Mental illness is no walk in the park. The struggle to retain full societal function can be massive. Struggling with unpredictable impulsiveness due to an unknown mental illness causes feelings of vulnerability and helplessness. But, with the knowledge gained by putting a name to the struggle, it becomes possible to reverse the situation. Sometimes alone and sometimes with help, mental illness can be manageable. Once the ailment is pinpointed, the treatment options, as with any treatable illness, such as diabetes or anemia, can be narrowed down and regaining control of life is within reach.
My struggle with mental illness began at the tender age of ten, and I only found a measure of peace at the age of twenty five. That was when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, general anxiety, as well as dependent and avoidant personality disorders. Such a detailed diagnosis might lead some to duck and hide, or to think that there is no hope, or even that they have an excuse to act as poorly as possible. For me, the diagnosis was a relief; finally an explanation for why my mood was so volatile. Why I could not experience confrontation or rejection without a complete emotional shut-down, and why I was so self-destructive. My diagnosis was the starting point that allowed me to begin to rebuild my life, my way.
My first experience with the mental health community came at the age of fifteen. I was sent to a local counsellor whom I saw for three sessions before being told that my depression was due to my romantic attraction to girls. Since I refused to go back to her or open up with my mother, I was left to my own devices until the age of eighteen. I was in my last year of high school.
At the age of seventeen, I became a mother. In order to complete my high school education on time, I switched schools and found one specifically designed for young mothers. The school had great programs, such as a food bank, counselling services, on-site childcare, and smaller classrooms. The smaller classrooms were devised around the learn-at-your-own-pace education concept.
One of the on-staff therapists worked with me until graduation. The therapist provided me with an outlet as well as some insight on the inner workings of my brain. Slowly, I realized that my mood was not unipolar depression, but more labile and erratic. Upon realizing this change, I began in-depth personal research and preliminary introspection. After graduation, I was left without a source of therapy and had to fend for myself once more.
Fast forward seven years: after a great deal of introspection, great support, and great friends, I was at a psychologist’s office, asking to be seen and diagnosed. Enough was enough, and I needed to know why I thought, acted, and lived the way that I had been. After seven months of therapy, at last I had my answer. Laid out in a clear diagnosis was the reason for my inability to function normally (at least without an immense level of invisible frustration and effort).
As intimidating as it was to read the full description, I grasped the words and delved into their meaning. I researched many sources to determine how the different diagnoses interacted with one another within my mind.
I learned about comorbidity and how some illnesses attract others and how they feed off of one another. The comorbid affliction exacerbates the situation unless it is dealt with. I discovered, in speaking with some of my family, that there was an unspoken family history and that “a family history of mood disorders [is] associated with a higher likelihood of having comorbid anxiety disorders” (Serretti et al. 101).
I learned that some of my difficulties in building and maintaining meaningful relationships are due to the environment I grew up in, while others are built into the chemical imbalance in my brain. After a few more months of talk therapy, I made the most important call of my life. I called my general practitioner to tell him that I was ready for the next step.
The hardest part of the whole process was admitting that I might need more than just therapy. I had seen very few positive examples of friends on psychotropic medications, and no one I knew had bipolar disorder. I was an anomaly in my social circle and was afraid to become further distanced from those I knew. The fear of being ostracized kept me from obtaining the last stage of treatment. I started to develop the conscious knowledge that there is nothing shameful about having a mental illness.
When I called my doctor, I opened with: “So… I got my diagnosis.” After receiving a positive response, four words followed: “Non-psychotic bipolar one.”
I’m fairly sure that I heard his jaw hit the floor. Due to my perceived high social function, the diagnosis of such a serious mental illness came as a shock.
A similar trend had occurred among many of my friends and family members, with exclamations such as “I never knew you were bipolar!” or the patronizing “I thought you were just PMS-ing!” As it turns out, those with non-psychotic bipolar disorder learn very early in life how to “cope with the inner turmoil” (Jasko 302). Many are even able to function in society at a cost of higher stress and an invisible struggle.
The conversation then led to setting up an appointment to discuss medication options, and a side trip to the nearby hospital’s psychiatry unit for a one-on-one consultation with a psychiatrist. I started the dosage that night, and noticed an increase in energy and productivity within a week.
I am lucky, at least so far, that the first medication I tried has been effective and successful. This is not common with mental illness, and particularly not with the spread of diagnoses under my belt. Part of the difficulty with medical treatment of mental illnesses is due to the inherent differences between physical illnesses and mental illnesses. (Albee and Joffe 434).
Despite the ever-present stigma against the mentally ill, there is a brighter side to the whole situation. Once I allowed myself to be treated fully, as anyone with a manageable illness should, I was able to take a more active role in my own life and, therefore, in the lives of those around me. My illness is not a handicap; it is an opportunity to learn more about understanding “the human psyche and how to deal with its complexities at a level far beyond the average person” (Jasko 303) beyond mere necessity. From my years of experience with mental illness, I have learned that getting support and treatment makes the difference between satisfaction in life and mere survival. The journey to mental peace is often a long one, but it does not need to be a lonely one.
Albee, George W, and Justin M. Joffe. “Mental Illness is NOT ‘An Illness Like Any Other.’” Journal of Primary Prevention 24.4 (2004): 419-436. Web. 5 April 2013.
Jasko, Andrew. “The Scarlet Letter of Mental Illness: Destigmatizing Bipolar Disorder.” Pastoral Psychology 61.3 (2012): 299-304. Web. 10 April 2013.
Serretti, Alessandro et al. “Influence of Family History of Major Depression, Bipolar Disorder, and Suicide on Clinical Features in Patients with Major Depression and Bipolar Disorder.” European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience 263.2 (2013): 93-103. Web. 10 April 2013.