(I promise I shall be more light-hearted at some point in the near future.)
As someone with mental illness, I often grapple with the misconceptions and difficulties of trying to communicate the extent of my disorder to others. There’s a wide variety of reactions, and there’s this prevailing aversion to confronting or adjusting to mental illness in our society. It seems to be too difficult an idea for a lot of people to grasp, which makes life even more difficult for those who suffer from its effects.
The first group of people who present a problem are those who simply don’t believe that mental illness exists. They think that because they can’t see it, or its effects, it’s made up in the heads of lazy, selfish people. These are some of the most vicious and hurtful people- those who assume I choose to make myself sick. They may have good intentions, they may mean well with their encouragements or advice, but they fail to understand the basic biological premise of bipolar, or clinical depression, or sometimes even schizophrenia. I’ve often been told, “Sometimes I start to feel sad or hopeless too, but I just think of all the good things and pull myself out of it.” This is an excellent theory, and I fully try to follow it. The difference is that when psychologically healthy people feel down, it’s generally a situational response and appropriate in the context. What is one to do if their sadness has no cause? If there is no under-lying cause, how can you find an under-lying solution? I don’t advocate the intentional swirl into depression, which many bipolar people purposely feed. But it isn’t as simple as “just try to feel better,” when the catalyst is the whims of flip-flopping brain chemicals. True, you can’t physically see my sodium and potassium pumps over or under-acting, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. The fact that we cannot see God does not prove he exists, and it also doesn’t prove that he doesn’t. So yes, I concede the fact that there are malingerers in both mental and physical pain disorders (it’s quite easy to fake fibromyalgia, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t very real for some people.) I understand that for those who have never been encased in the depths of madness, it is hard to imagine what it must be like. The first step we must take is to eliminate this social stigma that asserts that people with mental illness are feeble-minded, weak-willed, or just plain liars. There are many brilliant and dedicated people with mental illness, and generally the ones who overcome are the ones who find means of support in their family, friends, and community. The denigration of those with mental disorders is counter-productive: it has the awful effect of making the condition worse.
The other obstacle that I, and others, face is the people who surround us and even love us. In truth, being bipolar negates your right to have your emotions respected and the right to ask for your needs to be met. I understand this completely, and unfortunately it makes perfect logical sense, even if it’s fundamentally unfair or painful. After such a history of spiraling out of control and being an emotional and physical drain on those around me, it makes sense that they guard themselves against further damage. In the course of four years, I unintentionally inflicted emotional abuse on the people I care about the most. I can’t understand why anyone would think I would choose that path. Now the reactions are so entrenched that my feelings are preemptively dismissed for being overly dramatic and out of proportion. I can’t resolve problems with other people because they decide off the bat that the cause for my emotions is founded in something other than reality or logic. Yet I sit and intently consider the rationale for my reactions now, and try to choose which conflicts have a valid reason. The revelation that I have no close relationships was devastating for me. No one trusts me- not my mother, or my sisters, or my own husband. No one can let me in because they fear I will trample on their own emotional state. No matter how many good days I have, one single mood swing can destroy everything I’ve established in the interim. Oftentimes, family and friends can’t provide the support I need because it requires equal trust and interaction, which is a risk they are reserved about taking. Thus, the weight of rebuilding relationships that I unintentionally destroyed falls completely on me, and sometimes it seems completely hopeless that I’ll ever be able to prove myself trustworthy. Yet I keep on trying, because it’s all that I can do. The loneliness of emotional segregation is particularly acute for someone who experiences emotions at a deeper level than the general population, and the consequence is that my optimism for self-improvement is lessened. The ability to improve one’s self relies heavily on feedback from the people around you, who can give direct observation of character flaws. When I become introspective and try to assess and strengthen my character, I’m met with a host of people who think I’m simply on a downward slope and that my mood should be left alone to cool on its own. In the end, the pressure to improve yourself on your own becomes extremely heavy when the thing that needs improving is the capability to “fix” yourself. And this is why the questions about whether I took my medication will never cease, and it’s the reason that it’s difficult to hold out hope for the idea that I’ll ever again be able to cultivate a relationship that goes beyond the superficial.