It’s May, which is Mental Health Awareness month.
I’m going to talk about something I don’t talk about often on Twitter, or in real life. I don’t talk about it because it’s private. But not talking about it doesn’t help the cause of raising awareness for mental illness, therefore here it is. Here I am.
*Everyone’s experience is different. This post is meant to show you what it’s like from a personal point of view. Don’t continue reading if you feel vulnerable or if you think certain words, phrases, metaphors, or imagery might trigger something.*
I was diagnosed bipolar shortly after leaving college
…but the symptoms probably started a couple of years before, masked by the stress of school and the emotional storm of leaving home and living on my own for the first time.
That’s significant: There is what is known as acceptable responses to stressful situations. For example, during the normal course of a month, it can be considered normal to cry at the funeral of a close friend or relative, and to laugh at a joke. It’s considered less normal to *not* cry at that funeral.
But growing up in my house, my parents rarely expressed emotion, and they sure as hell never talked about it. They didn’t normalize anything. In fact, one of my mom’s favorite things to say was, “Never let them see you cry.” One of my dad’s favorite things to do was to laugh at you if you did cry. It seemed like the funniest thing in the world to him.
This is the norm in my family, in my extended family, and in the Filipino community that I grew up with. We don’t talk about emotions, we talk about achievements. We don’t talk about feelings, we talk about other people’s failures.
So I internalized everything. I thought that was normal. My parents raised me to believe that not showing emotion was a way to have power over people. It worked too well.
One of my many psychiatrists (seen through the years, not all at once), diagnosed me with Alexithymia. The inability to identify emotions.
What is this like? Mostly, it’s pretending. It’s dutifully attending every group therapy session and participating just enough not to be singled out. It is using words that are expected of you, not because you know what they mean, or you understand what they’re saying, but that things are “better” if you play by the hospital’s or the clinic’s rules. By “better”, I mean, they decrease the number of appointments you have to show up to. They nod more. There are fewer mandatory group sessions. And they decrease your medication.
That psychiatrist, Dr. A, was one of the last psychiatrists I saw, and my favorite because she actually helped me.
During one of first sessions, she asked the usual thing – how my week was going. I told her what I’d been up to: work, home, work, home.
And she asked me to clarify about how I felt about something. I think I did and said the usual thing again, which is, “I feel okay about it.”
She handed me a mirror and asked me to look at it, then to match my face to a piece of paper she put on the table next to me.
“This one,” I said, noting the furrowed brow and the frown.
“You’re not okay,” she said. “You’re frustrated. That’s an emotion. What you’re feeling inside at this very moment, remember that and name it frustration.”
That was the first of many exercises we did to teach me that emotions are not just words that you can say to get people to leave you alone. Emotions name a feeling inside you. They name expressions on other people’s faces. They are a way of communicating in order to be understood, not in order to manipulate.
So that was one thing that I usually consider separate from being diagnosed bipolar, but probably has more to do with it than I think.
Bipolarity, like other mental illnesses, occurs in a spectrum, but there are designated degrees. It’s a phrase that gets casually used, like, “The weather is so bipolar today” or “God, Professor So-and-so is so bipolar during his lectures”.
Personally, I don’t mind when it’s used as a hyperbole, but I do mind when it becomes obvious that the speaker feels like it’s an incredibly terrible thing or ignorantly uses it as an accusation, like, “Oh my god, stop being so bipolar about (the prom, your wedding, etc).” It’s not a cute or funny way of saying, “calm the fuck down.”
What is it like? I’m not going to give you the clinical definition. There are many online, and there are gray areas among them.
But this is what it feels like:
At first, you notice it as the absence of joy. This thing that previously made you happy no longer does. That thing that distracted you with joy no longer holds your attention. Activities become things “you have to get through.” Nothing looks the same. Nothing sounds right. Nothing tastes good.
Something turns down the dial on the world and there’s an ever-widening gap between you and life until you do start to notice one significant thing. You are alone.
No matter what you do, life continues for other people in a way that doesn’t affect, doesn’t change, doesn’t improve your own. No one seems to have the time to listen to you. Or when there’s time, they don’t seem to understand, or care about understanding, or want to understand, or they understand only what makes them feel like the obvious answer is:
- Smile more.
- Don’t feel so bad about everything.
- Get out and do stuff.
- You need to man-up/grow up.
- There’s people starving in Africa. You should volunteer. It’ll help you get your priorities straight.
- You’re just down in the dumps. Everyone feels that way sometimes.
It’s like being cursed – no one understands anything you say.
In that cursed solitude, you realize something else. A deep and sourceless pain. It’s not a muscle pain or a headache, not something you can massage or ease with aspirin. It feels like being trapped in a pile of blankets and the air is stale and growing staler, and no matter how hard you breathe, it just doesn’t feel like enough. You are suffocating.
The manic part can kill you faster. It can look almost fun in movies, with all the hysterical laughter and whirlwind action and risk-taking. But from the inside, it’s frightening.
This is what it feels like:
You notice you have more energy than usual. It feels fucking great, like you just had a Monster with a Red Bull chaser, like you had a full night’s sleep, the first full night’s sleep in months, even though maybe you didn’t but who’s counting, right?
There’s a lot to do, and finally you have the will to get up and clean and make plans with friends and go shopping.
Shopping feels SO GOOD. It feels good to finally feel something. It feels damn good to pick something out. It feels damn good to talk to someone like a normal person, and they treat you like a normal person – no, they treat you better than they’d treat a normal person because you’re a goddamn customer – it feels so good, in fact, that you want to do it again. And again. And again.
And you get the things home. And you put them in a pile – you’ll deal with them later – because there’s so much to do now. Like clean the house and do laundry and read that book everyone was talking about at the cafe but heck, why bother reading a book when you can write one. You could totally write one. You should totally write a book, and it’ll totally be a bestseller, and you’ll be able to pay off everything you just charged on your credit cards but first you have to research, I mean, come on, it has to be realistic, right? If it’s gonna be made into a goddamn movie, you’re gonna goddamn research it. You need to call that whosit-whatsit, that person who studies ancient Egyptian artifacts – an Egyptologist? Is that a real word?
Who cares if it’s a real word. You’re going to use it.
Who cares, right?
As long as you keep moving, you’ll be able to stay one step ahead of where you just were, but deep down you know that as you keep moving, you’re heading closer to a new quagmire of loneliness and pain that will, at best, be exactly like the one you just left and at worst, the last one you stumble into. Or is it the other way around?
Everything is too bright, everything is too loud, everything tastes good. Everything feels good.
And it is when you’re like this that everyone seems to love you. You’re fun. People want you around because you’ll take dares and you laugh loudest and longest. They might take you aside and say something like:
- I knew you’d get over your slump.
- It’s okay if you admit you were kind of wanting some attention. Everyone needs that.
- Someone’s taking their meds!
- I like you better this way.
None of these help. Almost nothing anyone says to you helps, because when you’re manic, they don’t say the right things, but when you’re depressed, you don’t hear the right things.
…Or is it the other way around.
If by some miracle of miracles you finally manage to get help…
…it is the first step up the side of a very tall ziggurat.
This is what it feels like: There are a lot of…thoughts going on inside your head, but you manage to tease some of them out and lay them on an imagined table in front of you, trying to make sense of what’s going on, knowing only that somehow, it’s your fault.
They want something from you, but part of you wants to keep from revealing anything about yourself, because they’ll think you’re batshit crazy and selfish for wasting everyone’s time.
Part of you, though, is hoping that they’ll figure out what’s wrong with you without you having to say a single word, because then it won’t be you’re fault – they figured it out on their own.
Part of you is grateful that something is finally happening, and hopeful that you might finally be getting some help, some pills or something that will finally fix that wonky self-turning dial of how you perceive the world.
And part of you is terrified that they won’t find anything wrong at all, that the flaw inside you is completely normal, and you’re just a worthless piece of shit that can’t even human right.
The first time someone tries to help you, it’s so confusing and frightening, it’s easier to just withdraw…back away…shrink down…down…into yourself…because the safest thing you can think of is to do absolutely nothing.
Nothing. Until they give you clues about what they want to hear from you. Or you start getting hints from people in group therapy. Or if you’re lucky, you run into someone who’s a regular there, another patient who’s in and out, who’s been through the ups and downs but who’s managed to ride each wave, and they see you, and hear you, and unlike your mom who thinks that what you have can be prayed away, they know what to say, and they say this:
“It’s okay to cry.”
And though it seems like people have been trying to “help” you for days or weeks or months, though it seems like you’re halfway up that ziggurat, you’ve actually only managed to take the second step: giving yourself permission to be sick.
There are more steps. Many more. And they’re different, depending on the path you choose to take. There’s medication, which comes with it’s own set of angels and demons. And therapy is only as good as the person leading it, only as effective as the effort you put in.
There will be days when it feels like two steps forward, one step back, and days when you feel like dancing to that Paula Abdul song about two steps forward, one step back, and you google it but learn that the song is actually called “Opposites Attract” and for some reason features a rapping brown cat but then 80’s Paula Abdul comes on and she looks exactly the same as she does now and you wonder if she’s secretly a vampire like Pharrell.
There will be long stretches of time when you don’t feel your diagnosis.
There will be moments when you have to decide who to tell about this, and how much to tell them.
Their reactions will sometimes surprise you, sometimes disappoint you. How they react is not something you can control. It might deepen your relationship or sever it. They will see you differently.
That’s not such a bad thing. It’s not such a bad thing to put a face to a concept or idea or condition. It helps humanize something that might otherwise unsettle or frighten someone.
It is harder to fear something that looks and feels familiar. Hopefully, whoever you tell comes to understand not just you, but the aspects and spectrum of mental health as well.
If they don’t understand you right away, it doesn’t mean they never will. If they understand you now, it doesn’t mean they’ll always accept it as part of their life.
I have lived with these diagnoses for almost half my life. Some members of my family prefer to ignore that part of me. They pretend the trouble I had and the hard work I did to get through it never happened. There will always be people who prefer not to accept that which they can’t understand, that which they fear, that which they can’t pray away.
But there are many people who do understand. Thankfully, we live in a day and age where it is easier to connect with people who are like us and people who are trained to help. A “family” is no longer a unit of people you are born into, but one you can create.
If you feel suicidal, this is your lifeline: 1 (800) 273-8255
You can also talk to your primary care physician, or ask a trusted friend or family member to accompany you to urgent care or the emergency room.
There will be someone who hears you. Don’t give up.