I am bipolar. Not like in the slang sense of the word. Not like just on bad days. Not like how people describe random eruptions of anger. Not like what you hear in that Katy Perry song. I have credentials.
After I got my diagnosis, my father used to explain having a mental illness as having other diseases. His favorite comparison was diabetes. “People who have diabetes have to see doctors and take medication every day and no one thinks any different of them,” he’d tell me. His logic always registered as sound, but it never truly convinced me this disease, neatly packaged with name and number, Bipolar I, was akin to other medical ailments. The analogy was too black and white, cut and dry, and ultimately unrealistic for me to wrap my head around. It didn’t polish the confusion away. Sure, it was a useful thing to hear, especially once I understood that medication was necessary in keeping me alive and well. It helped me accept that this was beyond my control, which was the microcosmic goal of the lesson. Unfortunately, the diabetes analogy does not hold clout in the long run. It sure as shit doesn’t have the same implications to those affected or those who know or have known individuals who have been affected by mental illness. In public, I see insulin going into friends’ and strangers’ bodies far more often than I do daily regimens of psychotropic medication. Sure, healthier living – diet and exercise – can prevent the onset of diabetes, but social or self-ostracizing is not a common side effect for those diagnosed. Over the past nine years of living with a mental illness, three of which went undiagnosed and untreated and a handful more poorly treated, I have willingly told fewer people than I can count on both hands about my disease. Outside of the medical and mental illness community and not including those family and friends who knew me ten years ago, six people my diagnosis. Of those only a couple know any more details than the name of my condition or the answer to the generic “what meds are you on?” question. I walk this line between self-awareness and social acceptance, shame and pride, clarity and confusion. I am happy to walk it alone, but without companions the journey will be fruitless. So let me begin remedying these issues I have never quite been able to understand about how I made it here and where I am heading. Most importantly, let me be both aware the self which is my own and the necessity for knowing, understanding, and accepting the selves who are and will be a part of my life.
Ok, mantra time is over. Here’s an extended-metaphor.
Few know that for me, mental illness is like the pebble dropped into the still water of my life. The initial splash is subtle. It began as a small ripple disturbing the calm; a seemingly isolated incident with a mysterious quality about it. You don’t see the pebble drop. You don’t hear the kerplunk. You feel the ripples. From there the waves build momentum and you begin to rely on their presence, however turbulent and unpredictable they may be. The source – that pebble – becomes something easily forgotten. The ripples it makes turn into waves. You either ride the waves, filled with exhilaration, or you hold your breath when they pull you under. The odd thing is that this is all internal. The pebble isn’t your parents telling you they’re divorcing or losing your best friend in a car accident. It isn’t your finding out that your grandparent is dying or learning you were abused as a child. All of those external things, they all happen in conjunction with the rippling in your mind. They happen regardless. They are the flash floods, the violent winds, the evening thunderstorms.
You take it from all sides, inside and out.
There are externalities that have the opposite effect, too. You also see these intense beams of sunlight and serenity, momentarily calming and warming the turbulence in the pool. Like when you watch your baby nephew yawn as you hold him in your arms for the first time or your when father takes you on a motorcycle ride to a lake and tells you about his struggles in life or when an old friend shows up on the front porch to take you out to see a movie after a winter of voluntary hibernation.
It’s all there at once.
Unless you are made aware or keep yourself cognizant of the pebble drop, you will not stay afloat. Soon enough the waves themselves take the shape of tiny little insignificant maladies that end up becoming gigantic, tsunami-caliber obstacles. Alcoholism, addiction, eating disorders, burnt bridges you won’t rebuild, worrying so much about death decisions that you don’t remember how to make life decisions.
I do not claim to know how to keep the ripples from building their momentum, but I know they can be controlled. Those waves have knocked me down countless times, usually when I am just getting my footing on the shore. And I wonder, what makes me different than those without a mental illness? Why could I not handle living an extremely blessed and privileged life? Where would I be without those who helped me? Where does bipolar end and I begin? These are the right questions to ask, but expecting answers to them is like accepting the simplicity of the diabetes metaphor.
Instead I’ve learned to use the process of reflection as a movement toward progression.