I am mentally ill. And that’s OK.
Do not run from me or shun me. I’m like the bee or the snake or the spider. I’m more afraid of you than you are of me.
I’m bipolar. I’m depressed. I am on the Autism Spectrum. But you can’t catch any of these from me because I have a case of social anxiety that keeps me far away from strangers. Oh, and they aren’t contagious. I promise.
Mental Illness has a stigma attached to it because we allow there to be. We perpetuate these myths. We hide behind curtains and lurk in the shadows. I am crazy, psycho, and batty. I belong in the loony bin or the nut house. I’m wacko and weird. I’m sick in the head (not just sick). In fact I could be any of 250 labels that the National Center for Biotechnology Information found in a study. I shall lock myself in the belfry never to be seen again.
When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, my doctor said he would word things differently in my records if I was worried about the stigma associated with Bipolar Disorder. I am not hiding. I am not embarrassed. Things aren’t working right in my head. I’m sick. It can’t be fixed, but it can be treated and I can and do live a “neuro-typical” life. I am not the happiest person in the world, but there surely are extenuating circumstances at the moment.
When Ethan was at Strategic Behavioral Center, Melanie and/or I visited him every day. When they called us back to visit, they used Ethan’s initials (E.K). The employees communicate in code by walkie-talkies. All must remain behind the curtain. Visiting someone in the psychiatric wing of a hospital is difficult. There’s secrecy and security. No phones. No keys. Metal detectors. No names. Do not share your roommate’s illness. It feels a little like the pregnant teen from an older generation who goes off to visit an aunt for six months. After all, no one wants crazy in the family. Check out the World Health Organization’s 10 Facts About Mental Illness.
If I go to the doctor, they call me back by name. They call me Mr. Kline or William. Even if I have the flu or a venereal disease or pink eye. Even if I’m contagious. Even if I can get you sick. You don’t care. No one worries about being called back. Everyone gets sick, right? No one is embarrassed to sit in the waiting room or to visit you in the hospital. The body is sick. In our world, the brain is not part of the body unless it is housing a tumor.
I am willing to share my diagnoses. My illness should not reflect on my family, and frankly, I don’t feel ill.
A few years ago, I fell into a funk. Lots of bad things happened in a very short period of time. Ethan’s original diagnosis was made, my grandmother died, my nephew was diagnosed with brain cancer, my father was diagnosed with bladder cancer, and two of my college friends (Bill and Buddy) died in accidents. It’s strange how hard the deaths of my friends affected me. I had not seen Bill in many years. Travel was and is nearly impossible with Ethan, and no one is truly capable of keeping him for an extended period of time without some training. So, time passes and connections are missed, and then it’s gone. I heard of Bill’s death first, but in reaching out to his friends, we found out that Buddy had been killed. Double whammy. I still find myself thinking about it. And as much as I love my grandmother, I rarely think of her. It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around it. Maybe it’s because of they were my age. Buddy stayed with me once a year during the summer and somehow no one contacted me when he died. The whole experience made me feel disconnected and helpless. (I touched on Buddy a little in this post from another blog.)
When all of these started to affect my family, I sought help. I went to a doctor and started seeing a therapist. The doctor encouraged exercise and I did. I exercised every day for a year. I lost 25 pounds. And yes, I started taking medication.
Here’s the problem with medication. I began taking medication to treat bipolar symptoms. Better living through pharmaceuticals. It made a huge difference, but I miss my highs. I don’t miss the lows, the anger, the stomach churning, but the periods of pure elation are gone. Since then, it’s been trial and error. Ethan’s situation complicates everything. My “happiness” corresponds to his, and he is not often happy. I can’t sleep at night and end up crashing during the day, occasionally only an hour or so after waking. And there are side effects and drugs that counteract the side effects. I had to make tough choices with medication. You either open up and give it shot or try to handle things in different ways (therapy, meditation, diet (apparently gluten is bad for everything)). I reached a point where I needed to try anything. Medication and therapy have allowed me to manage throughout this entire process. And it is manage. Each day still remains a challenge.
I’m not sure how I initially felt about therapy. I always thought it would be kind of cool, sort of like getting my future told, or in a Woody Allen kind of way. As it turns out, surprise, surprise, it has proven to be helpful, quite helpful, and I can’t really tell you why. I suppose it’s as simple as having a sounding board or someone from out of my personal sphere telling me hard truths or just providing different points of view. I have no need to argue with her. I have no desire to argue with her, and I do like to make my point, and I do like the last word. In these sessions those things are non-issues. It is also good to be able to make your therapist laugh, or laugh at you. I feel that she should have a good time. Who knows what sort of weeping and distress she has dealt with in a day. And I’ve said in this blog before, and I continue to tell anyone who asks, it is important to maintain a sense of humor. We do have disagreements about our definitions of pessimism and realism. Apparently, I’m always seeing the negative outcome to situations. I tell her that if a negative situation is likely to occur, it is realistic to view the world that way. This is not the best of all possible worlds.
Here is an example from one of our sessions: Here’s the situation: Driving on the belt line in Raleigh, an Interstate running around the center part of Raleigh. It’s pretty much a fenced in 4 lane road. I see a dog on the side of the road. What will happen?
OK. How am I supposed to answer this in a realistic way? The likely outcome is that the dog won’t make it. I won’t go into the idea that trying to avoid the dog could result in an accident. And depending on the time of day, a multiple car accident. Even though this is the likely outcome, I should have envisioned a positive outcome. Here’s what I’m supposed to try to envision. A friendly farmer sees the dog and pulls off the road. He gets the dog in his truck, heads out to his farm and the dog lives happily ever after. With Old Yeller.
I prefer to remain realistic. I know that I can live a normal life. I know that Ethan can live a *normal life. On Ethan’s first day of school, I told him that he needed to work harder than everyone else. The fact is that he does, and to this point, he hasn’t reached a point where he can live a *normal life.
But he can.
If you are in the world of mental illness, you are aware that I should’t use normal. I should use neuro-typical, but let’s give people some credit. If you read this to the end, you understand that normal is simply a term that we use for neuro-typical. Personally, you can say I’m not normal or I’m not neuro-typical. I don’t care. Does this make me normal?