Two words that have historically been able to end any conversation with uncomfortable silence. In recent years however, there has been a large shift in awareness. This is a direct result of social media and the ability for information to reach a lot of people instantaneously. One of the more recent signs of this is how social media is collectively banding together once a year for Bell’s “Let’s Talk” campaign. Putting aside the fact that this is a massive free advertising venue for Bell, I am really glad that such a large and public company is finally bringing to light some serious issues. Previously, unless you were directly affected by mental illness, either through a family member, friend, or yourself, very few people would even give it a second thought.
Now, re-posting one of the hundreds of “awareness” posts today is definitely a good start, and I commend everyone who is doing that. But one thing is missing. “Let’s Talk” should be just that. Talking. Sharing. Breaking down walls, and ending the stigma. The re-posts are great, but where are the personal stories? So instead of firing off a generic message today, I have decided to do something I swore to myself I would never do. I am going to talk. I am going to share. And hopefully squash a bit of that stigma.
On this day every year people band together and become advocates for mental illness. This increase in support and awareness is fantastic. But those who suffer from one of the many mental illnesses out there live with it 365 days a year, not just one. And most of the time they do it in silence. Because even though we all like to believe that we are open-minded and accepting all of the time, the truth is that every single one of us, at one time or another, has judged someone with a mental illness. I am equally to blame for this. How many times have we rolled our eyes when a coworker has taken a personal day for “mental health”? How many times have we thought (or said out loud) that someone just needs to “get over it” when they are feeling down or blue? How many times have we crossed the street, or made derisive comments about the homeless man raving incoherently outside a Tim Horton’s? We have all done it. So, this brings me to the real reason for my blog today.
I am bipolar.
Yep, I said it. Three small words, but for me very powerful ones. Up to now, this is something I have not shared with very many people. Mostly because admitting it could have some unfortunate repercussions both personally and professionally, even in this new age of acceptance. It shouldn’t be this way, but this is reality. Hopefully by more of us coming “out” we can change this reality. Of course this revelation may not surprise a lot of people who know me. At work, anyone who has suffered with me through a painful project meeting has probably seen the entire gambit of emotions pass across my face in the time it takes to get through the agenda. Or anyone who has shared a shopping trip with me to Ikea or Costco has probably witnessed the transformation from Snow White to Tasmanian Devil, just in the parking lot. Of course, in my defense, Midnight Madness at Ikea could drive even the most grounded person into homicidal rage. Add in a mis-wired brain, and you are guaranteed some HBO-level entertainment.
But in all seriousness, I can’t even begin to explain the 25 year journey I have had, before finally getting a diagnosis a short five years ago. Bipolar disorder is explained by the medical community as “an affective disorder characterized by the occurrence of alternating manic, hypomanic, or mixed episodes and with major depressive episodes”. For me this was 25 years of unpredictability, and not being able to control my thoughts, emotions or actions. Days filled with raging giddiness, followed by crashing despair, like being on a roller coaster from hell. It’s hard to explain to someone what it’s like to have the largest organ in your body turn against you. What it’s like to feel like you are living outside of your body, watching yourself doing and saying things, and not being able to stop it. But finally being able to put a name to all of this, and to understand what was happening to me was a an incredible relief.
Of course getting a diagnosis is just the first step for anyone suffering from any type of mental illness (or any type of illness period). It’s just the beginning of a long road through a health care system that is terribly over-burdened, under-funded and under-educated. And having negotiated this medical maze for the past several years, I could write a blog just on that. I’ll leave that topic for another day though. The bottom line is, what this has meant for me over the past five years, is a whirlwind of various doctors, differing opinions and conflicting diagnoses. It has meant endless trials and errors with multiple medications before settling on a good “cocktail”. A “cocktail” that will always have to be monitored and tweaked as my body adjusts to the dosages. Medications that have fun side-effects like uncontrollable muscle twitching, rashes, and ballooning weight-gain. Medications that shut down the “feeling” parts of the brain, deadening emotions and killing creativity. And although the meds definitely dial down the side effects of bipolar disorder, they in no way cure it. This is why so many people sometimes choose their illness over the medication.
I chose the meds. Now I still have my good and bad days just like everyone else on the planet, but the difference is now I am less likely to run up the street naked or curl up into the fetal position under my desk. Today I have a better understanding of not only my disease, but of my limitations and triggers. For instance, routine and consistency are a good thing (yes, I have a strict “bed time”). Going to a dance club with loud pounding music and wild strobe lights is just going to end badly for everyone. Allowing myself down time, after a few days of “too much social” is a good thing. Throwing me into a room full of strangers, and asking me to mingle – not so good. And negotiating the public transit system is now an exercise in awareness and self-control (okay, it probably is for all commuters), instead of becoming a potential Facebook post for someone.
Because of this journey, today I have self-acceptance, I have understanding and I have learned how to laugh at myself again. And believe me, the latter provides me with hours of entertainment. But most of all, I have a greater appreciation and empathy for others suffering in silence. Because in the end, only by sharing our stories and being honest, will we be able to make a difference. Everyone has their own path to negotiate through life. And we can never truly know what is like to walk in someone else’s shoes. But one thing we can do is to be kind to each other, and embrace our individuality. And remember that the coworker beside us, or commuter sharing our seat on the bus, each have their own unique story. And all of life’s nicks and bumps and bruises make us who we are. Remember that we are all in this giant sandbox together, so let’s share the toys!