indecision. I am a woman, a student, a writer, an artist, a lover, an advocate, a daughter, a human and so much more before I am “a bipolar.”

When I hear people use my condition as a “B” word today, I no longer feel the need to hide and enter a cycle of sadness. Instead, I smile and remind myself that my condition does not equate me with every horrible word in the dictionary. I smile and remind myself of my progress and my growth.

I smile and remind myself that my bipolar is not your “B” word, that stranger’s “B” word, or anyone’s “B” word. It’s my reminder of my strength, my dedication and my willpower toward recovery and creating a life worth living despite the hardship of fighting with my brain to survive. And no angry, ignorant stranger in a cafe can ever take my bravery away from me.

Originally published: March 31, 2020
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