Being handed a new diagnosis is scary. Regardless of whether we’re facing diabetes or cancer, Hashimoto’s thyroid disease or mental illness, learning that something has gone awry can be a frightening scenario. In many cases, we hear that “something is wrong,” and our minds immediately race: what does this mean? Is it our fault? Is it temporary? Why is this happening to us? Our healthcare provider continues to drone on about this mysterious condition, but we are left behind the curve. How many of us can absorb all the details after being dealt such a blow?
My goal with this blog post is to detail some of the things I wish people had told me when I was first diagnosed with bipolar I disorder. None of my friends or family members had ever been diagnosed with a mental illness (and it was very taboo); I had no mentors to guide me through the early years of “being bipolar.” I hope I can serve as a mentor or colleague for others currently making the journey.
Below, I present five of my hardest lessons.
- Mental illness IS physical illness. Distinguishing mental (psychiatric) illness as independent from physical illness is creating a false dichotomy. Psychiatric disorders are biologically, and, to varying degrees, genetically driven. Are they influenced by our behaviors and experiences, things that have happened to us over the course of our lives? Of course. Still, mental illness has a biological basis. In academic circles, I have seen mental and physical illness designated as “mental illness and other physical disease.” Note the word “other.” Acknowledging that mental illness has a physiological root forces us to acknowledge that it is real and deserving of attention.
- At the core level, there is nothing wrong with us. When we consider the very core of “who we are,” we often identify our minds and, if so inclined, our spirits as being integral to the phenomena we call “ourselves.” I believe this understanding is why it is easy to separate “body” from “mind”; a disease like cancer changes our physical form, but it doesn’t affect who we are at a base level. Far too frequently, we consider mental illness to be attacking who we are: our personalities, our emotions, our cognitions, and the ways we approach the world. I propose that, despite living a life-changing condition, we have nothing intrinsically wrong with our beings. Therefore, internalized stigma and self-imposed shame remain unnecessary as we cope and journey toward recovery.
- Nothing is permanent. My experience is that, invariably, that which goes up (mania) eventually crashes back down (depression). Likewise, anxiety ebbs and flows. Any mental illness is a system of offsets and counterbalances. Even the darkest nights are interrupted by the rising sun; conversely, we cannot rely on life being sunny forever because the darkness is always lurking. Living with mental illness is a constant battle, and sometimes simply surviving the day is an enormous victory. Survival, and even stability, is possible. We, therefore, must keep fighting when things look bleak.
- “Normalcy” is relative. If we were each to rank how we feel every day for a week using a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is miserable and 10 is exceptionally well, at the end of the week we would each have a different score. Moreover, the way I feel when I am at a 5 is different from the way you feel at 5. Therefore, it is important to remain nonjudgmental toward one another. Even when we think we are in the same place quantitatively, the qualitative experience may be entirely different. While empathy is critical to our efforts to reduce stigma, it is dangerous and unfair to take it a step further by assuming we know what another person is experiencing. This precept also applies to people who do not live with mental illness!
- The treatment can seem worse than the disease… but it’s not. I wish someone had explained to me that the medications I must take for my bipolar disorder may shorten my life significantly. That’s terrifying, and I had to discover it through academic research. What’s more, the side effects of these medications are horrible: I am dizzy all the time. My skin breaks out easily, and I have lost hair in clumps. I can’t drink alcohol and shouldn’t get pregnant. There are sexual side effects, too, such as the lowering of libido. Nevertheless, not taking the medicine leads to an increased risk of death from suicide, given that the baseline symptoms are horrific. All I can do is decrease my cardiovascular risk factors (reaching a healthy body weight, keeping cholesterol in check, avoiding diabetes, etc.) and pray for the best.
I hope these lessons are as meaningful to you as they were to me. Leave me a comment to tell me about the things you wish others had shared with you upon the start of your journey!
Peace and happiness,