I’ve been contemplating how to tell the people in my world that I have an illness associated with such stigma. Stigma that I, and likely thousands of others, have lived in fear of. In fact, I’ve spent the vast majority of my life trying to convince myself that I didn’t need help because I was so afraid to ask for it. In my mind, admitting that I didn’t have control over the situation meant that I was less capable in some way, less worthy of life, less human. I feared that I would be labeled as inadequate, that people would look at me with fear and disgust. That I would lose out on opportunities which everyone else has access to because, “I’m crazy.” But, after awhile, my need for help grew so strong that it finally outweighed my fear. And am I really less capable? Having bipolar doesn’t make me any less intelligent. It doesn’t dampen my desire to be happy, healthy, and successful. As with all others who suffer from any type of illness, it simply means that I have to work harder, choose wisely, live smart, and dedicate more energy to my continued health and stability than the average person.
Looking at mental illness from the perspective that it is actually a biological, physical process, just as diabetes and cancer are, has helped to change my perspective immensely. Because how do people who are physically ill usually respond to being sick? They seek professional help. They take medication and they work a little harder to cope. Despite the fact that many mental illnesses manifest symptoms of potentially debilitating negative thinking patterns and behaviors, including self harm and suicide and the like, a vast number of mentally ill individuals seek out help, just like everyone else. And aren’t the symptoms and effects of any illness harmful to the body, in just the same way that mental illness is a danger to the psyche (and the body)? If mental illness was really so different from a physical, medical condition, then wouldn’t our response to it be different in some way? At our core, we are still human. We still want all of the same things. We ache for a life where we can enjoy the simple pleasures, learn from the bad and live in the good, and know some kind of peace.
I can personally attest to the fact that it’s not just, “all in my head.” Because no matter how logically or rationally I tried to look at my situation, or how much I strove to convince myself that I was capable of overcoming it with just a little more time and effort, my symptoms never changed. They only progressed, in fact. Just like cancer, the longer one goes without treatment, the harder it becomes to heal and the larger the problem grows. You wouldn’t tell someone who had leukemia that it was all in their mind. You wouldn’t expect someone with diabetes to snap out of it. It’s completely illogical and even potentially harmful.
Yet we are labeled as different, strange, even wrong and/or dangerous. We are told that our troubles aren’t as real, or as pressing, or as important. On top of this, we are told how burdensome we are: on the system, in the work place, perhaps even within our personal lives. And it’s so incredibly sad, to me, that this is what the mentally ill are faced with on a daily basis. Would you tell someone suffering from diabetes or cancer that they were a burden on the system? I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a thing spoken. So what exactly makes it okay to say these things about people with mental illness? Because I simply do not understand it. It causes so much harm, so much damage to the psyche. It creates a mental block that prevents us from asking for help, even if we should, by provoking mass amounts of fear, guilt, and shame within us. It feeds into our own fears and causes so many of us to suffer in silence, until we can no longer bear it. It is one of the biggest roadblocks to our recovery. And we shouldn’t have to wait that long. We shouldn’t need to feel afraid. Especially when, all the while, help really is out there. The tools for our success are waiting, if only we could muster the courage to speak.
I finally spoke. I am speaking out right now and I don’t regret it, not even for a moment. We are not less capable, less worthy, less deserving, or less human. We are not less anything. We may even be more capable, in a way. Because our constant suffering teaches us lessons that others might never even encounter in their lives. It allows us to grow in ways that others do not, building fortitude and making us stronger and more prepared, because we face the darkest parts of ourselves every day and can still make it to the next. So I’d just just like to take a moment and say to anyone out there who is living in fear: don’t be afraid to speak out. You are not a burden and you are not alone. Your problems are valid and you deserve help. You are capable. All you need is the right set of tools and a willingness to try your best. And whether you believe it or not, you are strong. You’ve already made it this far, haven’t you?
I have bipolar, yes. But I am not bipolar. It is not a personality trait and it absolutely does not define me as a person. So I refuse to let it stop me from living my life anymore, from being who I really am inside, no matter what people think. I might need help to do it, but that is perfectly acceptable. Anyway, I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who didn’t need help from someone else, for some reason or another, in my entire life. Have you? That’s just a part of being human. We are social creatures and we rely on each other to survive. That is the nature of life.