It's time for me to get real. Just like millions of other people all over this country, I'm a closet "crazy person." Almost three years ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, or manic depression. This is something I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, getting the diagnosis was something of a relief to me. It explained a lot about why I have always seemed to go off the deep end every 4-5 years, and it allowed me to begin seeking treatment for what I had previously considered to be a personality flaw or personal failing.
But on the other hand, I began to feel a lot of the shame and stigma that is associated with mental illness in our culture. I was fine with my close friends and family knowing about my mental illness, but it was the last thing I wanted to tell strangers about. And when people did find out, they sometimes treated me differently - like I was unstable, unrelatable, and abnormal. This is incredibly frustrating because I feel a wall going up almost every time someone finds out what's going on in my brain. I know it isn't my fault, but that doesn't stop others from judging me based on their own misconceptions of my illness.
And the thing is, my illness doesn't get in my way all that much. I only deal with intense symptoms every few years, and even the comparatively minor mood swings I experience between episodes are very manageable. I would venture to say that most of the people I interact with on a daily basis have no idea that I have manic depression. But that doesn't mean that it's all smooth sailing either. Sometimes, I deal with black moods, crying jags, and feelings of hopelessness and despair. I've gone days at a time without being able to eat or sleep. Sometimes I want to hurt myself. The symptoms of my illness can be scary because I feel like I have no control over my emotions, and I sometimes do things that don't make any sense.
That's not to say that it's all bad, however. Bipolar disorder in particular has the advantage of manic episodes, which can actually be a lot of fun (when they aren't destructive, that is). And even though coping with a mental illness can be really difficult, overall I believe it has made me a better person. Here's why:
I've been down some dark roads in my life. It took a great deal of effort for me to get comfortable walking through those places and to make my way out of the shadows. Doing so has enabled me to relate to others going through their own hard times. It's difficult for me to judge others when I've been in their shoes, and so mental illness has made me a kinder, more compassionate person. When I see someone struggling now, my instinct is to reach out and help them rather than turning away in embarrassment because I know what it feels like to need help.
There is a great deal of evidence that suggests there is a correlation between people who have mental illnesses and creativity. Perhaps because our brains work in different ways, we see new and different connections to be made and have different perspectives on the world. Being mentally ill is certainly not a walk in the park, but it might make it easier for me to think creatively. Because this is one of my favorite things about myself, I value this part of my condition a great deal.
Focus on Wellness and Self Care
One thing I've learned on my path to wellness is that it's important for me to pay attention to how I'm doing every single day. When I start to feel my moods spiraling out of control, I know that I need to prioritize self care. Monitoring this so closely has impacted my health in other ways, too, and I feel more secure knowing that I am prepared for any surprises that might come my way, mentally or physically.
Staying In Touch with my Inner Self
In the same way that I keep a close watch on my mental health, I also engage in a near-constant dialogue with my intuition. I am conscious of the way I talk to myself, and I often try to improve the quality of these "conversations." So often, we don't attend to our own thoughts and we give them over to our ego. This sows the seeds of negative and potentially dangerous thought patterns that can be difficult to let go of. Because of my illness, I spend a lot of time paying attention to how I interact with myself and the world around me, which gives me the opportunity to improve those interactions on a regular basis.
Respect for Others
The compassion that I feel for others as a result of my experiences with manic depression goes further than a few pangs of sympathy. I used to feel like I was walking on eggshells around people who were different from me. I didn't want to say the wrong thing or offend someone in any way, so I tended to avoid them whenever possible instead. But having a mental illness has taught me what it's like to be the person who is different, and that makes it easier for me to reach out. Whether it's a simple conversation or something bigger, I have learned how to connect with others in a way that is respectful and constructive, rather than fearful.
When you've faced down the depths of your own experience, it's hard not to feel grateful for everything you have. I have learned to appreciate the full and wonderful life that I have been blessed with. This "attitude of gratitude" serves me by helping me to engage more fully in my own existence, something that I am grateful for in and of itself.
Nearly everyone has been touched by mental illness in some way. Although the symptoms can be destructive and harmful, learning how to cope with them can result in positive effects. How have you learned to make the best of a bad situation? Have you ever met someone who has turned a bad diagnosis into something good? Let me know in the comments. I would love to hear your story!