I’ve been living with bipolar disorder (type 2) for all of my adult life. At first, it went unchecked during my late teenage years because I was unaware of it and uninformed. Though unmanageable and disruptive, I coped with the symptoms the best way I knew how.
Denial. That was my coping strategy. In fact, I became very good at keeping it (whatever it was) a secret. I covered it up under the guise of codependency, over-the-top partying, and unhealthy romantic relationships. Years went by and the cycle remained the same. Highs and lows. Lows and highs. Eventually, I talked myself into believing it was just a normal part of life.
The unending cycle:
- Social butterfly.
- Life of the party.
- Everyone’s best friend.
- Repeat steps 1 though 8.
This was the all-too-familiar cycle of what I considered “normal.”
Every time I reached the hypomania state, I was convinced that that was the real me – and the depressive state was just a fluke. Each time that part of the cycle came around, I tried rationalizing over and over again that it was triggered by <insert problem here> and that next time, that disabling kind of depression will never happen again. Guess what? It always does.
Many years later, during another bout of depression, a doctor finally detected what was going on. It was the first time bipolar disorder was mentioned. It never occured to me that I had been living with it all this time. I faced the diagnosis with high skepticism but somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew the doctor was right. I just didn’t want to believe it.
The force behind bipolar 2 became increasingly more difficult to hide as I got older. People were beginning to notice. Once again, a second doctor observed my mood swings to be those consistent with bipolar 2 disorder and, once again, I believed they got it all wrong.
But why would someone want to continually deny an unmistakable illness that two doctors had already diagnosed? One word sums it up: Stigma. The stereotypes and preconceived notions about mental illness are so inaccurate and even downright insulting that I preferred to leave my condition untreated rather than admit to it, even to myself.
What does bipolar disorder feel like? Like I’m perpetually at war with myself. And when combined with major life stressors, it feels like I’m fighting a battle I can’t win. Not even the pang of a life-threatening physical illness can outmatch the ferociousness of bipolar depression. It eats at my core unmercifully.
Mental illness still, to this day is grossly misunderstood. Systemically-speaking, even as suicide rates are rising year after year (suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the United States), government policies and institutions seemingly contribute to the problem by burying their heads in the sand as if oblivious to the impact the social stigma of mental illness has had on the lives of… well… way too many. I firmly believe the root cause of this toxic malfeasance is that our society, by in large, favors putting blinders on to avert “the elephant in the room” over engaging in such discourse.
And the general consensus continues to be that, unless an illness can be seen and measured, it’s not a “real,” justifiable illness, and certainly not one that is as disabling as a physical injury.
THIS IS WHY I hide. Having to explain over and over again how crippling bipolar disorder (or any mental illness) can be, as if it’s something that ought to be proven, is excruciatingly exhausting. It does nothing but exacerbate shame and destroy one’s self-esteem.
It seems that most of society is ok with leaving the stigma of mental illness at the bottom of the priority list, to say the least. Why? Because mental illness is the kind of illness that’s too uncomfortable to witness and too inconvenient to deal with; they’d just as soon neglect it than address it. For this reason, many of us who struggle with mental illness may resist the urge to ask family and friends for help. Based on their typical reactions, we would rather suffer in silence than suffer the sting of shame and rejection.