I have bipolar disorder.
This is not the best way to start a conversation, maybe, but it certainly does separate the wheat from the chaff.
You get a lot of different reactions when you tell people you have a mental illmess. Some people will act surprised (“WHAAAAAT?? But you seem FINE!”), or try to relate (“I’m so moody and random, I’m probably bipolar too!”), or awkwardly change the subject. Some people will be awesome and understanding. Some people will use it against you every time you get angry or sad. Some people will use it to discredit you (“Well, sure, she said that, but you know she’s bipolar, right?”), and others will use it as a reason to disappear from your life entirely. It’s okay. Let them go. Those are not the people you need to have around you anyway.
I didn’t receive my diagnosis until I was an adult. I didn’t learn how to successfully manage it until I had been an adult for a while. And I didn’t know how to talk about it until maybe last year.
It started when I was eleven or twelve. My erratic behavior was attributed to puberty, to “just being a girl”, to “being dramatic”, and none of that was very comforting. Because from the inside, it looked like everyone else on the planet was in on a secret. They all knew how to deal with things, how to be socially acceptable, how to speak just the right amount so that no one stared at them or rolled their eyes or thought they were weird. I was the only one who didn’t seem to be able to do those things. I was the only one who couldn’t stop crying at Christmas dinner and had no idea why. Just me, locked in the bathroom, staring at the wall and thinking, “There has got to be something, some vital piece of information, that I’m missing.” When I got older, it was hard to understand why not everyone got overwhelmed and hid in their dorm rooms with the lights out because going to the dining hall for breakfast was too daunting a task. When I spent my early twenties making a series of stupid and destructive decisions, I just kind of thought, “Well, I guess this is who I am.”
But it wasn’t. It wasn’t who I am at all.
There was one event that changed everything for me. I wish I could say that one night I looked around and decided I deserved better, that I was worthy of love, that I could pick myself up and be the very Best Version of Me. However, I did it for a boy. When I met the man who is now my husband, I was a hot mess. I was unreliable and self-destructive. I had no ambition, no drive, no healthy coping mechanisms. But he was a High Quality Human, and I wanted him. In order to get him, I had to change some stuff. So, because I had a crush on a boy, I cleaned my apartment. I started cooking healthy meals. I put up curtains and started making my car payments on time. It wasn’t everything, but it was a start, and it was enough to convince him that I wasn’t feral.
While I couldn’t hide the crazy forever, unlike every other boyfriend I had ever had, he saw it for what it was: an illness. There was enough of me that came to the surface between the manic, euphoric, obsessive highs and the rock-bottom, drinking wine from the bottle and weeping, spending days in bed staring at the wall lows, that he realized that that middle ground was who I really was. The other stuff, the extremes, wasn’t me. It was the misfiring neurotransmitters. It was a voice that said, “Go. Go now. Go dismantle your bookshelves and donate them to the church down the street. Start a scrapbook and don’t stop until it’s done, even if it means you won’t sleep for three days. Give yourself a haircut. Buy some jeans with rhinestones on the back pockets. Bake coffee cakes. Do it now, and don’t slow down and don’t rest and don’t think and don’t eat and don’t sleep.” It was another voice that burbled up from the depths of the darkest part of my brain, sucking up the dopamine, saying, “You aren’t worth it. Look at you. Look at how little you’ve accomplished. Look at how disgusting you are. They’re all against you. They don’t love you. They don’t want to be your friends. You’re a burden on your family. Everyone is happier when you’re not around. Just stay here, where it’s dark and you can’t disappoint anyone anymore.”
This man didn’t give up on me. He dragged me to a doctor, sat with me when I refused to go in alone, and when I tried to tell her that I was fine, just a little sad sometimes, and she started to prescribe me another antidepressant, he stopped her, and said, “That’s not the whole story.” Together, we described my life, piece by piece.
“I think I know why the antidepressants haven’t been working,” she said. “We’ve been treating the wrong thing.” She sent me home with a book about living with bipolar disorder, a prescription for lamotrigine, and a standing weekly appointment with a therapist. As I read that night, through page after page describing everything I had tried and failed to explain, tears rolled down my face. This was me. Word for word, me. This meant that the way I was wasn’t my fault, and more importantly, that it could get better.
And it did get better. The medicine works. 200 mg of Lamictal, every day for ten years, minus the eighteen months I spent pregnant. I’m not ashamed of my medication. I’m grateful for the miracle that it is. Because of it, I’m able to enjoy the things that people are supposed to enjoy, that I always desperately wanted to enjoy, but was held back from feeling that joy by a vicious combination of chemicals in the wrong proportions. I’m able to have a job, to volunteer, to create, to be a good wife and mother, and to thrive. I’m grateful, every single day when I take that little blue rhombus, that I live in this age, where I can take this medicine and live my life and not be locked away or burned at the stake for witchcraft. I’m grateful for my partner, who fills my prescription and reminds me to take it every day. And I’m grateful that when I look in the mirror, what I see is who I really am. I see a girl with clear eyes and sincere emotions. She’s awesome, and I like her.
I’m not “fixed”. I still have good days and bad days. If I drink too much caffeine or aspertame, or if I drink alcohol, it can trigger a change in either direction. Some social situations can push me in one direction or the other. And sometimes it happens for no real reason at all, with no trigger or reason I can give. Now, though, it’s like the beginning of that swinging pirate ship ride at the fair: a gradual back and forth, not too far in either direction. Some days I just need to let myself stay in bed, and I’ve made peace with that and I don’t feel guilty about it. Some days I talk too fast and clean too much, and I’ve learned to take advantage of those days and get shit done. I will never be cured, but I can handle it and remain the Alpha of my brain.
When I started talking about my bipolar disorder, I noticed something huge. Talking about it made me less afraid of it. Talking about it made it normal. Talking about it meant that I wasn’t ashamed of it anymore.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I have a mental illness. It isn’t contagious. It isn’t a weakness or a character flaw. It isn’t something I chose, or something to be afraid of. Since I keep up the habits that help me manage it, I’m completely healthy. I’m reliable, responsible, and reasonable. And I’m a damn good time.
This is important, though, and more important than anything else I’ve said: it isn’t like this for everyone. I got the winning lottery ticket, the right combination of factors that made my illness manageable. Not everyone has the same chemical makeup that I do. Not everyone responds to medication as well as I did. Not everyone has the same support system I do. And that is absolutely no fault of their own. I’m going to say it louder, for those of you in the back: THAT IS ABSOLUTELY NO FAULT OF THEIR OWN. My success was the best-case scenario, the example that pharmaceutical companies could use in commercials. My determination to win the heart of a boy with blue eyes and a deep voice and a contagious laugh was what gave me the courage to start. The rest of it was good fortune. I very easily could have followed a different path. People who have mental illnesses aren’t that way because they want to be. They aren’t that way because they aren’t strong; hell, we have to be stronger than anybody just to drag ourselves out of bed in the morning. You can’t will your way out of a mental illness. You can’t just decide to be happy.
If you know someone with a mental illness, they might sleep all day, they might cancel plans, they might go weeks without being able to leave the house. My advice to you, as far as how to be a good friend, is to not give up. Try not to take it personally, because I can guarantee that whatever it is, it isn’t about you. Bring over food. Join them in binge-watching something stupid on Netflix. Don’t tell them to cheer up. Don’t offer advice or give them a million reasons they should be happy. They already know they should be happy. Don’t tell them that all they need is some fresh air and exercise. Don’t abandon them, and for God’s sake don’t use their condition as an adjective to lightheartedly describe someone’s mood or behavior. It isn’t an adjective; it’s a medical condition. Mental illness isn’t a reason to mistrust anyone. Mental illness doesn’t discredit anyone’s opinions or ideas or work. Mental illness doesn’t mean that a person is less worthy, less talented, or less capable than anyone else.
If you have a mental illness, and you’re in the thick of it right now, I want you to know that you are amazing just for waking up every day. You’re still here, and that means you’re still fighting. It’s hard to see the light when you’re down in the bottom of a well, but it’s important that you know that this is not your fault, and you are not alone. There is help out there. There is NAMI, there are therapists, there are different medications that work for different people. There are support groups and people who care. There are hills and valleys, and when you’re in a valley, that hill looks impossible to climb, and it’s okay if you don’t make it all the way to the top today, or this week, or this year. Do what you can, and that’s enough.
You are not alone. And you are not crazy.