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Why Shame Feels Like the Deep Core of My Bipolar Disorder Experience

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We rarely talk about shame in the bipolar disorder community, but I’ve found it’s a common experience that connects me to so many others with this disorder.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

To me, shame feels like the deep core of my bipolar experience.

Psychosis, mania and paranoia can alter our thoughts and behavior and cause us to do and say socially unacceptable things. (I have learned that society has extremely limited boundaries about what is and what isn’t acceptable.) Or at the very least, things that aren’t typical for us and don’t represent who we really are.

I’ve been naked in public, I’ve been arrested for having a meltdown in the middle of a busy street. Paranoia has caused me to destroy my relationships with friends because I thought they were plotting against me. I’ve believed, and informed other people, that I have magical powers. I’ve ended up lost, 35 miles away from my house, with no car or way of getting home. I’ve been desperately afraid in a busy area that the people in my vicinity could hear my thoughts.

Those things are on the more extreme scale of what I experience, but even as a relatively stable person, the mood episodes that I endure cause me to behave in ways that are normally out of character for me. I’ll let people in my life who I normally wouldn’t, or sometimes start a sexual relationship with someone I normally wouldn’t. I’ve told my boss to f*** off and walked out. I will get ideas (and be highly vocal about them) that don’t really make any sense. Normally, I am not one for socializing, but when manic I am happy to engage in organizing my own public events and will speak on a podium.

No matter how well hypomanic-me can go down sometimes, and even when hypomanic me is preferable to “normal” me, I feel ashamed. It can feel like my body has been taken over by someone else and I have gone and done and said things I would never usually do and say.

The way that I behave when I am experiencing an episode is different to who I am when I am feeling well. I feel like a lot of people in my life don’t actually know me because they have never met stable me. When I am recovering from an episode, I not only need to go through the emotional turmoil of healing from a bout of serious mental illness, I also need to pick up the pieces of whatever it is that I’ve done and said that people don’t like. Or just hide under the covers and cringe about how I acted. I am so introverted and shy on a “normal” day that this humiliation can be something as little as a joke I made at a party. Even if everyone laughed at it!

I try and minimize the damage I can cause when poorly by educating the people around me about psychosis, paranoia and hypomania. I try and teach them that for me, mental illness doesn’t always mean sadness and anxiety. The extremes of mental illness are still hidden and unspoken. But no matter how many times we try and educate and explain, many people don’t actually listen or do their own research.

I’m a huge lover of apologizing. I will always apologize as deeply as I can when I have hurt or offended someone I care about. But not everyone will accept apologies, and sometimes even if I apologize very sincerely, it will not fix the relationship; this is just something that needs to be accepted. I am also aware that I often may not even realize when someone is upset about my behavior and will instead quietly distance themselves for me.

I put in every effort to avoid getting unwell in the first place. The select understanding people I have in my life don’t need to visit me in hospital because I ended up hurting myself either intentionally or accidentally. They don’t need me to lose all my money because of something I did while hypomanic. They don’t need me to end up with a criminal record for being disruptive in public. So I am a routine queen, educate myself about bipolar as much as possible, stay sober and take my medication.

That’s how I take accountability for my behavior. I warn, I apologize and I prevent. But I am fully aware that I cant stop myself from having any episodes ever again; if I could, I would be a millionaire because I would have found a cure for bipolar. And I know that while I am having an episode, there is a chance I will behave in a way that is out of character. And so, I ask people without bipolarcan you cut me a break? Can you understand that I feel so much shame? Can you empathize that sometimes, I feel like I am watching myself act? And sometimes, I can’t remember what I did or said at all. If I acted or spoke in a way that didn’t make sense to you, know that it probably doesn’t make sense to me either. 

I think it would be nice if we could cut ourselves a break too. Whenever someone new confides in me about their diagnosis, they will often tell me about things they’ve done before they got treatment they weren’t proud of. It’s why I wanted to share this article and how I’ve felt shame too. Pain can be uniting and binding. But shining a light on the ways we have acted, particularly when in crisis, can help to reduce shame.

We can be kinder to ourselves. Perhaps you have had a meltdown in front of some people you would have preferred not to see you like that. Perhaps you were mocked by passersby, by people you love or by emergency services while you were in crisis. I have too. If we share our embarrassing, shameful, scary experiences, we can take back control of our out-of-control moments. Healing from the shame inflicted on us by other people or ourselves is part and parcel of recovering from an episode. We need to be kind to ourselves because society has historically heaped the shame onto us. Calling us “nutcases” and “psychos,” lobotomization, sterilization. This is part of our history and part of the reason that we feel ashamed for not fitting neatly into society, and behind the horror other people feel when we can’t act the way we are expected to.

Be good to yourself, be kind to yourself. I have been there too. We are on this hard journey together. You are not alone. You are not embarrassing. You are not shameful.

Photo by Jennifer Burk on Unsplash

Originally published: August 21, 2020
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