Mental illness is not an excuse. It’s not a scapegoat and it’s not a free ride. It’s hard and crushing and difficult, and it can break lives apart. Or you can do your best to live with it and make the most of the hand you’ve been dealt.
I was first diagnosed with manic depression, also known as bipolar disorder, when I went through a particularly hard break-up during my university years, I was 24 years old. It was scary and difficult and my friends at the time didn’t really understand it. To be honest, people around me now still don’t really understand it. There are only so many times you can answer ‘Are you Okay?’ with ‘There’s nothing wrong’ when people are poking and prodding and not have them believe you because they simply don’t understand.
The thing about bipolar is that there usually is no reason for the down periods. You are not just sad, you are not just having a bad day. You are depressed, and that is not something that you can’t just shake off and get over. It’s not that easy. I can manage my depression, I’m not suicidal, I haven’t taken medication in a few years and that’s something I’m usually quite proud of. But every now and again I have a bad day or a bad week and I’m just down. I’m not bubbly, or happy, or fun; I’m just down, with a side of irritability and anxiousness. Not many people can do anything to make me feel better (there are a small handful who can), and most people just seem to think that asking what is wrong and enticing me to talk is going to help. And to be honest, it doesn’t. It’s just more frustrating.
Most of the time I’m fine. It’s not something that I introduce myself to the world with – ‘Hi I’m Sam and I have Bipolar’. No, that is not a label that I tend to advertise to the world as easily as I do being a geek or a writer.
Bipolar is a chemical imbalance in the brain that causes extreme mood swings. I can be exceedingly happy and grateful and positive, and then other times you couldn’t get any lower, you just want to close the curtains and curl into a ball and cry, and cry, and cry. If you are genuinely interested in what bipolar is you can find out more at the hundreds of websites that have been set up in support of people with bipolar disorder, but here’s a handy infograph to make it easy.
I’m very lucky that I have a very supportive family, friends and boyfriend. But there are always the odd few who will never understand and make it their business to get all up in your business. Being anxious and over self-aware and judgemental, kinda miserable and very irritable leads to a not very positive response to the constant ‘Are you Okay?’s ‘What’s really wrong’s and persistent ‘Why are you so sad? Just be happy’s. I know most people think they mean well, but these comments are toxic. They drive you to believe that there must be something wrong with you, that you can’t just be you, that there’s a reason, there has to be a reason, and they desperately need to know what that reason is. I can’t tell you how sick I am of making excuses, of coming up with some reason or another as to why I’m not my ‘bubbly self’ this week. The truth is, that that ‘bubbly’ side isn’t really me either, that’s the up that shows such a harsh contrast to my more frequent down.
Having said that, my bipolar is not an excuse either. When I am asked the question ‘What’s wrong’ and the answer is ‘nothing’, that is the truth. When I say it’s my bipolar, that is not an excuse, that is what is actually happening, it’s fact. And it’s not easy, I would LOVE for the answer to be something else, like having a fight with my boyfriend or getting a shitty fine. While shitty things influence my mood in general, I’m not saying they don’t, when it is bipolar, it’s not caused by anything, there is no catalyst. I don’t know what mood I’ll be in when I wake up in the morning, I can’t predict how I’ll feel. I don’t know what’s coming and unpredictability is really scary. People have left me in the past for less than a depressed week, they can’t handle the mood swings, the ups and downs, the snappiness, the unpredictability. This is partially why I had such a deep distrust of men, thinking they were constantly doing wrong by me, not knowing the whole time that I was, and not narcissistically, the problem.
I’ve found a place where, aside from the constant lack of understanding, I am able for the most part to manage my illness, and am actually leading a very normal, and boring, little life. I just wish that other people could leave me alone to do it in peace without needed to know what the catalyst is for every bad day – because sometimes, it’s you.
At the end of the day, it’s frustrating that there is such a lack of understanding and a huge amount of taboo still placed on mental illnesses. So many people don’t understand them, and that lack of understanding affects people with mental illnesses every day. So yeah, it’s nice to care, and it’s nice to have people who care, and asking someone who is sad if they are okay, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But an understanding of what that person is actually dealing with, what they are actually going through, would help them a whole lot more.
You can also read my essay: Stress and its effects as a result of Bipolar Disorder Including Interventions to Treating Stress for more information.