It wasn’t until my Junior year of college that I was diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder. I had been previously diagnosed with depression but no combination of medications ever seemed to work. When I told my Psychiatrist that when I wasn’t feeling low I was committing to too many projects, sleeping 3 hours a night, and feeling like my brain would implode from racing thoughts and concerns the diagnosis changed. I remember being in high school and my friends commenting that my interests were erratic and I changed my mind about things constantly. At first I thought…yikes. How will I tell my family about this, friends, a lover, anyone? How will I ever control and possibly even hide this thing so no one suspects anything is different?
I struggled for about a year to reconcile my expectations of myself with my diagnosis. I once heard two older women in line at Barnes and Noble talking about Bi-polar disorder. One said to the other, “I saw silver linings playbook, I feel like I really understand it now.” The other said, “Ugh, what a crazy thing, I had a friend who was bi-polar in college and he got naked and tried to rob a bank.” As I met the palm of my hand to my forehead in total hopelessness about the perception of my illness, I realized something very important. We live in a society that continually perpetuates negative self-perception. Men and women are constantly met with societal expectations perpetuated by many forms of media to be smarter, sexier, basically completely without flaws. What would happen if we owned our “illnesses,” our bodies, our experiences, and our pain? Perhaps we would be more motivated to change, to move forward, and to change the negative self-perception that is lodged down our throats on a daily basis. So the following is a list of what I have found by owning my mental illness, and why I think you should own yours. And if you’re not afflicted with mental illness per se, my guess is you are afflicted by something.
1. If I had a dime for every time I was honest with someone about my disorder and they called me “crazy” I’d probably have 20 cents.
The fact is the people who truly love you, or just like and respect you, will probably be more curious than anything about what’s going on in your noggin. More often than not, I have found being honest reveals the best in the people I love; they have come forward with support and encouragement time and again. The few times I have been called “crazy,” it hurt and I responded with, “it’s unfortunate you feel that way” and moved on with my life. The kind of people who can’t accept you and all of your intricacies don’t deserve you in their lives.
2. Being honest about your illness with someone you’re romantically involved with is a productive and healthy decision.
You might worry about sharing this because the symptoms of your illness will be “too much”…if they are, know that there’s someone who will be willing to accept you, encourage you, and even champion you for your honesty and courage. Also, they may be an excellent source of support because they will be able to notice possible tendencies that you may not see which regress your progress. In turn for your honesty, you should expect theirs. Dating someone with a mental illness is not easy and can be incredibly taxing. If someone you are dating or married to says “hey, I’m here for you, but I’ll admit, it’s been hard for me lately to be as supportive because what you’re going through is affecting me,” then this doesn’t mean you’re a burden or you should withdraw completely and begin to collect cats. It means someone cares enough about themselves to regulate their own mental and emotional health as well. And it may mean you need to take more steps independently to regulate your own.
3. Going to therapy is awesome and oodles of people do it.
Therapy in the movies and T.V. is often depicted as either a “crutch” for not being able to deal with your own problems or a luxury of the well-off. I have been told in the past that therapy is wrong because it means you can’t handle and assess your problems yourself. Well I’ve found it takes courage just to admit you are struggling, and the person who is humble enough to admit they need help and actually seek it out, bettering themselves so as to hopefully be a better friend, family member, and neighbor to others is the kind of person I want to be friends with. You may have to “try on” a few different therapists, but ultimately you will find a person you feel comfortable with who can give you tools to regulate your symptoms. When I tell my friends I go to therapy they probably imagine some dude in a twill suit saying, “Yes and how does that make you feel?” My therapist was a psychiatrist during Vietnam and tells really rad stories about his own experiences and is old as dirt, but is totally helpful and insightful and our conversations are just that: conversations. Therapy is not there to “fix you,” it’s there to serve as a resource for objective opinion and healthy catharsis.
4. Owning your mental illness can bleed into owning every other aspect of yourself, and autonomy is essential to human happiness.
I could blame God, luck, or the Universe for any number of things in my life, and often do when things go awry. But the moment I decided to say “Yep, I’m bi-polar. And I don’t need to explain to you that it doesn’t mean I’m crazy. I cope and, along with some of the negatives, it also makes me more creative, inventive, curious, and different. I go to therapy, and I’m okay with that,” I was able to say all the other things I am and own them. I am a sister. I am a friend. I am bossy. I am messy. I am funny. I am kind. I am positive. I am apathetic to politics. I want to change the world. I am confused about my future, but I am not lost. I am responsible for myself and I own that and will work to be my best self for myself, and therefore those I love everyday. That is powerful stuff. Own it.
5. Many really cool people that we historically admire and appreciate such as musicians, activists, and Presidents had mental illnesses.
Abraham Lincoln — yeah ABRAHAM LINCOLN — dealt with mental illness. Van Gough, Isaac Newton, Winston Churchill, Patty Duke, Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, John Keats, etc. So if you do encounter someone who calls you crazy, you can say, “ABRAHAM LINCOLN dealt with mental illness. I’m really not in such bad company. Perhaps I don’t need yours.”
6. You are setting a precedent for acceptance and helping to remove the stigma that surrounds mental illness.
Refusal to address mental illness can lead to devastating consequences including death. When we eliminate resources for individuals with mental illnesses, when we judge them and ostracize them, we encourage a perpetuation of self-shame and enable a vicious cycle that can lead to violence and a less peaceful world as a whole. It is not easy to own your illness, but in the process you set an example and become a resource to those around you who may not have had the confidence or support to own theirs before. I have seen this first-hand. Perpetuate love. Perpetuate acceptance, it starts with you.