Excerpts from this post originally appeared in the Westwinds Clubhouse Creative Corner. Image by tracyshaun, used with Creative Commons License, edited by Mydnyht Rantings.
Not a day has gone by since my adolescence that I have not been embarrassed by my diagnosis. This certainly was not the fault of my parents – my mother, having grown up with a sister who also had a bipolar label placed upon her (and who struggled with major depressive disorder herself), saw the warning signs early and strongly advocated for me to receive treatment. My father, while he did not entirely understand what the women of the Galvin family were going through, loved my mother and myself and stood by our sides as we downed the litany of drugs and rotated through therapist after therapist. No, it was the lukewarm response I received from my classmates that clued me in to the fact that having a mental health concern was something to be ashamed of. I recall sitting in the guidance counselor’s office, one of my many sessions there, hashing it out with a fellow student. He didn’t understand why I would inform anyone that I had to take psychiatric medication to function. For him, it was a taboo; it was something that you didn’t discuss out in the open. During my first hospitalization, the other pre-teens were told initially that I had been taken to the ER with complications from the scarlet fever I had recently come down with, and even then that was only when prompted for an answer. It wasn’t long before the rumor mill started churning and the truth came out. Initially I was supposed to have had a long term (between six months and a year, potentially longer) psychiatric stay, but I was out after about two and a half weeks. Around the same time another student came back to school after waking up from a medically induced coma that was the result of being hit by a car while riding a bicycle without a helmet. His name was on the school loudspeaker, fellow students encouraged to give him a warm welcome back. Meanwhile, my own friends could barely look me in the eye. One of them even cut off contact with me – after ignoring me for several weeks, I confronted her on the phone and she admitted that my hospitalization had made her quite upset and her grades had started dropping. She couldn’t be around me anymore. When other students had a problem, adults tried to guide them with an open mind. When I had a problem, it was somehow related to my bipolar diagnosis and it meant I needed an adjustment in my medication.
Even now, as an adult, I mumble through excuses and shy away from any honesty regarding the chemical imbalance in my brain. Whenever I go someplace new, I try to keep it a secret for as long as I possibly can, and it inevitably comes out of the woodwork somehow. I constantly hem and haw about whether I should extol the virtues of the Proverbs 31 woman and claim to be a Biblically motivated homemaker or simply admit that no, I can’t work; I’m disabled. It took me months to tell my parents that I’ve started coming to a mental health clubhouse. I struggle to find the right way to explain it to others. I told a woman in her mid nineties that I spent three days a week at a treatment center and she assumed I had cancer. She grew up in a world similar to the one my former school mate still lived in – mental health concerns were not, and are not, discussed. I had no way to explain to her the relatively new phenomenon of peer support and healing that has become a cornerstone of the mental health community.
I wish every day that I were different. I wish I did not have a diagnosis that carried such heavy stigma. I wish I did not have a diagnosis at all. I wish I did not have to take pills every day at the same time to function like a “normal”, neurotypical human being. I wish I did not have to hash out my emotions every other week with a therapist. I wish I could work without dissolving into anxiety-fueled weeping. I wish I could sleep at night and get up at a decent time in the morning. I wish that I didn’t have days where the despair is so crippling that I am trapped in bed, dark thoughts racing through my mind. Most of all, I wish I didn’t have such a negative outlook on my condition. My best friend in the world has what used to be known as Asperger’s syndrome, an Autism spectrum disorder. Never in a million years would I be as critical with her as I am with myself. I know there is nothing wrong with her, with the condition she has, or with the treatment she needs to seek. And yet I continue to be hard on myself. I share this with you, not to say that there is something wrong with me, or something wrong with any of us, but to say that if you are embarrassed or ashamed of yourself that you are not alone. If I could re-invent myself – if I could change anything about myself that I wanted to – deep down, in my heart of hearts, I would not have bipolar disorder. I would not have posttraumatic stress disorder. I would not have a generalized anxiety disorder. I would be different that I am now. I would be okay. I know that what I should say is that what I truly wish for is to see myself through my best friend’s eyes. She sees me as the person who made public school, designed for those without learning disabilities or mental health concerns and filled with bullies and cruel peers, bearable. She sees me as the person whose empathy, stemming from her dark emotional experiences, created a connection and fostered a loving and supportive relationship. She sees me as the person who held her hand through dark times and other times held her hand to show affection. She sees me as wonderful, as beautiful, and she sees me as a worthwhile person. I do not. All I see is someone who is damaged. Perhaps, then, I am not the one who needs to be re-invented. Perhaps it is those who create the stigma surrounding mental health concerns, who tell us we are broken and unlovable, who hush us and shove our struggles under the rug, who truly need to change.