I am publishing a book on mental health and addiction. I work hard to put a face, a name, to mental illness. I am aware that those of us diagnosed can work to shatter the stigma. I do my best.
I am healthy. I am functioning. But I take pills in the morning and more before bed. I have a psychiatrist I see when times get rough, and they do, but I always become well again.
My feelings on mental health awareness stem from my experience as a child. It is impossible to separate my illness--my life–from the child I was not long ago.
Living With a Mental Illness as a Child
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was twelve-years old. The diagnosis was not rash; everything else was ruled out first. I was not suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) nor was I exhibiting symptoms of Oppositional Defiant Disorder. I did not have an anxiety disorder–although I experience a high level of anxiety–and my behavior was not that of a child living with serious depression.
I was sick. I was a very sick little girl. My family suffered as they watched me become more and more unwell; as my siblings went to school and played sports I spent months in a children’s psychiatric hospital waiting to become well.
Fifteen-years old, I found a combination of medication that worked. But I was frightened. I wondered: What does it mean to be ‘bipolar?’ Can I have children? Will anyone love me? Will I become sick again?
Above all: Do I even want to live with this illness?
I was afraid. Despite this, I went back to school. I graduated and went to college. And then I became an addict. Because I was afraid of mental illness. I was afraid of myself.
Addiction and Mental Illness
Is so common it’s become cliche. They often go hand in hand and I shook hands with drugs and with alcohol. I fell in love with the reprieve. If I were using, I could forget about bipolar disorder. I would rather be an addict–despite having almost died. Bipolar disorder had never killed me; addiction nearly did.
Cocaine became my best friend. My only friend. It replaced my parents and my siblings. It replaced the medication that had made me well. It replaced me.
People talk about hitting Rock Bottom in the realm of addiction and I hit it many times before I got sick and tired of falling. Of waking up in the hospital after having seizures. Of making my mother cry.
I got sick, sick and tired, of wanting to die.
Recovering From Addiction and Embracing Bipolar Disorder
Recovering from addiction is a long process and one that pains me to write about. But I recovered. Most of us do. Accepting my mental illness? Well, that was harder than quitting cocaine. That was harder than looking my mother in the eye and asking her if she still loved me.
I found myself back in my psychiatrists office. I found myself picking up medication at the pharmacy. I spent one night a week counting the different pills; two mood stabilizers, an anti-depressant, an anxiety pill and a sleeping pill. It was weird; quitting drugs and taking drugs. But these drugs made me healthy! They allow me to write these words.
Four years have passed. In this time I have stayed clean. I have worked very hard to understand that my illness will not go away. But I can make amends with it. And I have. Slowly, like the seasons, I have learned to find positives in having bipolar disorder. Yes, Positives.
Those of us who live with a mental illness are often more empathetic. Having experienced such a huge level of pain, we are able to understand that other people also suffer, and sometimes they need a hand to hold.
We appreciate life on a different level. I relish in each day I stay well. I have learned how to take care of myself. But it isn’t easy. I do not suspect it ever will be.
When I think of Mental Health Awareness Month, this comes to mind: It should not be limited to a month. I wish, more than anything else, that social awareness would happen every single day.